Short Stories of F Scott Fitzgerald
The Prediction of Fitzgerald and the Great Depression
Famed American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald could not have anticipated what was on the horizon when he penned The Great Gatsby in 1925. Fitzgerald was no prophet, but he seemed to have an innate sensibility that allowed him to step outside of culture of the American Jazz Age and assess its foibles and failures with a critical lens. Fitzgerald’s novel details the wastefulness and frivolity of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who in many ways function as the consummate symbols of their time. He writes: “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” (187-8). Historians agree the cultural attitudes and habits of 1920s society exacerbated deeper domestic problems that contemporaneously formed and flourished in the years leading up to 1929. In his book The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941, Robert S. McElvaine describes the myriad of socioeconomic, political, and market forces that culminated in what would become the most jarring domestic crisis in modern American history. Further, he argues that the “maldistribution” of wealth was the “taproot” of the Great Depression. For McElvaine, the cavernous gap between rich and poor was the single most important factor (50).
Prior to explaining the specific economic factors that contributed to the Depression, it is important to first examine the cultural attitudes and habits of the twenties that created an environment which enabled market forces to spin out of control after the Crash of 1929. For one, the very definition of what it meant to be “American” shifted dramatically during the post-World War I years. Americans moved away from the Protestant work ethic, which valued thrift and self-sacrifice, to a set of new capitalistic virtues rooted in greed, rugged individualism, and at times, hedonism. The origins of American democracy seemed to be built on a foundation of self-reliance and rationalism, yet the twenties were marked by a “a “high degree of self-centeredness and emphasis on financial gain” (McElvaine 42). The goal for many Americans was to get rich quick, as evidenced by an article in Ladies Home Journal, entitled “Everyone Ought to be Rich.” McElvaine explains that Americans seeking wealth saw it as their predestined right, a new form of Manifest Destiny.
The new mindset of Americans within this acquisitive ethic translated into a marked shift in lifestyle. Americans of the twenties seemed to be wrought with carelessness and wastefulness, a testament to their unabashed “live for today” attitudes (McElvaine 41). It was not too much of a challenge to sell the concept of credit to Americans affixed in the present; however, McElvaine argues that there was some coaxing involved: “Convincing Americans to buy now and pay later required a reversal of many traditional American values” (40). Advertisers lured people to consume rather than save and helped shepherd the rise of credit. New products and services left no dearth of opportunities for Americans to buy now—and worry about the consequences later. The rampant materialism that arose during the twenties represented America’s shift to a consumer society. On the surface, it truly was a “New Era” of prosperity and optimism (Hovde & Meyer). Americans seemed possessed by the allure of the stock market, which to them functioned more like a game than an actual economic entity. The nation’s new rich—Meehan, Livermore, and Mitchell—had all accrued wealth from the stock market, and thus served as points of aspiration for everyday Americans. According to the PBS documentary The Crash of 1929, publicity campaigns made the stock market look “exciting.” For example, the National Bank began to mass-market stocks at middle Americans during this era. Stock values rose for nine straight years (Hovde & Meyer).
Still, despite widespread enthusiasm for the stock market, only 4 of 120 million Americans owned stock in 1929; only 1.5 million of those people had enough stock to require the assistance of a broker (McElvaine 43). In general, stock holders were wealthy enough to speculate—and many did. One of the fundamental problems at this time was the unbridled speculation dominating the market. Buying on the margin, a “financial fantasy in which one could get rich quickly,” created an unstable economic situation (McElvaine 42). And when the Federal Reserve Board lowered the rediscount rate to 3.5 percent in 1927, the scenario worsened. Writes McElvaine: “It seemed too good to be true. It was” (44). Hoover would occasional admonish Americans, articulating the dangers inherent in speculation, but his hands were tied. Deflating the bubble seemed an impossible task. Besides, for the nation’s leaders, there was no wavering from laissez-faire capitalism: “Economics was taken as a matter of faith” (McElvaine 29).
The nation’s overall adherence to supply-side economics and laissez-faire capitalism was perhaps the primary economic factor causing the Great Depression. American businesses grew and expanded because the Coolidge and Hoover administrations did nothing to stop them. After all, the free market mentality was the “crown jewel” of Coolidge Prosperity (McElvaine 37). As businesses flourished, production naturally increased. The result was an environment that fostered mass consumption. There was also an unprecedented rush into corporate mergers. By the end of the twenties, approximately two-thirds of the nation’s industrial wealth had passed from individual ownership to the ownership of large conglomerates. Two-hundred corporations controlled half of all American industry (McElvaine 37).
But there was more to the picture than the high-rise offices on Wall Street. Economic problems were also mounting on farms across the country. The twenties marked a shift from agriculture to manufacturing, rendering Jefferson’s agrarian ideal somewhat irrelevant. The economy was beginning to depend more on wage labor as part of a New Frontier of urban industrial capitalism. McElvaine contends that the most basic problem facing American farmers was the “chronic overproduction” of their commodities (35). World War I demanded unparalleled production, but eventually, excess supply failed to meet its own demand. After the war, “the success of wartime stimulation came back to haunt the nation’s farmers.” Despite the era of Coolidge Prosperity, agriculture in the 1920s was “falling behind” the rest of the economy (McElvaine 36-7). In sum, the dreary agricultural state deeply tainted the economy.
The greatest of all economic factors was what McElvaine refers to as the “maldistribution” of income and wealth. Productivity was increasing faster than wages, and thus much of the benefits of economic prosperity went to profits and dividends (McElvaine 39). Millions of Americans reaped the awards of the New Era, however they did so in very unequal portions. In 1929, the top 0.1 percent of American families (24,000 in total) had an aggregate income equal to the bottom 42 percent, comprised of 11.5 million families ( McElvaine 38). The money at the top was increasing faster than any other group. Writes McElvaine: “No cause of the Great Depression was of larger importance” (38).
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 might be viewed as the catalyst that ignited several intertwined cultural and economic factors. “The cold wind that swept through lower Manhattan in October and November 1929 lowered the economy’s resistance to the point where already existing defects could multiply rapidly and bring down the whole organism” (McElvaine 49). However, some business leaders adherent to the capitalist system did not view the initial crash as inherently bad. Andrew Mellon told Hoover the panic would serve as an important moral and economic lesson to “careless” Americans, much like Fitzgerald’s Daisy and Tom: “It will purge the rottenness out of the system. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people” (McElvaine 30). The panic and subsequent Depression had much deeper ramifications. From 1929 to 1933, the Gross National Product dropped 29 percent. Banks failed. Families suffered. The nation was crippled. In the end, Mellon was wrong. Picking up the pieces of the American economic system was a task that took a second world war—and not the efforts of more “competent” business leaders.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Simon and Schuster: New York, 1925 (1995).
Hovde, Ellen and Meyer, Muffie. The Crash of 1929 [film]. PBS Video, 1990.
McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. Three Rivers Press: New York, 1984.
Materialism Portrayed By Cars in The Great Gatsby
“But as I walked down the steps I saw that the evening was not quite over. Fifty feet from the door a dozen headlights illuminated a bizarre and tumultuous scene (58).”
After the first of Gatsby’s parties that Nick attends, Fitzgerald dedicates two pages entirely to a seemingly inconsequential car accident. The reader does not find out the name of the owner, or what really happened, so what it substantial about this part is it’s symbolic value. It is in these two pages that Fitzgerald introduces the notion of cars symbolizing the material carelessness of America before the Depression. Also, by associating certain characters with a certain brand of car, or establishing a parallel between a character and his relationship with cars, Fitzgerald sheds light upon character flaws, especially concerning gross materialism. By using cars as such significant symbols throughout the novel, Fitzgerald points out their manipulation value. Just as the characters in the novel use cars to escape, move, and loudly proclaim their wealth, the author similarly uses this to structure the book. By removing himself as the primary narrator, he is escaping. By his use of flashbacks and by placing scenes out of sequence, the author takes advantage of manipulating the story’s movement. Finally, Fitzgerald uses this novel to loudly proclaim his feelings towards America at the time of the story.
Reverting back to the car accident at the end of Gatsby’s party, material carelessness proves an important theme. The person assumed responsible for the accident says, “I know very little about driving-next to nothing. It happened, and that’s all I know (59).” When the true culprit emerges from the car, he says, “At first I din’ notice we’d stopped (60).” Despite the audiences insistence that the car could not be driven, the criminal ignores such warning and says, “No harm in trying (60).” Both of these responses communicate carelessness and frivolity. The entire party scene foreshadowed this, describing the guests, as coming and going, “…like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars (42).” Such portrayal of Gatsby’s guests cheapens their intentions and shows how they care only about having a good time among the finest goods. The party fruits provide another foreshadowing of this American carelessness. “Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves (43).” Just as the guests arrived on schedule every weeknight, they also left the party pulpless and empty. None of the guests really knew Gatsby, yet they showed up week after week to drink his champagne, eat his food, and mingle amongst the wealthy. They gain nothing from the party except superficial conversation and drunkenness. These shallow qualities of the party guests are epitomized at the end of the scene through the use of the car accident.
The relationship between the carelessness of this accident as well as the carelessness of Jordan’s driving, gives further insight into Jordan’s character flaws. Jordan’s dishonesty is shown early in the novel by cheating in a golf tournament, and further defects, such as her pretentious and pompous attitude are revealed by her feelings towards driving. The first time Fitzgerald makes this point clear occurs when Jordan says, “When we were on a house party together up in Warwick, she left a borrowed car out in the rain with the top down, and then lied about it…(62)” This dishonesty did not mean very much to Nick, however, and instead he is simply made curious by it. He did pay close attention to Jordan’s driving, which brings to light her rashness. When Nick tries to tell her how terrible she drives, she responds by saying that although she is not careful, other people are. “They’ll keep out of my way…it takes two to make an accident (63).” After Nick fires back with the possibility of meeting someone as careless as she is, Jordan ignorantly replies with, “I hope I never will…I hate careless people (63).” This response completely shows Jordan’s lacking sense of responsibility as well as her sanctimonious perception of herself. Jordan’s logic lacks substance and her self-righteous opinions throw her into the crowd with the rest of the American careless. This accounts for the failure of Nick and Jordan’s relationship. Although the two tried to maintain a romantic relationship, Nick is searching for someone more genuine, someone who does not deny her own imperfections, and Jordan cannot provide him with that.
Along with the overall American frivolity of the time, cars are used to almost personify each character. Nick mentions his own car only once throughout the entire novel. It is mentioned eight pages into the book, and on this page, he describes his only possessions when he moved out to the country. “I had a dog, at least I had him for a few days until he ran away, and an old Dodge and a Finnish woman who made my bed and cooked breakfast and muttered Finnish wisdom to herself over the electric stove.” Taking into consideration the subjects of his description, the sentence denotes a sense of loneliness. He could have not mentioned the dog whatsoever, but instead, he writes that he once had a dog but no longer does. This creates a sense of loss as the immigrant woman speaking to herself creates a sense of loneliness. Nick’s regular human contact consists of his employee who doesn’t even speak his own language. Because of this, one gets the sense that his car must also carry some dreary significance. Its old age and ordinariness conveys Nick’s simplistic yet isolated life, as he innocently begins his narrative. This innocence, and somewhat removal from materialistic America, separates him from all the other characters and accounts for his failure in relationships and ultimately, for him moving back to the mid-west.
Nick’s departure from the East is an inevitable choice, as all the characters he meets are shown to be quite dishonest and materialistic. Fitzgerald strategically develops each character by epitomizing them through cars. For example, the first time Myrtle is introduced, it is by an association with her husband and cars. Fitzgerald introduces the couple by writing, “Repairs. GEORGE B. WILSON. Cars Bought and Sold…(29).” Just as George makes a profession selling what he owns to his patrons, he also gets his wife taken from him by one of his patrons. The fact that George makes repairs seems to make him second best, as if he cannot already own what is best, he must work to try and get it to that point. Just as Myrtle gives all of her love, and all of herself to Tom, George has to work to try and get her to love him. Another interesting twist is that George very much wants to buy Tom’s car from him. When George finds out about Myrtle’s affair, he desperately calls upon Tom to try and make a car deal in order to somehow save his marriage to Myrtle. Tom is responsible for the affair, and sickly agrees to sell his car during George’s desperate plea, as if he is doing something honorable. Such deceiving acts mirror the deceit and manipulation the characters in the book all use.
Although these characters play important roles in the narrative, Nick’s relationship with Gatsby holds the most importance, and therefore, the association between Gatsby and his car proves very significant. The narrator once nonchalantly mentions that Gatsby owns a Rolls Royce, the first time great attention is given to one of his cars, draws extreme parallels to Gatsby’s personality. Nick’s admiration is exposed through his description of the car. “I’d seen it. Everybody had seen it. It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns (68).” The concision of the first two sentences, as well as calling the car “it” in both sentences coveys a sense of entrancement for Nick. He loses himself in the beauty of the car, and for a second, he cannot really talk, except to state the obvious. The color of the car means a great deal since it was normal at that time for factory-made cars to all be black. Therefore, his customized cream-colored car screams of his wealth which in turns symbolizes his materialistic intentions. The adjectives Nick uses also paint a picture of majesty. Words such as, “bright,” “swollen,” “Monstrous,” and “triumphant” all create images of might, splendor, yet also grotesque. Although this would be fine if it was just meant to describe the car, the trouble is that it is soon after this point in the book, that Nick starts to confuse the greatness of Gatsby’s possessions with the greatness of Gatsby himself. Therefore, this entrancement with the car, and the grand adjectives prove to be dangerous, as Gatsby soon completely enthralls Nick. For example, despite all the sings pointing towards Gatsby’s criminal activity, Nick defends him during speculation by his party guests. Also, a similar sense of entrancement occurs at the end of Chapter VI during a conversation between Nick and Gatsby. “For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever (118).” At this point, Gatsby lures Jim into his scheme of achieving Daisy and achieving happiness. The novel soon takes a turn for the worse.
The beginning of the end of The Great Gatsby occurs in climax of the book, which begins and ends with cars. Setting up the scene, Tom insists that he drive Gatsby’s “circus wagon” to the city while Gatsby drives Tom’s coupe. This switching of cars parallels the switching of Daisy’s love from first Gatsby to Tom and then the confusion between the two. Tom calling the car a “circus wagon” is a blow towards Gatsby, making it seem as if Gatsby should not be taken seriously. At this point in the book, Tom knows about Gatsby’s involvement with boot-legging, and therefore finds him to be a sham, something that can be laughed at, something simply put on display for entertainment, just as if he was a circus act.
After the intense scene revealing the truth of Gatsby’s source of income as well as his affair with Daisy, Tom insists that Daisy leave with Gatsby in Gatsby’s car. In this scene, his car seems to be mimicking their entire affair. Since Tom contemptuously made them leave together, and since he revealed Gatsby’s criminal involvement, the majesty of Gatsby’s car is suddenly seen for its shallowness. It is only appropriate at this point for Gatsby’s car to be the “death car,” since his corruption of the American Dream inevitably leads to failure.Gatsby perverted the idea of success, and in an effort to achieve his dream of reliving the past with Daisy, he lost sight of the importance of honesty and genuine hard work. His distortion of the American Dream can be seen in the distortion of the plot at the end of the story. The fact that Tom told George it was Gatsby driving the car, and that he allows George to believe Gatsby was the one having the affair with Myrtle, the fact that it was really Daisy driving the car, and the fact that it was Tom who insisted Gatsby and Daisy leave the city when they did, shows how warped American life became when one lost sight of honesty. Such integrity is the basis for achieving happiness, so when this is distorted, happiness cannot be accomplished. Therefore Gatsby’s car, which so vividly displayed his wealth and phony happiness, fittingly leads to tragedy. The fact that his own car not only kills Myrtle, but it consequently leads to Gatsby’s own death, shows the destruction of confusing happiness with materialism. This carelessness is developed from beginning to end, and shows Nick’s unavoidable discontent with his life on the East Coast.
The repeated appearance of cars in The Great Gatsby significantly symbolizes the materialism of the time, and of the isolated characters in the book. From overall carelessness to individual distorted perceptions of what a car means, Fitzgerald ingeniously portrays America’s obsession with spectacular materialism. As Nick begins his story quite innocently with a simple hidden car of his own, he becomes wrapped up in riding in Gatsby’s grand car, and after the deaths of both Gatsby and Myrtle, he loses some of his innocence, and gains insight. “One night I did hear a material car there…Probably it was some final guest who…didn’t know the party was over (188).” By the end of the book, Nick sees the story for it’s failure and can no longer be a part of the material world and the party he had grown accustomed to living. Nick sells his car, and fittingly heads back to his real home.
Decay of American Greatness
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a shining example of the principle that the most powerful messages are not told but rather shown. Although the novel is written in the form of largely impartial narration by Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s criticism of American life and culture during the Roaring Twenties subtly and powerfully permeates the plot. Fitzgerald shows that American society, flushed from victory in the First World War and bombarded with advertisements expounding the wonders of consumer items from cars to refrigerators, has experienced a radical shift in its value system. Through his portrayal of the main characters, Fitzgerald implies that the traditional virtues of thrift, sincere friendship and true love, as described in books like Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, have been replaced by the vices of reckless spending, shallow friendships and superficial love. Furthermore, Fitzgerald implies that although members of high society in the Roaring Twenties would party all night long, their perversion of the values of frugality, friendship and love help repress and reinforce feelings of loneliness and unhappiness.
By detailing the observations made by Nick Carraway of Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald proves that the work ethic and frugality that originally gave rise to American wealth have been replaced by a wasteful materialism. The grand, raucous parties that Gatsby hosts at his West Egg mansion are a showcase of all the undesirable practices that stem from materialism. Carraway observes that a corps of caterers string enough colored lights in Gatsby’s garden to make it appear like a “Christmas tree,” and that eight servants and an extra gardener are required on Mondays to repair the damages of Sunday partying. The narrator is also amazed by the pyramid of pulpless orange and lemon halves, left to rot at Gatsby’s back door without a second thought after the butler had extracted the juice. Inside the parties, sumptuous buffet tables laden with spiced baked hams and pastry pigs and a full-sized orchestra replete with trombones, cornets and piccolos reinforce a vivid image of a high-class society unconcerned with conservation and hooked on the horn of plenty. By using a surfeit of detail to emphasize the excessiveness of Gatsby’s parties, the author suggests that material wealth is merely a cover for spiritual isolation. Through their liberal use of alcohol and enjoyment of their opulence, Gatsby’s guests can drug themselves into not facing their inability to foster the development of genuine human relationships. That the guests have lost this ability is evident in Nick’s observations of the party atmosphere: “The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside…[there are] enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.” (40) The superficiality of these introductions and the false gayety of the party become even more apparent as the party ends. Wives complain bitterly about leaving as their husbands take them home, and departing cars are blocked by a coup stuck in a ditch. The reader receives the distinct impression that the exhilarating party is ending in a whimper like a charade that has finally been exposed. The nature of this charade is expressed in Nick’s parting description of Gatsby’s house: “A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.” (56) That Fitzgerald chooses this image as the last impression to impart to the reader shows his desire to emphasize the loneliness inherent in extravagant consumerism.
The Great Gatsby depicts the perversion of the value of friendship by describing the empty and meaningless personal relationships of Tom Buchanan–relationships that indicate the profound secret unhappiness of the wealthy. Buchanan’s conduct shows the upper class’ rejection of the traditional conception of a friend as a person to rely upon for honest criticism and help in need. When Buchanan invites his old college acquaintance Carraway to his East Egg estate, he is quick to emphasize his affluence when he points out the sunken Italian garden and snub-nosed motorboat. Carraway notices Buchanan’s need to garner approval: “I always had the impression that he approved of me and wanted me to like him with some harsh, defiant wistfulness of his own.” (7) Clearly, Buchanan does not value Carraway as a true friend but merely someone who can confirm the quality of his estate, and by transitivity, the quality of his empty, unhappy life. This interpretation is reinforced by Buchanan’s association with Myrtle’s circle of friends. At the apartment gathering, Buchanan and Myrtle invite friends that are intellectually and physically superficial. For example, Mr. McKee is an amateur artist whose artistic creativity is limited to the far from imaginative renderings “Montauk Point–The Gulls” and “George B. Wilson at the Gasoline Pump.” Myrtle’s sister Catherine is described by Carraway as having a powdered face and plucked eyebrows and wearing pottery bracelets that clink as she moves. The topics of conversation are shallow and revolve around money; Mrs. Wilson describes her medical bill and her sister declares that she was cheated at Monte Carlo. The triviality of the people and atmosphere are outer manifestations of the triviality of the relationships. This becomes painfully apparent when Buchanan breaks Mrs. Wilson’s nose and the party concludes in disorder. Mr. McKee and Carraway leave, in direct repudiation of the aphorism that a friend in need is a friend indeed. Although Buchanan through his drunken revelry and association with mentally anemic and physically ugly people tries to create a semblance of a fulfilling life, in the end his perversion of the value of friendship demonstrates the wealthy elite’s inner unhappiness.
Because the false love expressed by the main characters is based on the exchange of valuables and not the exchange of values and aspirations indicative of true love, a character like Tom Buchanan promotes spiritual unhappiness in himself and his women. For example, Buchanan first expresses his love for Daisy by holding an elaborate wedding replete with four private cars and a gift of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. This seemingly grand gesture, however, does not prevent Daisy from crying and getting drunk before the wedding ceremony. Daisy does not love Buchanan and thus no amount of money can replace true love in creating genuine happiness. That Buchanan himself is left unsatisfied is evident in his taking of Myrtle to be his mistress. Not learning the lesson that love cannot be bought, he lavishes her with gifts–even a dog on her whim. Mrs. Wilson’s greed, which has replaced values of true love, is highlighted by her shopping requests: “I’ve got to get [a] massage and a wave, and a collar for the dog, and one of those cute little ash-trays where you touch a spring.” (37) The emptiness of the relationship is finally revealed when Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose and ultimately sealed when Myrtle is killed after an argument with her husband caused by her infidelity. Fitzgerald convincingly shows that the perversion of love reinforces unhappiness.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald argues that the degraded values of thrift, friendship, and love have created an upper class that tries in vain to hide their isolation and misery. Even though the novel focuses on specific characters in a limited span of time, Fitzgerald’s contemporary work has proved enduring because of its timeless applicability. He makes a strong case for the warning that to lose sight of the values that made America great is to destroy that greatness itself.
Big American Dream in the Great Gatsby and Babylon Revisited
The Great Gatsby and “Babylon Revisited,” both by F. Scott Fitzgerald, are stories about the emptiness and recklessness of the 1920s. Each story has its distinctions, but Fitzgerald’s condemnation of the decade reverberates through both. Fitzgerald explores and displays insufficiencies of the vacuous period, and does so with sharp clarity and depth, leaving no crude, barbarous habit to imagination. Fitzgerald had a deep and personal affliction with the 1920s (most notably in the Eastern United States), and in both The Great Gatsby and “Babylon Revisited,” he hones his conflicts into a furious condemnation. The 1920s were a period of sloth, habitual sin, exhausted illustriousness, and moral despondency; the black mark of a society and world usually tilted more toward attempted civility. Fitzgerald conveys this theme through the use of character, symbolism, and wasteland imagery.
First, Fitzgerald uses characters to personify the vast recklessness of the generation. The characters in both are incomprehensibly selfish and carefree, though more noticeably in The Great Gatsby. Tom Buchanan, for instance, is almost flippant in acknowledging his affair with Jordan Baker, a local miscreant golf pro. Tom leaves Nick, Daisy, and Jordan at the dinner table to take a call from her. An exchange between Nick Carraway and Jordan while Tom is gone illuminates the situation. “‘Is something happening’ (Fitzgerald, Gatsby 19), says Nick. To which Jordan Baker replies, ‘I thought everybody knew…. Why-… Tom’s got some woman in New York’” (Fitzgerald, Gatsby 19). Tom Buchanan has an acknowledged mistress in New York, and he politely and confidently leaves the dinner table to speak with her. He is the absolute personification of the reckless actions and attitudes that characterize the era. Duncan Shchaeffer and Lorraine Qualles, appearing briefly in “Babylon Revisited,” also represent reckless and selfish behavior. They burst in to a private meeting at the Peters residence just as Charlie is coercing Lincoln and Marion in to granting him custody of his child. Fitzgerald describes their behavior: “They were gay, they were hilarious, they were roaring with laughter…. They slid down another cascade of laughter” (Fitzgerald, Babylon 385). This after bursting in to the house of a stranger. They are drunk, juvenile, reprehensible in behavior, and acting more like children than adults. Fitzgerald asserts, however, that their actions characterize the generation of lost souls, and these characters are only used to articulate his condemnation of it.
Secondly, Fitzgerald uses symbolism to convey a feeling of futility and hopelessness throughout the novel and short story. Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, especially, symbolizes the distorted perceptions and priorities of the decade. Eckleburg watches over the gray ash-heap near Mr. Wilson’s garage with what Wilson thinks an all-knowing eye. Wilson has an unusual reverence to Dr. Eckleburg: he considers him God. In a conversation between Wilson and Michaelis, Wilson discusses a conversation he had previously with Mrs. Wilson just before she died:
‘I spoke to her [about her affair with Tom Buchanan]…. I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God. I took her to the window—‘ With and effort he got up and walked the rear window and leaned with his face pressed against it, ‘–and I said ‘God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me but you can’t fool God.’ Standing behind him Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at they eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. (Fitzgerald, Gatsby 167)Wilson is hopeless and disillusioned, and his connection to Dr. Eckleburg exemplifies the widespread futility of the era.
Lastly, Fitzgerald uses wasteland imagery to show how society circa 1920 was dysfunctional and reckless. The apartment of Myrtle Wilson’s relation, where Tom and Myrtle usually conduct their affair, is the perfect example of this. Fitzgerald describes the scene at the apartment:
The apartment was on the top floor—a small living room, a small diningroom, a small bedroom and a bath. The living room was crowded to the doors with a set of tapestried furniture entirely too large for it so that to move about was to stumble continually over scenes of ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles…. Several old copies of “Town Tattle” lay on the table together with a copy of “Simon Called Peter” and some of the small scandal magazines of Broadway. (Fitzgerald, Gatsby 33)The apartment’s amenities are showy and overdone, and somehow seem more representative of conformity than affluence. The whole generation is caught up in the times, an unthinking, unknowing mob of followers, riding the unenviable wave of recklessness2E The apartment is empty, devoid of any substance at all, a perfect example of the wasteland image. It is where forbidden lovers meet to flirt and cackle, and where people get drunk for only the second time in their life, where people smoke, drink, and live recklessly together, and the only place where none of it matters: the wasteland.
The 1920s were an era of lost personality. The people were caught up in the teaming exuberance, riding the inertia or recklessness further in to itself. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and “Babylon Revisited” are fitting and definitive condemnations of the irrational time, and critics are right in deeming them so. Fitzgerald, too, is right: The 1920s were wasted years, and fit for condemnation.
Appearance and Disappearance: The Theme of Evanescence in The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby is a novel that has been evaluated by countless critics since its original publication in April of 1925. What makes it such an incredible piece of literature is that it seems to contain endless levels of meaning, and the reader has the ability to delve deep into specific ideas that appear in the text. Countless critics have picked the text apart, thoroughly weighing and discussing various aspects of the novel’s multifaceted components. There is one theme, however, that seems to stand out from all the rest: we see it in the evasive quality of Jay Gatsby, or the vanishing of the obscene word scrawled on Gatsby’s steps at the end of the novel—it’s what gives this book its mysterious, ethereal quality that so many are drawn to. The specific theme is evanescence, or vanishing, and countless scholars have focused on it in their critical works.
One of the ways that select scholars explored the theme of evanescence was through the specific language and text of the novel. It’s important to establish the fact that Fitzgerald chose none of the language or wording in this story randomly. Both A.E. Elmore and James E. Miller, Jr. (an author in Lockridge’s collection of essays) discuss the deep intentionality of Fitzgerald’s word choice, and how he consciously thought out the whole process of word selection. In his essay, Miller quotes Fitzgerald discussing Gatsby, in that what he “cut out of [the novel] both physically and emotionally would make another novel.” (Lockridge 27) Fitzgerald went through an extensive editing process for his book, and so what was left in the final product was extensively edited and the language was clearly intentional. Barbara Will discussed the language and theme of “vanishing” in the Gatsby text, and clarified that “’vanished’ is indeed the predominant term in this text,” (Will 129) citing moments such as “at the end of Chapter I Nick first encounters Gat” (Will 129). These are just two of the many instances in wsby, only to find ‘he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness’; or when, after an awkward meeting with Tom Buchanan, Nick ‘turned toward Mr. Gatsby but he was no longer therehich Jay Gatsby’s character is associated with “vanishing”. Additionally, Will discusses more general moments of appearance and disappearance not just in the language, but also in Gatsby’s overall persona. She deliberates on Gatsby’s inability to be present at his own parties, and also the evanescent quality of his past history and his business dealings. She also cites a line from the text describing “his smile, which “assure you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished?” (Will 129). There are multiple more instances in which Gatsby’s character engages in other moments of vanishing, but Will addresses the important general prevalence of evanescence in the language The Great Gatsby the novel, as well as Jay Gatsby the character.
However, language is not the only component of The Great Gatsby in which scholars explored the theme of appearance and disappearance. Other authors, namely Arnold Weinstein and Ronald Berman, emphasize Fitzgerald’s personal relationship with the phenomenal, vanishing quality of the world, and therefore its translation into Gatsby. Ronald Berman highlights how Fitzgerald held an intense love and respect of the phenomenal world, and how he worked to enchant everyday things into something remarkable. In his book The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s World of Ideas, he observed that, “Fitzgerald seems to simply have a strong and romantic sense of phenomology… [He] evidently, is about the business of making an entertaining illusion, endowing sordid material life with temporary novelistic value” (Berman 72-73). This insight provides a deeper look into the theme of evanescence in The Great Gatsby. If Fitzgerald’s goal in writing Gatsby was to enchant material life and give it temporary value, then the vanishing that exists in the text marks the de-enchantment of whatever phenomenal idea Fitzgerald was trying to make novel.
Not entirely unrelated to his love of phenomology, Fitzgerald also seemed to greatly appreciate the temporary appearance of things and things being made out of nothing, which, when you think about it in a historical context, is inherently the idea of the American dream. Some scholars trace the theme of evanescence to Fitzgerald’s view of the deflation of the American dream that occurred in the 1920’s. Arnold Weinstein explores this notion in his article “Fiction As Greatness: The Case of Gatsby,” concluding “Fitzgerald seems altogether more committed to the project of making things from nothing. Daisy does not measure up, because Gatsby’s dream cannot be outfitted with checks and balances, or any kind of external referent; it is, instead, supremely autonomous, auto-generative, fed from within… ‘Appearance made real,’ is not only an American theme but also a paradigmatic formula for literature itself. The Great Gatsby depicts things being made from nothing, and objects becoming enchanted objects” (Weinstein 26). This idea of “appearance made real” and something coming from nothing is a direct reference to the prevalent idea of the American dream. In the essay “Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America” in Lockridge’s collection, author Marius Bewely informs that, “critics of Scott Fitzgerald tend to agree that The Great Gatsby is somehow a commentary on that elusive phrase, the American dream,” (Lockridge 37). In the 1920’s, the American dream was such a sought-after idea, that it existed as more of an illusion than a reality. For further evidence, in his essay, Bewley confidently stated that, “the theme of Gatsby is the withering of the American dream… as it exists in a corrupt period, and it is an attempt to determine that concealed boundary that divides the reality from the illusions,”(Lockridge 37-38). For these various authors, the theme of vanishing plays out as a commentary on an important historical idea: the American dream.
Though these scholars explore the theme of evanescence through different components of The Great Gatsby, whether they are language, Fitzgerald’s personal ideas, or his views on the American dream, all the authors acknowledge that this theme of appearance and disappearance is vital in the novel. However, that sense of importance should lead us to question why Fitzgerald included so much evanescence in his story. Is there a significant meaning behind this explicit theme, or was Fitzgerald trying to send a message with the inclusion of this important idea? In his essay, Richard Lehan shares his belief that Gatsby is a novel, “the meaning of which refuses to be limited” (Lehan 78). However, other authors hypothesize that the significance of Gatsby’s theme has cultural meaning, such as the previously discussed American dream, or Laura Barrett discusses in her essay the possibility that it could have something to do with the substantial presence of materialism in the 1920’s. To this day, countless scholars still cannot come to a coherent conclusion as to the true meaning behind the theme of evanescence in The Great Gatsby, and we wonder whether it is a question that will ever be answered.
Barrett, Laura. “”Material Without Being Real”: Photography and the End of Reality in “The Great Gatsby”” Studies in the Novel 30.4 (1998): 540-57. JSTOR. Web. 04 Apr. 2015. Berman, Ronald. The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s World of Ideas. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama, 1997. Print. Callahan, John F. “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Evolving American Dream: The “Pursuit of Happiness” in Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, and The Last Tycoon.” Twentieth Century Literature 42.3 (1996): 374-95. JSTOR. Web. 03 Apr. 2015. Elmore, A. E. “The Great Gatsby as Well Wrought Urn.” Modern American Fiction: Form and Function. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989. N. pag. Print. Lehan, Richard. “The Great Gatsby– The Text As Construct: Narrative Knots and Narrative Unfolding.” Ed. Jackson R. Bryer, Alan Margolies, and Ruth Prigozy. F. Scott Fitzgerald: New Perspectives. By F. Scott Fitzgerald. Athens, GA: U of Georgia, 2012. N. pag. Print. Lockridge, Earnest H., ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Great Gatsby” (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 5-8. Weinstein, Arnold. “Fiction as Greatness: The Case of Gatsby.” Novel 19 (Fall 1985): 26. Will, Barbara. “The Great Gatsby and The Obscene Word.” College Literature 32.4 (2005): 125-44. JSTOR. Web.
An Unlikely Narrator in The Great Gatsby
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby,” opens with this piece of advice quoted to Nick, the narrator of the story, by his father. Those words having stuck with him throughout the years, Nick explains that he is unbiased and “inclined to reserve all judgments” (Fitzgerald 1). As a narrator, these traits are crucial for an accurate account of the story, partially due to the fact that several characters throughout the novel contain faults that subject them to bias. However, Nick’s thoughts and actions prove to be contradictory to his self-description, which evokes the question of whether or not his narrative is accurate. Nick’s indecisiveness as well as his shallow and partial nature limits the extent of the reader’s trust, therefore making his narrative unreliable.
In his book, “Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Works and Days,” American literary critic Scott Donaldson, claims that Nick’s “basic contempt for mankind emerges in what he says and thinks as well as in descriptions of others.” Nick’s instinctive inclination to initially judge others’ physical appearances further justifies this notion. For example, Tom is a “sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner” (7). In addition, Nick notes that the dominance of his “arrogant eyes” gives him the appearance of “always leaning aggressively forward.” The use of such negative connotations allows the reader to conclude that Nick harbors a sense of dislike towards Tom. In addition, Myrtle, Tom’s mistress who resides in the “gray” valley of ashes, is defined by an “immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually shouldering” (25). Myrtle’s sister, Catherine, is a “slender, worldly girl” with a “solid, sticky bob of red hair” whose eyebrows were drawn at a “more rakish angle” than nature permitted. Adding to his countless collection of exterior judgments, Nick characterizes Mr. Wolfsheim as a “small, flat-nosed Jew” with a “large head” and “tiny eyes.” On the other hand, Nick is considerably more lenient when describing Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker. Both clad in white, an angelic, pure color, Nick describes Daisy as “charming” with a “low, thrilling voice” and Jordan’s eyes appear to look at him with “polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, discontented face” (11). Nick’s policy of illustrating certain characters is unmistakably more or less forgiving among varied individuals. Not only do these convictions serve as early signs that hint at Nick’s prejudiced persona, but they also reveal a rather superficial mindset.
Nick’s character descriptions not only construe a shallow mentality but an indecisive one as well. For example, Mrs. McKee is described as “shrill” but “languid” and “handsome” yet “horrible.” In addition, Mr. Wilson is “spiritless and anemic” but “faintly handsome” at the same time. The contradictory nature of these adjectives accommodates Nick’s lack of solid intuition. This also tarnishes his credibility as narrator as well as the reader’s confidence in trusting Nick’s instinct. Perhaps the most significant indicator of his uncertainty is Nick’s relationship with Jordan. When Jordan professes that she is drawn to Nick’s carefulness, he thinks he loves her “for a moment” but later elaborates that he is “slow-thinking” and “full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires (58).” In addition, when Jordan recounts Gatsby’s story to Nick, he suddenly stops thinking of Daisy and Gatsby but of Jordan, who was “this clean, hard, limited person…who leaned back jauntily just within the circle of my arm (79).” However, after the dilemma surrounding Myrtle’s death later in the novel, Nick claims that he had “enough of all of them for one day, and suddenly that included Jordan too (142).” This portrays Nick as an individual whose feelings are often not only unpredictable, but also impulsive. Nick’s emotions frequently tend to sway in the direction of the situation he is presented with, which goes on to play a crucial role in how the environment affects Nick’s account of the story.
The environment and various settings of events in The Great Gatsby place an emphasis on the questionability of the narrative’s accuracy. For example, Nick gets drunk for the second time in his life at Myrtle’s party. As a result, he claims that “everything that happened has a dim, hazy cast over it” (29). This limits the readers’ certainty on whether Nick’s recount of the following events at Myrtle’s apartment is faultless or not. Furthering suspicions, Nick attempts to read a chapter of ”Simon Called Peter” but contemplates whether it was “terrible stuff or the whiskey distorted things” (29) because it did not make sense. In addition, when Nick discovers that Mr. Wilson has become aware of Myrtle’s infidelity on one hot summer day, he states that “the relentless beating heat was beginning to confuse me (124).” These confessions serve as a disclaimer towards the guarantee of Nick’s accurate narrative. In addition, the contrasting characters surrounding Nick also provide a subject for comparison regarding his personality. For example, the wealthy provinces of East and West Egg are far more affluent in terms of immorality than the modest Midwest, where Nick originated. In comparison to New York’s residents who leisurely meddle in adultery, bootlegging, and several other unrighteous affairs, Nick appears to be virtuous and honest. However, the fact that he suspects himself of being “one of the few honest people” he has ever known almost immediately after condemning Jordan’s lack of thereof proves that Nick’s “honesty” is only relative to his environment. As a result, it can be concluded that Nick’s surroundings greatly impact his narrative as well as his perception of himself. This builds a fallible foundation for the legitimacy of the narrative throughout the novel.
As Donaldson explains, another reason Nick makes an unlikely narrator is his tendency to “carefully avoid emotional entanglements.” Several instances draw attention to Nick’s state of emotional detachment. For instance, when Nick visits the Buchanans for dinner, Daisy’s series of insincere remarks “cease to compel” his attention and leave Nick feeling “as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me” (17). In addition, correlating with his indecisiveness as previously discussed, Nick is unable to commit to lasting relationships. His romance with Jordan encourages him to “get out of that tangle back home” where he periodically writes letters to a girl, signed “Love, Nick.” However, the emotionally shallow side of Nick causes him to only “think of how, when that certain girl played tennis, a faint mustache of perspiration appeared on her upper lip.” In addition, he maintained a short-lived affair with a girl from Jersey City, but “let it blow quietly away” when her brother began to throw “mean looks” in his direction. Nevertheless, when Gatsby dies, Nick ends his relationship with Jordan, indicating his reluctance towards committing himself in long-term relationships. However, this preference does not restrict Nick from feeling a “haunting loneliness sometimes” and as he witnesses the lively atmosphere in New York where “forms leaned together in the taxis as they waited, and voices sang, and there was laughter from unheard jokes, and lighted cigarettes outlined unintelligible gestures inside” (57) he imagined himself also “hurrying toward gayety and sharing their intimate excitement.” His expression of such desires leads Donaldson to conclude that Nick “does not reserve judgment, he reserves himself.”
At the beginning of the novel, Nick boasts of his “tolerance” by claiming that he is “inclined to reserve all judgments.” However, this statement proves to be a hypocritical one throughout the course of the novel. As it progresses, Nick’s character continues to make more and more judgments, the most blatant at the end, when Nick tells Gatsby that Daisy, Tom, and Jordan are a “rotten crowd” and that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Nick later admits that it was the only compliment he ever credited Gatsby, because he “disapproved of him from beginning to end” (154). Afterwards, when Nick runs into Tom in town, he claims that he “couldn’t forgive him or like him” and that “they were careless people, Tom and Daisy” (179). Initially, Nick had regarded Daisy favorably; however after she killed Myrtle and allowed Gatsby to take the blame, Nick’s opinion towards her had changed. These events void Nick’s claim that he “reserves all judgments” and shed light on his prejudiced nature. As a result, Nick’s dynamic character proves to be unfit as narrator, because as the story progresses, he criticizes characters more frequently.
In conclusion, Nick Carraway cannot be trusted as a credible narrator. When it comes to assessing the characters throughout the novel, Nick is an idealist; his descriptions of characters that he favors conform to his vision of ideal standards. In addition, he is often contradictory, indecisive, and hypocritical. He claims to be fair and unbiased, but by the time the novel ends, he is guilty of judging most of the characters in the book in one way or another. However, according to Scott Donaldson, Nick’s shortcomings “makes him the perfect narrator” for The Great Gatsby and Scott Fitzgerald’s “greatest technical achievement in the novel was to invent this narrative voice at once ‘within and without’ the action.” Although Nick is purposefully an unreliable narrator, the reader learns many important lessons that revolve around morality, wealth, and vitality. As Scott Donaldson puts it, “One does not have to like Nick Carraway to discover something about oneself in the tale he tells.”
The Theme of Money in the Great Gatsby
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, as Jay Gatsby delves into his pursuit of wealth and need for materialism, his hopes and aspirations become shattered in a world of unobtainable and unreachable possibilities. While Jay Gatsby confidently believes that material excess will ultimately bring about love, admiration, and prosperity, the audience understands that the possession of material objects does not always lead to the possession of these intangible virtues.
As Jay Gatsby dedicates himself to winning over Daisy Buchanan and falls in love with her aura of luxury, Gatsby becomes overwhelmed with an unremitting desire for money and pleasure that eventually triggers his downfall. He has one purpose in life: to attract Daisy with his ornate house on West Egg and with his overflowing sum of money.
But there is a danger for Gatsby in this redeeming purposefulness. When he buys his fantastic house, he thinks he is buying a dream, not simply purchasing property (Lewis 51). Obsessing over the certain attraction that links Daisy with Gatsby, muttering the words, “Her voice is full of money” (120), Gatsby emphasizes his growing belief that money, indeed, will entice Daisy. What Gatsby, with surprising consciousness, states is that Daisy’s charm is allied to the attraction of wealth (Lewis 50); he regards materialism as fine bait to lure Daisy into his arms.
When Nick Carraway reveals to the audience that, “He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes” (91), Carraway stresses Gatsby’s intense desire to please Daisy and stresses Gatsby’s firm conviction that material objects always construct paths toward love. He drifts into obsession, into possession of the energy required to assemble the money and material things – the house, cars, shirts, and shoes – to aspire to the possession of Daisy (McCormick 32).
Unfortunately, the means by which Gatsby expresses his feelings for Daisy – even though those feelings are sincere – is by showing off his possessions (Lewis 45). He does not realize that money does not solve the problems of the world (especially when Daisy is not even concerned with the likes of money) and that material objects do not amount to love and happiness. As Gatsby struggles to charm Daisy with an atmosphere of material excess, Gatsby’s hopes and aspirations slowly dwindle because the same materialistic interests and dreams that dominate Gatsby do not control Daisy.
With opulent parties thrown every week at the magnificent mansion of West Egg, Jay Gatsby demonstrates his chase for materialism and his desire to please others before himself. Gatsby worries more about satisfying the demands of his guests than about fulfilling his own wishes. During most of his extravagant parties, Gatsby sits alone, secluded from his visitors, unhappy without hearing the sound of Daisy’s voice. He constantly yearns to please others without first thinking of himself. When Lucille declares to Jordan with enthusiasm, “I like to come.
I never care what I do, so I always have a good time. When I was here last I tore my gown on a chair, and he asked me my name and address – inside of a week I got a package from Croirier’s with a new evening gown in it” (43), Lucille highlights Gatsby’s ulterior motives to impress others with objects of materialism. With his thoughtful hospitality, Jay Gatsby (although he may not agree) secures himself a hold on many peoples’ memories – and yearns respect and admiration from all those dwelling throughout the ritzy Long Island. Even when Nick Carraway enlightens the audience of Gatsby’s immense appeal with the words, “Rather ashamed that on my first appearance I had stayed so late, I joined the last of Gatsby’s guests, who were clustered around him.
I wanted to explain that I’d hunted for him early in the evening….” (52), Carraway stresses the guests’ fascination with the ever-so-popular Mr. Gatsby. As a crowd of guests surrounds Gatsby, the reader tends to wonder whether Gatsby actually can accomplish his dream of happiness when he, himself, is not truly happy. If a man such as Gatsby is surrounded by his own flashy world of materialism yet is not linked with the woman of his dreams, can a man really live contently in a mansion all alone, constantly impressing others but not himself?
Jay Gatsby’s world of materialism slowly causes the American Dream to disintegrate as he constantly flaunts his plethora of wealth and material belongings. When Gatsby eagerly questions his friends in Long Island, inquiring with confidence, “My house looks well, doesn’t it? See how the whole front of it catches the light” (89) and ” is pretty, isn’t it, old sport” (69), Jay Gatsby displays the tragic aspirations of a man who worships status and superiority over building friendships and equality. His obsessive desire for money and pleasure surpasses more noble incentives – his fruitless values cause the American dream to decay in Gatsby’s globe of materialism.
For most people of the early twentieth century, the American dream consisted of owning a simple house, a working car, and household appliances in order to maintain a peaceful and prosperous life; for Gatsby, however, the American dream consists of owning a massive mansion, a luxurious car, and material objects that are suitable only for gods such as Zeus. When Nick Carraway announces his own materialistic views, noting that, “I was glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their somber holiday (69), Carraway’s motives become corrupt during a time when blacks outside of Long Island are just trying to find a simple house which they can afford, while white Long Islanders are not fully satisfied with their acquisition of millions of dollars.
The critic Kenneth Tynan presents the audience with his own theory, “Gatsby represents all their aspirations. He represents a nation at the peak of its pride and self-confidence, tainted by corruption by still reaching for the stars. He stands for everything that is uniquely and glamorously American. Gatsby exists as the ideal and exemplary American hero” (Tynan 41). Yet how can Gatsby possess heroic qualities when he resorts to criminal intentions to conquer his self-centered American dream?
Barry Edward Gross puts it best when he states that, “In this sacrifice of the self, Gatsby is the greatest loser. He has paid the highest price possible for living too long with a single dream – he has surrendered his material existence to an immaterial vision and once that vision is shattered it is too late for him to reclaim his material identity. In the end [Gatsby] inhabits a material, unreal world: unreal because Gatsby’s only reality has existed on a mythic, immaterial plane” (Gross 25).
In conclusion, Gatsby’s intense search for materialism lands him at the bottom of a ditch where he is unable to climb his way to the top and reach his dreams. There exists a tragic nature of love and money that only the audience can fully understand; Gatsby wrongly assumes that the possession of material objects will automatically lead to the possession of love. Gatsby’s extraordinary house, his lavish parties, and his superior status are all means to lure Daisy into his arms, yet his possessions and characteristics are both as intangible and as monstrously tangible as his dream (Callahan 37).
The American dream also becomes distorted because Gatsby’s selfish and materialistic intentions overlook the conditions of poor blacks who were just struggling to survive at the time. Throughout The Great Gatsby, Gatsby uses money and material objects to achieve social aspirations and love; he tries (unsuccessfully) to win a place in Daisy’s heart by flaunting his money in order to buy his dream. However, as Jay Gatsby delves into his pursuit of materialism, his dreams and desires become crushed in a world of unobtainable and unreachable possibilities.
- Major Literary Characters: Gatsby. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea. 1991.
- Lewis, Roger. “Money, Love and Aspiration in The Great Gatsby.” New Essays on
- The Great Gatsby, 1985. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1985, 41-57.
The Vitality Shade in the Great Gatsby
In literature, color conveys powerful messages, expressing underlying themes when words fail to do so. Recognizing symbolism is an essential part of understanding any literary work. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American masterpiece The Great Gatsby, colors are used to develop the characters and theme in a way that mimics the era of the book, The Roaring Twenties; a time of social decadence and moral deterioration in which the superficial lives of the war-shattered people revolved solely around money. The colors blue, grey, lavender, gold, yellow, green and white occur considerably throughout the novel adding depth and dynamic to the otherwise trivial lives of the characters. Color also shines light on some truth behind the glittering facades put on by Gatsby and Daisy allowing the reader to grasp the actuality of the misunderstood relationship.
Blue describes Gatsby’s inner-self, which is full of sadness and fantasy. In the novel his garden is always described with the color blue. He holds all of his extravagant ravages in his blue garden to attract Daisy, but he never succeeds. Few people who attend the parties know the real identity of Gatsby, which is the reason he does not attend. Blue also symbolizes the illusion of his dreams. In his meeting with Daisy, he brings out his brightly colored and expensive shirts; and Daisy can’t seem to contain her emotions. “Shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily”(98). This proves that there is only a superficial love between the two. Nick realizes the disillusionment of Gatsby’s American dream when he sees the blue smoke of the leaves in the air and decides to go home where people have traditional morals.
Grey occurs throughout the novel in the valley of ashes. It symbolizes the bleakness and corruption of society and represents the moral decay and spiritual emptiness of the people. It is used to characterize the lower class that live there like George and Myrtle Wilson, who are condemned to the wasteland because they are not wealthy. The lower class desires to break free from their poverty-stricken lives, yet the wealthy are just as empty. Tom Buchanan is Myrtle’s only escape from her colorless, boring life with Wilson. She believes Tom will choose her over Daisy and take her away from the valley of ashes, but the reader can understand that he would not do that because he knows Myrtle is beneath him. Fitzgerald uses the Wilson’s grey life to emphasize that blind pursuit of an ideal can be destructive.
As purple usually symbolizes royalty, lavender symbolizes the rich and the indulgence associated with wealth. Myrtle picks out a lavender colored taxi with grey upholstery after letting four drive by. The taxi is metaphorical of herself; purple or seemingly wealthy on the outside but still grey or lower class inside. The rooms of Gatsby’s mansion are decorated in lavender, and he dresses in lavender shirts that he has specially imported. One of the twins in yellow, who attends Gatsby’s party also mentions that he sent her a new dress after hers was ruined at one of his other events. “It was gas blue with lavender beads. Two hundred and sixty-five dollars”(48).
The colors gold and yellow represent the corrupt wealth and substance, or lack thereof, of the luxurious East and West Eggers and it draws the line between Gatsby and his intangible paradise. Jordan Baker and Daisy are described as a golden girls multiple times in the novel. Nick says he was holding Jordan’s slender golden arm and he says “…high in the white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl”(127), describing Daisy. The gold of the Buchanans is much different from Gatsby’s yellow money. Yellow is a fake gold; it is what separates the characters. Gatsby spends all of his time trying to acquire the essence of gold but he falls short because he is never truly an East Egger. Gatsby’s life is full of yellow. He has a yellow Rolls Royce and “yellow cocktail music [and] two girls in twin yellow dresses”(47) at one of his parties. T. J. Eckleburg’s glasses, looking over the wasteland of America, are yellow spectacles covering big blue eyes. At Gatsby’s party even the turkeys are “..bewitched to a dark gold”(44) which symbolizes his desire to be metaphorically golden himself. Fitzgerald also adds the months Gatsby is away during the war. “All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust” (158). Here even the dust in the rooms is shining, which emphasizes how hard he is trying to get Daisy to realize that he is wealthy. In the novel Nick says “we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey-turning, gold-turning light”(159) which symbolically represents how Daisy has accepted Gatsby as the affluent man that he has strived to become and no longer the “poor boy” that she said she could not marry.
Gold and yellow are two colors that stand in close relation, yet also in stark contrast throughout The Great Gatsby. Members of the upper class who come from old money view themselves as more authentic and prestigious in comparison to members of the new money upper class whose money has been made in a variety of quick, and sometimes questionable ways, like bootlegging. Gatsby constantly aims to prove that he can belong in the gold section of society with Daisy.Green is greatly associated with the relationship Gatsby thinks he has with Daisy, and White is associated with the purposelessness that accompanies Daisy’s life.
White normally stands for innocence and purity, as Daisy appears on the outside but the reader can conclude that Daisy is indeed empty. The first time Nick meets with Jordan and Daisy, they are dressed in all white dresses that look like pale curtains floating in the air. She even says “what’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon…and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” To this Jordan replies “don’t be morbid…life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall”(125). This conversation proves that their lives are meaningless; they are just chasing material things that have no real substance. Daisy says she and Jordan lived out their “white girlhood” together.
Even though the Buchanans are obviously vacuous, Gatsby is drawn to their high-class life. He holds on to his hope by the green light shining at the end of Daisy’s dock. “Involuntarily I glanced seaward and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away…”(26) Nick is correct in the sense that the light, symbolizing Gatsby’s dream, is very minute and distant. Gatsby does not realize that his dream is abstract; he only sees what he wants to see. When Gatsby finally gets to see Daisy in person, he tells her that she will always have the green light at the end of her doc. Nick says “compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock, His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one”(98) At the end of the novel, Nick juxtaposes the American Dream of the early Dutch sailors to the illusionary and acquisitive dream of Jay Gatz. For the sailors, it was a natural cornucopia, promising the greatest of dreams, the American Dream. For Gatsby, his dream has not been something he could come to attain. “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, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams” (89).
Fitzgerald uses colors in The Great Gatsby frequently as symbols, and creates an atmosphere in different tones throughout the novel as a way to underline the key points and emphasize the theme. This classic American literary work is full of symbolism, but the colors utilized add a profound sense of dynamic to the lives of the characters and the moral of the book itself.
The Great Gatsby as the Work of Modernism
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been hailed as one of the greatest literary works of Modernism. The Great Gatsby set the tone for the movement that defined American literature in the early decades well into the present day. The characters of The Great Gatsby are a direct reflection of the “lost generation” to which Fitzgerald belonged. In many ways, his characters could be seen as a portrait of the people he associated with, if not somewhat of a self-portrait. Through his individual characters, their personalities, and their crises, Fitzgerald presents a detailed display of Modernism in his classic novel.
At the launch of World War I, Americans felt the impact of men going off to battle and women working in factories; lifestyles were beginning to divert from family traditions. People were forced to abandon their traditional values and adapt to the challenges and changes around them, giving birth to Modernism. Modernism does not have one specific definition, but an array of definitions and interpretations. Simply put, Modernism is “an omnibus term for a number of tendencies in the arts which were prominent in the first half of the 20th century” (Drabble 658). According to Hugh Holman, Modernism is “a strong and conscious break with tradition. Modern implies a historical discontinuity, a sense of alienation, of loss, and of despair” (Holman 326). M. H. Abrams states that “[T]he term Modernism is widely used to identify new and distinctive features in the subjects, forms, concepts, and styles of literature and the other arts in the early decades of the present century, but especially after World War I.” Although different writers and critics have assigned Modernism varying definitions, they all agree that at the heart of Modernism is a “deliberate and radical break from the traditional bases not only of Western art, but of Western culture in general” (Abrams). Modernism reflected not just a style of literature, but a new worldview.
Around the time of the rise of Modernism, the studies of Sigmund Freud and other psychologists and anthropologists were coming into light and beginning to have an impact on literature. As a result, much of the literature from this period reflects ideas of self awareness and stream of consciousness. In general, modernism believes that “we create the world in the act of perceiving it” (Holman 326). Holman adds that Modernism rejects traditional values and beliefs, embracing the individual, inward, and unconscious as opposed to the social, outward, sub-conscious (Holman 326). From the radical shift of traditional values into a new way of thought and life, the “lost generation” emerged. The Anthology of American Literature reports that this group of self-proclaimed writers found themselves entirely faithless and isolated from a culture they felt no longer made any sense. These sentiments were especially exemplified in the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway (McMichael 983). A Glossary of Literary Terms states that writers of the “lost generation” frequently portrayed themselves as being estranged from the accepted conventions that they deliberately defied (Abrams).
The characters of The Great Gatsby, though they never admit to it themselves, are classic members of the lost generation. Their lives are empty; they attempt to fill this void with extravagant parties, excessive travelling, and extramarital affairs, and by flaunting their wealth. Consider Tom and Daisy Buchanan, the distant relatives of Nick Carraway. According to Nick, the narrator of the novel, “They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together” (Fitzgerald ch.1) in the true fashion of the wealthy lost generation. Though Tom and Daisy have comfortably settled in East Egg, “I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game” (ch.1). Tom spends his time trying to make something of his life through his constant travels, shameless infidelity, and the reading and arguing of books that reflect his personal worldview. Nick, being an observant and insightful narrator, says of Tom, “Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart” (ch.1). In the modernist tradition, Tom is never content, and always seeking something more.
Another key player in The Great Gatsby is Daisy Buchanan. She is the stereotypical wealthy wife of the 1920’s who has little thought or care about anything. Daisy portrays the characteristic Modernist feeling of alienation. She is very isolated in the way that she is stuck in a loveless marriage, has no knowledge or regard of anything that happens outside her upper class circle, and her only friends are as lost as she is. Her sole purpose seems to be to drift to and fro with Tom as a kind of trophy among his other prizes. Although she is a mother, Daisy does not find any kind of meaning in her role as a mother, but uses her daughter as an object to show off. Although Daisy seems to know deep within that her life is empty, in all other respects she seems to be in complete denial. Nick notes that he saw “turbulent emotions possessed her” (ch.1) yet the only thing remotely resembling a confession of her unhappiness is in the following excerpt:
“[Y]ou see I think everything’s terrible anyhow,’ she went on in a convinced way. ‘Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I KNOW. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.’ Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way…and she laughed with thrilling scorn. ‘Sophisticated—God, I’m sophisticated!’” (ch.1).
This small insight into Daisy is probably the clearest example in the novel of the mindset of the lost generation. Daisy has travelled and experienced many things, but it has not made her life at all satisfying. In a section describing Daisy’s past we read that “something within her was crying for a decision. She wanted her life shaped now, immediately—and the decision must be made by some force—of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality—that was close at hand” (ch.8). Although Daisy may have initially had some love for Tom, her decision was materially influenced.
Jay Gatsby is the best example of the Modernist value that focuses more on individual choices, pulling away from the structured society as a whole. Nick says of Gatsby that he had “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again” (ch.1) Gatsby’s boyhood was spent on his family farm, living a very traditional family lifestyle. However, because he rejects the traditional world he came from and is not accepted into the world he is attracted to, Gatsby finds himself alienated from both of these worlds.
The Buchanans have the patterned traditions set forth by their previous generations, but their true happiness is corrupted by the emptiness in their lives. While they try to fill this emptiness with all of the material things money can provide, Gatsby’s life is full of ambition and excitement as he has a goal in reaching his vision of the America Dream. Nick notes that “He was clutching at some last hope and I couldn’t bear to shake him free” (ch.8) and that he was “watching over nothing” (ch.7). Although Gatsby’s optimism is attractive, Nick knows that what Gatsby strives for will never be a reality.
Gatsby has become alienated by the traditional life he once knew as well as the modern life he desperately wants to belong to, but Gatsby remains faithful to his illusory American dream. In a very symbolic scene, when Nick sees Gatsby for the first time, Gatsby “stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way…he was trembling” (ch.1). Nick’s closing remarks about Gatsby confirm “his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him” (ch. 9). Gatsby is close enough to Daisy and the life he longs for that he can see it far off, but both Daisy and his dream of being part of her life in her world are far out of reach, and remain that way.
Nick Carraway finishes his narrative with closing thoughts on the main characters of The Great Gatsby. Tom and Daisy Buchanan have left hastily left the society of East Egg, escaping the speculation that they had anything to do with Gatsby’s death. Nick coldly says of his former friends, “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…” (ch.9). Of Gatsby himself, Nick sympathetically writes: “Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men” (ch.9). At the end of the novel, Nick’s evident frustration with those he had been associated with leaves the lingering feeling of despair, gloom, and ambiguity, in the tradition of true Modernism.
The most defining characteristics of Modernism were the authors of the lost generation and the characters they created who were models of the very same sense of purposelessness; “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (ch.9). It is the sentiment of being lost somewhere between the golden past and the impending future that Fitzgerald captures perfectly in The Great Gatsby. The lost generation was caught somewhere between two vastly different times in a nameless void that we now call Modernism.
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Fortworth: Harcourt, 1999.
Drabble, Margaret. Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Oxford, UP, 1985. 658.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby [electronic version]. [email protected],1 June 2007.
The University of Adelaide Library. Retrieved February 8, 2008. http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/fitzgerald/f_scott/gatsby/
Holman, Hugh. A Handbook to Literature. New York, McMillan. 1992. 298-299.
McMichael, George, ed. Anthology of American Literature. vol. II Upper Saddle River, N.J.
Pearson, 2007. 983-984.
The Commentary in the Last Passage of Chapter 7 in the Great Gatsby
The extract from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby depicts the events that occur after the Buchanans, Nick and Gatsby return from New York, after Daisy drives into and kills Myrtle, while letting Gatsby take the blame. Themes explored in this passage include the façade of the upper class and the American dream.
As Nick makes his way to the “pantry window”, his movements are very gentle, as he “traversed the gravel softly and tiptoed up the veranda steps”. It is almost as if he is being careful to not disturb the perfect quality of the Buchanan residence, which is further highlighted as the “small rectangle of light” from their “pantry window” is the only light shining in this night. However, the mention of the “porch where [they] had dined that June night three months before” is a hint that this perfect façade is disintegrating. “That June night” represents a more innocent time without the problems present at this point – Gatsby and Daisy’s affair and Myrtle’s death. Hence, the vacancy of this porch also signifies the disappearance of this time, and perhaps, the imminent arrival of more problems – Gatsby’s death and Nick’s loss of trust in this society.
This façade is truly dissolved as Nick finds the “rift” in the closed “blind”. Through this “rift”, Daisy and Tom are revealed in their mundanity, their glamour absent. Firstly, the choice of food – “a plate of cold fried chicken between them and two bottles of ale” – is very basic in contrast to the previous extravagance of their meal in “that June night”, where they drank wine and were waited upon. Additionally, there is the “unmistakable air of natural intimacy about them”, as this “earnest” interaction, to them, is safely hidden from the eyes of society, behind the “blind”. They are interacting across a simple “kitchen table” that is implied to be small, as Tom’s hand “fall[s] upon and cover[s]” Daisy’s hand subconsciously, in “his earnestness”.
While it remains ambiguous whether Tom knows about Daisy’s true role in Myrtle’s death, this is almost irrelevant to the matter, as the significance of this interaction is that Tom and Daisy are reuniting, leaving their relationships with Myrtle and Gatsby – who are substandard to them – and perhaps, maybe even discussing their physical leave from this entanglement. On a deeper level, they are “conspiring together” to repair the cracks in their façade caused by their temporary submission to desire for vitality and passion allowed through their respective affairs, by removing themselves from this situation detachedly, neither “happy” nor “unhappy”, but merely objectively. Though it is at the cost of Myrtle’s, and later, Gatsby’s death, perhaps because of the concessions they feel they are entitled to by their upper class status, they are either uncaring or ignorant of these consequences, further emphasised by their detachment from reality behind this “blind”.
The rarity of this insight into the façade of the Buchanans is indicated as Nick leaves this scene just as he entered – he “tiptoe[s] from the porch”. The apparent serenity of the Buchanan residence is reinstalled, as even the taxi is personified to be “feeling its way along the dark road”. The transience of the moment where the Buchanans are unveiled is synonymous with their actions – “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness”.
Still clouded by his dreams centered around Daisy, Gatsby remains oblivious to Daisy’s faults, perhaps never thinking about the possibility of the transition that Daisy is undergoing with Tom to detach themselves from the consequences of their “carelessness”. His concern for Daisy is evident in how he is still “waiting where [Nick] had left him”, and questions Nick “anxiously” the instant he is back. In an attempt to help Gatsby, Nick suggests that Gatsby should “come home and get some sleep”. This suggestion demonstrates Nick’s care and support for Gatsby, not only literally as he tells Gatsby to take care of his health, but also implicitly, as the word “come” has collective connotations. Additionally, “home” refers to a place of belonging, which in Gatsby and Nick’s case is West Egg, the less glamorous, less exclusive equivalent of East Egg. The reality of the situation is that, while Gatsby yearns to reach that “green light”, represented by Daisy and all that she embodies – wealth, lineage, beauty – he can never truly belong there, as his “home”, symbolic of his family background and his roots, is immutable. Regardless of his accumulated wealth or fame, to them, he is merely a parvenu – eternally second class. As such, Nick’s gentle attempt to help Gatsby “come home and get some sleep”, to relax his obsession with reaching the “green light”, can almost represent Nick’s realization that Gatsby’s all-consuming fixation on acquiring Daisy is rather unhealthy, and foreshadows Gatsby’s imminent death.
However, Gatsby persists, and “[shakes] his head” in response to Nick’s suggestions, choosing to remain faithfully by Daisy’s side, and to “wait here till Daisy goes to bed”. In this instance, Gatsby seems quite desperate, almost pathetic, as any contact with Daisy at all, even just through observing the lights in her house, “watching over nothing”, is worthy of “vigil”. The “sacredness” of Gatsby’s “scrutiny of the house” to him can be associated with how Gatsby views Daisy. Just as how her association with the colour white and light portrays her as a sort of celestial and heavenly being, Gatsby’s view of her as his ultimate goal and the way he worships the idea of her elevates her character as an otherworldly, unreachable, yet irresistible goal. This serves to emphasise the futile quality of Gatsby’s goals – just as a human can never transcend the boundary between humans and celestial beings, Gatsby can also never truly overcome the boundary imposed by lineage, between old money and the nouveau riche.
This extract ends rather poetically, as there is a beautiful quality in the way Gatsby is described to be “standing there in the moonlight – watching over nothing”. This is perhaps an acknowledgement of the positive aspect of Gatsby’s ability to hope, as his blind persistence encapsulates the strength of human determination and will, and the essence of the American Dream. However, poignantly, Gatsby can only shine in the “moonlight” – Fitzgerald specifies this time setting to be at night, so as to describe Gatsby in the “moonlight”, light reflected from the sun, which is perhaps representative of Daisy and the glittering beauty of East Egg and its people. While the sole reason for Gatsby’s determination to succeed is the hope that one day, he will obtain Daisy and elevate his own being to be equal to that of Daisy’s, ultimately, similar to the moon that does not emit light and can only receive the reflected light from the sun, he can never truly acquire “light” of his own, and his aspirations are mere reflections of the people who truly own this “light”, namely, the Buchanans and the people of East Egg. Nick’s description of the object of Gatsby’s “scrutiny” as “nothing” is an indication of his developing disgust towards this level of society, which foreshadows his later detachment from this society and conclusion that they are “careless people”. “Nothing” could also signify Gatsby’s eventual achievement, as in the end, his efforts only result in his own death, and he is reduced to nothing and forgotten in the eyes of society.
This passage is significant as it captures a rare, unrevealed moment of the upper class. Yet, this instance also continues to highlight the insurmountable barrier between Gatsby and his dreams, concluding with a poignant atmosphere enforcing the futility of Gatsby’s desires to conquer the American dream, and foreshadowing the imminent deaths of Gatsby and the hope and dreams he represents.