The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald), Essay Example

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Essay

Scott Fitzgerald’s classic work, The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald), is an insightful glimpse into the upper echelons of American society in the 1920’s. America was emerging from its first involvement in a world war, overcoming the effects of a recent depression, and adjusting to the recent enactment of prohibition (Miller). In Gatsby Fitzgerald examines how society adjusted to these changes. The main theme of the novel is the relationship between the philandering Jay Gatsby and his neighbor, Daisy Buchanan.

The story is told from the point of view of the narrator, Nick Carraway, who is a young Midwesterner who graduated from the Yale prior to the beginning of the First World War. After completing his service he decides to begin his career in the bond business on Wall Street and rents a home on Long Island. Coincidentally, Carraway’s Long Island neighbor is Jay Gatsby. Carraway finds Gatsby to be an unusual character but Carraway resolves to take a wait and see attitude toward Gatsby and sits back and observes the activities of Gatsby and the rest of his Long Island neighbors.

Carraway’s value to the story is his detachment. Although he is intricately involved in the story line as a character his ability to reserve judgment allows him to be an almost invisible in the drama that unfolds in the story. Being nearly invisible he is able to relate the conflicts that appear throughout the story such as Tom’s affair with Myrtle, Gatsby’s love for Daisy, and his own evolving friendship with Gatsby. It makes him appear almost omniscient but, of course, he is not because his character undergoes a transformation in the course of the book just like Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby. In the end Carraway surrenders his detachment and offers his opinion on everyone but by then he has completed his role as narrator and the reader is ready to listen to his views on the various conflicting plots.

Carraway is not a complete stranger to the Long Island scene. Gatsby’s love interest, Daisy Buchanan, is his cousin and Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, was in Carraway’s fraternity at Yale. Carraway learns early that Tom is being unfaithful to Daisy. Nick is uncomfortable with this knowledge but remains discrete and keeps the information to himself. Interestingly, for reasons that are never really explained, Tom decides to introduce Nick to his mistress, Myrtle Wilson. At the meeting, however, Myrtle begins to act indiscreetly resulting in Tom’s losing his temper and striking Myrtle. In his typical style, Nick merely observes the activities and says and does nothing.

A few days after witnessing the tensions between Tom and Myrtle Carraway learns of Gatsby’s interest in Daisy for the first time when Gatsby requests that Carraway arrange a date for him with Daisy. He learns that Daisy and Gatsby had had a relationship before the War but that when he was sent overseas Daisy had taken up with Tom and eventually married him. Gatsby tells Carraway that he wants to win Daisy back and that his decision to buy his house was motivated by his desire to be near her. Continuing his attitude of detachment and non-involvement, Carraway says nothing but, instead, acts to facilitate Gatsby’s wishes by arranging a meeting between Gatsby and Daisy. The meeting between Gatsby and Daisy does not goes well initially as Gatsby is overtaken by an uncharacteristic lack of confidence but in time the relationship is re-ignited.

The intrigue of the story explodes once Carraway discovers the secrets of Gatsby’s past. Nick discovers that Gatsby is actually James Gatz a struggling farmer’s son from a small Midwestern town. He learns that Gatsby assumed his new identity “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” (104).     With this new knowledge, which he shares with the reader, Carraway is present for a party at Gatsby’s where he witnesses the interactions between Tom,Daisy, and Gatsby. The entire scene is surreal and becomes even more so when Tom begins later in the evening to inquire of Carraway as to Gatsby’s background. Tom advises Carraway that he plans to “make a point of finding out” (115).

The plot thickens as Tom discovers that Gatsby and his wife, Daisy, are having an affair during a dinner party at their house. In response to this discovery, Tom plans a trip to New York City involving himself, Gatsby, Carraway, Daisy, and Jordan, Carraway’s love interest in the story. Tom, Carraway and Jordan travel in Gatsby’s yellow car while Daisy and Gatsby travel in Tom’s blue car. A bit of irony arises as Tom stops at the auto repair garage belonging to his mistress’ husband. Myrtle’s husband has just discovered that she is having an affair and that, as a result, they are planning to move westward immediately. Carraway, steps outside his usual behavior and points out to Tom the irony of his having discovered about Daisy’s affair on the same day that his mistress’ husband finds out about his affair with Myrtle.

Matters deteriorate further as the parties arrive in New York City. Due to combination of intense heat and excessive drinking verbal sparring develops between Tom and Gatsby.  During this sparring, both parties throw accusations at each other and make assumptions about each other’s character. In the end, Tom demands that Gatsby and Daisy drive home to Long Island in Gatsby’s car with the realization that “his presumptuous little flirtation is over” (142).

Gatsby and Daisy’s returning to Long Island provides the background for the final subplot of the story. As Gatsby and Daisy are driving home they accidently strike Myrtle, Tom’s mistress, as she is attempting to escapes the throes of her husband in his attempt to prepare for their move westward. Gatsby and Daisy do not stop at the scene but they are seen by Myrtle’s husband, whose mental stability is rapidly worsening as a result of his having discovered that Myrtle was having an affair, leaving the scene. He assumes that the man in the car was Myrtle’s lover and he begins his journey to find the man. After making inquiries throughout the Long Island area Myrtle’s husband finds Gatsby and kills him and then kills himself.

In the closing scenes of the story Carraway ties matters together through his narration. He discovers that Gatsby was living his lavish lifestyle off the selling of stolen bonds (174); he is enlightened to the fact that Gatsby’s popularity was totally related to his perceived wealth and that he had no true friends (183); and that Daisy and Tom have left town unexpectedly. This combination of discoveries leaves Carraway questioning the meaning of Gatsby’s life.

The greatness of Fitzgerald’s book is not the story line itself. Although the story is interesting and intriguing it is in what the book reveals about the societal values of the 1920’s and the symbolism that Fitzgerald utilizes in making these revelations that gives the book merit.

The most obvious symbol used by Fitzgerald is the often reappearing reference to a mysterious green light (Rimer). As the story unfolds the reader discovers that the green light is located at the end of the dock at Daisy’s house. The green light symbolizes Gatsby’s hope for the future. He dreams that he and Daisy will soon be reunited. At periodic times throughout the book, the green light is partially obstructed with these periods corresponding with the times that their relationship is somehow being compromised. More broadly, the green light also represented Gatsby’s pursuit for the American Dream. The money, the material wealth, and status that Gatsby viewed were the earmarks of success.

The area surrounding the auto repair garage of Myrtle’s husband is identified in the book as the “Valley of Ashes.” It is a poor area that symbolizes the harsh differences between the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by Gatsby and his friends on Long Island and the poor working people of the Valley of the Ashes (28). Fitzgerald describes the area as “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air” (27). In the story itself the Valley of Ashes is the setting for many of the more insidious events of the story. It is here that Tom has his affair with Myrtle, where Daisy and Gatsby strike and kill Myrtle with Gatsby’s car, and where Myrtle’s husband (George) ultimately decides to kill Gatsby (Magnum).

The symbolism of the billboard provides eeriness to Fitzgerald’s story. The billboard in question depicts the leering eyes of a faceless Dr. Eckleburg overlooking the Valley of Ashes (Callahan). The significance of the leering eyes comes to light in the books final chapters as George (Myrtle’s husband) refers to them as “God (167).” George in his frustrating last hours relies upon the leering eyes for guidance in his decision to kill Gatsby and in making his moral judgment as to the sinfulness of Myrtle’s behavior.

The overriding strength of Fitzgerald’s use of symbolism is the use of Gatsby’s mansion. The mansion symbolizes not only the materialism of the era but also Gatsby’s obsessive desire to recapture Daisy’s affections. Through the pretense that the mansion provides Gatsby is able to create the illusion of wealth and prominence that he feels he needs to win Daisy’s affections. As a symbol, however, the mansion also reflects the precarious nature of Gatsby’s life. In the end the mansion stands as a sad testimony to the loneliness of Gatsby’s life. A man who dies mistaken as Myrtle’s lover and who dies with no friends; a man who is uncovered as a thief and is alleged to have been involved in bootlegging.

As to Fitzgerald’s view of society in the 1920’s he is critical of the lack of morality and spirituality during the period. In The Great Gatsby he portrays the 20’s as a time when society substituted materialism and the use of instant gratification for structure and spirituality. Through the development of his characters he pinpointed the moral blindness that was present throughout society and he did not limit it to just those with money. In the Gatsby both Tom, a member of society’s elite, and George, a member of the lowest edges of society, were both morally corrupt. Through the symbolism of large, lavish parties he demonstrates that this moral blindness is pervasive and knows no bounds.

Tom Buchanan is used by Fitzgerald to symbolize the absence of morality in 1920’s America (Rooney). Buchanan is an advocate of the superiority of the white race and professes that everything good in society is the result of Nordics. He looks down upon those who he considers to be either from “new money” or no money. For Tom, there is only one legitimate group in society and that is those who descend from “old money (London).” His superior attitude is demonstrated throughout the entire story as, for instance, when he strikes and breaks Myrtle’s nose in their argument in New York City or during the brief episode where he throws money at a man selling puppies on the street. His disdain for those from new money comes from his belief that they have not earned it fairly and that their background is from a lower class of society.

Tom sees nothing wrong in his having an affair with Myrtle. He believes that Daisy will not be bothered by it and, even if she is, she will learn to understand it. “Once and a while I go off on a spree and make a fool of myself, but I always come back, and in my heart I love her all the time.” Confirming Tom’s belief and Fitzgerald’s view of the moral blindness of society is the fact that Daisy actually does forgive Tom and refuses to condemn for the affair in any way.

Myrtle, on the other hand, demonstrates that moral depravity is not limited to the upper classes of 1920’s America. Myrtle is from a very simple background but desires to rise above her status and reach into the upper class. It is questionable whether she actually loves Tom or rather her motives are entirely alternative. She manages to keep her affair with Tom quiet for a while but eventually her behavior makes it clear to her husband what is occurring. Surprisingly, her husband refuses to blame Myrtle but, instead, finds blame in the social elite that lives in the nearby Long Island community.

Perhaps the clearest indication of Fitzgerald’s view toward 1920’s society is the fact that none of the hanger-ons that frequented the lavish parties that Gatsby threw found the time or had the inclination to attend Gatsby’s funeral. Obviously, Gatsby’s apparent popularity is based upon what he had to offer others in the way of parties and other festivities and not on any filial feelings. Everyone, even those who had professed being close to him during his life, find excuses not to attend demonstrating Fitzgerald’s belief that the outward signs of friendship that one found in 1920 American society were in actuality further evidence of a lack of morality and spirituality.

In many ways Fitzgerald in his book has foreshadowed what he believes is America’s path toward destruction. He tells his tell in a relatively neutral manner as the narrator, Nick Carraway, is strongly detached and offers little or no opinion relative to the various events occurring in and around Gatsby’s home. Fitzgerald for the most part leaves the formation of moral judgments to the reader but there are subtle references to biblical stories and their reliance on relating stories with morals. Fitzgerald definitely viewed American society has being on the verge of absolute decay and he may have been right. The Great Depression, as difficult as it might have been for many Americans, may have actually saved American society (McElvaine). The Depression altered the financial situation in America and made open materialism more difficult and caused Americans to turn their attention to more basic issues. Lavish parties, expensive cars, and other demonstrations of materialism were no longer viewed as positives but as signs of ostentation and arrogant. The upper classes were no longer emulated as mere survival became the goal of most of society. In just a few short years everything had changed in America and Fitzgerald’s view of society, if it was ever accurate, had become no longer valid.

In the end Gatsby’s dreams fail and the reader is brought to the realization that happiness cannot be bought (Roberts). Money can buy houses, cars, and guests at parties but love and happiness are not attached to these things. Gatsby’s wealth was unreal and so were his friends. He tried to return to a day when he felt he was happy but he never realizes that this is not possible and certainly not through the use of money (Antin). Gatsby’s rise to wealth and fame was rapid but his fall from grace was equally as rapid.

Works Cited

Antin, M. The Promised Land. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Callahan, John F. “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s evolving American dream: The pursuit of happiness in Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Last Tycoon.” Callahan, John F. Twentieth Century Literature. Ann Arbor: Proquest, 1996. 22.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York : Scribner, 1995.

London, Herbert I. “Money, Old and New.” 25 February 2004. Hudson Institute. 7 May 2011 <http://www.hudson.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=publication_details&id=3238>.

Magnum, Bryant. “The Great Gatsby.” Encylopedia of the Novel 1998: 514-515.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America 1929-1941. New York: Times Books, 1993.

Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004.

Rimer, Sara. “Gatsby’s Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers.” 17 February 2008. New York Times. 6 May 2011 <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/education/17gatsby.html?pagewanted=2>.

Roberts, Marilyn. “Scarface, The Great Gatsby, and the American Dream.” Literature/Film Quarterly 2006: 8.

Rooney, Monique. “Visions of Blindness: Narrative Structures in The Great Gatsby and Snow Falling on Cedars.” Sydney Studies (2003): 1-17.

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