Although F. Scott Fitzgerald did not live long enough to witness its eventual critical acclaim, The Great Gatsby is considered a masterpiece of twentieth century American literature. Hunter S. Thompson, the eccentric, “Gonzo” adventurer and journalist, even retyped all of The Great Gatsby once to get a feel for writing a great novel! With its compressed lyrical style, masterful descriptions, and sharp dramatic focus, Gatsby is a remarkable achievement. The novel, published in 1925, serves as excellent social commentary, capturing a unique period in American history. Occurring between the unimaginable carnage of World War I and the bleakness of the Great Depression, the 1920s, sometimes called the “Roaring Twenties” or, as Fitzgerald coined it, the “Jazz Age,” was both a time of great hope and optimism and a decade of disillusionment and wasteful excess. Fitzgerald, via Nick Carraway’s detached perspective, chronicles this turbulent period and weaves a page-turning story, rich in evocative language and peopled with fascinating and complex characters.
Marking the beginning of what we consider the modern era in American culture, the twenties saw the rise of the automobile culture, a swell in industrialization, the enormous increase of wealth and power in the hands of a relative few, the advent of advertising and materialism, and a growing sense of disillusionment felt by a generation who witnessed the ravishes of a world war. It was also a time of unprecedented societal freedom, at least for those who were young and white and had some cash to spend. The strict morals of the 19th century were tossed out the speakeasy window. The intoxicating rhythms of jazz were in the air, and the illicit taste of grain alcohol was on the tongue. Prohibition was the law of the land, but few followed the rules; speakeasies flourished, opening their doors to a diversity of people who would not normally have socialized together.
While The Great Gatsby is a decidedly specific portrait of American society during the Jazz Age, it’s also a universal tale, as old as the union itself: it’s the rags-to-riches, Horatio-Alger-with-a-twist, story. It centers on America’s complex relationship with class, at once dismissing its importance while staunchly maintaining its existence. Rampant materialism is also a major theme of the book and one of the downsides of this new age, embodied by the purposeless wealthy that Fitzgerald examines in The Great Gatsby, describing them as “careless people,” those who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made . . . .”
In the self-invented Jay Gatsby and his tireless, single-minded pursuit of Daisy Buchanan, her voice “full of money,” The Great Gatsby dramatizes the still alluring pull of the American Dream while warning us of its perils and limitations. It is a cautionary tale at its heart—a story focused on a small group of people in a small village on Long Island that opens up to encompass the social history of not only New York or the East but the whole of America itself, where the desire to reinvent oneself is all but irresistible. Some who yield to this urge are rewarded with power and wealth, while others, as the author is quick to warn, are destroyed by their dreams and the illusions they created.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify and discuss the first person narrative point of view of Nick Carraway and its importance to the story.
2. Discuss the significance of the title of the novel, and relate it to a major theme in the book.
3. Describe the key character traits of Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby, and discuss motivations for their actions in the novel.
4. Gain a basic understanding of the setting of the novel and the historical/cultural background of Jazz Age America.
5. Identify key images and symbols from the novel—the valley of ashes, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, Daisy’s voice, etc.—and discuss their significance.
6. Explain the idea of the American Dream and how the novel shows the perils and limitations of this concept.
7. Identify the themes of both artificiality and reinvention in the novel, and cite specific examples from the story.
8. Gain an appreciation for Fitzgerald’s fine, lyrical use of language, masterful description, and skillful development of plot.
9. Explain why the novel is considered a classic, and describe what aspects of this story are timeless.