It is part of the romantic myth of the artist to say that someone was “born to be a writer,” but in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the myth has been substantiated. From the days of his youth, Fitzgerald seems to have had a natural instinct for expressing his most important thoughts and emotions in written form. As an adult, no aspect of his life seemed real until he had written about it. In addition to his fiction and poetry, Fitzgerald wrote steadily to his mother, his wife, and his daughter whenever they were separated and kept a detailed, systematic ledger of his work and its monetary rewards. He would probably have preferred to achieve distinction as an athlete during his school days, but as soon as he discovered that he did not have the physical gifts to be a successful athlete he began to seek celebrity through his writing. When he realized that he had the ability to attract people’s attention and then their admiration through his work, he recast his ambitions for greatness, envisioning himself a great artist rather than a great soldier or sportsman. When he saw the possibility of earning a living with his pen, his destiny was settled.
In accordance with Fitzgerald’s epic ambitions to write a novel that expressed the vital spirit of his country, The Great Gatsby attempts to explain and evoke the essence of the fundamental myth at the heart of the American experience. Even in the high times of the wild 1920s, Fitzgerald perceptively sensed that the original energy of the American dream was irrevocably vanishing, and he wanted to record its power before it faded into memory and fable.
Set in the summer of 1922, most of the story takes place in the fictitious New York towns of East and West Egg, Long Island, and in New York City. Nick Carraway, who has rented a cottage in West Egg next door to the rented estate where the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby lives, renews his acquaintance with his cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom, who live in East Egg. When Gatsby wishes to meet the charming Daisy, whose voice rings like the sound of money, he selects Nick as his confidant. The glitter and intrigue of the 1920s permeate the story, and the details of the setting are important to the development of the theme.
Jay Gatsby, the title character of The Great Gatsby, was born Jimmy Gatz, a poor boy from an undistinguished family. Dazzled by Daisy Fay at a party when he was a young soldier on his way overseas, he is determined to win her love by accumulating enormous wealth and by developing a personal style of such glowing force that she will be unable to resist his courtship. Gatsby’s efforts in a way dramatize the myth, popularized in Horatio Alger’s stories of the late nineteenth century, of self-improvement through hard work and fortunate circumstances. But Gatsby overcomes the limits of his origins only to eventually succumb to greater limits. A natural leader of men, he is extremely poised, physically gifted, understated about his accomplishments but riveting in terms of his presence. At the age of thirty-two, having accumulated his wealth through shady enterprises connected with major-league criminality, he is a bizarre combination of an elegant, gallant man and a love-struck youth. At the heart of his character is the conviction that his love can rescue Daisy from a bad marriage and redeem his own life, which has been sliding further into corruption. His willingness to commit himself totally to his vision of a bright future makes his death tragic.
Fitzgerald has been justly praised for the narrative structure of The Great Gatsby. As critic Matthew Bruccoli points out, his “narrative control solved the problem of making the mysterious-almost preposterous-Jay Gatsby convincing by letting the truth about him emerge gradually during the course of the novel.” Fitzgerald greatly admired novelist Joseph Conrad’s employment of a partially involved narrator, and everything that occurs in the novel is presented through Nick’s perceptions, thus combining, as Bruccoli puts it, “the effect of a first-person immediacy with authorial perspective.”
The theme of The Great Gatsby is decadence and the decline of society. Although the story is told with grace and beauty, its events are intended to be shocking. True to the spirit of the times, the story involves marital infidelity, murder, and wealth earned through racketeering. Many of the characters thrive on emotional dishonesty, and live for appearance rather than substance of character. But the novel is also a moral tale in which the characters get their “just deserts.” Ultimately Nick understands the meaning of their lives and the sadness of their worlds.
1. What is the American dream? Does it mean the same thing for different characters in the book? Has Jay Gatsby attained what he believes the dream promises?
1. Research and report on the social history of “the jazz age,” the period in America between 1919 and 1929.
There have been three films made from The Great Gatsby. The silent version of 1926, starring Warner Baxter as Gatsby and Lois Wilson as Daisy, has been lost, but critics generally agree that the direction by Herbert Brenon was competent but uninspired. In addition, the film’s subtitles were often wordy and inappropriate.