Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

Just before The Great Gatsby was to appear—with a publication date of April 10, 1925—the Fitzgeralds were in the south of France. Fitzgerald was waiting for news from Max Perkins, his publisher, and cabled him to request “Any News.” The 29-year-old author had won critical acclaim for his first novel, This Side of Paradise, but had faltered with the less-than-perfect The Beautiful and the Damned. He was earnest about being considered one of the top American writers of his time, and needed the boost that his third novel might give him to achieve that status.

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During his lifetime, Fitzgerald was generally praised for The Great Gatsby; it is usually considered to be his finest accomplishment and the one most analyzed by literary critics. The established opinion, according to biographer Arthur Mizener in The Far Side of Paradise, is best represented by renowned critic Lionel Trilling: “Except once, Fitzgerald did not fully realize his powers.… But [his] quality was a great one and on one occasion, in The Great Gatsby, it was as finely crystallized in art as it deserved to be.” Saturday Review critic William Rose Benét said that the book “revealed matured craftsmanship.” Even harsh critics like Ernest Hemingway and H. L. Mencken praised the writer, as quoted by Mizener. Said the notoriously abrasive Mencken in a letter to the author: “I think it is incomparably the best piece of work you have done.” Nevertheless, he qualified this compliment with a complaint that the basic story was “somewhat trivial, that it reduces itself, in the end, to a sort of anecdote.” Ring Lardner liked it “enormously” but his praise was too thin, for Fitzgerald's tastes: “The plot held my interest … and I found no tedious moments. Altogether I think it's the best thing you've done since Paradise.” Some of the initial reviews in newspapers called the book unsubstantial, since Fitzgerald dealt with unattractive characters in a superficially glittery setting. His friend, Edmund Wilson, called it “the best thing you have done—the best planned, the best sustained, the best written.” All reviews, good and bad, affected Fitzgerald deeply.

From an artistic perspective, Fitzgerald's third novel was as close to a triumph as he would ever get. Financially, however, the book was a failure since he was over $6200 in debt to Scribner's, his publisher, and sales of the book did not cover this by October of 1925. By February, a few more books were sold and then sales leveled out. The summer of 1925 for Fitzgerald was one of “1000 parties and no work.” His drinking continued to affect his work. For the rest of his life, nothing he wrote quite measured up to Gatsby. In fact, when he walked into a book shop in Los Angeles and requested one of his books, he discovered they were out of print.

In the early 1950s, Fitzgerald's works began to enjoy a revival; in addition to Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, with its psychological bent, appealed to readers. Critics found similarities between Fitzgerald and English poet John Keats and novelist Joseph Conrad. Joseph N. Riddel and James Tuttleton analyzed American-born novelist Henry James's impact on Fitzgerald, since both men wrote about the manners of a particular culture. Gatsby was compared to T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land and to Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises. The mythic elements of the novel have been studied by Douglas Taylor, Robert Stallman, and briefly by Richard Chase in The American Novel and Its Tradition.

Symbolism in Gatsby focuses on Dr. T. J. Eckleburg's eyes, the Wasteland motif, and the color symbolism. Gatsby has ironically been likened to Christ, and Nick Carraway, the storyteller, to Nicodemus, in a Christian interpretation of the novel. Relatively speaking, most of Fitzgerald's short stories have been sorely neglected by critics, though a steady stream of critical comment appears every year. It has been difficult for critics to detach Fitzgerald the writer from Fitzgerald the legend. Sociological, historical, and biographical approaches to teaching literature have predominated in past decades. Now, more attention is being given to a close reading of Gatsby for its artistry.

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