A novel of the ‘Roaring Twenties’
This novel lays claim to being (probably) the most memorable fictional evocation of America of the ‘roaring twenties’, the jazz-age America which came to such a devastating end with the Wall Street Crash at the end of that crazy decade. Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s finest achievement, is interesting as the record of an era and of the disillusionment felt by thoughtful, sensitive people with established institutions and beliefs and in their sense of moral chaos in America after the Great War of 1914-1918.
Such was Fitzgerald’s success in expressing what was widely regarded as the spirit of the twenties that he was virtually credited with inventing the period. It was inevitable that he should be honoured with such dubious titles of distinction as ‘the laureate of the jazz age’ and ‘the novelist of the American dream’. It is true that he is remarkably successful in rendering some of the essential features of an exciting time. Sometimes it seems that Gatsby captures the moment and renders a more convincing account of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ than many a historical document.
The fragile, rich, drifting world of the twenties was the emotional heart of Fitzgerald’s life, the source of his happiness as well as his misery. Gatsby is a reflection of his passionate involvement in the issues of his day, but also of his ambivalent attitude to what he saw and experienced. It is, however, more than that. In 1950, the critic Lionel Trilling remarked that The Great Gatsby was still as fresh and as relevant as when it first appeared in 1925, and that it had even gained in stature and relevance, something that could be said of few American novels of its time. Sixty five years after Trilling’s comment, there is little evidence that interest in the novel has in any way declined. Indeed, its popularity has been enhanced by Hollywood film producers who have brought the novel and the era to the silver screen with great success and acclaim.
The American Dream
The Great Gatsby is, like many American novels, about an American dream, one dreamed by the romantic, wealthy bootlegger who gives the book its title. Gatsby’s dream begins when, as a poor young man, he falls in love with Daisy, a girl whose charm, youth and beauty are coloured and made glamorous in his eyes by a lifetime of wealth, whose very voice, he notes, ‘is full of money’. His dream that Daisy may become accessible to one of his class and background is nourished by two circumstances: the war makes him an officer, and his post-war activities elevate him to riches. Gatsby must, however, learn that such things will not bring Daisy wholly within his reach and that however ardently he may pursue it, his dream cannot be realised simply because he wills it.
In Gatsby, Fitzgerald is dealing with an important social theme. He is fascinated by class distinctions and their relationship with the possession of wealth. This places him firmly in the tradition of the great classical novelists. The English novel originated in an age (the early eighteenth century) when class structures were drastically disturbed. Most of the major English novelists have since continued to be absorbed by class differences, and to draw heavily on these and their influences on human behaviour and attitudes. Think of the dominance of class and money in the novels of Jane Austen. Although there is an evident ambiguity in Fitzgerald’s attitude to those who possess great wealth, the established rich, they still represent what Lionel Trilling calls, ‘the nearest thing to an aristocracy that America could offer him’. Fitzgerald deals with the trappings and symbols of this American aristocracy, the great one being money. In one of his stories, The Rich Boy, there is this telling comment:
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them.
Readers of Gatsby will recognise that it is mainly about what money does to those who possess it in abundance.
There are, of course, two main versions of wealth in The Great Gatsby, dramatically contrasted throughout. This contrast gives the book much of its interest. Gatsby himself is the newly-rich tycoon, the boy from Dakota who thought he had to get rich quickly to win the love of a rich girl. His wealth gives him a vulgar neo-Gothic mansion, an incredible car, and garish clothes; it causes him to assume uncharacteristic stances and attitudes, including ‘an elaborate formality of speech’. All of these things placed side by side with the grace and ease associated with the representatives of the established rich, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, appear ludicrous. Gatsby is, from one point of view, a vulgar upstart who purchases his standing in society by giving mammoth parties patronised by all and sundry. (Check out Fitzgerald’s descriptions of these parties). His great wealth, for all his efforts, cannot imitate the effects produced by that of the Buchanans.
The world of the Buchanans
But the contrast is not entirely, or even mainly, in favour of the established rich. Gatsby, for all his lavish vulgarity, turns out all right in the end in the eyes of the reader; the Buchanans do not. Gatsby is using his money as an instrument with which to achieve something, to further his aim of enriching his life; he has a capacity for wonder, for excitement, not shared by the Buchanans. Their wealth and that of their associate Jordan Baker is sterile, which induces a tired, bored attitude to life. “We ought to plan something,” yawns Jordan, ‘sitting down at the table as if she were getting out of bed’; and again, “You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow … Everybody thinks so.”
What Fitzgerald establishes in the scenes involving the Buchanans is that their money has drained away their emotions. Daisy’s pattern of living, based as it has always been on the security of possession, has given her the habit of retreating in the face of responsibility into ‘their money or their vast carelessness’. This aspect of the mentality of the established rich is more than once contrasted with Gatsby’s heroic, if ludicrous, romantic idealism. He watches outside the Buchanan house after the accident, seeking to shelter Daisy from its unpleasant consequences. She is seated with Tom over a plate of cold chicken and two bottles of ale (‘an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture’) when Nick arrives. Gatsby looks at the latter ‘as though his presence marred the sacredness of the vigil’. The vulgar tycoon can also be the chivalrous, incorruptible upholder of ideals, however, mistaken these may be.
The superficial beautiful world of Tom and Daisy is just as ludicrous in its way as the one Gatsby creates around himself. Gatsby’s world is, of course, a pathetic attempt to reproduce that of people like the Buchanans; by aping its surface, he fondly imagines that he can capture its heart. His provision for himself of an acceptable background is part of the elaborate, absurd pretence. As he reveals these fictional details, his speech becomes stiff and stilted, he chokes and swallows on the phrases:
I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle west – all dead now. I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years. It is a family tradition.
Almost all of this is false, of course, the truth being less flattering: ‘An instinct towards his future glory had led him to the small Lutheran college of St Olaf’s in Southern Minnesota’. His stay at Oxford is short and undistinguished. But the attitudes of the Buchanans are exposed by Fitzgerald to as pitiless a scrutiny. Here is a sample of what passes for thinking among them on ‘serious’ issues:
This idea is that we’re all Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and – After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again – And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilisation – oh, science and art and all that. Do you see?
The narrator Nick caraway remarks at the beginning that one of the things his father told him was that ‘a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.’ It is, oddly enough, in the socially deprived Gatsby rather than the long-established Buchanans that the ‘fundamental decencies’ are most in evidence.
Balancing two worlds in the novel
‘The test of a first-class intelligence,’ Fitzgerald remarked, ‘is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’ In The Great Gatsby, he holds contrasting ideas simultaneously on some major aspects of his material and successfully integrates opposing arguments and points of view. The most obvious instance of this is when he oscillates between imaginative identification with the splendours of rich society and a recurring tendency towards objective analysis of its limitations. The boredom, limited emotional range and narrowness of mind of the Buchanan set is very cleverly conveyed in the dialogue, but against this, he can also convey in a very sensuous way the attractions of being very wealthy:
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. At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with the low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.
But a more significant tension is that between the responses called forth by the two sides of Gatsby’s nature, as they are revealed in a few critical episodes and mediated to us through the play of Nick’s judgement of the events and his responses to them. The central passage of the novel, taken in conjunction with Gatsby’s own account of his background, provides a good example of the ambivalence with which the hero is regarded by his creator:
I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of god – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would like to invent, and to this conception, he was faithful to the end.
The obscene, gargantuan vulgarity of his weekend parties is evoked with sober irony:
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. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb!
Gatsby as a tragic figure
If this were all there was to Gatsby, we would read the novel as a satire on contemporary manners. Fitzgerald’s first publishers did, indeed, call the book a satire, but it is only incidentally so: principally in the contribution of the minor characters, and in the occasional comment on the incongruous activities of the major ones. But the story and the main character are tragic. The tragic implications of story and character arise chiefly from Gatsby’s redeeming qualities. Like Fitzgerald himself, Gatsby is a romantic, and in the end meets the fate of all romantics: disillusion, a sense of inadequacy in the face of experience, a deeply felt sense of failure. His romantic dream is centred on Daisy, an unworthy object as he finds out too late.
Gatsby’s romanticism is stressed throughout the book. It sometimes involves an endearingly childlike attitude to experience, a sentimental attachment to anything associated with those he loves, not found in any of the other characters. ‘If it wasn’t for the mist,’ he tells Daisy, ‘we could see your house across the bay. You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’ This green light acquires a symbolic force. In a famous passage at the close of the novel, we are reminded of the sense of wonder Gatsby experienced when he first noticed the light at the end of daisy’s dock; it comes to stand as a memorial to his romantic idealism:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine evening – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
A sense of the past
Gatsby has the characteristic romantic preoccupation with the past. This is beautifully evoked by Fitzgerald in a telling passage, which reveals some of the hidden springs of his failure and of his tragedy. His great delusion is a sad and common one: that the past can be restored and duplicated, and the effects of the passage of time erased. Gatsby wants Daisy to abandon Tom Buchanan so that, after she is free, she may go back with him to Louisville to be married from her house, ‘just as if it were five years ago’. When caraway tells him he can’t repeat the past like this he can see no reason whatever why: ‘I’m going to fix everything just as it was before.’ His longing to do so is perfectly comprehensible. His life has been disordered since his parting with Daisy: he wants to ‘recover something, some idea of himself, perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy’. He returns in his poignant day-dream to a starting place, to a scene with Daisy, described in heightened, poetic, emotionally-charged language, that can make sober realities pale into unimportance. The incident takes on almost an absolute value, for us readers as well as for Gatsby. Little wonder that he wants to begin again from such a point:
One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year …
His vain hope of recapturing such a past is finally extinguished by Tom Buchanan’s exposure of his activities during the intervening years. The romantic cavalier is mercilessly stripped of his glamour: ‘He and Wolfstein bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter … I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him.’ Tom reduces Gatsby’s thrilling aspirations to the level of the sordid: ‘I think he realises that his presumptuous little flirtation is over.’ The end of the quest for lost happiness is tellingly rendered:
But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up, and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, towards that lost voice across the room.
Fitzgerald the moralist
Scott Fitzgerald was at heart a moralist. He once gave as his reason for writing fiction ‘a desire to preach at people in some acceptable form’. Moralists often find their natural outlet in satire, and Fitzgerald was gifted with a keen satiric eye and a keen sense of the absurdities of human nature. Tom’s defence of ‘civilisation’ against the ‘inferior’ races provides a good example. There are more good satiric portraits of minor figures like Catherine and Mr. McKee:
Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle, but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face … He informed me that he was in ‘the artistic game’, and I gathered later that he was a photographer and had made a dim enlargement of Mrs. Wilson’s mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall. His wife was shrill, languid, handsome and horrible.
But these, and the description of the massive vulgarity of the Gatsby residence are isolated patches; Fitzgerald was much more attracted to the affirmation of what he saw as the good than to the denunciation of the bad. The positives celebrated in The Great Gatsby are the simple virtues: the hopeful, wondering, questioning attitudes of mid-Western America, o the ‘broad, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio’, over against which, in rich contrast, is the urban sophistication, culture, boredom and corruption of the jaded East.
Flaws in the novel
The significance of the title of the book in relation to all this is often missed. Gatsby is great is so far as he stands for the simplicity of heart Fitzgerald identified with the mid-West; he is a vulgar, contemptible figure in so far as he revels in the notoriety that his worldly success lends to his name. He is, of course, a man of limited understanding, failing at once to appreciate his own real claims to recognition (his idealism, his high romantic aspirations) and to recognise his error in thinking that he really belongs to the world he has entered. In its way, too, the novel is limited in its treatment of its central figure. After all, we are expected to find the supreme value of the story and its hero in its romantic aspirations, in his ‘heightened sensitivity to the promises of life’. There is no voice in the novel, no point of view which seems to question the adequacy of this attitude. To many readers, it must seem a poor enough one in face of the complexities of actual living. What is perhaps more disturbing is that the novelist himself seems to find Gatsby’s romantic stance entirely adequate. A remark of his seems to bear this out:
That’s the whole burden of the novel, the loss of those illusions that give such colour to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.
If this is the best that can be set over against the amoral world of the established rich, many readers will leave the book down with a sense of disappointment.
Merits of The Great Gatsby
Against this, however, one must stress the considerable virtues of The great Gatsby: its poetic quality (Fitzgerald was a devoted reader of T.S. Eliot, who influenced him here), its almost flawless structure, Fitzgerald’s mastery of technique. His use of detail to suggest symbolic meaning is particularly impressive. Here it is interesting to note that one of the best symbols in the book, the grotesque eyes of T.J. Eckleburg’s billboard came to him by chance. His publisher had a dust jacket designed for The Great Gatsby, a poor quality picture intended to suggest, by means of two enormous eyes, Daisy brooding over an amusement-park version of New York. Fitzgerald’s brilliant reworking of this in the book is a tribute to his intuitive skill. Again, the slow, gradual presentation of Gatsby is a tour de force. We are more than half-way through the book before we know the important things about him. The evocation of atmosphere and background is memorable and utterly satisfying; a detail or two will often suffice to fix indelibly a scene, a character or a mood:
With an effort Wilson left the shade and support of the doorway, and, breathing hard, unscrewed the cap of the tank. In the sunlight his face was green.
One must not ignore the intelligent use by Fitzgerald of Carraway as narrator; a good deal of the colour and subtlety of the novel arises from the response of the narrator’s judgement and feelings to the events he describes.
Finally, the power and impact of the book are greatly enhanced by Fitzgerald’s concentration of his story and theme into a relatively few telling scenes.
About the Author....
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940), known professionally as F. Scott Fitzgerald, was an American novelist and short story writer, whose writing gives us a memorable fictional evocation of America of the ‘roaring twenties’ and of the Jazz Age. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. Fitzgerald is considered a member of the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s. He finished four novels: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, The Great Gatsby (his best known), and Tender Is the Night. A fifth, unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, was published posthumously. Fitzgerald also wrote numerous short stories, many of which treat themes of youth and promise, and age and despair (Wikipedia).