The following is a generalist essay on The Great Gatsby that may help students studying the iconic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Please Note that all page numbers mentioned are from the Penguin Books Edition 2000
The Great Gatsby is a story of Jay Gatsby’s quest for Daisy Buchanan and also examines the vision of the 1920’s American Dream. The Great Gatsby details society’s failure to fulfill its potential and part of the mess left in the Buchanan’s wake at the end of the novel includes the literal and figurative death of Jay Gatsby. His murder at the hands of a despondent George Wilson evokes sympathy. The true tragedy, however, lies in the destruction of an ultimate American idealist, the self-made man of the American Dream.
Gatsby is in many ways an enigma. Fitzgerald suggests that what is essentially a spiritual ideal, a belief in the power of individuals to shape their own destiny becomes entangled with and corrupted by a materialistic pursuit, the amassing of great wealth. In time one becomes mistaken for the other. Gatsby’s tragedy is a kind of fable of American culture and Gatsby’s final bewilderment is echoed by Americans who ask “what went wrong?”
The novel is basically about the failure of a dream that of Jay Gatsby of West Egg, self-made man. The dream fails as it breeds upon an illusion described by Nick Carraway to Gatsby as “You can’t repeat the past” (p.106 Penguin Books Edition 2000). Gatsby is not condemned for his dream nor does Fitzgerald want to rejoice at the victory of reality over illusion for this alone is incorruptible amidst the novel’s corruption. When Nick finally tells Gatsby “You’re worth the whole bunch put together” (p.146) Fitzgerald elevates Gatsby above the Buchanans and the Jordan Bakers of the world.
The novel does reflect the universal tragedy of man. It is a product of the Jazz era of America in the 1920’s. The most common myth of the self-made man with its assumptions that material success is the ultimate human goal and that anyone can achieve it. Gatsby is dedicated to the myth in a society where opportunities and “gonnegtions” are just a likely illicit. The myth of success through virtue can never be more than myth for any attempt to realise it corrupts it.
In portraying Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, Fitzgerald points to other manifestations of corruption of American society. To Nick, Daisy, Tom and Jordan are a “rotten crowd” despite their superficial glamour are characterized by their irresponsibility and dishonesty. They are like American aristocracy with their wealth but their emptiness is an indictment of the values of society. Nick believes Gatsby turned out all right at the end but people like Tom and Daisy are described as the “foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams” (p.8). Fitzgerald suggests that what is essentially a spiritual ideal, a belief in the power of individuals to shape their own destiny becomes entangled with and corrupted by a materialistic pursuit, the amassing of great wealth. Nick’s growing awareness of the corruption that underpins the glamour of the East and his yearning to return to the more innocent values of his past is a key issue.
Technically the success of the novel depends on Fitzgerald’s use of the fictional first person, the narrator Nick Carraway. It is through his eyes that we see the rottenness of the Buchanan’s world and the basic rightness of Gatsby’s outward vulgarity. Nick says of Gatsby’s existence “My incredulity was submerged in fascination now, it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines””(p.65). Nick is seduced by Gatsby’s fabricated identity and yet he chooses to focus on Gatsby as a hapless dreamer rather than a seamy criminal. In re-telling Gatsby’s tale and alerting us to the reasons for his down fall he opens himself up to evaluation and scrutiny, both of which are crucial to the understanding of the great subtleties of the novel.
The importance of seeing points of view and the eyes in the novel is that the reality we as readers see is the reality Nick sees everything clearly. The eyes of Dr TJ Eckleburg at once blind and all seeing are an important symbol. When Myrtle is dead, George ironically confuses the advertising board as God when he says “You may fool me, but you can’t fool God” (p.152). Michaelis saw with a shock George was looking at the eyes of Doctor TJ Eckleburg. Wilson bears the brunt of society’s guilt, he is the scapegoat. He encompasses the sterile sense of emptiness in the novel. America in the 20’s was robbed of spiritual God and replaced it by consumerism. Wilson then is the spokesperson of the spiritual emptiness in the novel.
Certain important points need to be taken on face value. Gatsby says Daisy was driving the car that killed Myrtle but as Nick and the reader, we have to accept this story. So the question of individual perception of reality becomes of crucial importance. We as Nick are left with doubt regarding Jordan Baker’s alleged cheating at golf.
This idea of the gap between appearance and reality, the vision and the dream, haunts the book all the way from Meyer Wolfsheim who fixed the 1919 World Series, to Gatsby, whose 5 year dream of Daisy falls tragically short of the vision of Tom’s wife. Daisy is a passive character who we see rather as the person that Gatsby idealizes rather than a thinking women. Her cynical comment about her daughter’s birth “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 …”(p.22), shows how oppressive being a women in that society was. She appears as a fragile veneer. Her time and life is an endless, passive repetition of parties and other sterile social engagements.
The readers eyes through Nick are crucial. There are two interpretations of the book. It is a parable of the corruption of the East and the manner in which the young man of the West, seeking a new life, lives through and learns the corruptions of the East. Secondly, that while the book is a parable of corruption of the world in which Nick lives is indicative of the failure of the American Dream.
The complexity of Fitzgerald’s attitudes are different for the arenas and people who inhabit them. All engaged in their own “pursuit of happiness”. The moral judgements are not simple. One does not blame Myrtle for wanting to escape the pathetic pretence of a sophisticated gentility. Myrtle lives in the Valley of the Ashes above a “shadow of a garage (that) must be blind” (p.27). The valley of the ashes is a desolate wasteland representing the stark underbelly of society who has replaced faith with consumerism.
George and Myrtle represent the social underside or grim reality of those who cannot succeed. Both are manipulated and exploited by the upper classes for their own selfish needs. Tom uses Myrtle as a disposable sexual unit and takes advantage of George by telling him about Gatsby’s car that killed Myrtle, so removing Gatsby as a rival for Daisy’s hand.
Dr Eckleburg broods over the solemn dumping ground of the Valley of the Ashes but sees nothing. These people represent the morally blind and fabricate reality, mis-read each other and themselves and lie and betray. The characters face a major problem focusing their vision and constructing their personal images of what life means for them within the frame of the morally and confusingly disturbed land of the blind. Gatsby’s lack of insight and susceptibility to illusion was doomed to fail.
Wealth can’t buy love but it can buy elegance, style and beauty represented by Daisy. Nick is convinced Gatsby turned out alright in the end. The Buchanan’s as represented by Nick’s final summation is very apt. He pictures them as “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (p.170). The picture of two emotionally and spiritually sterile adolescents out of control and dangerous, devoid of compassion, ridden with moral amnesia and oblivious to the havoc they have generated. They are safely cocooned by spiritual atrophy and fanned by wealth. They live without guilt, emotion of conscience.
Nick sees Gatsby not as a failure “his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it” (p.171). Dreams may be lost in the vast obscurity. While Gatsby does let his dreams, self-created, fictitious and illusions get in the way of reality, he also provides us with some hope. There is nothing wrong with the desire to dream.
May be Fitzgerald intended for us never to really know Gatsby. What is reality and illusion? Gatsby embodies a rags to riches story but also contributes to the ethical decay within American society during the Jazz Age.
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