Whilst The Great Gatsby explores a number of themes, none is more prevalent than that of the corruption of the American dream. The American dream is the concept that, in America, any person can be successful as long he or she is prepared to work hard and use his natural gifts.
Gatsby appears to be the embodiment of this dream—he has risen from being a poor farm boy with no prospects to being rich, having a big house, servants, and a large social circle attending his numerous functions. He has achieved all this in only a few short years, having returned from the war penniless.
On the surface, Fitgerald appears to be suggesting that, whilst wealth and all its trappings are attainable, status and position are not. Whilst Gatsby has money and possessions, he is unable to find happiness. Those who come to his home do not genuinely like Gatsby—they come for the parties, the food, the drink and the company, not for Gatsby. Furthermore, they seem to despise Gatsby, taking every opportunity to gossip about him. Many come and go without even taking the time to meet and few ever thank him for his hospitality. Even Daisy appears unable to cope with the reality of Gatsby’s lower class background. Gatsby is never truly one of the elite—his dream is just a façade.
However, Fitzgerald explores much more than the failure of the American dream—he is more deeply concerned with its total corruption. Gatsby has not achieved his wealth through honest hard work, but through bootlegging and crime. His money is not simply ‘new’ money—it is dirty money, earned through dishonesty and crime. His wealthy lifestyle is little more than a façade, as is the whole person Jay Gatsby. Gatsby has been created from the dreams of the boy James Gatz. It is not only Gatsby who is corrupt. Nick repeatedly says that he is the only honest person he knows. The story is full of lying and cheating. Even Nick is involved in this deception, helping Gatsby and Daisy in their deceit and later concealing the truth about Myrtle’s death. The society in which the novel takes place is one of moral decadence. Whether their money is inherited or earned, its inhabitant are morally decadent, living life in quest of cheap thrills and with no seeming moral purpose to their lives. Any person who attempts to move up through the social classes becomes corrupt in the process. In Gatsby’s case this corruption involves illegal activities, for Myrtle it is an abandonment of others of her own background.
A parallel theme of the book is that of love and its fleetingness. There are no stable relationships in the book. Daisy and Tom’s marriage has been damaged by affairs from early in its life. Soon after their honeymoon Tom has been caught out, when a hotel chambermaid is injured in a car crash where he is the driver. By the time the novel begins, Daisy is well aware of Tom’s regular affairs, seeming to suffer in silence until Gatsby offers her a way out. Myrtle’s relationship with Tom is no stronger, obviously based on a physical attraction, especially on the part of Tom, who has little time for Myrtle outside the bedroom. Myrtle appears to be loved by Wilson, but is unhappy in this relationship, apparently because he is unable to provide materially for her, although his actions in the latter part of the book suggest his love may be oppressive, causing her to seek escape even before the last events.
Other characters in the book are no more successful in...
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relationships. Nick, the narrator, is unable to make commitments in his relationships. One of his reasons for coming East has been to escape a potential engagement. He has a brief affair in New York, which he ends when there are signs of commitment, and he cannot commit to Jordan either. Jordan herself has had no lasting relationship, discarding men when she has no further use for them—Nick’s rejection of her provides her with ‘a new experience.’ Partygoers are seen fighting with spouses or else attend with mistresses or lovers.
Only Gatsby seems capable of lasting love—his love for Daisy is unshaken till the end. Yet this love is unrealistic—based not only on a relationship started on a lie, but also needing a turning back of time to make it complete. At times even Gatsby himself seems to realize that the reality is not as good as his dream has been.
In the end we meet the only person capable of true love in the final chapter. It is Mr Gatz, Gatsby’s father, who has an unshaken love for his son, believing in him to the end, and blind to his failings as only a parent can be.
A third theme in the novel is that of optimism. It is Gatsby’s almost unwavering optimism that guides him through life. His belief that dreams can true has been with him since a lad, and the dream represented by the green light on Daisy’s dock holds incredible promise for him. Even when the dream starts to unravel, when Daisy’s feelings have wavered as his past is revealed, Gatsby remains optimistic. He does not take his chance to leave the area, certain that Daisy will come back to him. In this way his untimely death is merciful—his life has so long been based on a dream that Daisy’s desertion would have been crippling to him. In closing, Nick realizes that what Gatsby did not see was that his dream was already behind him—his opportunity had been missed and could not be recaptured.
Daisy Buchanon Daisy was born Daisy Fay in Louisville, Kentucky, a daughter of Louisville society and Nick Carraway’s cousin. Like the flower for which she is named, Daisy is delicate and lovely. She also shows a certain weakness that simultaneously attracts men to her and causes her to be easily swayed. Daisy’s weakness influences the major points of the story, and she is responsible, if not intentionally, for the novel’s tragic ending.
Daisy first met Jay Gatsby in 1917, when he was stationed at Camp Taylor in Louisville. The two fell in love quickly, and Daisy promised to remain loyal to Gatsby when he shipped out to join the fighting. Two years later, she married Tom Buchanon because he bought her an expensive necklace, with the promise of a life of similar extravagance. Daisy is definitely distracted by wealth and power, and despite her husband’s unfaithfulness, she insists she still loves him because of his influence.
Gatsby is another matter entirely. Although she left him because he couldn’t provide for her the way Tom could, she retained some glimmer of emotional connection to him. When Gatsby finally professes his love over tea, she responds positively. But is she renewing an old love, or manipulating Gatsby? The novel doesn’t give us any clear idea.
Daisy is described in glowing terms in the novel, although her value seems to be connected to monetary value. In chapter 7, for example, Nick and Gatsby have the following famous exchange:
“She's got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It's full of —” I hesitated.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I'd never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it.… High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl.… (120)
Daisy is an ideal, and Fitzgerald gives her the qualities to not only live up to that ideal but to also bring it crashing down around her. Daisy’s myth is as big as Gatsby’s, at least in Gatsby’s mind; like him, she took the necessary opportunities to make herself what she wanted to be. Tom takes good care of her financially and is even jealous when he realizes, in chapter 7, that Gatsby is in love with his wife. Later, Nick clears up at least part of the mystery Daisy presents: “She was the first ‘nice’ girl he’d ever known” (148; ch. 8). Nick’s use of quotes for the term “nice” shows that Daisy hardly fits the ideal image Gatsby invests her with.
Like money, Daisy promises far more than she is capable of providing. She is perfect but flawed, better as an image than as a flesh-and-blood person. Daisy was in large part based on Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, who he both worshipped and distrusted. Daisy’s money is her protection, her power, and her defense against any accusation that might come her way.
When Myrtle Wilson is killed by Daisy’s careless driving, she hides behind both money (in the form of Tom and Gatsby) and Gatsby’s love. Gatsby is the only true witness, but he takes the blame for her. Rather than renew their month-long affair, Daisy disappears into her opulent house, retreating into the only security she knows. She continues her almost ghostly existence, leaving the men in her life to clean up the mess.
Daisy’s confused sense of loyalty is evident in her disappearance before Gatsby’s funeral—she and Tom move away almost immediately, leaving no forwarding address for Nick or anyone else. An even bigger insight is Daisy’s infrequent mentions of her own daughter, who is only briefly discussed in the first chapter and in chapter 7. The child is nothing more than an afterthought, as she is unable to give Daisy anything but love, which she has in abundance. Daisy is incapable of caring for her infant—one assumes a governess or nanny takes care of her—any more than she is able to truly love Tom or Gatsby. She doesn’t love them as men, it seems, but as sources of revenue.
Daisy is capable of affection. She seems to have some loyalty to Tom, and even a certain devotion to Gatsby, or at least to the memory of their earlier time together. However, like money, Daisy is elusive and hard to hold onto. This may explain why Tom and Gatsby fight over her in chapter 7 as if she were an object:
“Your wife doesn't love you,” said Gatsby. “She's never loved you. She loves me.”
“You must be crazy!” exclaimed Tom automatically.
Gatsby sprang to his feet, vivid with excitement. “She never loved you, do you hear?” he cried. “She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me. It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved any one except me!” …
“Sit down, Daisy,” Tom's voice groped unsuccessfully for the paternal note. (130-131)
The tone of the argument seems almost like that of two men fighting over the pot in a poker game. Daisy is a prize, and she seems to see herself in those terms. In this sense, Daisy is far from what one would call a “feminist” character; rather, she is a symbol of shallow beauty, and of the amoral worlds of both East and West Egg.
Jay Gatsby In the first two chapters of the novel, its title character is a mystery—a wealthy, fun-loving local celebrity with a shady past who throws lavish weekly parties. On the surface, Gatsby is an example of the American Dream in the 1920s, the desire for wealth, love and power.
As the novel progresses, we see Gatsby more as a man than a mythical figure, and we discover that the myth of the “Great Gatsby” (as in the “Great Houdini,” an escape artist of the time) is created by Gatsby himself. He is truly a “self-made man, a fiction whose past and obsessions finally destroy him.
Jay Gatsby was born James Gatz, the son of a poor farmer in North Dakota. From an early age, Gatz was aware of his family’s poverty, and he swore he would attain the wealth and sophistication his childhood lacked (including, apparently, a fake British accent). Once out of high school, Gatz changed his name to Jay Gatsby and attended St. Olaf’s College to begin his climb to the distinction he craved. Unfortunately, Gatsby had to take a janitor’s job to pay his tuition; he left St. Olaf’s in disgust after two weeks.
Gatsby’s true education came at the hands of Dan Cody, an older man who teaches him the ways of the world in 5 years aboard Cody’s boat, the Tuolomee, on Lake Superior. Cody, a hard drinker and womanizer, was Gatsby’s role model more in teaching him what not to do. Gatsby rarely drinks, and is distant at his own lavish parties. He wants the success Cody achieved without the destructive habits that success afforded him.
After Cody died at the hands of a mistress, Gatsby joined the army and World War I. While stationed in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1917, Gatsby met a young Daisy Fay, a daughter of Louisville society. Gatsby fell in love with Daisy, lied about his background, and vowed to someday be good enough to win her heart. Gatsby believed Daisy’s promise to wait for him, but he returned to Louisville as she and Tom were on their honeymoon. Devastated, Gatsby went to Oxford in English for the education that would complete his transformation from poor farm boy to famous (or infamous) socialite.
Gatsby’s only true dream is Daisy’s love; the parties he gives at his lavish West Egg mansion are purely to lure her to him the way he stares at the green light from her dock late at night. He begs Nick to set up a rendezvous with Daisy for him, which Nick does. Their love rekindles for a short time, and Gatsby’s unrealistic view of Daisy as the picture of perfection is renewed. It is this view that eventually causes Gatsby’s death.
In a confrontation at the Plaza Hotel, Tom openly accuses Gatsby of criminal activities, including bootlegging. Tom knows about Gatsby and Wolfsheim’s “drugstores” that sell illegal grain alcohol, as well as other, more mysterious crimes. Gatsby handles the accusation with cool calm, but is devastated by Daisy’s assertion that she does indeed love her husband.
In a last-ditch effort to prove his love to Daisy, Gatsby takes the blame when she accidentally hits Myrtle Wilson in Gatsby’s car. Tom Buchanon tells Myrtle’s husband, George, that Gatsby was driving the car, hinting that the two may have been having an affair. At this point, the Gatsby myth returns full force, as an enraged, jealous Wilson shoots Gatsby dead, then kills himself.
Jay Gatsby dies that night, and James Gatz along with him, anonymous and alone. Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy causes him to lie his way to his standing in the community, lie about his life, and lie to protect Daisy from a fate that is transferred to him. Despite all that Jay Gatsby does, James Gatz lies just beneath the surface, simply wanting to be loved. The other activities are meaningless compared to the month he spends as Daisy’s lover. An authentic Jay Gatsby might be too detached, too crafty, to get caught up in Myrtle Wilson’s death, but James Gatz can’t hope to distance himself from one last charitable act—trying to protect the woman he loves. Gatsby can easily be seen as a negative character—a liar, a cheat, a criminal—but Fitzgerald makes certain we see the soul of James Gatz behind the myth of Jay Gatsby.
Gatsby/Gatz is in fact a tragic character motivated by love. He is also hopelessly flawed, a shadow that is incapable of a life without Daisy, even if she’s only living across the lake.
Fitzgerald ties Gatsby up with the American Dream, a dream of individualism and success with a purpose. Like the America of the 1920s, Gatsby loses sight of his original dream and replaces it with an unhealthy obsession—for the country, the pursuit of wealth for its own sake; for Gatsby, a sense of control over Daisy as evidence by both him and Tom in the Plaza Hotel. Gatsby is symbolic of a nation whose great wealth and power has blinded it to more human concerns.
Gatsby’s Romantic idealism, which Nick calls “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” (2; ch. 1), is all that drives him, and no enterprise that enables him to get what he craves is too extreme. In this sense, Gatsby could be considered more amoral than immoral—morality simply has no meaning for him so long as he makes his dream come true. Everything is simply a means to an end, and Gatsby represents those for whom the end is the only thing that is important.
Nick Carraway Nick is the narrator of the novel; the story is told in his voice and through his perceptions. It has also been suggested that Nick may be the character F. Scott Fitzgerald based most closely on himself. In a sense, then, Nick may show Fitzgerald’s own opinions of wealthy, immoral characters like Gatsby.
Nick is a good Midwestern boy who attended Yale and moved to New York in 1922 to work in the bond market. He is well-positioned to narrate this story—he is Daisy Buchanon’s cousin, went to Yale with Tom Buchanon, and rents the house next door to Gatsby’s. From his vantage point, Nick can see everything that goes on. What’s more, he’s the kind of guy that people want to tell their stories—and their secrets—to.
Nick tells us in the first chapter that his father cautioned him about judging people: “‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had’” (1). Nick tries to follow his father’s advice; he acts as a sounding board for the other characters, particularly Gatsby, and as they confide in him, we learn more about their lives.
There is debate over whether Nick is a Reliable Narrator—this is, if he tells us the whole truth about what he sees, hears, and experiences. In the beginning of the novel, Nick certainly seems reliable. But as he says, tolerance of others “has a limit” (2, ch. 1)). Gatsby represents everything Nick hates about the East, with its emphasis on money and status and its lack of morality. For some reason—perhaps because he’s fascinated by Gatsby in the beginning, then friends with him despite Gatsby’s crimes—Nick extends his limit, learning more about both the East and himself in the process.
As much as Nick hates about the East, he experiences internal conflict about the things he does like. The fast pace of New York and the focus on having fun intrigues him; as a Midwesterner, he knows his limits, unlike those surrounding him. He is driven to have fun at Gatsby’s weekly parties and to “burn his candle at both ends,” but he also wants to maintain the organized, simple lifestyle he knows from back home.
His relationship with Jordan Baker also couldn’t happen anywhere but in New York. When he meets her in chapter 1, Nick remembers “some story of her too, a critical, unpleasant story, but what it was I had forgotten long ago” (18). His forgetfulness seems to come from his close attention to her—“I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet” (11). He goes on to describe the last rays of daylight “deserting her with lingering regret” (14) and the “autumn-leaf yellow of her hair” (17). The atmosphere of West Egg enables Nick to forget whatever he’s heard about Jordan when he watches her and listens to her frank opinions. He becomes infatuated quickly.
Daisy determines to fix Nick and Jordan up, and tells Jordan Nick will look after her. Nick doesn’t protest. It’s at this point that we hear about Nick’s fractured romance out West—or so Daisy believes. Nick tells us that he dated a friend and that the rumors of their marriage drove him to leave. Nick is careful about revealing personal details of his past, a bit like Fitzgerald himself. He does let us know he is disgusted and touched at the same time that Daisy would even care about his failed relationship.
In chapter 3, Jordan becomes Nick’s “date” for a party after he drinks too much in embarrassment over asking where Gatsby is (which is, apparently, not a good idea, even at Gatsby’s party). They wander the grounds, chatting with other party guests (including Jordan’s real date, an anonymous undergraduate) until “the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound” (47). This night also marks the first time Nick meets Gatsby. It seems that Nick equates Jordan and Gatsby in his mind; in a sense, his farewell to Gatsby the night of the broken wheel could be a “kiss goodnight” from Jordan.
Later in the chapter, Nick sees Jordan again, after she has become a golf champion. He admits that “I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity” (57). He follows that observation with another—“She was incurably dishonest” (58). We will discover along with Nick later in the novel that Gatsby is also “incurably dishonest”; however, these characters are the ones Nick feels drawn to. Nick says, “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known” (59), almost as if honesty is a failing compared to Jordan and Gatsby.
Nick grows closer and closer to Gatsby as the novel progresses. He learns, first through Jordan then from Gatsby himself, that Gatsby’s only goal in life is to be reunited with Daisy. Nick then finds himself in the same position Daisy claims she is in with Jordan and himself—except in this case, the matchmaking is meant to be serious. This makes Nick understandably uncomfortable, as his Midwestern upbringing taught him marriage was sacred; also, knowing Gatsby as well as he does, he doesn’t seem sure that he’d want Gatsby marrying his cousin.
Gatsby does gallantly take the blame for Daisy’s car accident, causing more internal conflict for Nick. Tom lies to Wilson, which results in Gatsby’s death. Nick is surrounded by deceit and violence, and he is disgusted by it. He determines that Gatsby, for all his faults, may be the only person he knows with any character at all. This, too, throws Nick into confusion. He arranges a small funeral for Gatsby and ends his relationship with Jordan; in a sense, Nick can’t have a relationship with someone he associates so closely with his friend.
At the novel’s end, Nick moves back to the Midwest to escape the disgust he feels for the people surrounding Gatsby's life and for the emptiness and moral decay of life among the wealthy on the East Coast. He comes to a realization about that life: “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life” (176).
This is the point where Fitzgerald and his opinions speak the most clearly through Nick. Just as Gatsby's dream of Daisy was corrupted by money and deceit, the American dream of happiness and individualism has fallen apart, replaced by the mere pursuit of wealth. Nick, who was in awe of Gatsby's power to transform his dreams into reality, realizes that the dream—for Gatsby and for America—is over, and no power in the world can bring it back.
Nick’s character develops from a relatively objective observer to a full participant in the action of the novel, both physically and emotionally. As a result, perhaps his reliability as a narrator changes as well. How much of the other characters’ actions and reactions are just observed, and how much is filtered through Nick’s perceptions of them? His promise to his father at the beginning is compromised by the reality around him. The “advantages [he’s] had” were the simple adherence to a code that doesn’t apply to New York or to the world of Jay Gatsby. When he loses those advantages, Nick returns to find what he has lost.
Tom Buchanon Unlike Gatsby, who is a sort of tragic figure, Tom Buchanon is just a bully. He played football at Yale, where he attended with Nick Carraway, and he also comes from a wealthy Midwestern family. Tom is a big brute of a man who uses both his physical and financial “superiority” to get what he wants.
Tom’s sense of fragile superiority is evident from chapter 1, in which he mentions a book he has read called “Rise of the Colored Empires.” Tom says, “‘The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved’” (12-13). Tom’s life is comfortable and secure as long as he remains in control. Anything he doesn’t control is a potential threat to his power.
Tom is having an ongoing affair with Myrtle Wilson, whose husband George runs a garage in the Valley of Ashes. Tom maintains an apartment for Myrtle in New York City (he takes Nick to the apartment in chapter 2), but he is also physically abusive. Ironically, although Tom is having an open affair, he becomes enraged when he discovers that Daisy and Gatsby have renewed their love affair.
In typical fashion, Tom brings his wife’s affair with Gatsby out in the open at the Plaza Hotel by asking “What kind of row are you trying to cause in my house anyway?” The fact that he is himself having an affair is unimportant; Gatsby is causing trouble in his house, with his wife—essentially, his property. Tom verbally beats down both Gatsby and Daisy until his wife acknowledges she loves him. It doesn’t matter whether Daisy loves him; Tom simply must be the victor. He is what we might call an “Alpha Male” today—a man who must be in charge at all times, and who jealously guards his “possessions,” including his wife and mistress.
Fitzgerald consciously makes Tom—the Antagonist of the novel—without one redeeming quality. Tom’s outright evil helps make Gatsby a more sympathetic character despite his actions. Gatsby has committed crimes, but he has a good heart; Tom is a “model citizen,” but he has no heart to speak of. Fitzgerald forces us to ask ourselves, which is worse? Tom represents the decadence of 20th Century America for Fitzgerald—pure, unadulterated power tempered by nothing.
Tom seems to show no sadness at all when his mistress is killed, by his wife of all people. He takes Myrtle’s death as an opportunity to get back at Gatsby once and for all by telling George Wilson Gatsby was driving the car that killed his wife, and that he was the one having an affair with Myrtle. Tom “wins,” but at what price? He whisks Daisy off to an unknown location, leaving Nick to clean up the mess they’ve made. He even bullies Nick into shaking his hand and considering the possibility that Tom’s behavior could be justified.
Tom’s hypocrisy is his calling card. Fitzgerald seems to be sarcastically celebrating Tom in a way as a new “antihero” who has no interest in Romanticism or morality, only in cold, hard cash. Most of the characters in West Egg could be considered amoral—they simply have no place for traditional morality in their lives or activities. Tom is an exception; he is immoral, in the sense that he looks morality in the eye and rejects it. He is aware of his cruelty, and he seems to revel in it.
Tom is a pivotal character in the novel not only in his direct opposition to Gatsby but also in his relationship with Nick. Nick sees Tom for what he is, but like everyone else, he is too intimidated to do anything about it. Tom’s actions, particularly at the end, prompt Nick to return to the Midwest to the values he grew up with.
Minor Characters Each of the minor characters in The Great Gatsby has a specific role to play in the unfolding of the story and in the relationships between the main characters; many offer symbolic touchstones to “fill out” Fitzgerald’s symbolic landscape:
Jordan Baker Jordan functions as the opposite of Daisy Buchanon—she is a fully liberated woman of the 20s. A professional golfer, Jordan has a brief affair with Nick, which seems to go nowhere. Jordan is presented as a dishonest person who will do anything to win, including alleged cheating in a golf tournament. Jordan’s amorality is a bit more cynical than the other West Eggers’; she adopts whatever morals seem to fit her current situation
Jordan’s most important role in the novel is that of a go-between; she introduces Nick to Gatsby, and as Daisy’s close friend, she fills in gaps in Nick’s (and our own) knowledge of Daisy. Fitzgerald (through Nick) refers to Nick’s relationship with Jordan in only the briefest of terms. This seems to serve two functions: to show how shallow relationships in West Egg are, and to provide a cool comparison to the affair between Gatsby and Daisy.
Myrtle Wilson Myrtle, who Fitzgerald describes as “sensuous” and “vital,” is Tom Buchanon’s mistress. She is married, unhappily, to George Wilson, who owns a garage in the Valley of Ashes. Myrtle functions as an emotional foil for Daisy (Myrtle is far more emotional, and more willing to show it) and as a catalyst for the novel’s ending. After a fight with George over his suspicion of an affair, Myrtle runs into the street, only to be hit and killed by Gatsby’s car, with Daisy at the wheel.
George Wilson George Wilson is a mechanic who expects little, especially from his wife Myrtle. He is content with his simple life (as content as his wife is not content) until he suspects Myrtle of having an affair, possibly with Tom. George’s primary function in the novel is to kill Gatsby; when Tom Buchanon suggests that Myrtle is having an affair with Gatsby and that Gatsby was driving the car that kills her, George kills Gatsby, then commits suicide.
Meyer Wolfsheim Wolfsheim is a “business associate” of Jay Gatsby’s, and a well-known Mafioso. He is an allusion to Al Capone and other 20s gangsters, a mixture of criminal activity and refinement. In addition to allegedly “fixing” the 1919 World Series, Wolfsheim owns a number of “drugstores” with Gatsby that are actually fronts for bootleg grain alcohol. Ironically, he is one of the few characters who knew Gatsby to express regret upon Gatsby’s death.
Henry Gatz Henry Gatz is the father of James Gatz (aka Jay Gatsby), an elderly man who has been dependent on Gatsby for his livelihood. Gatz appears briefly in the novel to show Gatsby’s compassionate side, and his dedication to improving himself and his life.
Dan Cody Cody takes on a young James Gatz and shows him what “the other side of life” is all about. Gatz takes on the name “Jay Gatsby” when he meets Cody, and uses Cody’s example, both positive and negative, in forming his new identity.
Michaelis Michaelis puts the “Minor” in “Minor Characters.” He is a Greek neighbor of the Wilsons who tries to console Wilson after Myrtle’s death. He runs the coffee shop beside the ash heaps and is the principal witness at the inquest.
Catherine Catherine is Myrtle Wilson’s sister. She lives in New York City and receives a visit from Nick, Tom and Myrtle. She appears after her sister’s death very drunk and says nothing, which seems to be uncharacteristic for her.
The McKees The McKees are Catherine’s neighbors in New York. He is in “the art game”; They are fixated on social status and fashion, and they provide Nick with a glimpse into the Myth of Jay Gatsby.
Ewing Klipspringer Ewing Klipspringer is Gatsby’s boarder, who appears briefly.
Owl Eyes “Owl Eyes” is a guest at Gatsby’s regular parties who wrecks his car in a ditch, a foreshadowing of the novel’s ending. He is one of the few who attend Gatsby’s funeral. He seems to be a longtime acquaintance of Gatsby’s, perhaps knowing more about him than the others.
Party Guests The guests, none of whom have names, are identified by their clothing or their social status. They function as “human scenery” to develop the environment of Gatsby’s parties.
Dr. T. J. Eckelburg Dr. Eckelburg, or rather his eyes on a billboard, appear as a sort of observer to the events of the novel, perhaps in contrast to Nick as he becomes more and more of a participant than an observer.
Work Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 2004.
The Great Gatsby is known as the quintessential novel of the Jazz age. It accurately portrays the lifestyle of the rich during the booming 1920s. Readers live vicariously through the lavish parties and on the elegant estates. Romantics relate to Gatsby’s unrelenting commitment to Daisy, the love of his life. But beneath all the decadence and romance, The Great Gatsby is a severe criticism of American upper class values.
Fitzgerald uses the book’s central conflict between Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby to illustrate his critique. Tom is the incarnation of the upper class, Gatsby the nouveau riche. The contrast between them demonstrates the differences between the values of their respective classes. In this essay we will examine the upper class myths of lineage, institutional education, manners, and wealth. One by one, Fitzgerald strips away the illusion of superiority to reveal the ugly truth behind the glittering façade of the rich.
Myth #1: The Importance of Lineage For the “old” (inherited) money crowd, family lineage is often the first, and perhaps most important, indicator of class rank. This theme runs through the entire novel. Tom’s old Chicago family is “enormously wealthy.” In fact, “his position” was what attracted Daisy to him. And he adamantly argues his racial superiority during the opening scene. But his lineage does not translate into anything worthwhile. The Buchanans never see their families. The core of their own family, their marriage, is a shambles—Tom cheats and Daisy’s miserable. And their daughter seems irrelevant to their lives.
Gatsby, one the other hand, is of unknown background. Rumors circulate that he is related to everyone from the Kaiser to Satan. Eventually we learn that Gatsby comes from a humble, midwestern family. He grew up poor. Ironically, the Gatsby (or Gatz) family provides the only examples of familial love. We learn that Gatsby bought his father a house, and his father cannot hide his emotion, his affection, and his admiration for his son in the final chapter.
Myth #2: The Importance of Institutional Education Institutional education—where you go to school—holds an important place in class structure. Nick points out that he, his father, and Tom Buchanan attended New Haven, the discreet name for Yale, an institution that ranked with Harvard and Princeton as the school of the elite. However, Tom’s attendance at one of the nation’s finest universities does little to develop his “simple mind.” At one point he even admits to being “pretty dumb.” His crude attempts at intellectualism, for example his “scientific” explanation of the decline of civilization caused by “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” only serve to reveal a dangerously thin understanding of the world.
By contrast, Gatsby’s claim to institutional learning is sketchy. Whether or not Gatsby is a true “Oxford man” recurs throughout the story as a source of controversy. In fact, Tom considers a major victory Gatsby’s revelation that his affiliation with the prestigious English school was only temporary. But despite his lack of formal education, we understand Gatsby to have a focused, intelligent mind. He literally pulls himself up from poverty to the heights of wealth through discipline and brains.
Myth #3: The Importance of MannersSavoir faire, knowing what to do, and good manners, are qualities often attributed to the upper class. In fact, some elitists believe that this is how well-bred people distinguish themselves from others. Ironically, the most “well-bred” characters in the novel are often the worst behaved. Tom is the best example. Despite his breeding, he is abrupt, constantly rude, and even violent. In Chapter 2, he breaks his lover’s nose when she annoys him—an impolite action even in the most philistine circles.
Here again, manners highlight the difference between the classes. The low-born and self-made Gatsby is always the perfect gentleman. Even when his rival, Tom, stops by with his two snooty friends, he maintains his impeccable hosting ethic. And while his manners may come off as too stiff and formal, he is nonetheless portrayed as kind and considerate throughout. The narrator, Nick, goes so far as to call his gestures “gorgeous.”
Myth #4: The Importance of Wealth The fourth myth associated with the upper class involves the preeminence of wealth. Fitzgerald goes to great lengths to describe Tom’s tremendous wealth, his estate, his cars, his polo ponies. But Tom’s wealth comes off as worthless. He is mean and stingy, and we never see him share his unearned fortune. In fact, it’s just the opposite. He denies the impoverished George Wilson one of his extra cars, despite Wilson’s desperate pleas.
On the contrary, the newly rich Gatsby spends his money freely. Stories of Gatsby’s generosity abound. He provides food, drinks, entertainment, and even shelter to hundreds of people, even those he did not invite. In one instance, he replaced a guest’s expensive evening gown that she accidentally tore at one his parties. And unlike Tom, who receives money from his family, Gatsby generously gives money to his aging father.
By establishing the conflict between Tom and Gatsby, Fitzgerald mirrors the conflict between the upper and upwardly-aspiring classes in America. Fitzgerald’s characterizations and the narrator’s commentary criticize the rich throughout the book. Tom Buchanan, with his lineage, education, breeding and wealth, epitomizes the upper class. But by the end of the story, we realize that these qualities are empty. In one sweeping condemnation, Nick proclaims to Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd.… You’re worth the whole bunch put together” (154,; ch. 8). Fitzgerald finally and skillfully destroys the upper class claim to superiority.
Work Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 2004.
It is arguable that Jay Gatsby values two things above all others—love (particularly his love for Daisy Buchanon) and money (the means by which he hopes to win Daisy’s heart). The two motivations converge in Fitzgerald’s use of the color green, a symbol that represents both love and money as well as Gatsby’s ultimate goal—a spring-like renewal that would put his past behind him and plant the seeds for a future with Daisy. Fitzgerald shows green in its many incarnations, from the promise of a new bud to the decay of a stagnant pond, as Gatsby’s dream progresses from a dim light in the distance to the reality of lovely illusions left in ruins.
Our first glimpse of green in the novel comes in the first chapter, as Nick stumbles upon Gatsby with his arms outstretched toward “a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock” (21). The light marks the end of the Buchanons’ pier, and the beginning of Gatsby’s green hope. He stands, stares and reaches out to the light as if reaching out to Daisy herself. At this point, even with all the money and power at his disposal, he can’t directly address the object of his affection; the light represents what could have been and what could be.
By chapter 4, green takes the recognizable form of money, or at least the things money can buy. As described by Nick, the car is cream-colored and bright. The upholstery, however, the car’s center and the point at which is connects with the people inside, is a deep green, “a sort of green leather conservatory” (64). What better than a “green leather conservatory” for watching stars, particularly the bright green star across the bay? Even Gatsby’s car is a reminder of Daisy, and of her place in his universe. He buys the car to impress her if he can, and the green leather interior is a nod to decadent consumption as well as a symbol of the evolution Gatsby must undergo to make his dream a reality.
The color green’s connection to nature, growth and renewal first appears in chapter 5 as Nick prepares for Gatsby and Daisy’s rendezvous at his house. Gatsby not only sends flowers to impress Daisy, he has a “greenhouse” shipped in (84). The word “greenhouse” suggests incubation, like the love Gatsby has let incubate as he built his fortune. Having convinced Daisy to meet with him, Gatsby wants her surrounded with fresh greenery to symbolize the renewed love he hopes their interlude will inspire.
A few pages later, as Gatsby dazzles Daisy with his freshly laundered seasonal shirts, Fitzgerald slips in an apple-green one. This lighter green foreshadows a crucial light green later in the novel, and alludes to the Adam and Eve story in the Bible. Perhaps Fitzgerald wants us to see Daisy as an Eve figure, tempting Gatsby back in Louisville to bite the apple that led to his criminal activities, opening him up to decadence and deceit in the name of love. Also, the green of money (the expensive shirts), the green of renewal (the apple), and the green promise at the end of Daisy’s pier coincide in this brief but important scene. (92)
Immediately following the apple reference, Gatsby tells Daisy that he has been watching the light at the end of the dock. He has Daisy in his hands, literally, and he reconsiders his attachment to the light. From here the color green begins to take on a different cast as Fitzgerald shows us the underside of love, money and renewal. Compared to the physical presence of Daisy,
Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever.… It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one. (93)
Green is no longer an enchanted color for Gatsby, and Fitzgerald’s references change accordingly. “Now it was again a green light on a dock” today might read, “Now it was nothing more than a green light on a dock.” Reality shows itself, and for that moment, the reality is what Gatsby has been seeking since his own transformation years earlier.
A flashback shows James Gatz in “a torn green jersey and a pair of canvas pants” (98; ch. 6), just prior to beginning his life as Jay Gatsby. The jersey is significant both because it symbolizes the green renewal Gatz experiences and because it is torn; Gatsby will pay dearly for the rebirth and wealth he seeks. From the moment his transformation takes place, the die is cast for Gatsby’s fall. Fitzgerald allows his green references to wither as well, parallel to Gatsby’s own slow demise. The cynicism typical of the Jazz Age also intrudes; the idealism that led Gatsby to remake himself for such a simple dream can’t be allowed in a world with no place for idealism, where green means only money, and the more, the better.
Tom accompanies Daisy to one of Gatsby’s parties in chapter 6. Daisy’s attitude has already changed; she tells Nick she is passing out green cards for kisses. Why are the cards green? Perhaps to celebrate her own small renewal—the beginning of a new relationship with Jay Gatsby and his fortune. Green cards suggest green paper—dollars, perhaps—and Fitzgerald seems to be saying that Daisy may be willing to trade her love for money. In the end, after all, she chooses the stability of Tom’s “old money” to Gatsby’s “new money,” in a sense preferring the security of a more comfortable faded green than the possibility of a brighter, more ambitious green.
The birth of love and the death of love can both be represented by the color green, and Fitzgerald seems to be suggesting that they are intertwined as he moves toward the end of the novel. In a brief reference in chapter 7, George Wilson, suffering from both the heat and from suspicion of his wife’s infidelity, gasses up Tom’s car. Fitzgerald tells us, “In the sunlight his face was green” (123). Wilson is literally sickened by his situation, and the destruction of his marriage cascades into the novel’s other relationships. By the end of the book, everyone’s face is figuratively as green as George’s.
George’s wife Myrtle is killed later in chapter 7, and the first thing Michaelis, the Wilsons’ neighbor, tells the police is that the “death car” is light green. Later reports suggest a blue or yellow car. Just as yellow and blue make green, Myrtle’s blood mingles with the dust in the Valley of Ashes (137).
Fitzgerald breaks green down into its component colors cleverly, possibly suggesting that the other couplings in the novel are as tainted as Myrtle’s blood in the road. This blurring takes the pinpoint of green light in chapter 1 and stretches it into a world that has no place for it, one in which the purity suggested by the light must coexist with darker forces. By Fitzgerald’s reckoning, there is no purity in the world of the Jazz Age; the green light is a symbol not only of the past, but of a past that may never have existed, both in Gatsby’s life and in American life in general.
By the novel’s final chapter, both Myrtle and Gatsby are dead, the Buchanons and Jordan have disappeared, and Nick prepares to leave as well. Before leaving, he returns to “that huge incoherent failure of a house once more” (179). He considers the place and its once-proud heritage: “I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world” (180).
Green has become a sad color for Nick and for Fitzgerald; long before Gatsby, the verdant land of Long Island represented something new and fresh, a true renewal. Once the desire for other “green,” particularly money, came into the mix, Fitzgerald suggests the possibility for purity and rebirth, and finally love, prove unattainable.
In the last paragraph of the novel, as in chapter 1, the green light appears, bringing the symbolism full circle. Nick says Gatsby “believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” (180). With the events of the novel behind him, Nick reiterates the fact that the light Gatsby counted on and followed was, as Gatsby saw in chapter 5, no more than a green light. Gatsby invests a great deal of hope and love in the color green throughout the novel; at the end green is simply green, as magical and powerful as Gatsby’s apple-green shirts, which can’t hold Daisy’s interest long enough to make her stay.
Fitzgerald’s use of the color green in The Great Gatsby reflects the arc of Gatsby’s dream—in the beginning it is fresh, bursting with desire and imagination as if his dream were a newly blossoming flower. As reality sets in—the irritants of attitude and deceit and the collision of damaged lives—the green fades, or it weathers like a sick face. Finally, the same bright green of the past becomes no more than a memory, and not necessarily a clear one.
Gatsby’s green hope rests on the light at the end of Daisy’s dock more than the reality of Daisy, past or present. She proves herself to be not the fulfillment of his dream, but as elusive and uncertain as the flickering green glow barely visible across an expanse of water. Gatsby dies pursuing that light, blinding himself to the other colors that exist all around him.
Work Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 2004.
On one level, The Great Gatsby is a romantic novel, or at least romance-driven. The central story of Jay Gatsby’s undying hope for the love for Daisy Buchanon, offers a romantic ideal, and the couple’s brief affair almost reads like a fairytale romance.
The secondary relationship between Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker takes on a “Boy Meets Girl” quality—Nick is fascinated by Jordan, and he certainly catches her attention. On the surface, Gatsby and Nick seek a perfect love; in Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age world, both men’s desires are hopelessly bound up in the cynicism fostered by the rapid changes taking place in American society. As such, both men’s romances are doomed to fail in the face of cynicism.
From the moment he meets a young Daisy Fay, Jay Gatsby is in love. The only glimpse the author gives us of the couple’s interaction is through the voice of Jordan Baker, who sees Daisy and Gatsby sitting together in Daisy’s car: “The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at some time, and because it seemed romantic to me I have remembered the incident ever since” (75; ch. 4)
We get no details of the romance between the two, but there must have been quite a romance; Jordan relates Daisy’s insistence on going to New York to “say good-by to a soldier” (75; ch. 4), alienating her family and leaving her trapped at home. Also, Jordan helps a very drunk Daisy sober up before her wedding after a letter (presumably from Gatsby) causes her to “‘change’ her mine’” (76; ch. 4).
Flash-forward to the green light on Daisy’s dock; even five years of distance and a soggy, unanswered letter haven’t cooled Gatsby’s love for Daisy, or his desire to be worthy of her love. But as genuine as Gatsby’s desire may be, he takes shortcuts to get to the top and earn Daisy’s attention. Fitzgerald layers his main character’s supposedly pure love with cynicism toward the world and toward his own potential. This cynicism threatens to taint Gatsby’s love even as he fights to acquire his lovely prize.
Gatsby becomes a criminal and concocts an elaborate cover, hiding in plain sight at his regular, lavish parties. The parties also provide an elaborate lure for Daisy, who now lives just across the Sound. Gatsby has no faith in his ability to win Daisy on the strength of their younger love; the cynicism of the 1920s has set in, and he can’t trust Daisy’s motivations or his own.
Even after Nick arranges a secret meeting for the two at his house, Gatsby is furtive and terrified. It’s difficult, perhaps, to believe that a love based on a false identity can survive, much less be rekindled. He is frightened, uncertain, embarrassed, and cynical about the possible outcome of his trust. Only when Nick criticizes him for “‘acting like a little boy’” (88; ch. 5) does Gatsby decide to act on his true feelings.
Gatsby’s gamble seems to pay off—although we are again not privy to the conversation between himself and Daisy, its conclusion is obvious. Gatsby “literally glowed” (89, ch. 5), as if believing his romantic intentions toward Daisy could defeat the cynicism all around them, not to mention her marriage and his criminal past.
Nick and Jordan’s romance begins as casually as Gatsby and Daisy’s must have back in 1917. When they first meet, Nick “enjoyed looking at her” (11; ch. 1), then describes her as a potential lover would. Daisy encourages them twice—the first time she tells them “‘it’s very romantic outdoors’” (15; ch. 1), as if motioning for them to enjoy the romantic night. The second time (the same evening at the Buchanons’ house) Daisy seems to be pushing the romance of the outdoors on them:
“In fact, I think I’ll arrange a marriage. Come over often, Nick, and I’ll sort of—oh—fling you together.… Her family is one aunt about a thousand years old. Besides, Nick’s going to look after her, aren’t you, Nick?” (18; ch. 1)
This playful exchange comes after what may be the most honest thing Daisy says the entire evening: “‘I’ve had a very bad time, Nick, and I’m pretty cynical about everything’” (16; ch. 1).
Daisy puts the constant tension between romantic ideal and cynical reality into words without even realizing it; then again, her worldview places the two on an equal footing. Fitzgerald seems to suggest that Daisy’s attitude is a common one in both East and West Egg. As such, neither can truly exist without the influence of the other, inevitably leading to disaster.
Romance surfaces again, as, even after an argument over Jordan’s reckless driving, she reveals what she knows about Gatsby. Nick is attracted to Jordan, but his attraction may be because of what she represents to him—a Midwesterner who has internalized the cynical nature of the scene:
Suddenly I wasn’t thinking of Daisy and Gatsby any more, but of this clean, hard, limited person, who dealt in universal skepticism, and who leaned back jauntily just within the circle of my arm. A phrase began to beat in my ears with a sort of heady excitement: “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.” (79; ch. 4))
They kiss amidst Fitzgerald’s skillful trick of making cynicism romantic, acceptable, even sexy.
Nick’s initial attraction shifts from the possibility of romance in the traditional sense to the cynic’s resignation to a “good match.” Like very character in the novel except Gatsby, Nick seems incapable of the emotional depth required for true romantic love; to compensate, he accepts the first substitute that presents itself.
In chapter 7, Fitzgerald illustrates the inevitable consequence of the marriage between the romantic and the cynical. The Plaza Hotel suite unravels any romance the group might have hoped for. Tom and Gatsby argue over Daisy as if she were a polo pony rather than the object of romantic desire:
“She never loved you, do you hear?” [Gatsby] cried. “She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me. It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved anyone except me!” (130)
Gatsby appeals to Daisy’s romantic side, the girl from Louisville with dreams of a perfect life; Tom appeals to her sense of reality, the cynical reality that would enable Daisy to live in the manner to which she had become accustomed. Daisy succumbs to the lure of reality; her heart, after all, is far less important than security in a world that values security and success above all else.
The same day, Nick turns 30, but he can only see his relationship with Jordan in terms of earlier events: “There was Jordan beside me, who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age” (135; ch. 7).
Now Nick, so naïve and full of romantic hope in the beginning of the novel, equates Jordan’s cynicism and skepticism with wisdom. Dreams like Gatsby’s longtime dream for love are part of the “well-forgotten” past of a world in which dreams have little of no value. Cynicism in Gatsby’s world is a mix of practicality, skepticism and distrust that governs everyone’s actions in their pursuit of success to the exclusion of any other motivation.
Nick’s desire for Jordan cools, and after Myrtle’s death he avoids her along with the rest of the group. Finally they talk, and Jordan reveals that she is engaged. Unemotional about the announcement, Nick isn’t sure that he believes her, but he acknowledges he is “half in love with her” (177; ch. 9) as he leaves her. To save face, Jordan claims that she was wrong about Nick’s honesty. Nick responds, “‘I’m thirty.… I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor’” (177; ch. 9).
Jordan’s cynicism is thus validated—she believed Nick was too good to be true, and that turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nick’s response is at once an acknowledgement of his failure to escape the cynicism of his surroundings and an expression of his desire to return to the more naïve, romantic world of the Midwest.
Fitzgerald presents romanticism and cynicism in the Jazz Age as two sides of the same coin, and as two forces that can never be reconciled. The Buchanons and Jordan never seemed to have had dreams beyond attaining success and status; Gatsby’s dreams prove to be his undoing; and Nick’s dream of success in New York dissolves into a cynical mess he can only escape by leaving.
Through these lives, Fitzgerald seems to be telling us that romantic ideals are impossible in early 20th-Century America, that they are a relic of a bygone era. He also appears to mourn that era, throwing all his characters into a world where no one can trust anyone else and no good deed goes unpunished.
Work Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 2004.
One of the simplest yet most profound reasons The Great Gatsby is considered an American classic is its use of language, more particularly the emerging “American Idiom.” Writers of the 20s and beyond sought to find a way of using English that was more than simply a rehash of the great British writers, a style of writing that was distinctly American. Fitzgerald not only tapped into the “American Idiom,” influencing writers to come, but elevated the language above street slang and regional distinctions into a truly artistic form that reflects the high and low of American society. The beginning and ending passages of the novel clearly illustrate the way Fitzgerald creates a uniquely American expression from the basic building blocks of the English language.
The beginning of the novel sets the bar immediately, as Fitzgerald speaks with Nick’s voice, a “typical Midwesterner” with, one would assume, a typically Midwestern accent:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.”
He didn't say any more, but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought—frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. (1-2)
One of the first features that stands out in this passage is Nick’s almost conversational tone. Fitzgerald freely uses contractions and independent clauses separated by commas and articles like “and so” and “because.” Here, the sentences retain much of the length common in the British novel, but what may be the most resonant sentence in the first chapter—“Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope”—is remarkably short in comparison. The short sentences that characterize the work of Hemingway and generations to follow weave into Gatsby, usually to set off particular ideas as important ones.
Fitzgerald’s figurative language in the opening passage is similarly reserved, but equally telling. Nick is faced with “veteran bores,” and “privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men,” and he is aware of “intimate revelation[s] quivering on the horizon.” And of course, one of the central themes of the novel revolves around the idea of “infinite hope.” The notion of “reserving judgment” is skewered as well in Nick’s comparison between “normal” and “abnormal” minds; in fact, the entire section devoted to reserving judgment passes judgment on “wild, unknown men” by describing them in figurative terms.
Fitzgerald opens the novel strongly, asserting Nick’s unique voice through his informality and hints that he is hardly as fair-minded as he would like to be. Through language alone, Fitzgerald is able to establish Nick as an unreliable narrator. In essence, Nick betrays himself before the novel even begins.
As one might expect, the ending passage of The Great Gatsby builds on the language—voice, tone, figurative devices—used throughout the novel. It also expands on them as the story expands beyond the confines of Long Island. Just before Nick boards the train to return to the Midwest, he visits the beach at Gatsby’s house one last time:
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.… And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (180)
In this long passage, Fitzgerald develops a much broader metaphor, one that is perhaps appropriate to the major characters of The Great Gatsby and their experiences. The Midwestern transplants themselves are “Dutch sailors” of a sort, and their experience of New York was undoubtedly as magical when they first arrived. Their wonder, coupled with a focus on the “inessential houses … melt[ing] away,” provide an excellent, sly recap of the novel’s themes—the Dutch sailors’ wonder is substituted for Gatsby’s wonder at the green light on Daisy’s dock, and (in a nice bit of juxtaposition) Gatsby’s dream is as dead and long-past as the trees that the sailors enjoyed, and which were cut down to build Gatsby’s house. In a sense, Gatsby was the architect of his own demise, as are we all. Fitzgerald expertly builds comparison upon comparison to make this point.
As in the opening of the novel, this passage makes extensive use of independent clauses connected by commas and articles, but additional punctuation—dashes and ellipses—added to the mix. Like Emily Dickinson in Poetry Fitzgerald allows his punctuation to make the piece “breathe.” The result is the illusion of shorter, more distinctive sentences, which inevitably leads to others’ use of the shortest sentences possible. Fitzgerald opens a door for writers to experiment with sentence length, and with the possibilities of different rhythms that could in retrospect be called American.
The language in the conclusion is actually elevated beyond that used in the introduction. The passage itself is longer and more dramatic, the scene is wispy and almost unreal, and Fitzgerald’s language choices allow a shift from a more conversational tone to a more refined, almost poetic expression. The conversational tone had been used in the writings of Mark Twain; in using it, Fitzgerald was merely adopting popular nineteenth century American style. However, by elevating the language at the end, by appealing to something more, he leaves us hanging on his last words. Indeed, the last sentence—in fact one long sentence “chopped up” by punctuation as described above—is one of the best-known sentences in American literature.
Fitzgerald used The Great Gatsby as a vehicle for his ideas on social change and corruption; along the way he changed the way Americans write novels. By using genuine American language, he was able to truly show American life and its concerns even in a story that could best be described as a sort of twentieth-century allegory. Fitzgerald’s experiments in the music of American language worked, and his literary descendants continue to explore the linguistic ground he laid at the beginning of the century.
Work Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 2004.
The Great Gatsby’s most obvious reference to “The Jazz Age” revolution taking place in American Arts in the 1920s occurs in the party scene in chapter 3:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” [the orchestra leader] cried. “At the request of Mr. Gatsby we are going to play for you Mr. Vladimir Tostoff’s latest work … Vladimir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World.” (Fitzgerald 49)
Gatsby’s request for a work that defies tradition, and certainly defeats the purpose of having a full symphony-sized orchestra on the grounds, is in fitting with his character. He himself has defied tradition, becoming a “self-made man” regardless of his methods; is it any wonder his choice of music would reflect both the “newness” of his money and the means by which he came to it?
The spirit of recreation and renewed vision echoes through the art of the period, particularly in its music. It makes sense that such music would provide a background for Gatsby’s story. Like Jay Gatsby, composers and musicians of the 1920s charted new territory for themselves, changing the American musical landscape as drastically as Gatsby’s transition from the starkness of North Dakota farmland to the glitz of a West Egg mansion.
Fitzgerald experienced a similar transition just spending time around the burgeoning New York Jazz Scene, according to Arnold Shaw: “Riding down Fifth Avenue one day in the 1920s F. Scott Fitzgerald ‘bawled’ because, he later said, ‘I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again’” (Shaw 3). He and his wife Zelda were fixtures in Jazz Age social circles, and Fitzgerald was well-qualified to talk about not only the new music of the time but also the decadence that often accompanied it.
Prior to the 1920s, mainstream American music mostly consisted of folk tunes—nothing less tame than Scott Joplin’s Ragtime piano pieces. The emphasis was on everyday people learning to play for themselves and their families and friends at home. By the twenties, the humble (and recent) tradition of the Mississippi Delta bluesmen had begun to filter through the “hot towns” of Chicago and Kansas City, producing a potent music not everyone could play. The relatively new phonograph and radio allowed previously regional music like the blues to be heard nationwide, creating the first Jazz Age stars. The bands of Bix Beiderbecke, Tom Brown, and Joe “King” Oliver introduced the hybrid music to young New York society, who immediately embraced it. As the music grew more popular, jazzmen like Louis Armstrong and Jellyroll Morton became household names.
The big band, as it came to be known in the 1930s and 40s, also began during this period, under the direction of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, and others. The big band differed from its large ensemble predecessors by playing complex arrangements of familiar tunes, displaying the talents of not only the entire band but also of fiery soloists like Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter.
Had jazz stayed in bars and dance clubs, it may have disappeared as ragtime and the other styles of music that preceded it; thanks to Paul Whiteman’s foresight, the music would endure through the efforts of a young composer named George Gershwin. Whiteman staged a show on February 12, 1924, that featured the premiere of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the composer himself on piano. Both the jazz and “serious music” camps sat up and took notice. By successfully merging traditional symphonic themes and instrumentation with the energy and familiar American quality of jazz, Gershwin had made jazz into a serious art form, and its influence spread even further (Shaw 47-53).
As Gershwin was merging the worlds of jazz and orchestral music (possibly the source for Fitzgerald’s “Jazz History of the World”), musicians and writers in Harlem, New York, were emerging as important fixtures in American artistic life and history. Writers Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and their peers injected their work with the new strains of blues and jazz; Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown experimented with blues lyric forms in their poetry. Harlem was the place to be, and both black and white artists from all art forms were influenced by its energy, derived from a proximity to jazz.
Change was in the air, and the Broadway stage was not immune. Out of the decadence and protofeminism of the time (Think Jordan Baker from Gatsby) came the revues of Florenz Ziegfeld and his contemporaries. The revues were not story-driven, but contained a variety of entertainment forms—music, comedy, and particularly half- or mostly nude women, for which Ziegfeld became famous. Ziegfeld’s Follies revived and “elevated” the earlier Vaudeville theatre and provided a showcase for legendary figures like composer Irving Berlin (“A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” 1919), comedian Eddie Cantor, and singers like Fannie Brice (Shaw 232-35).
George White and John Murray Anderson’s shows aspired to the level of sophistication Ziegfeld had mastered. White’s Scandals ran successfully into the 1930s; Anderson is perhaps best known for employing Cole Porter before Porter became a star in his own right (Shaw 236-39).
Irving Berlin was a triple threat—he wrote both music and lyrics, and after breaking away from Flo Ziegfeld, he became a producer himself. His Music Boxes produced such hits as “Say It With Music,” “Everybody Step,” “What’ll I do,” and the ubiquitous “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”
Richard Rodgers and Moss Hart, along with Berlin and Jerome Kern, carried the changes begun in their revues well beyond the decade. Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun all originated in the atmosphere created in the Jazz Age (Shaw 254-56).
Vincent Youmans’ name might be absent from an accounting of the Jazz Age if not for his singular hit No! No! Nanette and its centerpiece “Tea for Two.” Nanette, the only true “flapper” musical, best captures the spirit of the 1920s with its decadent nature, vibrant atmosphere, and changing roles for men and women. Nanette is still performed today, keeping a small part of the Jazz Age alive onstage.
Fitzgerald’s exposure to the music of his time fuels not only Gatsby’s parties, but the general feel of the novel. Mayer Wolfsheim recalls the growl of Louis Armstrong and hard Chicago Jazz; Gatsby is a cross between a plaintive blues and an elaborate big band arrangement; Jordan is the embodiment of Nanette in the play of the same name, and Tom and Daisy conduct their lives as if they are part of an ongoing musical theatre piece. Nick is the emcee, or even an old-style troubadour, commenting on the “acts” and observing their behavior as Fitzgerald did from his convertible. Like Fitzgerald, Nick becomes caught up in the music of the time and his rendering of it seems accurate but flawed.
The Great Gatsby works on a number of levels. On one level, it is a jukebox of 1920s hit songs and themes. In this sense, Fitzgerald’s commentary also preserves his music in the unmistakable flavorings of both story and style. On another level, the Jazz Age influences Fitzgerald’s storytelling to a point at which his objectivity is brought into question. This heavy influence is one of the novel’s saving graces; in its refusal to be totally “objective,” the novel shows the 1920s, and America, as it really is.
Works Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 2004.
Shaw, Arnold. The Jazz Age: Popular Music in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Time is one of the most pervasive themes in The Great Gatsby, weaving between characters and situations, slowing and speeding the action until the entire novel seems almost dreamlike. Fitzgerald not only manipulates time in the novel, he refers to time repeatedly to reinforce the idea that time is a driving force not only for the 1920s, a period of great change, but for America itself. We will see Fitzgerald also turns a critical eye to the American concept of time, in effect warning us all to avoid becoming trapped in time.
The Past Fitzgerald strongly connects time in the novel with location, as if time were an entire setting in itself. Fitzgerald tips his hand early; after Nick provides a description of himself and what we assume are his motives in coming to New York, he makes an immediately important time reference: “Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water, and the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans” (5; ch. 1)
Nick wants to relate the “history” of the summer, not its events, its characters, or “just” a story. This is to be a history, events frozen in time and examined and re-examined. Nick sets the stage for the novel’s treatment of time—despite the often frivolous characters and situations, this story bears more than a superficial reading. The Eggs gain enough historical importance to rival New York City itself. Fitzgerald shrinks his focus to a geographical area while simultaneously expanding its meaning in time.
The past plays a major role, perhaps the most major role, in the concept of time presented in Gatsby. Tom was a “Big Man on Campus” in the past, while Gatsby was both a poor farm boy and Daisy’s lover; Daisy was a flighty socialite with no family to tie her down; all of them were naïve Midwesterners whose lives, they now believe, were far better in a past they can’t help but romanticize. It is precisely this romanticizing of the past that enables Fitzgerald to write such a powerful novel—in allowing his characters to wallow around in their pasts, he reminds later generations of readers that neither the 20s nor his books should be romanticized. They should be taken for what they are, and made relative to the present day. The (possibly unintentional) consequence of this attitude is an audience that extends beyond the twentieth century.
Characters Fitzgerald’s characters are not only obsessed with time, they seem to embody it. Tom Buchanan is obsessed with history, reading books like “The Rise of the Colored Empires” that offer historical explanations for his inability to rise above the life he lives. Tom is Old Money, hopelessly stuck in the past, trying to live up to his ancestors’ wealth by amassing his own. He can never recapture his youth, so he seeks to recreate the excitement of those days by having a mistress on the side.
Daisy, too, is stuck in the past, a pre-feminist remnant of an age in which women were expected to act “a certain way.” She tolerates Tom’s affair, and stands out in stark contrast to Jordan Baker’s contemporary “flapper” persona. Daisy is as confined as Jordan is liberated, and she can’t live a life without a man to run it for her. Her true complication comes when two opposite aspects of her past—Tom and Gatsby—compete for her affection. In each, she sees qualities lacking in the other. For a woman who is defined by men, her own definition of herself comes into question.
Myrtle Wilson seems to have a fairly solid definition of herself, and she and her husband George are fully in the present. Living in the Valley of Ashes, they can’t help but see the world as it is, as it goes by the windows of their garage. Myrtle is usually willing to put up with the complications of seeing a married man in exchange for the material possessions George can’t give her. However, when she complains in her “secret” apartment in the city, the past literally smacks her in the face. Presumably, George would never do that to her, devoted as he is. That devotion, and the reality of his situation, causes George to snap at the end of the novel.
Gatsby, of course, the victim of George’s misplaced rage, represents the future. His past is colorless and best forgotten; James Gatz got to where he is in the beginning of the novel by focusing on the future and building toward it, by any means necessary. He desperately wants to make Daisy part of his future (He is, after all, building it to share with her, which hopelessly entangles his past with his future.), but she can’t commit to his far-reaching vision. Gatsby’s world falls apart when he realizes the future he envisions simply can’t happen.
Nick’s progression as a narrator provides a yardstick by which the other characters’ relationships to time can be measured. In the beginning, he is purely a product of his Midwestern past; by the time he acclimates himself to New York and meets Myrtle Wilson, he is very much in the present. At the end of the novel, Nick must reconcile his own future by returning to the site of his naïve past a wiser, more jaded person. Nick, in this sense, shares all the other characters’ perspectives of time, allowing us to watch time unfold.
Images Fitzgerald uses a number of repeated images to represent time in Gatsby; one of the most telling is the clock in chapter 5. Gatsby and Daisy are meeting at Nick’s house for the first time, and the three are sharing an awkward conversation:
Gatsby, his hands still in his pockets, was reclining against the mantelpiece in a strained counterfeit of perfect ease, even of boredom. His head leaned back so far that it rested against the face of a defunct mantelpiece clock, and from this position his distraught eyes stared down at Daisy, who was sitting, frightened but graceful, on the edge of a stiff chair.
“We've met before,” muttered Gatsby. His eyes glanced momentarily at me, and his lips parted with an abortive attempt at a laugh. Luckily the clock took this moment to tilt dangerously at the pressure of his head, whereupon he turned and caught it with trembling fingers, and set it back in place. Then he sat down, rigidly, his elbow on the arm of the sofa and his chin in his hand.
“I'm sorry about the clock,” he said.
My own face had now assumed a deep tropical burn. I couldn't muster up a single commonplace out of the thousand in my head.
“It's an old clock,” I told them idiotically.
I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor. (86-87)
The clock is a symbol of many things—Gatsby’s dream of having Daisy for himself, Daisy’s hope for a better life, Nick’s desire for the dramatic change that never comes, or even just their lives slowly ticking away. When Gatsby almost breaks it, the moment is shattered. None of the three characters will be the same again after the clock drops. Gatsby becomes uncharacteristically clumsy around Daisy, who has no idea what to say or do. Nick, too, is at a loss, coming up with something “idiotic” to say just to keep the conversation moving. The last line, though, foreshadows the ending of the novel: “I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor.” In this one moment, past, present and future all seem to meet and crash together in an impossible explosion of emotion and loss. From here, all is downhill.
In a very important sense, The Great Gatsby is all about time—its effects on people, its importance in our lives, and most particularly its status in the American consciousness. We see time in a linear fashion—broken up into discrete units for appointments, life plans, meetings and goals. Fitzgerald shows us lives all along that line, perhaps suggesting that the most successful American life is one that should see time in more flexible terms. As such, Nick may be seen as the only true successful character in the novel, as he is able to move across the various timelines, interact with the characters who inhabit them, and retain his sense of self in the end. Nick, as it turns out, is not a slave to time. Fitzgerald seems to be encouraging his readers to break their own chains and take the time to enjoy the lives they have while they have them.
Work Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 2004.
From a modern-day perspective, The Great Gatsby’s Jordan Baker seems a bit ordinary—a typical modern woman. To the novel’s original audience, however, Jordan’s behavior and attitude place her one step away from scandal. In 1926, many parts of the United States were relatively unaffected by the changes occurring in large urban centers like New York City; Fitzgerald’s main characters are displaced “Midwesterners” for precisely this reason. Publication of The Great Gatsby brought the changes in the air in the twenties to the rest of the nation, through their own eyes. Jordan represents one of the most extreme examples of these changes—the proto-feminist known as a flapper.
“Women’s Suffrage,” as early women’s movements were known, had been around since the nineteenth century. When the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was passed in 1920, activists moved into other arenas to fight for full recognition by American society. One of the arenas was the social arena. Flappers could hardly be called “activists,” as their activities and attitudes were more mainstream than politically radical. In changing fashion and the way a woman’s morality was perceived, flappers had more influence on society than their more radical sisters.
Birkbeck College of London feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey has studied flappers as depicted in 1920s silent films. According to her, flappers were “shocking to the conventional and conformist” and “an integral part of the culture wars” of the decade. Characterized by short haircuts, short skirts, and feathers in their hair, flappers nevertheless “raised serious questions about women living independently, about sex and the right to be able to control your own body” (Mulvey). Jordan Baker is very similar to silent films’ “It Girl,” Clara Bow, and may have been based on her.
When Nick first meets Jordan, he knows she is different:
She was extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless, and with her chin raised a little, as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall.… I was almost surprised into murmuring an apology for having disturbed her by coming in.…
Miss Baker's lips fluttered, she nodded at me almost imperceptibly.… Again a sort of apology arose to my lips. Almost any exhibition of complete self-sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me. (Fitzgerald 8-9)
Jordan is confident and intimidating; Nick has never met such a girl. He discovers she’s a professional golfer, and they begin an odd, detached relationship that is heavily overshadowed by that between Gatsby and Daisy.
Their detachment (at least “on-screen”), and Jordan’s independence, is truly realized when the couple parts in the novel’s final chapter. Jordan informs Nick that she’s engaged to another man, then ensures that he understands she is still very much in charge of the situation:
“Nevertheless you did throw me over,” said Jordan suddenly. “You threw me over on the telephone. I don't give a damn about you now, but it was a new experience for me, and I felt a little dizzy for a while.” (Fitzgerald 177)
We see very little detail of Nick and Jordan’s relationship, save a passionate kiss at the end of chapter 4, but Fitzgerald seems to suggest that the two are more than casual friends. But, in stark contrast to Daisy, Jordan isn’t interested in being a man’s inferior. Her independence both attracts and intimidates Nick, an impossible conflict he is unwilling to resolve any other way than by leaving.
In creating Jordan Baker, Fitzgerald presents a “soldier” in the “culture war” of the 1920s. She and others like her began by influencing fashion and defying social norms against smoking, drinking and sex, then grew to influence women’s attitudes and ideas nationwide. By exposing American women to the flapper in the person of Jordan Baker, Fitzgerald helped influence generations of women readers to aspire to more than Daisy Buchanan’s quiet surrender.
Works Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 2004.
Mulvey, Laura. “The Original ‘It’ Girl.” Birkbeck University of London (http://www.bbk.ac.uk/news/flapper.html).
George and Myrtle Wilson are generally considered minor characters in The Great Gatsby, as they have less “screen time” than any of the major characters. However, both characters are pivotal to the events of the novel; without them, the major characters’ interactions would read like a soap opera, and not a very interesting one. The Wilsons add an additional layer of substance by placing the major characters into perspective, by showing the lows to which both the upper and lower classes can sink.
Myrtle Wilson immediately distinguishes herself from both Daisy and Jordan, at least through Nick’s eyes: “She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crêpe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty, but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering” (25; ch. 2).
If Daisy personifies upper-class delicacy and Jordan represents the detached, hedonistic flapper, Myrtle is the lower-class Earth Mother, soft and alluring—forbidden fruit for an elitist like Tom Buchanan. She offers Tom entry into a world he would otherwise be unable to enter, a world that is far more real than his own, and he offers her a fantasy in return, as evidence by the apartment in New York.
It is Tom, though, who acts in a “lower class” fashion in the apartment, bloodying Myrtle’s nose for even mentioning Daisy’s name. He, in effect, switches classes because his carefully-constructed fantasy world is threatened by the intrusion of the real. Myrtle is a catalyst, influencing Tom’s actions even when she is absent because of her allure and her audacity, qualities that would be completely foreign to his wife.
Myrtle’s death is the climax of the novel, in the sense that her death triggers the events that lead to the novel’s conclusion with lives changed, ruined, and ended. Tom reacts by disavowing all knowledge of her existence and lying about the hit-and-run driver’s true identity, Daisy by deferring to her husband, and Jordan by simply disappearing. Nick reacts with horror, but it is a horror mingled with the detachment of a good man who has been jaded by his proximity to the other characters.
George Wilson reacts by committing the only intentionally cruel act depicted in the novel—he kills Gatsby, believing that Gatsby was not only the man driving the car that killed Myrtle, but Myrtle’s lover as well. Overcome with rage and grief, George turns the gun on himself. Nick’s narration of the final scene is telling—“It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson's body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete” (162; ch. 8).
Nick uses the word “Holocaust” to describe George’s actions for a reason. He remembers the man who he had earlier described as “a blonde, spiritless man” (25; ch. 2); the man who, discovering Myrtle was having an affair, shouted, “‘You may fool me but you can’t fool God!’” (159; ch. 8); the man who literally hunted Gatsby down and shot him in cold blood by the swimming pool. The word “holocaust” can refer to a burned offering, a sacrifice; George sacrifices his spirit, his belief, and finally himself for his wife and their life together. It is no coincidence that a man who lives in the Valley of Ashes would bring so many burnt offerings into the lives of all concerned.
George Wilson’s emotion, like his wife’s, is genuine throughout the novel. Like Myrtle, George is simple and passionate, with a genuineness that comes from being a member of the lower classes. George can’t afford to “put on airs” as the other men in the novel do. Unlike Myrtle, George has no desire to join any other societal class; he simply wants to do the best he can in his own class. This is obviously not enough for Myrtle, whose constant browbeating and disappointment weigh on George heavily. His decision to hunt and kill Gatsby, mistaken or not, marks a significant change in his character as he forces himself into the “upper crust” mentality that allowed Daisy to run Myrtle down with her car without facing the consequences. After the murder, George is reminded of his place in society, and he has no choice but to take his own life.
Together, the Wilsons illustrate what the “major characters” in The Great Gatsby seek to avoid, but simultaneously aspire to. As vehicles for change in the story, they are as vital as the “major characters,” if not more so. By showing just how different the Eggers are from “ordinary folk,” Myrtle and George highlight the weaknesses not only in the upper classes but in all classes.
Work Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 2004.
Women play a paradoxical role in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel dominated by the eponymous hero and the enigmatic narrator, Nick Carraway. With the background of Gatsby’s continual and lavish parties, women seem to have been transformed into “flappers,” supposedly the incarnation of independence following World War I.
After all, Daisy Fay, obviously modeled on Fitzgerald’s free-spirited wife, Zelda Sayre, is hardly portrayed as the proper southern belle. Her friend, Jordan Baker, seems openly sarcastic when speaking of their “white girlhood”—referring to their youth spent in Louisville, Kentucky. As Fitzgerald conveys through a series of flashbacks, Daisy has been flirtatious, even at one point discovered packing her bag to travel alone to New York City in order to say good bye to a sailor. But her rather scandalous behavior does not sully her at all in the eyes of the smitten Gatsby. Indeed, as Nick comments , “It excited him … that many men had already loved Daisy—it increased her value in his eyes.” (149; ch. 8)
Jordan Baker, whom some critics regard as little more than a device to bring Nick Carraway into the plot, is neither married nor engaged and apparently lives largely on her own except for a shadowy aunt who serves as a titular chaperone. Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, might pontificate that their house guest should have more supervision, but Daisy ridicules her husband’s comment.
So on one level, these characters appear to be free-spirited, scorning norms of what the nineteenth century would have considered proper female behavior. It’s worth investigating, however, just how independent they really are. Ultimately, their “place” may be indicated most exactly by using the title from a pioneering book of feminist criticism by Francoise Basch: Relative Creatures. Daisy, Jordan, and Myrtle exist in relationship to their husbands, lovers, or boyfriends, and none undergoes a significant change during the course of the narrative. Thus, according to the most common definitions of flat versus round characters in literature, none of the women can be considered “round” or multidimensional characters. Each functions—at least for a time—as the cynosure of Gatsby, Nick and Tom Buchanan. Perhaps the ultimately pathetic condition of women is most accurately conveyed in a conversation between Nick and Daisy in which Daisy discusses the birth of her daughter:
“Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’” (16-17; ch. 1)
Beyond the glittering, upper class world of East Egg, inhabited by Daisy and Tom Buchanan and Jordan Baker, is the squalid area Fitzgerald refers to as the “Valley of Ashes,” where George and Myrtle Wilson live. Myrtle, obviously bent on escaping this Waste Land where George ekes out a living as a mechanic, has become Tom’s mistress. Fitzgerald portrays her unflatteringly as crass, tasteless, overweight, and ostentatious.
At a drunken party in New York City when Myrtle oversteps one of Tom’s dubious moral lines by mentioning Daisy, he hits his mistress, breaking her nose. Later in the novel, she is imprisoned in the garage when her pathetic and obtuse husband finally realizes that she has been having an affair with someone. Significantly, however, Tom Buchanan walks away unscathed from this affair, while Myrtle dies in the Waste Land, mingling “her thick dark blood with the dust” (137; ch. 7). Myrtle’s executioner is the “careless” Daisy who has been driving Gatsby’s expensive gold car.
With Myrtle’s death her “tremendous vitality” is extinguished. While she differs from both Jordan and Daisy because of her socioeconomic class, this vitality is also a crucial point of difference, for Fitzgerald has pointedly characterized both young women by their profound ennui, their vacillation, and their carelessness. The discussions between Daisy and Jordan parallel passages from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land where the spiritually bankrupt representatives of all social classes wonder forlornly: “‘What shall we do … / What shall we ever do?’” (133-134); Jordan and Daisy, spiritually and physically enervated, differ drastically from Myrtle “straining at the garage pump with panting vitality.” (68; ch. 4)
In their own ways, each woman functions as “proof” of her husband’s or lover’s success. At several points in the novel, Gatsby is described by Nick as a knight. Traditionally, knights go off on a quest; often their “price is the hand of a king’s daughter in marriage. Gatsby’s quest during his life has been to recapture the past, those moments in World War I when it seemed to him that Daisy, the wealthy, sought-after belle of Louisville, would agree to be his wife. Daisy, however, hardly constant, is swept off her feet by another suitor, Tom Buchanan. But Gatsby clings to his peculiar notion of the American Dream: if he achieves monetary success, he will regain Daisy. Thus, Gatsby constructs his ostentatious house in West Egg, directly across the Bay from Tom and Daisy’s more sedate mansion. Nick warns him, “‘You can’t repeat the past,’” but Gatsby, incredulous, states “‘Why of course you can!’” (110; ch. 6)
It would be ingenuous to ignore the parallels between the F. Scott Fitsgerald/Zelda Sayre marriage and the relationship of Daisy and Gatsby. Both Daisy and Zelda were considered “belles” of southern cities; Zelda was the youngest daughter of a judge in Montgomery, Alabama. Fitzgerald courted Zelda, but she broke her engagement because of Fitzgerald’s lack of funds. As Matthew J. Bruccoli points out in A Brief Life of Fitzgerald, writing his first successful novel, This Side of Paradise (originally called the Romantic Egoist), was part of Fitzgerald’s own quest to obtain Zelda’s hand in marriage. The fictional Gatsby was less successful with Daisy, though it is difficult to conclude that the real life union was much of an improvement with Fitzgerald practically drinking himself to death and Zelda languishing in a variety of mental hospitals.
In assessing Fitzgerald’s three principal female characters, the reader must keep in mind that all appraisals are filtered through the eyes of Nick Carraway. Thus, the question of whether he is a reliable narrator assumes paramount importance. Nick of course, boldly asserts, “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” (59; ch.3)
But Nick seems to embody a double standard in his judgments of the behavior of men and women as feminist critic, Judith Fetterley, demonstrates in The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Nick castigates Jordan for relatively minor dishonesties but accepts with equanimity the massive dishonesty that has characterized Gatsby’s entire life. Fetterly concludes that the female characters in The Great Gatsby function as symbols—not persons.
If Gatsby is a love story, it is one centered in hostility toward women. Gatsby thinks of Daisy in relation to the objects with which she is surrounded. Her value for him is increased by the fact that she has been desired by so many men. Indeed, Tom’s gift of a string of pearls valued at $350, 000 the night before the two are to be wed only increases his estimation of her worth. One might ask if indeed there is an actual emotional relation between Gatsby and Daisy, or if Daisy has become for Gatsby simply an “unutterable vision.”
Work Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 2004.
The ideal of the American Dream is based on the fantasy that an individual can achieve success regardless of family history, race, or religion simply by working hard enough. Frequently, “success” is equated with the fortune that the independent, self-reliant individual can win. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald examines and critiques Jay Gatsby’s particular vision of the 1920s American Dream. Though Fitzgerald himself is associated with the excesses of the “Roaring Twenties,” he is also an astute social critic whose novel does more to detail society’s failure to fulfill its potential than it does to glamorize the “Jazz Age.”
As a self-proclaimed “tale of the West,” the novel explores questions about America and the varieties of the American Dream. In this respect, The Great Gatsby is perhaps that legendary opus, the “Great American Novel”—following in the footsteps of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. As a novel that has much to say about faith, belief, and illusion, it merits being considered alongside works like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which explores the “hollowness” lying below the surface of modern life. It is possible to regard Gatsby as an archetypal tragic figure, the epitome of idealism and innocence who strives for order, purpose and meaning in a chaotic world. Fitzgerald introduces the theme of underlying chaos early in the novel when the violent Tom Buchanan declares, “‘Civilization’s going to pieces’” (12; ch. 1).
Although Fitzgerald is sketchy about the details of Gatsby’s meteoric rise, the reader does know that he was a poor boy from the midwest without inherited wealth or family connections who succeeded in obtaining an elaborate house in West Egg from where he stages lavish, catered parties for people he doesn’t know. With wealth comes the opportunity to reinvent his identity, inspired primarily by a “single green light, minute and far away” (21; ch. 1): this is the house of Daisy Fay Buchanan, the very wealthy, former Louisville belle whom Gatsby had loved before the war but who marries the immensely wealthy Tom Buchanan of Chicago.
All that matters for Gatsby is the future: achieving his goal of reclaiming Daisy. That is part of the power of the American Dream—the irrelevance of the past. A fabricated history is just as useful as a truthful history. So Gatsby constructs grandiose lies that he doesn’t even bother to cloak in a shred of reality. For instance, when he decides to convince Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, that he isn’t a “nobody,” Gatsby casually mentions that he’s the “‘son of some wealthy people in the Middle West … but educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years’” (65; ch. 4).
When Nick, who is indeed from the Middle West, inquires “‘What part?’” Gatsby is reduced to the geographically hysterical lie: “‘San Francisco.’” Later in the novel, the reader learns that far from being educated at Oxford as part of a family tradition, Gatsby’s brief stint there was part of a program for American soldiers following World War I. As Nick observes, Gatsby gives new meaning to the phrase “the self-made man”: “The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself” (98; ch. 6).
The idealism evident in Gatsby’s constant aspirations helps define what Fitzgerald saw as the basis for the American Character. Certainly Gatsby is a firm believer in the American Dream of self-made success: he has not only self-promoted an entire new persona for himself, but he has also succeeded both financially and , at least ostensibly, socially. Yet the Dream which offers Gatsby the chance to “suck on the pap of life” (110; ch. 6) forces him to climb to a solitary place, isolated and alienated from the rest of society. In the midst of the drunken revelers at his party, Gatsby is “standing alone on the marble steps and looking from one group to another with approving eyes” (50; ch. 3) At the end of the novel, Gatsby will also be practically alone at his own funeral.
Gatsby’s primary ideological shortcoming is that he makes Daisy Buchanan the sole focus of his belief in the orgastic future. His previously varied aspirations (evidenced by the book Gatsby’s father shows Nick detailing his son’s resolutions to improved himself) are sacrificed to Gatsby’s single-minded obsession with Daisy. Even Gatsby realized when he first kissed Daisy that once he “forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” (110; ch. 6). Finally five years later, Gatsby reunites with Daisy, takes her on a tour of his ostentatious mansion, and pathetically displays his collection of British-made shirts. Significantly, that much longed-for afternoon produces not bliss but disappointment.
As Nick observes:
As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. (95; ch. 5)
As the novel unfolds, Gatsby seems to realize that—as he did with his own persona—he has created an ideal for Daisy to live up to. He remains firmly committed to her, even after her careless driving has caused Myrtle Wilson’s death. Only his own needless death at the hands of the distraught Mr. Wilson (led by Tom Buchanan to believe that Gatsby has killed Myrtle) ends Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy.
What Fitzgerald seems to be criticizing in The Great Gatsby is not the American Dream itself but the corruption of the American Dream. What was once for leaders like Thomas Jefferson a belief in self-reliance and hard work has become what Nick Carraway calls “the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (98; ch. 6). The energy that might have gone into the pursuit of noble goals has been channeled into the pursuit of power and pleasure, and a very showy, but ultimately empty, form of success.
Gatsby’s dream can be identified with America herself with its emphasis on the inherent goodness within people, youth, vitality, and a magnanimous openness to life itself. With the destruction of Gatsby, we witness a possible destiny of America herself. Critic Matthew J. Bruccoli, writing in Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, quotes a letter written by Fitzgerald while composing Gatsby: “That’s the whole burden of this novel—the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.”
Work Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 2004.
The Great Gatsby, the first truly Modernist novel to find success in the United States, set the tone for the movement that defined American literature well into the present day. In Modernism Fitzgerald found a way to define his world that would have been impossible in the nineteenth-century Victorian style that still dominated American writing. In his style, portrayal of American morality and treatment of his characters, Fitzgerald left the Victorian era behind, creating a Modernist masterwork that still serves as a model for American fiction.
The gritty realism of William James and his contemporaries, and even the light-hearted tone of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, was too limited to allow Fitzgerald to portray the Jazz Age, a period in which dark fantasy reigned. Modernism offered a broader palette, a self-consciously surreal landscape in which life is viewed more metaphorically than meticulously detailed. Only through this lens could a central theme of the novel emerge:
Twenty miles from the city a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. (4-5; ch. 1)
The eggs are more a product of Nick’s imagination than a realistic geographical description; by mixing in metaphor, Fitzgerald not only described the setting of his novel, but alludes to the area as a breeding ground for the events to come without revealing what will “hatch.”
The darker side of New York, which Victorian writers would render as dirty and ugly as Dickensian London, becomes softer and more vague in Fitzgerald’s description:
A fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. (23; ch. 2)
The image, although of the underbelly of society, is still oddly beautiful. Fitzgerald creates a fantasy world in which anything is possible, an approach later used by writers ranging from Hemingway and Joseph Conrad to John Barth and Raymond Carver. By removing his narrative from pure reality, Fitzgerald is able to take a more impressionistic approach to New York, effectively making the Eggs and the Valley of Ashes characters in their own right.
In such an unreal setting, the old rules no longer apply; some can be bent, others broken. The nineteenth-century’s insistence on accountability and adherence to moral guidelines in its fiction had begun eroding before Gatsby was written—Fitzgerald completed the process with his portrayal of a world that is less immoral than amoral—less rebelling against moral codes than having no concept of them.
Change was, after all, in the air. Jay Gatsby dies, not as a result of his criminal activities, but from being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Myrtle Wilson dies, not from a jealous wife’s rage over her adultery, but from that wife’s drunken incompetence. Tom and Daisy, responsibly for both deaths, simply leave the Eggs—Nick’s later meeting with Tom suggests they have no remorse. Jordan drifts away, never revealed as a cheater on the pro tour. Only Nick seems to have retained a conscience from their shared Midwestern heritage, but it is tempered by his exposure to Gatsby’s world:
One night I did hear a material car [at Gatsby’s house], and saw its lights stop at his front steps. But I didn’t investigate. Probably it was some final guest who had been away at the ends of the earth and didn’t know that the party was over. (179; ch. 9))
Nick will carry what he has seen at the parties, culminating in the fateful “party” at the Plaza Hotel, with him forever.
Gatsby’s parties themselves set the stage for the amoral activities to follow. Again, the definition is important—nothing immoral seems to go on at the parties in detail. What Fitzgerald gives us is a glamorous sheen of decadence. Note the lack of specific detail in Nick’s account of the aftermath of one party:
Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands.… One of the men was talking with curious intensity to a young actress, and his wife, after attempting to laugh at the situation in a dignified and indifferent way, broke down entirely and resorted to flank attacks—at intervals she appeared suddenly at his side like an angry diamond, and hissed: “You promised!” into his ear. (51, ch. 3)
All we see of the husband is his “curious intensity,” with no description of what physical form that intensity might take; all we see of the wife is her “angry diamond” attack style, another metaphor for wealth, but no obvious description of drunkenness or any other condition that might have escalated her anger. We see nothing of the actress’s response to any of this. Is she flattered? Sexually interested? Plotting a way to take advantage of any money the man might have? Fitzgerald doesn’t tell us. The scene is portrayed as if it is a normal course of events for the sad, insecure, amoral crowd that parties at Jay Gatsby’s house.
Of course, the party guests are merely sketches compared to the full-blown main characters of the novel—or would “caricatures” be a more appropriate term? Using characters as symbols of human behavior is as old as literature itself, but nineteenth-century American writers tended toward more individual character studies and deeper character development. “Minimalizing” a step further than Mark Twain Fitzgerald brings a European allegorical feel to his Gatsby characters, prompting later Modernists from William Faulkner to Philip Roth to do the same.
Fitzgerald’s cross-fertilization of traditionally American and traditionally English elements, specifically in characterization, allows him to distill his characters to their core qualities—Nick the innocent, Gatsby the ambitious, Daisy the beautiful fool, Tom the ruthless capitalist, Jordan the unscrupulous socialite—and to make locations like the Eggs, the Valley of Ashes, even the Eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg into characters in their own right.
Those who criticize Wolfsheim and Gatsby’s father as under-developed characters miss the point; both are merely aspects of Gatsby he leaves behind when he dies. Neither criminal ambition (Wolfsheim) nor pure love (Mr. Gatsby) can die; as a combination of these qualities, all this is lost of Gatsby is the body in which Fitzgerald placed him. This is fitting, considering that Fitzgerald uses his characters to criticize elements of his society that are also deathless.
Open social criticism is another Modernist hallmark Fitzgerald exploits to its fullest in his characters. In the nineteenth century, essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau advocated Civil Disobedience from jail; Fitzgerald’s response is a near-parody of 1920s American urban life. His world is close enough to the real world to be recognizable, yet it is blurred enough to serve his purposes. All of Gatsby’s characters, human and nonhuman, participate in Modernism’s open examination of such American institutions as industry, power and class and their by-products. Gatsby’s open critique, already in use by poets of the time, is the most blatant yet, beginning an almost century-long tradition of social commentary in American literature.
The Great Gatsby set the tone for literature to come in its blending of various post-nineteenth century ideas into what would become known as Modernism and its offshoot, Postmodernism. Fitzgerald, influenced by the social and artistic changes going on all around him, developed a vision that has persisted into fiction of the twenty-first century; his concerns are our concerns, and American life has changed little from Modern to Postmodern. Only the terms have changed. In defining what fiction could become, Gatsby is as important today as in 1926 as an example of what Modernist literature can, and still does, accomplish.
Work Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 2004.
Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby became an immediate classic and propelled its young author to a fame he never again equalled. The novel captured the spirit of the "Jazz Age," a post-World War I era in upper-class America that Fitzgerald himself gave this name to, and the flamboyance of the author and his wife Zelda as they moved about Europe with other American expatriate writers (such as Ernest Hemingway). However, Gatsby expresses more than the exuberance of the times. It depicts the restlessness of what Gertrude Stein (another expatriate modernist writer) called a "lost generation." Recalling T. S. Eliot's landmark poem "The Wasteland" (1922), then, Gatsby also has its own "valley of ashes" or wasteland where men move about obscurely in the dust, and this imagery of decay, death, and corruption pervades the novel and "infects" the story and its hero too. Because the novel is not just about one man, James Gatz or Jay Gatsby, but about aspects of the human condition of an era, and themes that transcend time altogether, it is the stuff of myth. Gatsby's attempts to attain an ideal of himself and then to put this ideal to the service of another ideal, romantic love, are attempts to rise above corruption in all its forms. It is this quality in him that Nick Carraway, the novel's narrator, attempts to portray, and in so doing the novel, like its hero, attains a form of enduring greatness.
The novel is narrated in retrospect; Nick is writing the account two years after the events of the summer he describes, and this introduces a critical distance and perspective which is conveyed through occasional comments about the story he is telling and how it must appear to a reader. The time scheme of the novel is further complicated as "the history of that summer" of 1922 contains within it the story of another summer, five years before this one, when Gatsby and Daisy first courted. This is the story that Jordan tells Nick. As that earlier summer ended with Gatsby's departure for the war in the fall, so the summer of Nick's experience of the East ends with the crisis on the last hot day (the day of mint juleps in the hotel and Myrtle Wilson's death) and is followed by Gatsby's murder by George Wilson on the first day of fall. This seasonal calendar is more than just a parallel, however. It is a metaphor for the blooming and blasting of love and of hope, like the flowers so often mentioned. Similarly, the novel's elaborate use of light and dark imagery (light, darkness, sunshine, and shadow, and the in-between changes of twilight) symbolizes emotional states as well.
In-between time (like the popular song Klipspringer plays on Gatsby's piano: In the meantime / In between time / Ain't we got fun?) is described by Nick as the time of profound human change. While this can describe Daisy's change between her affair with Gatsby and the couples' reunion, it may also characterize the general sense of restlessness and profound changes happening in these first years after World War One. Daisy (the days-eye, or the sun) is dressed in white and is associated with light and sunshine throughout the novel, and she is very much a seasonal creature. It is impossible, then, for Gatsby to catch this light and fix it in one place or one time. Daisy's constant quality is like the light in the novel, she is always changing. Gatsby's own devotion to her has a permanence that Daisy cannot live up to, yet Gatsby seems committed to an idea of Daisy that he has created rather than to the real woman she is. Daisy's changeability is not at fault in Gatsby's failure. Although she is careless in the way that people like Tom are careless in their wealth and treatment of other people, Daisy is naturally not able to renounce time itself in the way Gatsby does in order to meet him again in the past.
Gatsby is gorgeous and creates a sense of wonder in Nick for the daring nature of his impossible but incorruptible dream. It is the attempt itself and the firm belief that he can achieve the impossible that makes Gatsby more than the sum of his (somewhat shabby) reality. As a seventeen-year-old he transformed himself from plain James Gatz, to Jay Gatsby for whom anything is possible. As he rowed out to Dan Cody's sumptuous yacht off the shore of Lake Superior, he was crossing towards opportunity, and a Platonic conception of himself (based on the Greek philosopher Platos' theory of perfect forms, which interprets everything on earth as a better or worse copy of these forms, as well as the conception of a new self-identity). Gatsby conforms to an ideal of himself that transforms reality into possibility. This audacity and disregard for ties binding him to his own past is his apprenticeship for loving Daisy. In defiance of the class difference separating them, he aspires high to this girl in a golden tower, the "king's" daughter, whose voice is full of money. Gatsby does not seem to realize that his idea of Daisy, whom he weds with a kiss one summer night has as little bearing on reality as Jay Gatsby does.
Gatsby is a romantic, but he is also made up of romantic stories by other people who speculate and rumor about his unknown past. Nick takes it upon himself to tell the story and thus to tell Gatsby's story as he pieced it together from different sources, and Nick characterizes himself as someone who understands Gatsby better, who wants to set the record straight, and who sides with Gatsby against the world that made him up and then deserted him. It is Nick alone who arranges Gatsby's funeral and meets with his father, and the bitterness of the lesson about humanity that Nick learns from this experience affects the way he tells the story. Certainly, Nick is also romanticizing Gatsby. He contrasts the wondrous hope which Gatsby embodied against the corruptness of his bootlegging business (Gatsby's fortune in fact came from illegal alcohol sales) and against the more corrupt society which preyed on Gatsby. Against the background of the times and of upper-class society like that represented at his parties, Gatsby's extraordinary gift for hope and his romantic readiness stand out as transcendent.
Nick's own role in the novel shares much of the nature of paradox and ambiguity which characterizes the whole. The novel is as much about Nick as it is about Gatsby and his colossal dream of Daisy. Nick is an involved outsider, privileged or burdened with the role of witness and recorder of events. While he protests often of his unwillingness to participate in other's embroilments and is frequently irritated or exasperated by them, he participates nevertheless. He is implicated in Tom's relationship with Myrtle by virtue of his presence with them (and the uncomfortable period he spends in the living room of the lovers' apartment while they are in the bedroom together implicates him further as a passive accomplice) while he retains his sense of distance through moral superiority. Similarly, Nick performs the service of go-between (or pander) for Gatsby and Daisy; the couple reunite in his house, and he invites Daisy there for this purpose. At Gatsby's party he acts as lookout, keeping a watchful eye for Tom while the couple slip over to sit on Nick's own porch. This ambivalence in his character undermines his statements about himself as being one of the few honest people that he has ever known, and has led to many critics considering him a kind of smug voyeur. However, Nick's own sense of being both enchanted and repelled by his experiences is at the source of the novel's larger depiction of a meretricious society both enchanting and repelling, and it is this quality which enables Nick to find Gatsby both the representative of everything for which he has an unaffected scorn, and at the same time the embodiment of gorgeous hope. In this way, a story often marked by sordid dealings and dismissed by Nick in one breath (writing two years later) as the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men can also be a holocaust or fully developed tragedy.
In considering the novel as tragedy, the role of fate (or fortune in its other sense) figures large. The novel is conspicuous in its lack of a religious belief system, God is absent from the skies over East and West Egg. Part of the restlessness of a postwar generation may describe the quest for a belief that can fill the void created by this loss, or the results of a hedonistic lifestyle that will distract people from it altogether. Nick clings to his declared preference for honesty and being a careful driver in a world of metaphorically careless drivers. Daisy is one who lives for the moment, and for whom glimpses of tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that are terrifying lapses of a willful blindness to such matters (and blindness is one of the novel's themes). Gatsby has his own willful blindness in the form of his enduring ideals and the dreams these ideals have created. In classical mythology, which the novel draws on heavily, the goddess Fortune is also blind in that she favors no one (she is often figured with one eye open and one eye closed, winking like Daisy herself) as she turns her wheel about, thereby deciding the fates of human beings. One question of the novel, then, is who (or what) is at the wheel? The blind eyes that watch over the world of the novel are those of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg on an old billboard in the valley of ashes. After Myrtle's death, her husband George is looking at these when he says God sees everything. Nothing seems able to intervene in Gatsby's own inexorable fate, as Wilson tracks him down to murder him in the mistaken belief that Gatsby was driving the death car that killed Myrtle. This sense of predetermined destiny contributes to the novel as tragedy.
For all characters, the relationship between the past and the future is at issue, as well as personal responsibility for the choices they make in navigating the present between these. Nick appears to believe that being careful will keep him out of harm, but he is more of a careless driver than he realizes, as Jordan comments to him after Gatsby's death and after their affair is over. Gatsby himself recalls another careless driver. In Greek mythology Phaeton tried to harness his chariot to the sun and suffered for his presumption. Similarly, Gatsby tries with his yellow car (and all that it symbolizes) to catch Daisy, and fails just as surely The many echoes of classical mythology recall to the novel a much more distant past (and a mythical kind of narrative) in order to make sense of the New World of America The novel ends by uniting Gatsby's dream born from his past with the American dream from another past, a dream that is as incorruptible and unreal, indicating the way in which the future of this story may be found in the past: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Source: Casie E. Hermanson, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Hermanson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto.
[The Great Gatsby's] fundamental achievement is a triumph of language.
I do not speak merely of the "flowers," the famous passages: Nick's description of Gatsby yearning toward the green light on Daisy's dock, Gatsby's remark that the Buchanans' love is "only personal," the book's last page. Throughout, The Great Gatsby has the precision and splendor of a lyric poem, yet well-wrought prose is merely one of its triumphs. Fitzgerald's distinction in this novel is to have made language celebrate itself. Among other things, The Great Gatsby is about the power of art.
This celebration of literary art is inseparable from the novel's second great achievement—its management of point of view, the creation of Nick. With his persona, Fitzgerald obtained more than objectivity and concentration of effect. Nick describes more than the experience which he witnesses; he describes the act and consequences of telling about it. The persona is—as critics have been seeing—a character, but he is more than that: he is a character engaged in a significant action.
Nick is writing a book. He is recording Gatsby's experience; in the act of recording Gatsby's experience he discovers himself.
Though his prose has all along been creating for us Gatsby's "romantic readiness," almost until the very end Nick insists that he deplores Gatsby's "appalling sentimentality." This is not a reasoned judgment. Nick disapproves because he cannot yet affirm. He is a Jamesian spectator, a fastidious intelligence ill-suited to profound engagement of life. But writing does profoundly engage life. In writing about Gatsby, Nick alters his attitude toward his subject and ultimately toward his own life. As his book nears completion his identification with Gatsby grows. His final affirmation is his sympathetic understanding of Gatsby and the book which gives his sympathy form: both are a celebration of life; each is a gift of language. This refinement on James's use of the persona might be the cause of Eliot's assertion that The Great Gatsby represented the first advance which the American novel had made since James.
In Nick's opening words we find an uncompleted personality. There are contradictions and perplexities which (when we first read the passage) are easily ignored, because of the characteristic suavity of his prose. He begins the chronicle, whose purpose is an act of judgment and whose title is an evaluation, by declaring an inclination "to reserve all judgments." The words are scarcely digested when we find him judging:
The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality [tolerance] when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.
The tone is unmistakable—a combination of moral censure, self-protectiveness, and final saving sympathy that marks Nick as an outsider who is nonetheless drawn to the life he is afraid to enter. So when he tells us a little later in the passage that "Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope," we know that this and not the noblesse oblige he earlier advanced explains his fear of judging. Nick cannot help judging, but he fears a world in which he is constantly beset by objects worthy of rejection. He is "a little afraid of missing something"; that is why he hears the promise in Daisy's voice, half-heartedly entertains the idea of loving Jordan Baker, and becomes involved with the infinite hope of Jay Gatsby—"Gatsby, who represented everything for which [Nick had] an unaffected scorn."
When Nick begins the book he feels the same ambivalence toward Gatsby that characterizes his attitude toward life: a simultaneous enchantment and revulsion which places him "within and without." When he has finished, he has become united with Gatsby, and he judges Gatsby great. Finally he has something to admire; contemplating Gatsby redeems him from the "foul dust [which had] temporarily closed out [his] interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men."
The economy with which Fitzgerald presents those sorrows and short-winded elations is another of the book's major achievements. In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald contrived to develop a story by means of symbols while at the same time investing those symbols with vivid actuality. Everything in the book is symbolic, from Gatsby's ersatz mansion to the wild and aimless parties which he gives there, yet everything seems so "true to life" that some critics continue to see that novel primarily as a recreation of the 20's. The Great Gatsby is about the 20's only in the sense that Moby Dick is about whaling or that The Scarlet Letter is about Puritan Boston. Comparing the liveliness of Fitzgerald's book with Melville's or, better still, with Hawthorne's (which resembles its tight dramatic structure and concentration), you have a good indication of the peculiar distinction in Fitzgerald's work.
Of the novel's symbols, only the setting exists without regard to verisimilitude, purely to project meaning. The Great Gatsby has four locales: East Egg, home of the rich Buchanans and their ultra-traditional Georgian Colonial mansion; West Egg where the once-rich and the parvenus live and where Gatsby apes the splendor of the Old World; the wasteland of the average man; and New York, where Nick labors, ironically, at the "Probity Trust." East and West Egg are "crushed flat at the contact end"; they represent the collision of dream and dreamer which is dramatized when Gatsby tries to establish his "universe of ineffable gaudiness" through the crass materials of the real world. The wasteland is a valley of ashes in which George Wilson dispenses gasoline to the irresponsible drivers from East and West Egg, eventually yielding his wife to their casual lust and cowardly violence.
Fitzgerald's world represents iconographically a sterile, immoral society. Over this world brood the blind eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg: the sign for an oculist's business which was never opened, the symbol of a blindness which can never be corrected. Like other objects in the book to which value might be attached, the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg are a cheat. They are not a sign of God, as Wilson thinks, but only an advertisement—like the false promise of Daisy's moneyed voice, or the green light on her dock, which is invisible in the mist.
These monstrous eyes are the novel's major symbol. The book's chief characters are blind, and they behave blindly. Gatsby does not see Daisy's vicious emptiness, and Daisy, deluded, thinks she will reward her gold-hatted lover until he tries to force from her an affirmation she is too weak to make. Tom is blind to his hypocrisy, with "a short deft movement" he breaks Myrtle's nose for daring to mention the name of the wife she is helping him to deceive. Before her death, Myrtle mistakes Jordan for Daisy. Just as she had always mistaken Tom for salvation from the ash-heap, she blindly rushes for his car in her need to escape her lately informed husband, and is struck down. Moreover, Daisy is driving the car; and the man with her is Gatsby, not Tom. The final act of blindness is specifically associated with Dr. Eckleburg's eyes. Wilson sees them as a sign of righteous judgment and righteously proceeds to work God's judgment on earth. He kills Gatsby, but Gatsby is the wrong man. In the whole novel, only Nick sees. And his vision comes slowly, in the act of writing the book.
The act of writing the book is, as I have said, an act of judgment. Nick wants to know why Gatsby "turned out all right in the end," despite all the phoniness and crime which fill his story, and why Gatsby was the only one who turned out all right. For, in writing about the others, Nick discovers the near ubiquity of folly and despair.
The novel's people are exemplary types of the debasement of life which is Fitzgerald's subject. Daisy, Tom, and Jordan lack the inner resources to enjoy what their wealth can give them. They show the peculiar folly of the American dream. At the pinnacle, life palls. Daisy is almost unreal. When Nick first sees her she seems to be floating in midair. Her famous protestation of grief ("I'm sophisticated God, I'm sophisticated") is accompanied by an "absolute smirk." Her extravagant love for Gatsby is a sham, less real than the unhappy but fleshly bond with Tom which finally turns them into "conspirators." Her beauty is a snare. Like Tom's physical prowess, it neither pleases her nor insures her pleasure in others. Tom forsakes Daisy for Myrtle and both for "stale ideas." Jordan's balancing act is a trick; like her sporting reputation, a precarious lie. They are all rich and beautiful—and unhappy.
Yearning toward them are Myrtle and Gatsby. Like Gatsby, Myrtle desires "the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves … gleaming … above the hot struggles of the poor." Unlike him, her "panting vitality" is wholly physical, merely pathetic; whereas Gatsby's quest is spiritual and tragic. Myrtle is maimed and victimized by Daisy's selfish fear of injury (Daisy could have crashed into another car but, at the last minute, loses heart and runs Myrtle down); Gatsby's death is but the final stage of disillusionment, and he suffers voluntarily.
Gatsby is, of course, one of the major achievements I have been noting. Although we see little of him and scarcely ever hear him speak, his presence is continually with us; and he exists, as characters in fiction seldom do, as a life force. He recalls the everlasting yea of Carlyle, as well as the metaphysical rebellion of Camus. His "heightened sensitivity to the promise of life" is but one half of his energy; the other being a passionate denial of life's limitations. Gatsby's devotion to Daisy is an implicit assault on the human condition. His passion would defy time and decay to make the glorious first moment of wonder, which is past, eternally present. His passion is supra-sexual, even super-personal. In his famous remark to Nick about Daisy's love for Tom, he is making two assertions: that the "things between Daisy and Tom [which Tom insists] he'll never know" are merely mundane and that the Daisy which he loves is not the Daisy which Tom had carried down from the Punch Bowl but the Daisy who "blossomed for him like a flower," incarnating his dream, the moment he kissed her. Gatsby's love for life is finally an indictment of the life he loves. Life does not reward such devotion, nor, for that reason, does it deserve it. Gatsby is great for having paid life the compliment of believing its promise.
When Hamlet dies amidst the carnage of his bloody quest for justice, he takes with him the promise that seeming will coincide with being and the hope that man can strike a blow for truth and save a remnant of the universe. When Ahab dies a victim to his own harpoon, he kills the promise that man may know his life and the hope that knowledge will absolve him. When Gatsby dies, more innocently than they (since, though a "criminal," he lacks utterly their taste for destruction), he kills a promise more poignant and perhaps more precious, certainly more inclusive than theirs: Gatsby kills the promise that desire can ever be gratified.
Source: Charles Thomas Samuels, "The Greatness of 'Gatsby,'" in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. VII, No. 4, Autumn, 1966, pp. 783-94.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is certainly more than an impression of the Jazz Age, more than a novel of manners. Serious critics have by no means settled upon what that "more" might be, but one hypothesis recurs quite regularly. It is the view that Fitzgerald was writing about the superannuation of traditional American belief, the obsolescence of accepted folklore. The Great Gatsby is about many things, but it is inescapably a general critique of the "American dream" and also of the "agrarian myth"—a powerful demonstration of their invalidity for Americans of Fitzgerald's generation and after.
The American dream consisted of the belief (sometimes thought of as a promise) that people of talent in this land of opportunity and plenty could reasonably aspire to material success if they adhered to a fairly well-defined set of behavioral rules—rules set forth in a relatively comprehensive form as long ago as the eighteenth century by Benjamin Franklin. In addition, Americans easily assumed that spiritual satisfaction would automatically accompany material success. The dream was to be realized in an agrarian civilization, a way of life presumed better—far better—than the urban alternative. Thomas Jefferson firmly established the myth of the garden—the concept of agrarian virtue and the urban vice—in American minds. During the turbulent era of westward expansion the myth gained increasing stature.
James Gatz of North Dakota had dreamed a special version of the American dream. Fitzgerald tells us that it constituted "a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing." When Gatz lay dead, his father told Nick Carraway that "Jimmy was bound to get ahead." As a child, Gatz set about preparing to realize his dream. He early decided that he could contemplate future glory so long as he scheduled his life properly and adhered to a set of general resolves—resolves quite obviously derivative from Poor Richard. "No smokeing [sic] or chewing." "Bath every other day." "Be better to parents." Yes, James Gatz was bound to get ahead, bound as securely to his goal as was Captain Ahab to the pursuit of the white whale. The Great Gatsby is the chronicle of what happened when James Gatz attempted to realize the promise of his dream.
Gatz thought himself different—very different—from the common run of mankind. We learn that his parents were "shiftless and unsuccessful"—and that "his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all." He possessed a "Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God." As a son of God—God's boy—he "must be about His Father's business." What was that business? It was "the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty." Gatz plainly imagined himself a Christ—one of the anointed—born of earthly parents but actually a son of God. This is what Fitzgerald sought to convey in establishing that "Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself." That conception moved him to seek out goodness and beauty—certainly a prostituted goodness and beauty, but goodness and beauty nevertheless.
When his moment came—at seventeen—James Gatz changed his name. The question of the name change has not received the attention it deserves. Some believe that Fitzgerald derived "Gatsby" from the slang term for pistol current during the Jazz Age—gat. Others see in the act of changing names an intimation of "Jewishness" in the hero, a view supported by the frequency of the name "Jay" among the Jews. Jay Gould comes immediately to mind as do Jay Cooke and J. P. Morgan. Also, it is known that the inspiration for the novel came from Fitzgerald's chance encounter with a Jewish bootlegger.
It is, of course, conceivable that Fitzgerald had some or even all of these things in mind, and it is also possible that he had still another thought. Could it be, however unlikely, that he was rendering the literal "Jesus, God's boy" in the name of Jay Gatsby? (In ordinary pronunciation, the 't' easily changes to "d" as in "Gad.") This conjecture might appear hopelessly far-fetched, were it not for Fitzgerald's discussion of Gatz's "Platonic conception of himself," and his direct use of the phrase "son of God." In any case, Gatsby began his pursuit of goodness and beauty when he changed his name, and that pursuit ultimately ended in tragedy.
Fitzgerald develops the tragedy of Jay Gatsby as the consequence of his quixotic quest for Daisy Buchanan. Daisy represents that "vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty" to which Gatsby aspired When Jay met Daisy, he realized that he had "forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath." He knew that "his mind would never romp again like the mind of God." When he kissed her, "she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete." What was the incarnation? In Daisy, Gatsby's meretricious dream was made flesh. He sought ever after to realize his dream in union with her.
The trouble with Gatsby's quest was that Daisy was completely incapable of playing the role assigned to her. She was as shallow as the other hollow people who inhabited Fitzgerald's Long Island. She could never become a legitimate actualization of Gatsby's illegitimate dream. Gatsby was himself culpable. He was not truly God's boy perhaps, but he possessed a certain grandeur, an incredible ability to live in terms of his misguided dream. Nick Carraway understood this, telling Gatsby at one point that he was "worth the whole damned crowd put together."
Both Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, Daisy's husband, possessed wealth. Gatsby at least used his wealth to seek out beauty and claim it for himself. Buchanan the lecher lacked any larger goals. In the end, Daisy chooses to remain with Buchanan, and Gatsby is murdered by the deranged husband of Myrtle Wilson, Buchanan's mistress, who had been accidentally run down and killed by Daisy. Buchanan serves as Gatsby's executioner; he allows George Wilson to believe that Gatsby had killed Myrtle.
Gatsby was as alone in death as he had been in life. Of all the hordes who had accepted his largesse when alive, only one—an unnamed "owl-eyed man" who had admired Gatsby's books—appeared at the funeral. He delivered a pathetic epitaph: "The poor son-of-a-bitch."
The tragedy is over; Fitzgerald speculates on its meaning through the narrator, Nick Carraway. Carraway notes that Jay and the others—Nick himself, his sometime girl friend Jordan Baker, Daisy, and Tom—all were from the Middle West. It was not the Middle West of popular imagination, of the lost agrarian past, but rather the cities of the middle border. "That's my Middle West," muses Carraway, "not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow." Carraway continues: Gatsby and his friends "were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life." The East held many attractions, but the expatriate Westerner lived there at his peril. So Carraway went home. He could at least survive, though he might not prosper, in prairie cities.
Why had Gatsby failed? It was because the time for dreaming as Gatsby dreamed had passed. In what must be, in its implications, one of the most moving passages in American literature, Fitzgerald completes his commentary on Jay Gatsby: "His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity behind the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night."
The future to which Gatsby aspired is indeed in the past. His dream—the American dream—had been nurtured in the agrarian past that was no more. Fitzgerald's symbolism is never more ingenious than in his depiction of the bankruptcy of the old agrarian myth. This task he accomplishes through the most haunting and mysterious of the symbols which appear in the book—the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. Here is one of the cruelest caricatures in the American novel. For Dr. T. J. Eckleburg is none other than a devitalized Thomas Jefferson, the pre-eminent purveyor of the agrarian myth.
What is it that Dr. Eckleburg's eyes survey? It is the valley of democracy turned to ashes—the garden defiled: "This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight … [Dr. Eckleburg's] eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground." Fitzgerald thus presents a remarkably evocative description of the corruption that had befallen Jefferson's garden.
At the very end of the novel, Fitzgerald betrays his affection for the myth of the garden, despite his awareness that it could no longer serve Americans. His narrator Carraway once again serves as the vehicle for his thoughts: "And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor's eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."
Alas, poor Jay Gatsby! "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.… And one fine morning—" Alas, all of us! The novel ends on a desperately somber note: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
American writers in the Twenties were an entirely new breed—divorced from the literary tradition which had matured between the Civil War and World War I. That tradition culminated in the literary Establishment presided over by William Dean Howells in the last years before the outbreak of the Great War. Henry F. May has summarized the basic tenets of Howells and his minions in The End of American Innocence: Howells "had always insisted that real truth and moral goodness were identical, and he had always held that politics and literature were both amenable to moral judgment. He had always believed that American civilization was treading a sure path, whatever the momentary failures, toward moral and material improvement."
What had outmoded Howells? It was the realization, anticipated before the Great War but complete only in the Twenties, that America had been transformed—transformed by the onset of an overwhelming process of industrialization and urbanization which had superannuated traditional American beliefs—beliefs nurtured in the bosom of the agrarian past.
In these circumstances, a revolution in manners and morals was inevitable. World War I augmented rather than inaugurated the trend. Postwar writers undertook a comprehensive critique of traditional faith. Some abhorred the change; others welcomed it. In any case, almost all of the great writers of the Twenties accepted the fact of the intellectual and emotional revolution deriving from the obsolescence of prewar standards. They launched a comprehensive critique of traditional faiths, and for their efforts they received much public notice and approbation.
What accounts for the success of these literary revolutionists? The answer resides in the fact that America was generally "new" in the Twenties. George Mowry and other recent historians have effectively documented the distinctive "modernity" of America in the wake of World War I—a modernity discernible in the mass culture as well as among the elite. The transitional years had passed; the change from the rural-agricultural past to the urban-industrial future was relatively complete, and readers as well as writers responded to this reality. To be sure, the defenders of the old America ensconced behind crumbling barricades in the Old South and the farther Middle West fought extensive rearguard actions—fundamentalist assaults on evolution, prohibitionist bans on spintous liquors, and racist campaigns for the preservation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America—but these were last desperate attempts to postpone the inevitable. The most important fact about reaction in the Twenties was that it failed. In each instance "modernity" ultimately triumphed over tradition.
Significant writers in the Twenties were above all dedicated to the imposing task of pointing out the error of living in terms of obsolete values— however useful those values might have been in the past. This effort is perhaps most obvious in the novels of Ernest Hemingway. In The Sun Also Rises Hemingway wastes little time investigating the reasons why Jake Barnes, Lady Brett, Robert Conn, and other characters in the novel must live differently than before. Hemingway's emphasis is on method—on how to live in the revolutionized context. Scott Fitzgerald dealt with the other side of the coin—the bankruptcy of the old way. Jay Gatsby's dream was patently absurd—however noble, however "American." Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were unsound guides to life in the modernity of the vast eastern Urbana, the East of West Egg, Long Island—and also for life in the new Midwest to which the chastened Carraway returned. The final irony of the novel is that Fitzgerald could discern no beauty in the city to compare with the beauty, however meretricious, inherent in Gatsby's Platonic conception of himself.
Source: David F. Trask, "A Note on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby," in University Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, March, 1967, pp. 197-202