The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
It might be something of a cliché to point out that The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is acknowledged nowadays as a classic work of modern literature, but it is nonetheless true. Fitzgerald’s best-known oeuvre is a totemic relic from the Jazz Age circling its titular character Jay Gatsby, a man surrounded by a billowing cloud of intrigue, which quickly attracts the attention of the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway.
Told in past tense, Fitzgerald writes with trademark Roaring Twenties panache detailing Nick’s attempts to figure out the mysterious nature of Gatsby himself. In this respect, Nick’s deep introspection and navel-gazing about Gatsby’s private backstory – the very opposite of the public and notably lavish social gatherings he attends – proves to be very important to the novel. Unlocking Gatsby’s past is crucial in allowing the reader to understand exactly what it is about him that proves so alluring.
The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920s in Long Island, New York; in particular, in West Egg, a region inhabited by the “new rich” (industrialists, businessmen, etc.), mainly those who have fewer social or aristocratic privileges. The region of East Egg, however, is inhabited by the well-heeled socialites and the bourgeoisie. At the opening of the novel, Nick has just moved into West Egg, despite the fact he graduated from Yale University and has friends living in East Egg.
Jay Gatsby, Nick’s next-door neighbour, is also acquainted with the residents of East Egg, and we later discover that he is in love with one of them – a married woman called Daisy Buchanan. Despite the story unfolding as though it is a third-hand tale of forbidden love, many symbolic themes rise up like hackles to allow the reader to scratch the surface of Gatsby’s identity. Most tellingly, Nick discovers Gatsby has reinvented his past to create a new social position for himself, just in order to get closer to Daisy.
The full truth, as we later discover, is that Gatsby is lying about many aspects of himself, with most of his wealth accrued by criminal activity. What motivates Gatsby could be seen as his own selfish desires: his love for Daisy; his pursuit of happiness; and his American dream (which Fitzgerald suggests is not a dream but a form of self-delusion). In actuality, Gatsby still cannot be with Daisy because he is not from the same social hierarchy as her – and with class such a barrier to overcome, Nick recognises Gatsby and Daisy will never be together, no matter how hard he tries.
It could be said F. Scott Fitzgerald uses this romantic subtext to make a wider social stab at American values. The Great Gatsby suggests the American dream, not just for Gatsby, but for everyone, is a myth because the pursuit for happiness has degenerated into the mere pursuit of money, status, wealth and material gain. Gatsby, despite being rich, still cannot win the heart of the woman he loves, so his ultimate ‘dream’ remains unfulfilled, his goal unobtainable.
This lack of fulfilment underscores Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a social commentary on 1920s high society – an age of unparalleled decadence, greed and corruption – where the wealthy harbour nothing but yearning for literally anything which they have not already attained. Fitzgerald suggests this brazen pursuit of wealth and financial plenty leads to a distorted sense of self (in Gatsby’s case, lying and criminality) causing our deepest desires to elude us as a result.
As a novel, The Great Gatsby remains very much of its time, a glitzy yet world-weary literary product of the consumer society boom which followed the First World War, though the quality of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing remains peerless and its message undimmed. With this in mind, it remains pertinent and is essential reading for anyone sceptical of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, or cynical about the delusions of flagrantly optimistic bluebloods. There’s something quite satisfying about bursting bubbles, after all, and The Great Gatsby is the biggest bubble of all.
© 2017 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.