Study Guide

The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby Essay - The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Introduction

The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald

(Full name Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright.

The following entry provides criticism on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) from 1984 through 2001. See also, F. Scott Fitzgerald Criticism and "Babylon Revisited" Criticism.

Critics have generally agreed that The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, is the crowning achievement of Fitzgerald's literary career. It evokes not only the ambiance of the jazz-age search for the American dream of wealth and happiness, but also the larger questions of fading traditional values in the face of increasing materialism and cynicism.

Plot and Major Characters

Fitzgerald frames his plot as a story within a story, as the narrator, Nick Carraway, relates his version of Jay Gatsby's life. Nick, seeking freedom from his constricted Midwestern existence, takes a job in New York City and rents a bungalow in West Egg, Long Island, next door to the lavish mansion of the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Nick's wealthy cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband Tom, invite Nick to dinner with the attractive but flighty Jordan Baker at their luxurious home on the neighboring island of East Egg. Unsettled by the Buchanans' seemingly purposeless lives, Nick returns home and notices his neighbor Gatsby staring longingly at a green light across the bay coming from the Buchanans' property. Tom later persuades Nick to accompany him to a place he calls the Valley of Ashes and introduces him to his blowsy mistress, Myrtle Wilson. Tom, Myrtle, and Nick end up at an apartment in New York, where a wild party ensues, and in a violent outburst, Tom strikes Myrtle and breaks her nose. Later in the month, Gatsby sends Nick an invitation to come to a sumptuous party at his estate, where Nick meets his neighbor for the first time. This is the first of many parties Nick attends at the Gatsby mansion in the company of many of the rich and famous. When Gatsby later takes Nick to New York for lunch, he regales him with tales of his war medals and his Oxford education. The other guest at lunch is the notorious gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, who reportedly fixed the World Series in 1918. Nick, befuddled by Gatsby's questionable associations, is also taken aback when Jordan asks him on Gatsby's behalf to invite Daisy to lunch at Nick's bungalow. He does so even though he now knows that Daisy and Gatsby were in love prior to her marriage to Tom. The two ill-fated lovers meet, and Gatsby takes Daisy to his mansion and invites her to his next party. Daisy agrees, but when she disapproves of some of his guests, Gatsby stops entertaining altogether. He eventually tells Nick of his truly humble Midwest origins, noting that his name is really Gatz, that he did not graduate from Oxford, and that he has made his fortune in bootlegging and other nefarious ventures. One day Gatsby, the Buchanans, Jordan, and Nick drive to New York. On the way, they stop at the garage of George Wilson, husband of Myrtle, who tries to get money from Tom and announces that he and Myrtle are leaving town. At a hotel in New York, Tom accuses Gatsby of trying to steal his wife, and a fierce argument ensues. Daisy heads home with Gatsby, and shortly thereafter Tom and Jordan stop at Wilson's garage to find that Myrtle has been killed by a hit-and-run driver of a yellow car. Tom blames the death on Gatsby though the real driver at the time was Daisy, whom Gatsby seeks to protect. George Wilson, thinking Gatsby was the driver, goes to Gatsby's estate, shoots him, and then kills himself. Only Gatsby's father, who thinks his son was a great man, attends his funeral. Nick later learns that Tom had a part in Gatsby's death, having convinced Wilson that Myrtle and Gatsby were lovers. Disillusioned with the Buchanans and their ilk, Nick decides to return to the Midwest.

Major Themes

Echoes of the American Dream pervade the novel, which contrasts the supposed innocence and moral sense of the “Western” characters with the sophistication and materialism of the “Eastern” characters. Gatsby's lavish existence in the nouveau riche Long Island community of West Egg, moreover, cannot ever compensate for his lack of the more pedigreed wealth of East Egg. He remains an “innocent” in his single-minded pursuit of Daisy despite his association with underworld characters and ill-begotten money. The Valley of Ashes and the sign with the blank eyes of Dr. Eckleburg indicate a moral wasteland and an absent God—as well as the emptiness of the new commercial culture. Gatsby's pursuit of his dream takes on a mythic quality, mirroring the dream which led Americans to conquer the frontier. Gatsby's “frontier,” however, is an ill-advised pursuit of a vacuous young woman not worthy of his love. Initially, Nick, the Midwestern moral arbiter, disdains Gatsby's values, but he eventually comes to see something heroic in Gatsby's vision, which reflects America's own loss of innocence in the face of the crass materialism of the 1920s.

Critical Reception

Early reviews of Gatsby were mixed, and relatively few copies actually had sold before Fitzgerald's death in 1940. Many critics, most notably Ernest Hemingway, were put off by the fact that Fitzgerald had been known as a writer of stories for popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. It was not until a revival of Fitzgerald's works in the 1950s that the novel began to attract serious criticism. For the five ensuing decades, Gatsby has continued to attract critical attention and reappraisal. Critics have praised Fitzgerald's tightly woven narrative, and many have focused on the position of the narrator, Nick Carraway, and the subjective limitations of his observations of Gatsby's saga. Although Gatsby was for many years called “a novel of the Jazz Age” (a term which Fitzgerald coined), critics have agreed that it has a much more universal meaning, not the least of which is a trenchant critique of materialist American society much like T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. The appearance of at least four biographies in the 1990s and early 2000s is an indication that interest in Fitzgerald's novels remains unabated. Earlier critics of Gatsby emphasized biographical and cultural influences on the novel, and formalist approaches dealt with the novel's structure, point of view, symbols, use of language, and the like. By the 1980s through the early 2000s, a variety of approaches, both heavily theoretical and non-theoretical, have been evident in critics' commentaries. While many have continued to explore biographical influences or comparisons with other authors, or to use New Critical analyses, others have increasingly employed such techniques as deconstruction, feminist criticism, and discourse analysis to uncover hidden meanings in the text.

Principal Works

Flappers and Philosophers (short stories) 1920

This Side of Paradise (novel) 1920

The Beautiful and Damned (novel) 1922

Tales of the Jazz Age (short stories) 1922

The Vegetable; or, From President to Postman (play) 1923

The Great Gatsby (novel) 1925

All the Sad Young Men (short stories) 1926

Tender Is the Night (novel) 1934

Taps at Reveille (short stories) 1935

The Last Tycoon (unfinished novel) 1941

The Crack-Up (essays, notebooks, and letters) 1945

Afternoon of an Author (short stories and essays) 1957

The Pat Hobby Stories (short stories) 1962

The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald (letters) 1963

Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence (letters) 1971

As Ever, Scott Fitz: Letters Between F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Literary Agent Harold Ober, 1919-1940 (letters) 1972

The Basil and Josephine Stories (short stories) 1973

Bits of Paradise [with Zelda Fitzgerald] (short stories) 1973

The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald (notebooks) 1978

The Price Was High (short stories) 1979

The Fantasy and Mystery Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (short stories) 1991

Jazz Age Stories [with Thomas Hardy] (short stories) 1998

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda (letters) 2002

Criticism

Kent Cartwright (essay date spring 1984)

SOURCE: Cartwright, Kent. “Nick Carraway as an Unreliable Narrator.” Papers on Language and Literature 20, no. 2 (spring 1984): 218-32.

[In the following essay, Cartwright discusses ways in which Nick Carraway is sometimes a confused or misleading narrator.]

While I have met individuals whom I might describe as more Gatsby than Carraway, I have seldom met a critic I would so describe. As critics, we seem to cherish our disillusionment. Indeed, serious interest in The Great Gatsby, according to Richard Foster, was launched by a generation of neoclassical and formalist critics who tended to believe in the final, tough truth of existence imaged in the thinning...

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Kenneth E. Eble (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Eble, Kenneth E. “The Great Gatsby and the Great American Novel.” In New Essays on ‘The Great Gatsby,’ edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, pp. 79-100. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Eble places Gatsby in the tradition of the quest for an “American” literature.]

1

In length, the book barely qualifies as a full-sized novel. In subject, it is about an American bootlegger who nourishes an adolescent dream about a golden girl he can't have. Its plot does little more than tell us who the protagonist is and get him killed off in the end by the down-and-out husband of the...

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Darrel Mansell (essay date December 1987)

SOURCE: Mansell, Darrel. “The Jazz History of the World in The Great Gatsby.English Language Notes 25 (December 1987): 57-62.

[In the following essay, Mansell suggests possible sources of and purposes for a reference to a jazz work in a scene of Gatsby.]

Fitzgerald said in retrospect that his first novel had actually been not one book but three, and his second novel two. He wanted his third novel to be more coherent: more spare, economical and “intricately patterned.” Indeed he wanted the new one to be “perfect.”1

The critical consensus has been that what he produced is close to perfect. In The Great...

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Caren J. Town (essay date winter 1989)

SOURCE: Town, Caren J. “‘Uncommunicable Forever’: Nick's Dilemma in The Great Gatsby.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 31, no. 4 (winter 1989): 497-513.

[In the following essay, Town deconstructs the language used by Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway, noting disconnections between what he says and what he actually means.]

From the petal's edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
rigid penetrates
the Milky Way
without contact—lifting
from it—neither hanging
nor pushing—

—William Carlos Williams, from “The Rose”

During their first meeting in The Great Gatsby, Daisy...

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Richard Lehan (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Lehan, Richard. “The Importance of the Work.” In The Great Gatsby: The Limits of Wonder, pp. 11-15. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

[In the following essay, Lehan discusses the reasons why The Great Gatsby is still considered a literary classic.]

Any attempt to pinpoint the importance of a work involves a slightly circular argument. The criteria that one brings to the work establish its sense of importance, and the claim for importance then justifies the criteria. Such a necessary circularity need not, however, diminish the more obvious contexts used in establishing the worth of a literary text. Complexity and artistry, vision and technique are the...

(The entire section is 1825 words.)

Carol Wershoven (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Wershoven, Carol. “Insatiable Girls.” In Child Brides and Intruders, pp. 92-9. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Wershoven notes that Daisy Buchanan is a prototypical “child bride” whose “purchase” is required by a society of commodity.]

Undine Spragg [in Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country] is only one in a series of girls whose appetite mirrors a nation's desire. In four novels that followed The Custom of the CountryThe Great Gatsby, [Wharton's] Twilight Sleep [and Ellen Glasgow's], The Sheltered Life and In This Our Life—versions of the...

(The entire section is 2820 words.)

Ronald Berman (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Berman, Ronald. “Contexts.” In The Great Gatsby and Modern Times, pp. 15-37. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Berman discusses ideas current in America in the early part of the decade just before Gatsby's publication.]

In “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” written in the early thirties, with a flourish Fitzgerald identified the crucial year of the preceding decade: “May one offer in exhibit the year 1922!”1 It is the turning-point year in which The Great Gatsby takes place. And in the novel he makes it a point to be specific about the dating of his story. In what particular ways does the novel use...

(The entire section is 8947 words.)

Bryan R. Washington (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Washington, Bryan R. “The Daisy Chain: The Great Gatsby and Daisy Miller or the Politics of Privacy.” In The Politics of Exile: Ideology in Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin, pp. 35-54. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Washington compares Henry James's Daisy Miller and Gatsby, emphasizing the themes of racism, white cultural conservatism, and repressed homosexuality.]

Beginning with the premise that The Great Gatsby revises Daisy Miller, the readings that I undertake in this chapter are concerned with various states of panic: sexual, racial, and social. Eve...

(The entire section is 6638 words.)

John F. Callahan (essay date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Callahan, John F. “F. Scott Fitzgerald's Evolving American Dream: The ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ in Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, and The Last Tycoon.Twentieth Century Literature 42 (fall 1996): 374-95.

[In the following essay, Callahan examines various manifestations of the idea of the American dream as it evolved in three Fitzgerald novels.]

Since the first stirrings of the F. Scott Fitzgerald revival in the 1940s, readers have been fascinated by the oppositions in his work and character. Critics from several different generations have noted how Fitzgerald used his conflicts to explore the origins and fate of the American dream and...

(The entire section is 9418 words.)

Janet Giltrow and David Stouck (essay date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Giltrow, Janet, and David Stouck. “Style as Politics in The Great Gatsby.Studies in the Novel 29, no. 4 (winter 1997): 476-90.

[In the following essay, Giltrow and Stouck use discourse analysis to show that the novel's linguistic subtleties mask ideas of social conservatism.]

The Great Gatsby is valued for the vividness with which it renders an historical era; perhaps more than by any other American novel written in the 1920s, we are convinced that we hear the voices of people speaking from that decade before the advent of talking motion pictures. As narrator, Nick is the medium by which those voices are heard and, as principal speaker in...

(The entire section is 7041 words.)

Jeffrey Hart (essay date summer 1997)

SOURCE: Hart, Jeffrey. “Fitzgerald and Hemingway in 1925-1926.” Sewanee Review 105 (summer 1997): 369-80.

[In the following essay, Hart examines the rivalry between Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, with specific reference to The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises.]

My argument can be put briefly. Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises (1926) as a direct rejoinder to The Great Gatsby (1925): he created it as an aggressive defense of his own style against Fitzgerald's—and, derivatively, of his own view of reality. With The Sun Also Rises he declared almost open war against a rival whom he suddenly saw as formidable far beyond his...

(The entire section is 4062 words.)

Bert Bender (essay date December 1998)

SOURCE: Bender, Bert. “‘His Mind Aglow’: The Biological Undercurrent in Fitzgerald's Gatsby and Other Works.” Journal of American Studies 32, no. 3 (December 1998): 399-420.

[In the following essay, Bender discusses the influence of theories of evolutionary biology—including eugenics, ideas of accident and heredity, and Darwin's notions of sexual selection—on Gatsby and other Fitzgerald works.]

They talked until three, from biology to organized religion, and when Amory crept shivering into bed it was with his mind aglow …

(Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise)

...

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James D. Bloom (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Bloom, James D. “Out of Minnesota: Mythography and Generational Poetics in the Writings of Bob Dylan and F. Scott Fitzgerald.” American Studies 40, no. 1 (spring 1999): 5-21.

[In the following essay, Bloom draws parallels between Fitzgerald and singer Bob Dylan's life and works, arguing that both were anti-prophets who made myths of themselves and at the same time undermined those myths.]

AFFINITIES

“You've been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books. You're very well read. It's well known.” So runs a memorable line in Bob Dylan's “Ballad of a Thin Man” on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. Not only did this...

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Robert Seguin (essay date winter 2000)

SOURCE: Seguin, Robert. “Ressentiment and the Social Poetics of The Great Gatsby: Fitzgerald Reads Cather.” Modern Fiction Studies 46, no. 4 (winter 2000): 917-40.

[In the following essay, Seguin uses the theme of “ressentiment” (loosely, the envy of the lower toward the upper classes) to explore Fitzgerald's social sensibilities in Gatsby, also noting similarities between Fitzgerald's novel and Willa Cather's A Lost Lady.]

Following his bout of emotional exhaustion in the mid-1930s, F. Scott Fitzgerald came to describe what he called his “crack-up” in more than strictly personal terms. In his meditation on his depression, the crack-up...

(The entire section is 9090 words.)

Mitchell Breitwieser (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Breitwieser, Mitchell. “Jazz Fractures: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Epochal Representation.” American Literary History 12, no. 3 (fall 2000): 359-81.

[In the following essay, Breitwieser explores ways in which Fitzgerald used the phrases “the Jazz Age” and “The Last Tycoon” to define epochs in American literary history, prefiguring the discipline which would become American studies.]

An earlier version of this essay was presented at “History in the Making: The Future of American Literary Studies,” a conference held at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in late March 1999. At the beginning of my talk, I remarked that I had grown up in Monona, a...

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George Monteiro (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Monteiro, George. “Carraway's Complaint.” Journal of Modern Literature 24, no. 1 (fall 2000): 161-71.

[In the following essay, Monteiro discusses possible sources for the last passage in Gatsby, in which Nick muses on how Long Island might have looked to the early explorers.]

In one of the most familiar passages in twentieth—century literature, Nick Carraway thinks back on the late Jay Gatsby, who had suffered so grievously from the hard malice of the Buchanans and their like in the inhospitable East. It begins as an elegy but turns into a lament for humankind's capacity for wonder and awe in the face of the hard truths of history. Disillusioned,...

(The entire section is 5688 words.)

Brian Sutton (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Sutton, Brian. “Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.Explicator 59, no. 1 (fall 2000): 37-9.

[In the following essay, Sutton examines the significance of a recurring image of the framing of Tom and Daisy in a frame of artificial light in Gatsby.]

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Gatsby goes to spectacular lengths to try to achieve what Nick Carraway calls “his incorruptible dream” (155): to recapture the past by regaining Daisy Buchanan's love and getting her to tell her husband, Tom, that she never loved him (111). For much of the novel, Gatsby seems likely to succeed, not only because his efforts are so extraordinary, but because...

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Chikako D. Kumamoto (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Kumamoto, Chikako D. “Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.Explicator 60, no. 1 (fall 2001): 37-41.

[In the following essay, Kumamoto explores Fitzgerald's use of the “egg and chicken” metaphors as part of Gatsby's structure.]

FITZGERALD'S THE GREAT GATSBY

Having moved to the suburbs of New York City, Nick Carraway makes the now-famous comparison between his neighborhood and its adjacent community: “Twenty miles from the city a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy of bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western Hemisphere, the great barnyard...

(The entire section is 1596 words.)