The Great Gatsby Essays and Criticism
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby book cover
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Three Themes in The Great Gatsby

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 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.

(The entire section is 25,309 words.)