Why should The Great Gatsby be included into the Western Canon?Why should The Great Gatsby be included into the Western Canon?
The "western canon" are those works of literature which rise so far above the average that a consensus develops that they should be preserved, read, studied, and taught. They are understood to have something important to say to the world and/or have advanced the development of their genre. "Canon formation" has been hotly debated over the last forty years and attacked for being racist, classist, and sexist. Clearly, Gatsby was written by a privileged white male, and for that reason might fall into a suspect category. Do we read it because it has been embraced by a small coterie of privileged white males who happen to identify with it or on its own merits? I would argue that Gatsby is a superior novel and should remain in the canon for three reasons, among others: language, craftsmanship, and theme.
First, language: The voice Fitzgerald creates for narrator Nick Carraway is rhythmic, lyrical, and beautiful, saturated with wistfulness and pain. Lines he writes seep into our consciousness and stay with us, such as
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
The line above brings us to craftsmanship. A line like that isn't simply tossed on the page the way Daisy and Tom toss around and smash people and things. Many writers, then and now, were forced by the urgency of earning a living to write quickly, revise very little, and throw whatever they had out on the market amid doing other things, but Fitzgerald had the leisure to concentrate on crafting this novel. A line like the one above, with its sense of cadence mimicking the rocking of a boat, and its alliterative "b" in each section, is likely the product of careful revision. And not only is the language crafted, but so is the plot, with careful foreshadowing, for example, of the car accident that is to bring such tragic results.
Finally, all the lyrical language and careful craftsmanship in the world would fall flat without a theme that resonates with readers. Like Nick, we feel the pain of Gatsby's hopeless but grand and obsessive desire to metaphorically go back in time and try to right what has gone wrong in losing Daisy, his wish to recapture the myth of a pristine past, his dream of freezing love forever at a perfect moment. Fitzgerald does not shy from pain and ends up having something to say to us that is beyond the clichéd or the trivial and leaves us thinking about our own lives.
I would say that Fitzgerald's work is already accepted into the American canon of literature. If we examine it as whether or not it should be worthy of being included in the canon of Western Literature, we can use the same analysis as to why it is included in the American echelon of great works. The book does an excellent job of articulating what life is like with wealth and without it, identifying specific challenges in both realms. Individuals can relate to it because of its quality of discussing what wealth resembles and how life is established with and without its presence. I think that one reason why there might be reticence to including it in the Western canon is because it speaks to the condition of being "American," while other works in the Western canon seek to broaden its appeal in being more universal. However, I do believe that the same ideas of being able to articulate a condition where people address consciousness in terms of possessing wealth and coveting it could help to make the work more universal in reach and appeal.
To me, the value of The Great Gasby to the literary canon (for it is part of the Western literary cannon, whether one thinks it should or not, as has been pointed out) is that it captures perfectly the post-World War I era known as the "roaring twenties." It depicts the excessive wealth of both the newly rich and the inherited rich (new money and old money). In contrast, we see the ashen existence of those without money. We see the extravagances of living in a post-war world, and we see the careless behaviors and corruptions of those who have nothing in particular for which to live. Fitzgerald was part of a disillusioned group of writers who reflected the Lost Generation and who exiled themselves from their country (most went to Paris) because they didn't like what they saw. This sense of dreams both realized and unfulfilled make this novel an iconic reflection of the era.
Of course, this great novel is already well and truly part of the Western Canon, and rightfully so, from my perspective. As #2 identifies, it captures a particular period of history, The Jazz Age, and embodies it in literary form, making a number of very profound comments about wealth, social standing and decadence. The feeling of sadness and palpable loss that comes through from the text makes this novel a lament for what could have been.