F. Scott Fitzgerald

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F. Scott Fitzgerald American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In one of the most haunting passages of The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, sees his mysterious neighbor perform a strange ritual:[H]e stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

What Gatsby is trying to do in the novel, literally as well as symbolically, is reach out to recapture the past. For Gatsby, that past is embodied in Daisy Buchanan, the woman he loved as a young lieutenant while stationed in her hometown in the South. He loves her still and, as a rich man, hopes to regain her and in doing so recapture his youthful dreams and promise.

It is a scene and a dream that runs throughout Fitzgerald’s fiction. All of his heroes carry that sense of the lost past, of misspent promise. They are outsiders in some form or other—usually because they come from the lower or middle class—and they are further set apart because of the high goals and exacting standards they have set for themselves. From Amory Blame, in Fitzgerald’s first novel, through Monroe Stahr, in his last, left unfinished at the time of his death, Fitzgerald created protagonists who aspired to be larger than life but who were destroyed by the commonplace existence they sought to rise above.

In a sense, these fictional characters have many of the attributes of their author; in particular, they share with him a keen sense of morality and destiny that applies particularly to them. When they fail, betrayed by human lapses into drink or by the dark promise of sex, they find themselves on a downward spiral, often overindulging in the failings that distracted them initially. Their tragedies are largely self-made, as they become victims of their own romantic moralism.

This romantic moralism is especially painful in the relationships between men and women. A love which begins as strengthening, almost magical in its nature, turns out badly; the woman is frequently the agent of the hero’s downfall. Anthony Patch, in The Beautiful and Damned, sinks into dissipation after his marriage to Gloria Gilbert. Dick Diver, the brilliant and promising young psychiatrist in Tender Is the Night, is undermined personally and professionally when he marries his patient, the heiress Nicole Warren. Most notably of all, Jay Gatsby is destroyed because of his love for Daisy: shot dead in his own swimming pool at the end of a series of sordid and entangling events that never would have occurred without Gatsby’s obsessed pursuit of her.

The style in which these tragedies are told is one of the most famous in American literature: a brilliant, sensuous, lyrical prose that re-creates for the reader the sense of emotional ecstasy and despair felt by the Fitzgerald character. As he developed as a writer, Fitzgerald’s style gained in strength and clarity, dropping much of its earlier, self-conscious rhetoric but retaining its beauty, until it became a powerful and supple instrument that captured both particular insights and wide-ranging social observations.

Perhaps because Fitzgerald felt so keenly his own role as an outsider, he had a sharp and most perceptive view of American social mores. A large part of the power—and a cause for the immediate success—of This Side of Paradise was its fresh, vivid portrayal of college life, presenting it in a more realistic fashion than had been done before. Whether etching the characters of heedless expatriates on the French Riviera, giving sharp, thumbnail portraits of New York gangsters, or presenting the excesses of the irresponsibly rich during the jazz age, Fitzgerald was a master of creating accurate, indelible images of American life—what they wore, drove, drank, and sang—during his time. His writings are a social...

(The entire section is 5,879 words.)