Essays and Criticism
Three Themes in The Great Gatsby
Whilst The Great Gatsby explores a number of themes, none is more prevalent than that of the corruption of the American dream. The American dream is the concept that, in America, any person can be successful as long he or she is prepared to work hard and use his natural gifts.
Gatsby appears to be the embodiment of this dream—he has risen from being a poor farm boy with no prospects to being rich, having a big house, servants, and a large social circle attending his numerous functions. He has achieved all this in only a few short years, having returned from the war penniless.
On the surface, Fitgerald appears to be suggesting that, whilst wealth and all its trappings are attainable, status and position are not. Whilst Gatsby has money and possessions, he is unable to find happiness. Those who come to his home do not genuinely like Gatsby—they come for the parties, the food, the drink and the company, not for Gatsby. Furthermore, they seem to despise Gatsby, taking every opportunity to gossip about him. Many come and go without even taking the time to meet and few ever thank him for his hospitality. Even Daisy appears unable to cope with the reality of Gatsby’s lower class background. Gatsby is never truly one of the elite—his dream is just a façade.
However, Fitzgerald explores much more than the failure of the American dream—he is more deeply concerned with its total corruption. Gatsby has not achieved his wealth through honest hard work, but through bootlegging and crime. His money is not simply ‘new’ money—it is dirty money, earned through dishonesty and crime. His wealthy lifestyle is little more than a façade, as is the whole person Jay Gatsby. Gatsby has been created from the dreams of the boy James Gatz. It is not only Gatsby who is corrupt. Nick repeatedly says that he is the only honest person he knows. The story is full of lying and cheating. Even Nick is involved in this deception, helping Gatsby and Daisy in their deceit and later concealing the truth about Myrtle’s death. The society in which the novel takes place is one of moral decadence. Whether their money is inherited or earned, its inhabitant are morally decadent, living life in quest of cheap thrills and with no seeming moral purpose to their lives. Any person who attempts to move up through the social classes becomes...
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Major and Minor Characters in The Great Gatsby
Daisy was born Daisy Fay in Louisville, Kentucky, a daughter of Louisville society and Nick Carraway’s cousin. Like the flower for which she is named, Daisy is delicate and lovely. She also shows a certain weakness that simultaneously attracts men to her and causes her to be easily swayed. Daisy’s weakness influences the major points of the story, and she is responsible, if not intentionally, for the novel’s tragic ending.
Daisy first met Jay Gatsby in 1917, when he was stationed at Camp Taylor in Louisville. The two fell in love quickly, and Daisy promised to remain loyal to Gatsby when he shipped out to join the fighting. Two years later, she married Tom Buchanon because he bought her an expensive necklace, with the promise of a life of similar extravagance. Daisy is definitely distracted by wealth and power, and despite her husband’s unfaithfulness, she insists she still loves him because of his influence.
Gatsby is another matter entirely. Although she left him because he couldn’t provide for her the way Tom could, she retained some glimmer of emotional connection to him. When Gatsby finally professes his love over tea, she responds positively. But is she renewing an old love, or manipulating Gatsby? The novel doesn’t give us any clear idea.
Daisy is described in glowing terms in the novel, although her value seems to be connected to monetary value. In chapter 7, for example, Nick and Gatsby have the following famous exchange:
“She's got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It's full of —” I hesitated.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I'd never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it.… High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl.… (120)
Daisy is an ideal, and Fitzgerald gives her the qualities to not only live up to that ideal but to also bring it crashing down around her. Daisy’s myth is as big as Gatsby’s, at least in Gatsby’s mind; like him, she took the necessary opportunities to make herself what she wanted to be. Tom takes good care of her financially and is even jealous when he realizes, in chapter 7, that Gatsby is in love with his wife. Later, Nick clears up at least part of the mystery Daisy presents: “She was the first ‘nice’ girl he’d ever known” (148; ch. 8). Nick’s use of quotes for the term “nice” shows that Daisy hardly fits the ideal image Gatsby invests her with.
Like money, Daisy promises far more than she is capable of providing. She is perfect but flawed, better as an image than as a flesh-and-blood person. Daisy was in large part based on Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, who he both worshipped and distrusted. Daisy’s money is her protection, her power, and her defense against any accusation that might come her way.
When Myrtle Wilson is killed by Daisy’s careless driving, she hides behind both money (in the form of Tom and Gatsby) and Gatsby’s love. Gatsby is the only true witness, but he takes the blame for her. Rather than renew their month-long affair, Daisy disappears into her opulent house, retreating into the only security she knows. She continues her almost ghostly existence, leaving the men in her life to clean up the mess.
Daisy’s confused sense of loyalty is evident in her disappearance before Gatsby’s funeral—she and Tom move away almost immediately, leaving no forwarding address for Nick or anyone else. An even bigger insight is Daisy’s infrequent mentions of her own daughter, who is only briefly discussed in the first chapter and in chapter 7. The child is nothing more than an afterthought, as she is unable to give Daisy anything but love, which she has in abundance. Daisy is incapable of caring for her infant—one assumes a governess or nanny takes care of her—any more than she is able to truly love Tom or Gatsby. She doesn’t love them as men, it seems, but as sources of revenue.
Daisy is capable of affection. She seems to have some loyalty to Tom, and even a certain devotion to Gatsby, or at least to the memory of their earlier time together. However, like money, Daisy is elusive and hard to hold onto. This may explain why Tom and Gatsby fight over her in chapter 7 as if she were an object:
“Your wife doesn't love you,” said Gatsby. “She's never loved you. She loves me.”
“You must be crazy!” exclaimed Tom automatically.
Gatsby sprang to his feet, vivid with excitement. “She never loved you, do you hear?” he cried. “She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me. It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved any one except me!” …
“Sit down, Daisy,” Tom's voice groped unsuccessfully for the paternal note. (130-131)
The tone of the argument seems almost like that of two men fighting over the pot in a poker game. Daisy is a prize, and she seems to see herself in those terms. In this sense, Daisy is far from what one would call a “feminist” character; rather, she is a symbol of shallow beauty, and of the amoral worlds of both East and West Egg.
In the first two chapters of the novel, its title character is a mystery—a wealthy, fun-loving local celebrity with a shady past who throws lavish weekly parties. On the surface, Gatsby is an example of the American Dream in the 1920s, the desire for wealth, love and power.
As the novel progresses, we see Gatsby more as a man than a mythical figure, and we discover that the myth of the “Great Gatsby” (as in the “Great Houdini,” an escape artist of the time) is created by Gatsby himself. He is truly a “self-made man, a fiction whose past and obsessions finally destroy him.
Jay Gatsby was born James Gatz, the son of a poor farmer in North Dakota. From an early age, Gatz was aware of his family’s poverty, and he swore he would attain the wealth and sophistication his childhood lacked (including, apparently, a fake British accent). Once out of high school, Gatz changed his name to Jay Gatsby and attended St. Olaf’s College to begin his climb to the distinction he craved. Unfortunately, Gatsby had to take a janitor’s job to pay his tuition; he left St. Olaf’s in disgust after two weeks.
Gatsby’s true education came at the hands of Dan Cody, an older man who teaches him the ways of the world in 5 years aboard Cody’s boat, the Tuolomee, on Lake Superior. Cody, a hard drinker and womanizer, was Gatsby’s role model more in teaching him what not to do. Gatsby rarely drinks, and is distant at his own lavish parties. He wants the success Cody achieved without the destructive habits that success afforded him.
After Cody died at the hands of a mistress, Gatsby joined the army and World War I. While stationed in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1917, Gatsby met a young Daisy Fay, a daughter of Louisville society. Gatsby fell in love with Daisy, lied about his background, and vowed to someday be good enough to win her heart. Gatsby believed Daisy’s promise to wait for him, but he returned to Louisville as she and Tom were on their honeymoon. Devastated, Gatsby went to Oxford in English for the education that would complete his transformation from poor farm boy to famous (or infamous) socialite.
Gatsby’s only true dream is Daisy’s love; the parties he gives at his lavish West Egg mansion are purely to lure her to him the way he stares at the green light from her dock late at night. He begs Nick to set up a rendezvous with Daisy for him, which Nick does. Their love rekindles for a short time, and Gatsby’s unrealistic view of Daisy as the picture of perfection is renewed. It is this view that eventually causes Gatsby’s death.
In a confrontation at the Plaza Hotel, Tom openly accuses Gatsby of criminal activities, including bootlegging. Tom knows about Gatsby and Wolfsheim’s “drugstores” that sell illegal grain alcohol, as well as other, more mysterious crimes. Gatsby handles the accusation with cool calm, but is devastated by Daisy’s assertion that she does indeed love her husband.
In a last-ditch effort to prove his love to Daisy, Gatsby takes the blame when she accidentally hits Myrtle Wilson in Gatsby’s car. Tom Buchanon tells Myrtle’s husband, George, that Gatsby was driving the car, hinting that the two may have been having an affair. At this point, the Gatsby myth returns full force, as an enraged, jealous Wilson shoots Gatsby dead, then kills himself.
Jay Gatsby dies that night, and James Gatz along with him, anonymous and alone. Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy causes him to lie his way to his standing in the community, lie about his life, and lie to protect Daisy from a fate that is transferred to him. Despite all that Jay Gatsby does, James Gatz lies just beneath the surface, simply wanting to be loved. The other activities are meaningless compared to the month he spends as Daisy’s lover. An authentic Jay Gatsby might be too detached, too crafty, to get caught up in Myrtle Wilson’s death, but James Gatz can’t hope to distance himself from one last charitable act—trying to protect the woman he loves. Gatsby can easily be seen as a negative character—a liar, a cheat, a criminal—but Fitzgerald makes certain we see the soul of James Gatz behind the myth of Jay Gatsby.
Gatsby/Gatz is in fact a tragic character motivated by love. He is also hopelessly flawed, a shadow that is incapable of a life without Daisy, even if she’s only living across the lake.
Fitzgerald ties Gatsby up with the American Dream, a dream of individualism and success with a purpose. Like the America of the 1920s, Gatsby loses sight of his original dream and replaces it with an unhealthy obsession—for the country, the pursuit of wealth for its own sake; for Gatsby, a sense of control over Daisy as evidence by both him and Tom in the Plaza Hotel. Gatsby is symbolic of a nation whose great wealth and power has blinded it to more human concerns.
Gatsby’s Romantic idealism, which Nick calls “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” (2; ch. 1), is all that drives him, and no enterprise that enables him to get what he craves is too extreme. In this sense, Gatsby could be considered more amoral than immoral—morality simply has no meaning for him so long as he makes his dream come true. Everything is simply a means to an end, and Gatsby represents those for whom the end is the only thing that is important.
Nick is the narrator of the novel; the story is told in his voice and through his perceptions. It has also been suggested that Nick may be the character F. Scott Fitzgerald based most closely on himself. In a sense, then, Nick may show Fitzgerald’s own opinions of wealthy, immoral characters like Gatsby.
Nick is a good Midwestern boy who attended Yale and moved to New York in 1922 to work in the bond market. He is well-positioned...
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Critique of American Upper Class Values
The Great Gatsby is known as the quintessential novel of the Jazz age. It accurately portrays the lifestyle of the rich during the booming 1920s. Readers live vicariously through the lavish parties and on the elegant estates. Romantics relate to Gatsby’s unrelenting commitment to Daisy, the love of his life. But beneath all the decadence and romance, The Great Gatsby is a severe criticism of American upper class values.
Fitzgerald uses the book’s central conflict between Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby to illustrate his critique. Tom is the incarnation of the upper class, Gatsby the nouveau riche. The contrast between them demonstrates the differences between the values of their respective...
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Fitzgerald's Use of the Color Green
It is arguable that Jay Gatsby values two things above all others—love (particularly his love for Daisy Buchanon) and money (the means by which he hopes to win Daisy’s heart). The two motivations converge in Fitzgerald’s use of the color green, a symbol that represents both love and money as well as Gatsby’s ultimate goal—a spring-like renewal that would put his past behind him and plant the seeds for a future with Daisy. Fitzgerald shows green in its many incarnations, from the promise of a new bud to the decay of a stagnant pond, as Gatsby’s dream progresses from a dim light in the distance to the reality of lovely illusions left in ruins.
Our first glimpse of green in the novel comes in the first chapter,...
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Romance and Cynicism in The Great Gatsby
On one level, The Great Gatsby is a romantic novel, or at least romance-driven. The central story of Jay Gatsby’s undying hope for the love for Daisy Buchanon, offers a romantic ideal, and the couple’s brief affair almost reads like a fairytale romance.
The secondary relationship between Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker takes on a “Boy Meets Girl” quality—Nick is fascinated by Jordan, and he certainly catches her attention. On the surface, Gatsby and Nick seek a perfect love; in Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age world, both men’s desires are hopelessly bound up in the cynicism fostered by the rapid changes taking place in American society. As such, both men’s romances are doomed to fail in the face of...
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Fitzgerald's Distinctly American Style of Writing
One of the simplest yet most profound reasons The Great Gatsby is considered an American classic is its use of language, more particularly the emerging “American Idiom.” Writers of the 20s and beyond sought to find a way of using English that was more than simply a rehash of the great British writers, a style of writing that was distinctly American. Fitzgerald not only tapped into the “American Idiom,” influencing writers to come, but elevated the language above street slang and regional distinctions into a truly artistic form that reflects the high and low of American society. The beginning and ending passages of the novel clearly illustrate the way Fitzgerald creates a uniquely American expression from the basic...
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The Jazz Age
The Great Gatsby’s most obvious reference to “The Jazz Age” revolution taking place in American Arts in the 1920s occurs in the party scene in chapter 3:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” [the orchestra leader] cried. “At the request of Mr. Gatsby we are going to play for you Mr. Vladimir Tostoff’s latest work … Vladimir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World.” (Fitzgerald 49)
Gatsby’s request for a work that defies tradition, and certainly defeats the purpose of having a full symphony-sized orchestra on the grounds, is in fitting with his character. He himself has defied tradition, becoming a “self-made man” regardless of his methods; is it any...
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The Theme of Time in The Great Gatsby
Time is one of the most pervasive themes in The Great Gatsby, weaving between characters and situations, slowing and speeding the action until the entire novel seems almost dreamlike. Fitzgerald not only manipulates time in the novel, he refers to time repeatedly to reinforce the idea that time is a driving force not only for the 1920s, a period of great change, but for America itself. We will see Fitzgerald also turns a critical eye to the American concept of time, in effect warning us all to avoid becoming trapped in time.
Fitzgerald strongly connects time in the novel with location, as if time were an entire setting in itself. Fitzgerald tips his hand early; after Nick provides...
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Jordan Baker, a Soldier in the Culture War
From a modern-day perspective, The Great Gatsby’s Jordan Baker seems a bit ordinary—a typical modern woman. To the novel’s original audience, however, Jordan’s behavior and attitude place her one step away from scandal. In 1926, many parts of the United States were relatively unaffected by the changes occurring in large urban centers like New York City; Fitzgerald’s main characters are displaced “Midwesterners” for precisely this reason. Publication of The Great Gatsby brought the changes in the air in the twenties to the rest of the nation, through their own eyes. Jordan represents one of the most extreme examples of these changes—the proto-feminist known as a flapper.
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George and Myrtle Wilson
George and Myrtle Wilson are generally considered minor characters in The Great Gatsby, as they have less “screen time” than any of the major characters. However, both characters are pivotal to the events of the novel; without them, the major characters’ interactions would read like a soap opera, and not a very interesting one. The Wilsons add an additional layer of substance by placing the major characters into perspective, by showing the lows to which both the upper and lower classes can sink.
Myrtle Wilson immediately distinguishes herself from both Daisy and Jordan, at least through Nick’s eyes: “She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some...
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