How do the essential elements of a novel enhance the theme in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby?
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One element of a story is conflict. The conflict element of a story is what the plot revolves around. In Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the characters are pitted against one another to drive the plot, which revolves around the story's themes.
Gatsby is a young man hungry to make life what he wants it to be, having grown up poor with few prospects for success.
His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people - his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. …he invented...Jay Gatsby...and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
Gatsby's life is based on a lie; however, it becomes obvious that he believes the lie completely. What never changes is his hunger for the things he believes will make him happy. Daisy is the one thing he cannot have that haunts him until the premature end of the fantastic life he has created. He is obsessed with Daisy, but Daisy cares for him only in a shallow self-serving way. What she does love is the life that Tom Buchanan can give her—one of wealth and ease. And while she leads Gatsby on, she refuses to leave Tom, even though she believes Tom is well beneath her:
I married him because I thought he was a gentleman...I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn't fit to lick my shoe.
Buchanan is a man the reader grows to hate: certainly Fitzgerald wants it this way, for Tom is cruel, bullying, obnoxious, etc. The reader may find himself rooting for Gatsby because Buchanan is so despicable:
...Tom Buchanan and Mrs. Wilson stood face to face, discussing in impassioned voices whether Mrs. Wilson had any right to mention Daisy's name.
"Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!" shouted Mrs. Wilson. "I'll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai——"
Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.
The novel primarily revolves around the struggle between Buchanan and Gatsby over Daisy. There are other conflicts regarding Gatsby's reputation and how he has really made his money, and between Nick and Jordan; however, Gatsby's hunger for that which he can never have is at the center of the plot—galvanized forward with Daisy and Jay's meetings, and Tom's suspicions. Even in the end, Gatsby takes the blame for the car accident that takes Myrtle's life, though Daisy was the one driving. Wilson kills Jay, believing that he was responsible for Myrtle's death. The reader clearly sees how little character Daisy has once Gatsby is dead. She does not come to his funeral: in fact, she never overtly bats an eyelash. Nick accurately relays just how insubstantial Daisy and Tom are—in this way, showing us that perhaps the two were made for each other.
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness...and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
The first of the themes these conflicts enhance is "culture clash."
Tom and Daisy Buchanan—[from the East] were unfair, corrupt, and materialistic.
On the other hand, Jay and Nick come from the Midwest; Nick is seen as "fair, relatively innocent, unsophisticated," and Jay is the epitome of idealism.
The theme of the "American dream" is seen in Jay as he makes his own way in the world; however, Daisy, his idea of "the perfect dream," destroys him. "Appearance vs. reality" and "moral corruption" are themes that are also addressed in these conflicts, with Jay, Tom and Daisy.
The essential elements of character, conflict, and setting enhance the theme of the American Dream gone awry in The Great Gatsby.
In Chapter Nine, Nick defines Daisy and Tom Buchanan as “careless people” who find others expendable if they do not serve their pleasure or comfort. For instance, after Daisy and Tom “smashed up other people’s lives” literally and figuratively in order to protect their position in society. With a “voice is full of money,” Daisy who accepted Tom Buchanan’s proposal of marriage after he gave her an expensive pearl necklace, rejects Gatsby when she realizes that her affair threatens her social status. Hers and Tom’s amorality and materialism defeat the idealism of the original American Dream, the concept of self-improvement and achievement.
Another amoral character is Jordan Baker, once described as “remarkably unremarkable.” Imitative of Daisy, dressed in white and feeling most alone at large parties,Jordan is a self-proclaimed “bad driver,” a deceptive person who seeks self-advancement in her concealment of truth. Another very deceptive character is Meyer Wolfshiem, whose capital gains are made through illegal means. Certainly, Gatsby, too, sacrifices his individual personality to social advancement as he creates a platonic image of himself, and in his Romantic idealism, he is convinced that he can recreate the past. In his preface to Fitzgerald’s novel, Matthew J. Bruccoli writes,
[Gatsby] innocently expects that he can buy anything—especially Daisy. She is for sale, but he doesn’t have the right currency.
The conflict of Appearance vs. Reality produces the failure of the true American Dream. This conflict is apparent with the symbolic “gigantic eyes” of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg that look out from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles over the wasteland of the Valley of Ashes, the eyes that George Wilson feels “see everything.” Similarly, one of Gatsby’s many guests, Owl Eyes, examines Gatsby’s leather-covered books that are real and is impressed with the genuineness of Gatsby; later, at Gatsby’s funeral he is one of the few attendants, and expresses his sympathy for Gatsby, knowing that his dream has failed.
Thus, the materialism of the East with its façades creates the “tragedy of destruction, dishonesty, and fear.” While appearing luxurious and desirable, the East allows no true values to exist. In Chapter Nine, Nick faces the reality of the corruption of the East and returns to the Midwest as the “green breast of a new world,” a true American Dream.
F. Scott Fitzgerald himself found the Eastern states in which he lived as corrupt and jaded. His Valley of Ashes connotes T.S. Eliot's poetic Wasteland, a criticism of America's wasted opportunities with people who are symbolically dead. Suggestive of Eliot's perspective, Fitzgerald's ashen heap of waste symbolizes spiritual death, and contrasts greatly with the materialistic and productive city of New York and the potential opportunities of the time.
Of course, Chapter Eight's setting of Gatsby's pool, on which he floats with his arms outstretched as though he has come down from a cross, is most symbolic of Jay Gatsby's person having become the sacrificial victim of materialism and the death of the true American Dream.
Indeed, with his imagery and symbolism, characterization, conflict, and setting, F. Scott Fitzgerald certainly develops his theme of the American Dream going awry.