How does the title of The Great Gatsby help us understand the message that the author is communicating?
In selecting a title for his novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald could be considered to have employed the literary tool known as irony. Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator and a young, transplant from the Midwest, is residing in the town of West Egg, the lower-class counterpart to East Egg across the bay, home to Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Nick, being from the rural Midwest and reared with small town values, is entranced by the personage of his next-door neighbor, Jay Gatsby. For the first two chapters of Fitzgerald’s novel, this latter character is referred to solely as “Gatsby.” In Chapter III, however, Nick describes his elation at receiving an invitation to a party in Gatsby’s mansion:
“I had been actually invited. A chauffeur in a uniform of robin’s-egg blue crossed my lawn early that Saturday morning with a surprisingly formal note from his employer: the honor would be entirely Gatsby’s, it said, if I would attend his “little party” that night. He had seen me several times, and had intended to call on me long before, but a peculiar combination of circumstances had prevented it — signed Jay Gatsby, in a majestic hand.”
The suggestion of Gatsby as an imperial figure, of course, is a mirage; Jay Gatsby’s determination to live as one of Long Island’s elite, and to engage the beautiful Daisy Buchanan in a romantic relationship, is fueled by deceit and crime. Jay Gatsby, born James Gatz, is from the same Midwestern stock that produced Nick. He is from North Dakota, and, rather than being Oxford educated, dropped out of small St. Olaf College in southern Minnesota. His associations lean more towards organized crime than to the “old money” communities to which he aspires. It is in Chapter VI that Fitzgerald’s narrator delves into the background of this mysterious figure and relates Gatz/Gatsby’s humble origins, and speculates regarding this character’s inner nature:
“I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people — his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that — and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”
That Gatsby would die somewhat ignominiously – shot dead by George in retaliation for the mistaken notion that Gatsby was responsible for Myrtle’s death – brings home the full measure of the irony that Fitzgerald no doubt intended when he titled his story The Great Gatsby. Following his death, Gatsby’s father, Henry, travels to New York for the funeral. Discussing his now-deceased son with Nick, Henry gives every impression of having bought into the Gatsby mystique. He is proud of his dead son, and believes that “Jimmy” would have been a great figure had he lived: ‘If he’d of lived he’d of been a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He’d of helped build up the country.’ But, James Gatz, a.k.a. Jay Gatsby, was a fraud who made millions as a bootlegger. He was hardly what we would consider “great.” Rather, he was a man who aspired to greatness but could only climb the socioeconomic ladder by traversing the sewer pipes that ran under the city. The moral and political corruption that Fitzgerald viewed as indicative of the old money elites who populated Long Island’s tonier section had long since enjoyed a level of respectability to which Gatsby could only dream.