The Great Gatsby

Analysing Scott Fitzgerald’s Novel


Mid-Paper - Canon Readings 3





I n t r o d u c t i o n



The Great Gatsby tells a lot about Fitzgerald’s own story. And to find out such relations, we must go back in time, when the former second lieutenant stationed at Camp Sheridan (Montgomery, Alabama) fell in love with a wild seventeen-year-old beauty girl named Zelda Sayre.


After being insistent, she finally agreed to marry him, but her strong desire for wealth, fun, and leisure made her to postpone the wedding until he could achieve some success, which came after the publishing of This Side of Paradise, in 1920, when Fitzgerald became a celebrity and earned enough money.


In his The Great Gatsby of 1925, we are presented to the protagonist, but always under the eyes of a narrator named Nick Carraway. Jay Gatsby is a sensitive young man who lives now in a sophisticated environment of wealth and luxury. However, he is distressed by the memories of a great love of the past, a beautiful young woman that he knew while stationed at a military camp in the South.



Fitzgerald also became the most famous critic of the USA in the 1920s, an era known as the “Jazz Age”, being The Great Gatsby one of the most important literary register of this period, when the American economy was growing fast, bringing prosperity at levels never seem before.


These were the times when the Prohibition Law, created by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of 1919, made fortunes from the sale of alcohol beverages. Also, an underground culture spread fast from private parties created to elude the police, which took place at the “speakeasies”, secret clubs where liquor could be freely consumed.


After the chaos of World War I, America was anxious to overcome a certain a state of shock and, to compensate all the violence of such conflicting years, the very next generation started to live in a extravagant way. So, money, power and opulence became the new tone of the society.


The author's own personality, past and point of view fluctuate between two opposite poles, embodied by Nick and Jay. Both Fitzgerald and Gatsby found this new lifestyle exciting and seductive: it was an era of great materialism, when the very rich were idolized, particularly in the largest cities of the East cost. However, Fitzgerald, now just like Nick, could also see much beyond the Jazz Age, and realized all the hypocrisy and moral emptiness of that glamorous society.


Finally, like Jay Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald was also driven by his love for a woman who embodied everything he wanted in life but who, at the same time, seemed hesitant in recognizing the strength of a great love, totally released from the material necessities that money could bring.




M a i n   C h a r a c t e r s




J a y   G a t s b y


He is initially presented as the enigmatic host of the unbelievably opulent weekly parties at his mansion. Always presented through the narrator’s eyes, Fitzgerald develops a technique of delaying the revelations concerning the character, as a manner to emphasize the mysteries that involves his hero.


Gatsby has an almost theatrical behavior as he has literally created his own character, after changing his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby. This revealed talent for self-invention granted him the quality of “greatness”, just like the vaudeville magicians. This inventiveness also suggests that the persona of Jay Gatsby hides the real personality of a master of illusions. But during the novel, he is successively deconstructed, becoming an innocent, hopeful young man who fails in realizing that his dreams were unworthy.




N i c k   C a r r a w a y



If Gatsby may be seen as one side of Fitzgerald’s personality, the celebrity who pursued wealth to impress the woman he loved, Nick represents the author´s quiet and reflective side. So, Nick became the perfect choice to narrate the novel, acting as the memories of that 1922 summer, gaining the maturity at the end of the book.




T o m   B u c h a n a n



He is Daisy’s wealthy husband and a former Yale fellow of Nick. Tom is an arrogant, hypocritical person whose attitudes reveal racism and sexism. Although he demonstrates no scruple in having an extramarital relationship with Myrtle, he becomes angry when he suspect that Daisy and Gatsby could have and affair.




D a i s y   B u c h a n a n



She represents Gatsby’s ideal of perfection as she embodies the sophistication, wealth, charm and grace of an aristocracy. But, on the other hand, She is inconstant, shallow, disdainfully and bored. The character is partially based on Fitzgerald’s own wife. And just like Zelda Fitzgerald, Daisy is always in love with material luxury. She is even capable of some affection but not of sustained loyalty or care.




Themes, Motifs & Symbols



The Decline of the American Dream in the 1920s


In a first reading, The Great Gatsby is a love story between a man and a woman. But it is also a very symbolic meditation on 1920s, when all a generation of young Americans was disillusioned by the brutal carnage of war. In these new post-war times, it was perfectly possible to a person from any social background to make fortune fast, which made the American aristocracy (those with “old money”) to scorn the new legion of rich industrialists and speculators, in a scenery of alcohol illegal sale and consumption.


Such social climbers and ambitious speculators could be seen at Gatsby’s famous parties. And as it is explained by Nick in Chapter IX, the American dream, which was originally based in the individualistic pursuit of happiness, was being corrupted by easy money and relaxed social values.



The Hollowness of the Upper Class


The sociology involving wealth is also explored in the novel, making evident the differences between the new millionaires of the 1920s and the country’s old aristocracy, represented by Tom and Daisy.


Fitzgerald describes the new riches as vulgar, ostentatious, and lacking in taste and social graces while the old aristocracy is portrayed as possessing grace, taste and elegance. An example of it is the own Gatsby, who lives in an over ornate gigantic mansion, wears extravagant clothes and drives expensive cars. In opposition, the Buchanans live in a tasteful home and Daisy wears elegant dresses.


But what the old aristocracy has in terms of taste lack in heart as they never worry about hurting others.



T h e   G e o g r a p h y


The clash between “old” and “new money” is evidenced through a symbolic geography: the established aristocracy is represented by East Egg in opposition to the West Egg, territory of the self-made new riches.


Also, the valley of ashes represents the moral and social decay of America while New York City is presented as the amoral and uninhibited paradise for money and pleasure.



T h e   W e a t h e r


The weather also matches the emotional tone of the story: Gatsby and Daisy’s first meeting happens in the melancholy scenery of pouring rain while Gatsby’s confrontation with Tom occurs under the scorching sun of the hottest day of the summer. Also, Wilson kills Gatsby on the first day of autumn, being all these relations easily found in Shakespeare plays such as Romeo and Juliet.



T h e   G r e e n   L I g h t


Located at the Buchanan’s East Egg dock, it represents Gatsby’s hopes and dreams for a future with Daisy. It is a guiding light in the dark that also symbolizes the American dream rising out of the ocean and which must have guided the early settlers of the new nation.



T h e   V a l l e y   o f   A s h e s


It is a long stretch of desolate land composed of industrial ashes that separates West Egg to New York City. As already said, it also represents both moral and social decay related to the pursuit of wealth. It also represents the drama lived by the poorest like George Wilson and his wife.



The Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg


The advertising billboard located in the valley of ashes may represent the emptiness of symbols and dreams or, at the same time, God eyes judging the American society, but only George Wilson realizes it.



C o n c l u s i o n


Much beyond than a mere pastoral documentary of the Jazz Era, The Great Gatsby offers some of the most severe criticism of the American dream, making clear the hidden boundaries involving the American vision of life. The novel explores the American dream as it existed in a period of great corruption while attempting to divide reality from illusions – a very difficult task as illusions seemed to be more real than reality.


America’s Jazz Age was a period of opulence and excess between the end of World War I and the Great Depression, when both mass production and mass consumption made the USA the richest country in the world. As a consequence of such unprecedented growth, a strong income polarization isolated the very rich ones, while a great number of utilities were fascinating an arising middle class – such as cars, telephones and electric home devices. An idealized life of consumption and comfort was than becoming the basis for the values and goals of a society constructed over the concepts of the individualism.


Surprisingly, a rhythm created at the periphery of Harlem became the hit of such years of social differences, strong conservatism and prejudices against afro-Americans and immigrants in general. In a certain way, the hesitations of Nick Carraway clearly showed the contradictions of that society, whenever mixing disapproval to excesses and romanticized views about facts and relationships. And it is a fact that negation and resistance walk side by side with the desire of possession in a context of exclusion. So, Nick’s indecisiveness could also be considered as a reflex of the instability of those times.


Despite of the obscurity of his wealthy, Gatsby became a personification of the American “self-made” romantic hero, whose elegance and manners are referred as ‘gorgeous’ by the narrator. But, as already mentioned, the same narrator who praises our “hero” keeps an unstable point of view concerning Gatsby throughout the novel. Nevertheless, his ambiguity could not be seen as a fault: his hesitations reveal a new type narrator, who tells things from his memory. And, consequently, this weakness contributes to create an atmosphere of uncertainty which matches with the glamour and mysteries involving Gatsby.


The vast list of luxury items that surrounded Gatsby also makes readers to have an illusionary view about the character, giving him a gigantic, unreal stature. But this previous image is gradually deconstructed as Gatsby reveals to be an innocent, hopeful young man, who anxiously expects to make his own (love) dreams (or illusions) come true (to the reality).


Gatsby frequently received guests at his property, who were avid to take part in those legendary events. They admired him but our hero also needed their presence, revealing an empty relationship of mutual symbiosis, suddenly broken when Gatsby meets Daisy.


They have different expectations and Daisy’s power over Gatsby is much higher. She is much more an idealized (past) promise of happiness than properly the beloved woman he expected. Gatsby is, thus, imprisoned in his disenchanted present, being totally unable to achieve a future of personal satisfaction since he belonged much more to a golden, idealized past.


       In a different way, Daisy is also imprisoned in her snobbish, destructive world of glamour, which symbolized the American society of appearances, property acquisitions and wealth. The essence of the American dream is, thus, personified in Gatsby, but there was an obstacle that would unable him to reach his idealized future with his beloved Daisy: she married Tom Buchanan, an arrogant man of great fortune, brutal acquisitions and inconsequent extra-marital relationships. Notwithstanding this, Daisy rejected Gatsby simply because she would no longer be accepted as a prominent member of the society, if she left Tom.


Also, Tom could be seem as the virtual Gatsby’s murderer, since the confusion involving the change of cars made George Wilson come to the wrong conclusion that the driver of the vehicle that killed Myrtle was certainly her lover. For Gatsby, such ending was certainly a very improbable one as the smart “businessman” (and readers) was (were) not expecting to be surprised by a single shot from a non-professional murder.


The mythic Gatsby revealed, then, to be a blind, immature romantic in that world where things counted more than souls. And, by the end of the novel, readers could even go so far as to say that the problem with Gatsby was a certain lack of critical intelligence, although values and ideas in the novel were coherent to guarantee verisimilitude.


Making a parallel with the Brazilian scene between 1917 and 1930, we will realize that Historical – and Economic – differences between both countries would not permit a perfect transposition of the story to that Brazil of the Oligarchies.


        But if the novel was rewritten to our days of globalization and investment grade, we could perfectly conclude that Daslu lobbies, Caras Island and SPFW salons would be the perfect settings for a new Brazilian version, with its famous chic artists and glamorized top models, as well as the most genuine representatives of our local “self-made-men-with-obscure-past”, all of them frenetically dancing the most recent techno (not jazzy) repetitive garbage while referring with disdain to anything else that is strange to their “updated-first-world-like” environment.


B i b l i o g r a p h y





·    FITZGERALD, F. S. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1967.



·     BEWLEY, M. Criticism of America. In F.Scott Fitzgerald. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1963



·    HALL, S. Cultural Identity and Diaspora. In Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990.



·    HUGHES, L. The Negro Artist and the Cultural Mountain. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. London: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2008.



·    LEAVIS, F. R. Mass Civilization and Minority Culture. In Williams, R. Writing in Society. London: Verso, 1983.




·    CANTERBERY, E. R. The Jazz Age: Aftermath of War and Prelude to Depression. In A Brief History of Economics – Artful Approaches to the Dismal Science. New Jersey: World Scientific Press, 2001.