Fitzgerald's understanding of American history and of the dynamic undercurrents in American life at the turn of the twentieth century made him acutely aware of what society had become by the 1920s. A Midwesterner by birth and a romantic at heart, he was disillusioned by the frenetic, heedless pursuit of wealth and pleasure that characterized the Roaring Twenties, condemning it even as he took part in it. Much has been written about Fitzgerald's "divided" nature, about his ability to stand aside psychologically and condemn his own actions. He often violated his principles of personal integrity and responsible behavior, but he believed in them. Despite his weaknesses, Fitzgerald was a moralist, and it is this aspect of his character that most informs The Great Gatsby.
Peel back the layers of Fitzgerald's beautiful, evocative prose with his vivid descriptions of all that gleams and glitters, and the novel is dark. It is as unrelenting in its social criticism as any piece of American fiction written in the twentieth century. Beneath the glamour and Gatsby's romantic dreams of Daisy lie corruption and violence. They permeate every aspect of American society depicted in the novel, and they are manifested throughout the novel in ways both obvious and subtle. Even baseball, the quintessential American sport and the national pastime, has been corrupted.
Nothing in the lives of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, and Jordan is solid and true, except their headlong pursuit of everything they want, consequences be damned. Their deceit, lies, evasions, and acts of irresponsibility and unfaithfulness fill the narrative; they all cheat, in one way or another, or in multiple ways. Jordan even cheats at golf. Gatsby is a fake, living without the integrity of his own name in a mansion that is an imitation of an imitation, purchased with stolen money. American life in the 1920s, Fitzgerald suggests, is characterized by self-indulgence and amorality, hardly the qualities that built the country from its inception.
The Great Gatsby can be read as a romance or as a portrait of the Jazz Age, and it is excellent in both respects. However, the artistic vision that makes it an enduring work is expressed most powerfully in Fitzgerald's coda at the conclusion when he finally takes readers where he has intended to lead them from the beginning—to a meditation on the American Dream. As Nick watches the moon rise over a dark and silent Long Island Sound, the novel's primary theme becomes evident in a haunting, lyrical passage:
...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, 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 ... face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
The tone of the passage is elegiac, mourning the loss of what once was and what might have been when America was "fresh" and "green" and "new." The American Dream, "the last and greatest of all human dreams," has been corrupted by greed, selfishness, and spiritual decay. Fitzgerald's vision of an America that once inspired wonder and enchantment, juxtaposed with the lives and the landscape in The Great Gatsby, illustrates the depth of his condemnation of American society in the 1920s.