How is innocence and loss of innocence portrayed in The Great Gatsby?

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When the events of the book begin, it seems as though Nick is still innocent. Despite the fact that he's fought in the Great War and felt some disillusionment with his Midwestern home upon his return, Nick moves to New York, ready to embrace all that life has to offer a young, charming man in his twenties. When he gets there, he reconnects with his shallow cousin, Daisy, and her unfaithful and racist husband, Tom. Tom introduces Nick to his classless mistress, Myrtle, and her clueless and pathetic husband, and her anti-Semitic friends. He also meets Daisy's best friend, Jordan, a liar and unethical cheater.

Finally, he meets his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, a man who has basically fabricated an identity and made his fortune illegally so that he can break up a marriage. In the crazy, corrupt, upside-down world of New York in the 1920s, this criminal is actually the best of the bunch. The tension in the group grows and grows until the terrible confrontation between Gatsby and Tom in New York City. Everyone leaves the city feeling miserable, and Nick realizes—for the first time—that today is his thirtieth birthday. He says,

Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade . . . Thirty—the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair . . . So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.

Something has changed within Nick; he cannot unsee the corruption and ugliness that he's witnessed with this broken group. The innocence and hopefulness he seemed to possess when he came to New York is gone, and he looks at the rest of his life as though it will be one misery after the next. Innocence lost, there is nothing positive in his view, nothing to which he can look forward or about which he feels excitement.

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The most remarkable statement of innocence in the novel is also one of the novel's most quoted lines. When Nick realizes that Gatsby hopes and intends to metaphorically erase all the years that have kept he and Daisy apart and to begin again where they left off, Nick tells Gatsby that this is not possible.

You can’t repeat the past.”

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

Gatsby's assurance is probably part of his "extraordinary gift for hope", which Nick identifies in the opening pages of the novel, but it is also certainly evidence of a profound innocence. Gatsby's self-belief is so great that he the impossible seems possible to him - more than that, he is able to believe it is fate. Gatsby believes that the impossible must happen, that is is meant to happen. Such an innocent view of his "meant to be" status with Daisy is finally only undone when Gatsby is shot. 

We cannot truly argue that Gatsby loses his innocent and positivist belief in his own destiny with Daisy because he never gives up hope. Daisy, however, clearly loses her hopes for a life with Gatsby when she realizes that he wants her to disavow her entire life with Tom and say that she never loved him. It is at this point where Tom shares all the negative gossip he has dug up on Gatsby and Daisy turns away from the bright dream of beginning a new life with Gatsby. Her hope and her innocence are lost when she learns to see Gatsby in a different and a lesser light. 

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The Great Gatsby

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