Explain how The Great Gatsby is an example of the Modernist novel, and, therefore, how it stands as a refutation of older, more traditional ideas.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby exemplifies Modernist writing with its limited and imperfect narrator, its lack of chronological order, its themes, its use of images as symbols, and its insight on moral corruption.
The narrative of The Great Gatsby is a fragmented one, told by a flawed narrator. Evidence that Nick is a flawed narrator becomes apparent when he declares himself a man who reserves judgments, yet he, in reality, often does judge other characters. In the first chapter, for instance, Nick comments on Daisy's murmuring which "was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming." Further, he describes Daisy's voice as "the kind...that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again" (Ch.1). Later in the narrative, Nick no longer finds any charm in Daisy as he speaks of her and Tom after the death of Myrtle Wilson:
...they were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they 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. . . . (Ch. 9)
Chronological order is not followed in Fitzgerald's novel, which is a trait of Modernist fiction. For example, Gatsby's past is not revealed until chapter six, and then it is narrated in random order by Nick Carraway. It is also not until near the end of the novel that the reader learns the true identity and history of Jay Gatsby.
The moral corruption and materialism of Jay Gatsby, Meyer Wolfsheim, Tom Buchanan, and others exemplifies that of many during the Roaring 20s. When he met the wealthy Dan Cody, who made his money in the Gold Rush, James Gatz changed his name and "to this conception, he was faithful to the very end" (Ch.6). Meyer Wolfsheim is a gangster who was involved in the scandal of the "Black Sox" in which players intentionally lost the 1919 Word Series. Tom Buchanan is obsessed with his wealth; he even purchases Daisy as his wife with pearls that cost three hundred and fifty thousand dollars ($4.7 million today).
In addition to the Modernist elements of moral corruption and desire for wealth, Fitzgerald employs images as symbols of materialism. Gatsby's many-colored and tailor-made shirts of silk and linen from England bring tears to Daisy, who buries her head in them with exclamations of how beautiful they are. Also, Gadsby's expensive automobile is a status symbol of wealth and new-found freedom. Nick narrates,
He [Gatsby] saw me looking with admiration at his car. It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes and upper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of windshields that mirrored a dozen suns. (Ch.4)
Despite his many parties, and his efforts to impress and win back Daisy, Jay Gatsby's obsession with money and material possessions lead only to his loneliness as he is left with mere illusions. Foolishly believing that Daisy needs him to protect her, Gatsby stands outside her window after the death of Myrtle Wilson. But, he is "left standing...in the moonlight––watching over nothing" (Ch.7) because the morally corrupt Buchanans care only about themselves.
The Great Gatsby exemplifies the emptiness of lives without the traditional values of spirituality, true love and fidelity, family values, and ethics. The American Dream of hard work bringing success to anyone is corrupted in Fitzgerald's novel of adultery, neglect of children, lying, criminality, and moral turpitude.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is a Modernist novel in that it searches for meaning during the breakdown of traditional values in the era following WW I. Gatsby refutes many traditional values, but the most important value that is both questioned and deconstructed is the traditional ideal of the American Dream.
In general, the American Dream is the idea that any American citizen, no matter how poor, can achieve success and happiness if he or she simply works hard enough. Jay Gatsby initially ascribes to this idea, clawing his way out of poverty (often through illegal means) in order to gain respect, material wealth, and, most importantly, the love of Daisy. However, while Gatsby initially seems successful, his efforts ultimately prove to be meaningless: Daisy refuses to leave her husband Tom, Gatsby is murdered in a pool, and almost no one comes to his funeral. In writing such a story, Fitzgerald points out the hollow nature of the American Dream, as he suggests that Gatsby's hard work did not, in fact, provide true happiness. This idea is remarkably Modernist, as it suggests that a core American tradition is, at its heart, meaningless.