Shortly before the completion of The Great Gatsby in 1924, Fitzgerald explained that “the whole burden” of the novel was “the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false so long as they partake of the imagined glory.”
The theme of “imagined glory” is dramatized, in large part, through the experiences of Jay Gatsby, a man whose world is shaped and sustained by romantic illusions. But the lack of concern with the “true or false” of things has deeper significance for Fitzgerald than one man’s unwillingness to distinguish between reality and fancy. Articulated in the novel by its narrator, Nick Carraway, indifference is presented as a moral failure—a failure of society, particularly the society of the American east to recognize the imperatives of truth and honesty and justice.
The basic plot of The Great Gatsby is simple and uncomplicated. Jay Gatsby, formerly James Gatz, farm boy from Minnesota, has bought a mansion in West Egg, Long Island. His objective is to reestablish his romantic association with Daisy Fay, who is now married to Tom Buchanan of East Egg. Nick Carraway, a midwesterner who has come to New York to learn the bond business, rents a cottage next to the Gatsby mansion. As Daisy’s second cousin and Gatsby’s neighbor, Nick is in a strategic position to be both observer and participant in the events that lead to Gatsby’s and Daisy’s ecstatic but short-lived reunion. Concurrent with the development of the Gatsby-Daisy affair are Nick’s relationship with Jordan Baker, Daisy’s girlhood friend, who is a well-known golf champion, and Tom Buchanan’s involvement with Myrtle Wilson, the wife of a local, impoverished garage owner. After Tom brutally exposes the questionable sources of Gatsby’s wealth, Daisy decides to remain with her husband. Driving Gatsby’s car on the way home to East Egg, Daisy accidentally runs down and kills Myrtle Wilson. Completely unnerved, Daisy speeds away. To protect her, Gatsby allows it to be assumed that he was driving the car when the fatal accident occurred. George Wilson, convinced that Gatsby had been Myrtle’s lover and that he had deliberately caused her death, kills Gatsby and then shoots himself.
In an early review H. L. Mencken appraised the plot as “no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that.” But beyond the simple, melodramatic narrative of The Great Gatsby are larger levels of meanings that derive from its intricate thematic and symbolic patterns.
A contributing feature to the multiple interpretations to which the novel lends itself is the ambiguity surrounding the character of Gatsby. In a letter to John Peale Bishop, Fitzgerald acknowledged: “… you are right about Gatsby being blurred and patchy. I never at any one time saw him clear myself—for he started out as one man I knew and then changed into myself—the amalgam was never complete in my mind.”
But, far from being a technical flaw, this unfocused delineation gives Gatsby a universal, almost mythic stature that a more realistically defined characterization could neither warrant nor sustain.
At the age of seventeen, James Gatz, itinerant beachcomber and former farm boy, disowned, in his imagination, the “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people” who were his biological parents. At this point the legendary Jay Gatsby “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.”
Fitzgerald makes use of “platonic conception” to indicate the most rarefied form of ideality. In his short story, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” he describes “a room that was like a platonic conception of the ultimate prison—ceiling, floor, and all, it was lined with an unbroken mass of diamonds … until … it dazzled the eyes with a whiteness that could be compared only with itself, beyond human wish or dream.”
In the novel, although Gatsby is hardly capable of articulating such a philosophical concept, he is aspiring toward nothing less than the platonic ideal of the beautiful and the good. To compensate for the sordid realities of his origin and early life, James Gatz recreates himself according to his romantic conception of the ideal man. His name change notifies us of his personal ideals: the prosaic James contracted into Jay suggests the casual intimacy of the affluent that is offset by the formalizing of Gatz into an anglicized Gatsby. It is as Jay Gatsby that he is taken under the tutelage of Dan Cody, multimillionaire miner and yachtsman. In his five years on Dan’s yacht Gatsby receives a “singularly appropriate education” in debauchery and ruthlessness that serves to fill out “the vague contours of Jay Gatsby … to the substantiality of a man.” Deprived of Dan Cody’s $25,000 legacy by legal maneuvers, the penniless Gatsby drifts into the army to continue the pursuit of his dream of future glory.
In 1917 the dream is personified in the lovely Daisy Fay to whose beautiful home Lieutenant Jay Gatsby is brought by a “colossal accident” of wartime socializing. Intending to “take what he could and go,” Gatsby takes Daisy Fay one October night, and finds, instead, that “he had committed himself to the following of a grail.”
At the moment, in Louisville, when Daisy seems willing to accept his love, Gatsby notes “that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” Gatsby is aware that if he throws in his lot with Daisy he must forfeit the freedom to range through the fantasy world he has created: “his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” But he hesitates only momentarily, “listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star.” Then, at his kiss, Daisy blossoms “for him like a flower and [her] incarnation was complete.” Gatsby’s conception of the absolute good becomes incarnate, for him, in the perishable physical beauty of Daisy Fay. The name Fay (fey) assures us that she is from the same fantasy world of ideals from which the name Jay Gatsby derives.
The character of Gatsby functions on two levels just as Gatsby, himself, has two names: on the one, the naturalistic—Gatz-Gatsby is a vulgar, ostentatious parvenu for whom money is the touchstone that transforms fantasy into reality; on the other -- the mythic, Jay Gatsby is the embodiment of every man’s unfulfilled aspirations.
Myth has its origins in man’s need to transform his deepest emotional urges into universal images, to fit his individual experience into the larger contexts of the social and metaphysical patterns of the human race. The mythic hero is a personification of the human consciousness, and, as such, transcends the limitations of individual experience. Ordinary men concede to the pressures that circumscribe human achievement, but for mythic heroes—the Jay Gatsbys—the impossible does not exist. Gatsby truly believes that by his fiat the past can be recaptured; the present restructured, the future guaranteed.
Fitzgerald invests Gatsby with many of the characteristics of the heroes of myth and romance; the miraculous birth (he springs from his own platonic conception) or the metamorphosis (from the unpromising James Gatz to the fabulous Jay Gatsby); the unknown parentage (he tells Nick he is the son of wealthy midwesterners who are dead); the mysterious, vaguely sinister background (it is bruited about that he is a bootlegger, a nephew to Von Hindenburg, a cousin to the Kaiser); the acquisition of untold wealth (he had lived in the capitals of Europe like a “young rajah … collecting jewels, chiefly rubies …”); and, finally, the unswerving dedication to his quest—the attainment of Daisy Fay, the “king’s daughter, the golden girl.”
Despite the satiric tone with which Fitzgerald, through Nick Carraway, describes Gatsby’s flights of fancy, he is in obvious sympathy with Gatsby's quixotic goal. Fitzgerald, himself, until the last few years of his life, did not relinquish the “old dream of being an entire man in the Goethe-Byron-Shaw tradition, with an opulent American touch, a sort of J. P. Morgan, Topham Beauclerk and St. Francis of Assisi. ”
In Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald objectifies the visionary side of his own divided consciousness. He was, on the one hand, the exuberant dreamer who saw life as purely a romantic matter; on the other, he was a “natural idealist, a spoiled priest” who was appalled at his hedonistic excesses. Fitzgerald had been brought up a Roman Catholic, and, although he had long since rejected the doctrines of the church, he had never been completely exorcised of his attraction to its ritual and of his, perhaps, guilt-ridden awareness that in his personal life he had fallen short of its moral precepts. Fitzgerald had intended to give Gatsby a Catholic background, but, in the final revision of the novel, he deleted the Catholic elements and published them separately in a short story called “Absolution.” In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald uses Nick Carraway to present a moral perspective that is based upon “a sense of the fundamental decencies” rather than the more narrow doctrinal judgments of a specific religious code. It was hedonism that served as religious code in the 1920s.
The novel dramatizes the reckless profligacy of the Jazz Age, a phenomenon in American history that is without parallel. Fitzgerald, who was one of its chief exponents, claimed “credit for naming it.” In his own words, the Jazz Age began “about the time of the May Day riots in 1919,” and, “as if reluctant to die outmoded in its bed, leaped to a spectacular death in October, 1929.” Fitzgerald saw it as chiefly an affair of the young in 1922, when the “wildest of all generations, the generation which had been adolescent during the confusion of the War, brusquely shouldered my contemporaries out of the way and danced into the limelight.” By 1923, “their elders, tired of watching the carnival with ill-concealed envy, had discovered that young liquor will take the place of young blood, and with a whoop the orgy began.” It was “a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure.”
The Great Gatsby takes place in jazz-age New York City and its glorious adjacent playground, Long Island. Nick Carraway, the narrator and controlling consciousness of the novel, is a restless young man who has come to the east in the summer of 1922 to become a bond salesman. At this point his native midwest no longer seems “the warm center of the world,” but, rather, “the ragged edge of the universe.” So, for a time, Nick finds himself “simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” in the east.
As narrator-character, Nick is an indispensable part of the structural scheme. Not only does he relate the action, he brings to his account an immediacy, an incisiveness of feeling, of authority, that can be conveyed only by one who has experienced, directly and indirectly, the events he reports. As character, Nick is only peripherally involved in the action proper, which is limited to those events of some several months in 1922 that lead inexorably to the novel’s fatal conclusion of betrayal and death. Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and even Jordan were essentially affected by the crucial events that occurred in the antecedent action of the novel, whereas Nick reconstructs the story from what is told to him, piecemeal, by the principals involved. Yet, Nick’s role is much more important than spectator-narrator; he is moral commentator. Because Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan appeal to Nick in varying degrees for assistance, advice, or understanding , their actions and motives are evaluated and interpreted through Nick’s consciousness. This device permits Fitzgerald to manipulate his material without losing his objectivity. Nick stands as a buffer between the writer and his characters, between the writer and his readers. In fact, Nick shapes these Jazz Age figures for us.
Gatsby’s story is told at two removes. First, from the viewpoint of Nick as he is experiencing the events of the summer of 1922. At this point he is a young provincial, who, through his involvement with Gatsby, discovers the nature of his own search for self-definition. “I’m thirty,” he tells Jordan Baker. “I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.”
Second, from the viewpoint of Nick, who, two years later, is writing a book about his association with Gatsby. In the two years since Gatsby’s death, Nick has achieved the freedom of spirit to make positive judgments about the “fair and foul” of life: “No—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.”
Although Nick believes, for a time, that he has come east permanently, he never loses sight of his heritage. The Carraways, a prominent well-to-do midwestern family, are solidly established in the American tradition of trade and free enterprise. Nick’s father operates a wholesale hardware business founded by an uncle in 1851. Nick has the saving grace both of family background and a well-defined set of moral attitudes instilled in him by his father. That Nick is convinced of the validity of these inherited values is evident in that he prefaces his book on Gatsby with his father’s precepts.
The contrast between Mr. Carraway and Gatsby’s father is obvious and telling. Henry C. Gatz arrives for his son’s funeral on the point of collapse. As he surveys the splendor of his dead son’s possessions, his grief is intermingled with “an awed pride.” Having had nothing to impart to his son during his life, Gatz is impressed by the trite youthful “resolves” Gatsby had written for himself, as a boy, in a ragged copy of Hopalong Cassidy. Although Nick accepts his father’s suggestion that a “sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth,” he also demands that everyone be aware of at least the rudimentary rules of conduct.
After seeing the wanton carelessness of the Buchanans and of Jordan Baker, Nick wants the whole world to discipline itself and to be “at a sort of moral attention forever.” Despite his practice of reserving judgment, Nick ultimately concludes that the conduct of the world of the east falls short of even the minimum standards of behavior.
Ironically, Gatsby, who represents everything for which Nick has “an unaffected scorn,” is the only one in the end who is exempted from his revulsion. Nick, himself, does not see Gatsby clearly at first. One moment Nick finds himself under the spell of “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal assurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.” The next, he sees only “an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.” Yet, before Gatsby’s death, Nick delivers his judgment in the only compliment he has ever paid Gatsby: “They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” With all Nick’s disapproval of Gatsby’s shady associations, he realizes that only Gatsby has maintained his innocence despite his tainted wealth. It is only Gatsby who has retained a pure conviction in his “incorruptible dream.” In Nick’s eyes the greatness of Gatsby lies in his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life”; his redemption in his “extraordinary gift for hope.”
In direct contrast to Gatsby’s idealism is Tom Buchanan, a degenerate representative of the American man of strength. Fitzgerald believed that Tom was the best character he had ever created, and one of the “three best characters in American fiction in the last twenty years.” A hard, aggressive man with a “body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body,” Tom expresses himself primarily in terms of physicality. When he does speak, he utters platitudes, fallacies, lies, or contemptuous indictments of human weaknesses. Nick concludes that, despite his material possessions, Tom is a disillusioned man, having reached “such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savored of anticlimax.” His psychological insufficiencies inspire blustering attempts to assert his superiority on such flimsy grounds as belonging to the “Nordic race.” Beneath Tom’s harshness and defiance Nick detects a wistful desire for approval. It is not surprising that he seeks approval where it cannot be denied—in the lowest levels of society. Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson, is a pathetic, vulgar woman, lacking in either social graces or intellectual capacity, but possessing a smoldering sensual vitality that responds to his sexual needs.
Tom’s investigation of Gatsby is motivated less by a sense of righteousness than by a malicious impulse to destroy a superior strength that is inexplicable and therefore threatening to him. As Nick perceives it, Tom cannot understand that Gatsby’s nature derives its impetus from the impalpability of an indestructible idealism. Having originally bought Daisy with the gift of a $350,000 pearl necklace, Tom maneuvers to keep her at all costs—even at the far greater cost to Gatsby of his reputation, his dreams, his life.
Tom and Daisy are what Nick terms “careless” in the strongest sense of the word: “… 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….”
Daisy, according to Nick’s perception, is as ephemeral as Tom is physical. She is a creature primarily of promises that have little hope of fulfillment, although her emotional bankruptcy is concealed by her physical beauty and vitality:
Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.
The essential Daisy is as incorporeal as that voice whispering empty promises. After a token acknowledgment of her undeniable physical beauty, Nick always notices her voice, her “low, thrilling” siren’s voice that is also “artificial” and “indiscreet” and “full of money.”
Watching Daisy and Gatsby’s ecstatic reunion, Nick remarks:
I think that voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn’t be over-dreamed—that voice was a deathless song.
After Daisy decides to give up Gatsby, she becomes just a voice for Nick as he sadly comments that only Gatsby’s
dead dream fought on . . . trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room.
Daisy is a vacuous creature whose self-identity is defined by externals. She is so empty that Fitzgerald can only portray her through the qualities of another. Most important among these definitions are Tom Buchanan’s hulking, brute strength, and his money and position. One of the few creative acts she has performed in her life is the replication of herself in her daughter. Daisy tells Nick that when she discovered that she had given birth to a girl, she cried: “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Significantly, Daisy’s daughter is the only child in the novel, for, where adults are childishly irresponsible, children are superfluous,
Daisy greets Nick, on their first meetings with a stuttering little inanity: “I’m p-paralyzed with happiness.” On another occasion, this girlish spirit in a woman’s alluring body dissolves into tears in Gatsby’s home because she has “never seen such beautiful shirts before.” After one of her dinner parties, she turns to Nick, helplessly:
‘What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon?’ cried Daisy, ‘and the day after that, and the next thirty years?’
Before Daisy kills Myrtle Wilson, she swerves the car indecisively from Myrtle to an oncoming car, and then strikes the woman rather than risk injury to herself. In criminal denial of the consequences of her action, Daisy hides her guilt behind Gatsby’s final act of devotion, leaving him to bear the onus of Myrtle’s death. When Nick peers into the Buchanan home after the accident, he sees Daisy and Tom sitting together: “There was an air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.” Their unstated conspiracy is their shared comfort in irresponsibility.
Jordan Baker, at first glance, might seem to be a more substantial person than Daisy. Her character is chiefly defined in terms of cars and sports. In actuality, she is just as hollow as her friend. Her very name is like an industrial merger. Laurence E. MacPhee has pointed out that Fitzgerald probably derived the name from the highly romanticized advertisements of the 1920s for Jordan automobiles and Baker upholstery. The name Jordan is more often a masculine than a feminine name. The ambiguity suggests Jordan’s complicated sexual identification. Brittle, self-sufficient, carrying herself “like a young cadet,” Jordan is a golf champion and part of the “sporting life at Asheville and Hot Springs and Palm Beach.”
Nick comments that Jordan uses men only to satisfy “the demands of her hard jaunty body, avoiding relationships with clever, shrewd men” who might detect that beyond her “cool, insolent smile” she is “incurably dishonest.” Jordan’s female qualities are observed by Nick only when she is with Daisy, and then in such superficial matters as their “rippling and fluttering” dresses or their languid walk. Suggesting that there is little distinction between Jordan and Daisy as persons, Nick often refers to them either as a pair, “the two young women,” or in a curiously detached manner:
Sometimes she and Miss Baker talked at once, unobtrusively and with a bantering inconsequence that was never quite chatter, that was as cool as their white dresses and their impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire. They were here, and they accepted Tom and me, making only a polite pleasant effort to entertain or to be entertained.
It is interesting that cars provide Nick with his major insights into Jordan’s personality. When Jordan leaves a “borrowed car out in the rain with the top down, and then lied about it,” Nick remembers that she had been suspected of cheating in her first big golf tournament. Through her careless driving, he discovers that she conducts her life as she handles a car— with a total disregard for anything, other than her own comfort and satisfaction. Ironically, at their final parting, Jordan accuses Nick of being guilty of the same kind of dishonesty and carelessness in his conducting of their romance?
Any world in which the motions and rituals of existence are divorced from the emotions is a wasteland. The wasteland, of course, is as traditional an image in art as the hero of myth and romance. What the wasteland expresses is the fallen condition in which the hero conducts his search. And there is only a short distance between this mythic geography and Fitzgerald’s wastelands of the east. The theme of spiritual enervation is revealed in two complementary forms: the desolation in physical nature and its analogue in the human spirit. The topography of the wasteland extends its contours deep into the mythic and ranges into the actual. The deprivation of the wasteland manifests itself in the physical barrenness of the land and in the spiritual impotence of its inhabitants.
Fitzgerald’s notable example of the wasteland is the “valley of ashes” that lies midway between West Egg and New York City. This is a desolate area 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 ash-gray men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.
The phrases—“grow like wheat,” “take the forms of houses and chimneys,” and “of ash-gray men”—depict the debasement of the most elemental human needs: sustenance, domesticity, self-identity.
Fitzgerald mentions three inhabitants of the valley of ashes: George Wilson, a “blond, spiritless, anaemic man,” who is the proprietor of an unprosperous garage; his crude, sensual wife, Myrtle; and a young Greek, Michaelis, who runs the all-night coffee shop. The restaurant is approached by “a trail of ashes,” and the only car in the garage is a “dust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner.” When Nick first visits the garage with Tom Buchanan, he has the impression that Myrtle is “walking through her husband as if he were a ghost.” Ironically, a “white ashen dust” veils “everything in the vicinity—except Myrtle.” Myrtle, who hopes to escape the ash heaps through her affair with Tom, succeeds only in associating herself with the wastelands of New York City and East Egg, an association that ends in her death. Fitzgerald’s point is that there is no liberation from the wasteland. That Myrtle should think money a means of release is simply a delusion that intensifies her despair. For there is no essential difference between the moneyed wastelands of New York City and Long Island and the valley of ashes.
The presiding deity of the ash heaps is symbolized by the painted eyes of an oculist’s advertisement: Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s faded “blue and gigantic” eyes look out “of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose.” This grotesque relic of a long-abandoned practice is identified by George Wilson, after Myrtle’s death, as the all-seeing eyes of God:
Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night.
‘God sees everything,’ repeated Wilson.
‘That’s an advertisement,’ Michaelis assured him.
The exchange of responses is profoundly ironic. The “god” of the valley of ashes is not only a faceless nonentity whose distorted perception must be rectified by man-made lenses, but also the creation of the advertising business that is dedicated to persuasion through fallacies and exaggerations. That any deity exists who “sees” man’s transgressions and despairs is, Michaelis assures George, just another advertising slogan.
Moving from the valley of ashes toward New York City, Nick has a glimpse of the “city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money.” The dissoluteness of the New York City wasteland is camouflaged by the sugar-coating of money. Its “first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world” is belied by the depravity or demoralization of its people.
In the three principal episodes set in New York City, any attempt made by the protagonists at either communication or self-definition is abortive, producing only violence, disillusionment, frustration. Despair is the dominant feeling in the wasteland.
The first episode occurs in the apartment that Tom has provided for Myrtle. Nick attends a party there, and, every time he moves to escape the stultifying atmosphere, he becomes “entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair.” On the same occasion, Myrtle’s attempts to establish herself as Daisy’s equal, or to assert her right to even mention Daisy’s name, precipitate a violent argument during which Tom brutally smashes her nose.
The second episode is the luncheon with Gatsby, when Nick is introduced to the gangland world of rank corruption, murders, and executions through Meyer Wolfsheim, the man “who fixed the World Series back in 1919.”
The third is the confrontation episode at the Plaza Hotel during which Tom discloses to Daisy some of the unsavory sources of Gatsby’s wealth. Gatsby turns excitedly to Daisy, “denying everything, defending his name against accusations that had not been made.” But with every word Daisy retreats “further and further into herself,” her frightened eyes revealing that “whatever intentions, whatever courage she had had” to elope with Gatsby “were definitely gone.”
The meretricious world of New York City is extended to West Egg through Gatsby’s sumptuous parties. Gatsby’s mansion, “a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy,” is the setting for weekly bacchanalian rites. Once again, as with the white mirage of New York City, things are not what they seem to be. The pursuit of pleasure in the wasteland ends only in the reenactment of pain. The pervading atmosphere is chimerical and vaguely sinister as the guests “glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.” The fare is a caterer’s triumph of salads of “harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.” The guests conduct themselves “according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks,” and, as one party progresses, the forced joviality is “rent asunder by dissension.”
Nick later describes the West Egg world as a “night scene by El Greco,” the Spanish artist noted for his genius in showing the grotesque distortions of humanity in a disturbing style with somber colors:
In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the side-walk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house—the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.
The most brilliant commentary on the kind of people who accept Gatsby’s hospitality is the list of guests drawn up by Nick on an old railroad timetable. There is nothing subtle about Fitzgerald’s cataloguing of names, but it renders much more effectively than pages of exposition the subhuman qualities of these representatives of the nonhuman and the superhuman, but not quite the human. Among them are the animal types: the Leeches, Doctor Civet, James B. (Rot-Gut) Ferret. Then we have the garden varieties: Clarence Endive, Ernest Lilly, Newton Orchid. Others are reminiscent of prominent figures: Mrs. Claud Roosevelt, and Cecil Roebuck. Finally, there are the Cheadles, the Ripley Snells, Mrs. Ulysses Swett, the Smirkes, and the “Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife.” As Nick laconically remarks: “ All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.” but, with the exception of one nameless “owl-eyed man,” none of them came to Gatsby’s funeral that fall.
The wasteland of East Egg is defined by the “white palaces of fashionable East Egg,” so like the “whited sepulchers” of the gospels that we are asked to take them as repositories for dead men’s bones. The opulent red-and-white mansion of the Buchanans adds to the sterility of the wasteland, the torments of an inferno. Again, as in so many places in the novel, the house of self-indulgence is in actuality a house of pain. The torments of infidelity, jealousy, futility, experienced by Tom and Daisy, further corrupt their already fallen natures, eventually turning them both into murderers.
One of the ways that Nick gives meaning to these bizarre doings is to contrast the life styles of the American east with the life styles of the American west. After Gatsby’s death, Nick decides that his disillusionment may be an indication of the westerner’s inability to adapt to the tenor and quality of eastern life:
I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.
This is a gratuitous assumption on Nick’s part, for although the novel is peripherally concerned with contrasting the salutary environment of the west with the corruptive east, it is not the dissolute influence of the east that has shaped the lives of these people. Rather, Fitzgerald is careful to establish that each of them had “drifted” east in search of some panacea for the ultimate futility of their lives. Tom and Daisy and Jordan were selfish materialists long before they encountered the decadent forces of East Egg. Gatsby was a hopeless visionary at the age of seventeen when he spun out for himself “a universe of ineffable gaudiness,” choosing to believe that “the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.” His first initiation into corruption was through Dan Cody, who had brought all the savage violence of the most undesirable aspects of western frontier life to the “Eastern seaboard.” No facile distinctions, therefore, can be made between east and west. Yet, the novel intimates that the west, particularly the midwest, represents, for those like Nick who revere it, one of the last bastions of original Americanism.
In the last lush passages of the novel, Nick compares Gatsby’s dream “of the orgiastic future” with the “last and greatest of all human dreams” which began with the Dutch sailors’ first glimpse of this continent:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually 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; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder,
Fitzgerald implies, through Nick Carraway, that the myth of the American dream of a utopian world in which man may hope for equality and justice and freedom has been displaced by the prosaic, immutable realities of the development of the republic as it is recorded in American history.
The most beguiling promise of the new world was freedom from religious persecution, and the material deprivation enforced by class discrimination. The American dream was based on ambition, industry, and well-defined rules of conduct. And, so long as the dream was allied with the religious motive, the impulse toward its attainment produced men of strength and character whose success contributed to the prosperity and greatness of the nation. The increasing industrialization of the incipient years of the twentieth century, followed by the physical and psychological devastation of World War I, precipitated a radical transformation in American ideals. The consequent diminution of moral discernment was deplored by Fitzgerald as early as 1921 in The Beautiful and Damned.
A vitiated American dream spawned a new generation of strong men, represented by the undisciplined brute force of the Tom Buchanans, and, worse, by the unscrupulous machinations of the Meyer Wolfsheims. The amoral attitudes of the 1920s are epitomized in the novel by Gatsby’s cool response to Nick’s query about Wolfsheim’s occupation: “He’s the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919.” Nick’s reaction is the cry of the uninitiated few who still hold to moral principles:
The idea staggered me. … It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the singlemindedness of a burglar blowing a a safe.
The underprivileged and the unenlightened, like the Gatsbys, who still believe in the wondrous promise of the past, do not realize that the dream has been destroyed forever. Nick, who is much more realistic than Gatsby in this respect, warns:
‘You can’t repeat the past.’
‘Can’t repeat the past? ’ he cried incredulously.
‘Why of course you can!’
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
The Gatsbys, with their incomparable capacity for hope, believe “in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—.” But this is only the illusion, the “imagined glory,” and Fitzgerald knew it all too well. The prophetic voice of the novel, Nick Carraway, predicts that, unless men root themselves once again in “the fundamental decencies,” they will “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly” in spirit, to a glorified past, that, valid for its day, has little efficacy to shape the future.
The Great Gatsby was begun in 1922 while the Fitzgeralds were living in St. Paul, Minnesota. Increasing financial pressures compelled Fitzgerald to temporarily abandon the novel during 1923 in order to devote himself to writing commercial short stories. In April 1924 Fitzgerald resumed work on the novel, discarding much of the material he had previously written. The Great Gatsby was completed while the Fitzgeralds were staying in the south of France.
After its publication on 10 April 1925, Fitzgerald waited apprehensively for the first reviews. He was puzzled and disappointed by the general reviewer’s reaction. He wrote to Edmund Wilson that “of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about… .”12
On the other hand, he was gratified by the excellent response he received from respected authors and critics.
Gertrude Stein wrote to Fitzgerald:
You are creating the contemporary world much as Thackeray did in his Pendennis and Vanity Fair and this isn’t a bad compliment. You make a modern world and a modern orgy strangely enough it was never done until you did it in This Side of Paradise… This is as good a book and different and older and that is what one does, one does not get better but different and older and that is always a pleasure.
T. S. Eliot commented:
I am not in the least influenced by your remark about myself when I say it has interested and excited me more than any new novel I have seen, either English or American, for a number of years.
When I have time I should like to write to you more fully and tell you exactly why it seems to me such a remarkable book. In fact it seems to me to be the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.
Published as Chapter 4 in F. Scott Fitzgerald by Rose Adrienne Gallo (Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc. New York, 1978 , ISBN 0-8044-2225-7).