Encompassing themes of lost hope, the corruption of innocence by money, and the impossibility of recapturing the past, The Great Gatsby incorporates so many of the concerns not only of Fitzgerald as an author but of America as a nation. Tremendously glamourous though the roaring twenties were, they represented the end of a golden age in the history of America. Like Melville, Whitman, and Thoreau before him, Fitzgerald wanted to capture, in fiction, something of the America that surrounded him, this place that had become overrun by corruption of spirit and pure materialism. Unlike those authors who constructed the literary conception of America, Fitzgerald was able to look back to a history of his nation and trace the roots of the post-war excess that represented a severe perversion of the much eulogised American Dream. In Gatsby, he found an ideal character to represent America and its shifting values.
In a cast of characters that are all quintessentially American, Jay Gatsby shines more brightly than any of those around him as the embodiment of the American Dream in a number of ways. A self-made man who dragged himself to the very top of the New Money world, he is emblematic of both the ambition and the disillusionment of 1920s America – an ironic version of an Horatio Alger-type – character. In his blind hope of recapturing the past by rekindling his love affair with Daisy, however, Gatsby elevates himself above the self-absorbed masses around him and upholds a warped version of the American Dream through a kind of naïve idealism, which sees the re-possession of Daisy as the ultimate goal that will signal the success of his quest. He carries nineteenth century romanticism with him into a twentieth century much changed by art and science and ends up caught between two impulses, modernity and sentimentalism – it is a common theme throughout the book where new competes against old, idea against idea.
Like Gatsby, the desire of America as a nation to look back and recapture an idealised past is both terribly dangerous and a sign of the wild, hopeful human spirit that can blot out past bitterness and look always on towards a goal, not constrained by good sense. It is in such romantic optimism that the exceptional moments of life are crafted. Nick captures this perpetual but flawed optimism in one of the many marine metaphors in the novel when he writes: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." In this sentence, the tragedy of Gatsby and of all humanity is captured quite perfectly. For, it is all too easy to allow the sparkling moments of the past to become what we yearn for in our future, trapped in a cycle of trying to recapture a memory that is likely illusory; an idealised past. Gatsby’s sentimentalism will not allow him to see Daisy for what she is, and so he is pulled into the shallowness of her existence in the hope of winning her heart. Fitzgerald captures beautifully the tragedy in chasing an unworthy dream, attempting to transport feelings from one time to another.
Amid all the glamour, money is, inevitably, important in the novel. Gatsby equates money to success, but its application is more nuanced than this. Daisy, born into money, understands this better than Gatsby. This difference in their appreciation of the money world is symptomatic of the constant dialectic between new and old money, the morals of East and West. That Gatsby’s house in West Egg is separated from the Buchanan’s by an expanse of water is symbolic of this divide – a divide that no amount of assumed affectation on Gatsby’s part, as he apes the stereotype of the moneyed gentleman, can bridge. For Gatsby remains a simple boy from the Midwest whose laughable old boy routine barely hides his racketeering past. However, the simple, perhaps sentimental, moral heart that both Nick and Gatsby share sets them apart from the moneyed class represented by Tom and Daisy. These wealthy, thoughtless characters flit about, playing with people’s emotions and able to retreat back into their wealth and status unmarked by their experiences. As Nick observes, "they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and vast carelessness."
Beneath all the money and glamour, Gatsby is really just a simple boy from the Midwest – like Nick Carraway – and it is his desire to reclaim Daisy that shapes his identity. Indeed, most of the characters are seeking an identity for themselves, and this leaves the reader with numerous questions in a novel that blurs the line between reality and illusion in so many ways: Is Gatsby an old sentimentalist or an unscrupulous profiteer, is Daisy toying with his feelings or does she retain some of the connection past, and can Nick be trusted to relay any of the story with impartiality or is his so enamoured with Gatsby that he is his blind advocate? For Fitzgerald it is almost immaterial – characters, like nations, are the history they create for themselves. Gatsby is a man without history, a freeform personage who rewrites his personal story for every new person he meets. This self-invention creates a lovely double-meaning to his being a self-made man, and is also a subtle nod to the creation of novels where a world is created afresh for each new reader.
Whether one reads Nick as a reliable narrator or not, the novel is brilliantly structured by Fitzgerald as a frame tale similar in form to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, here Nick narrating Gatsby’s story. Sitting both outside the story and within it, Nick balances Gatsby’s extravagance and offers the reader a route into the life of overwhelming opulence that so many of the characters enjoy. More importantly, through his steady and compassionate observation, Nick sees the humanity beneath the decadence, the romanticism that lies at the heart of Gatsby’s wish to reclaim an old love. Without Nick, Gatsby is but a delusional, backward-looking crank. In this way, Nick maintains the hopefulness at the centre of the novel, the unfailing optimism of the American Dream that allows anyone to believe that, with hope, anything is possible. “Reserving judgements,” Nick says, “is a matter of infinite hope.” In these words, the crux of The Great Gatsby’s romanticism lies.
On a structural level the novel is controlled wonderfully, but on the sentence level, too, the prose is remarkably beautiful in places, and there is exquisite symbolism – big and small – that sticks in the mind. Probably the most atmospheric symbol in the novel is the green light that shines out across the water that divides East and West Egg, and Gatsby from Daisy. It is a symbol of the guiding light that drives Gatsby in his pursuit of Daisy – dim and distant it shines out, promising a more complete future. But the green of the light is tied to wealth and envy too. The image of Gatsby looking out across the water, towards Daisy’s home, bathed in green light, captures the melancholic beauty at the heart of the novel.
Possibly the most famous symbol of the novel are the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. Plastered across a billboard, an advertisement bearing the eyes of Eckleburg – a wealthy oculist – looks out across the ash heaps where so many of the city’s poor live or work. A nod to T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, this barren landscape is symbolic of the desolate state of the American Dream and Eckleburg’s eyes survey this new wasteland, emphasising the blindness of so many of the characters but also suggesting that God has been replaced by man, and more specifically mass marketing.
The new consumer society provides fertile ground for metaphor too and the camera is used as a means of mediating human experience, suggesting that reality and memory is skewed and often idealised, and that people are transformed from flesh and blood to subject. The strongest technological motif though is the automobile. A recurring theme of The Great Gatsby, automobiles are a signal of mobility and wealth, and of the manufacturing heritage that helped forge America’s economic might. Yet automobiles symbolise just another trapping of wealth in the novel, there is no depth of appreciation for them as machines, merely as symbols of affluence and a literary tool that helps expose the various drivers’ true nature (so often careless and unthinking).
For all that it is smart, The Great Gatsby is still a very approachable novel – one of the keys to its on-going popularity no doubt. Interestingly, the novel didn’t gain a wide readership until after Fitzgerald’s death but since then it has become firmly established as an American classic. It is some of Fitzgerald’s finest work and captures a time and a theme that is crucial to the cultural history of America and yet it does not labour under the effort. Like one of Gatsby’s parties, it sparkles with an effervescent charm that conceals so much that lies beneath the surface.
Reviews of The Great Gatsby on Amazon (UK)
Film adaptation of The Great Gatsby on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Great Gatsby on Amazon (US)
Film adaptation of The Great Gatsby on Amazon (US)