In Fitzgerald‘s early fiction, like that of his contemporaries, a young man figures prominently. Amory Blaine [in This Side of Paradise] and Anthony Patch [in The Beautiful and Damned] both serve in the army during World War I, and Amory, supposedly, is in combat overseas; but the war itself seems remote in Fitzgerald‘s work. It is the postwar world that he knows, and its upper-middle-class life that he records. The novels in which Amory and Anthony appear are “apprenticeship” works in the deepest sense, since in them Fitzgerald searches for a major theme without being able to give it full expression. It is in The Great Gatsby that everything comes together for him, that he finds his vision. It is a vision that, like that of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and William Faulkner, repudiates the old assumptions of order firmly, makes the emptiness and estrangement of the present convincing and dramatic.
In one specific respect, Fitzgerald‘s vision in The Great Gatsby is the most central to the twenties, since its darkness erupts from the exact middle of American society. Dos Passos‘s Manhattan Transfer has a leftist or Marxist orientation, and Faulkner‘s Sartoris is a study in regional or rural Southern realism. Hemingway‘s characters are characteristically somewhat at the edge of society, are suspicious of society, or are not fully committed to it, or are depicted at critical moments when they recognize their isolation, or must, like his bullfighters, prove their courage alone and under stress. But the darkness of the postwar world for Fitzgerald is felt at the exact social middle—and within a context of “manners.” Unlike Hemingway‘s isolates, Fitzgerald‘s characters always belong to a social unit, function in a context of social differences, are socially defined. The difference of class in The Great Gatsby is essential to Fitzgerald‘s vision, a curiously dual vision, which delights in social discrimination and yet makes social order seem light-years in the past, is both classical and darkly apocalyptic.
It is the middle-class dream, the dream at the center, with which Fitzgerald deals in The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway‘s voice is a “normal” one, suggesting a norm; it is solidly middle-class, sensitive within limits, a little complacent, even somewhat priggish. Gatsby himself comes out of the middle-class imagination. One of the great facts about him is his lack of familiarity with real wealth; when he acquires money he cannot quite believe in its reality, does not know what to do with it, converts it immediately into the material of romance, which had furnished his imagination earlier. He is nowhere with his dream, because he understands wealth only mythically; there is no fate he can embrace except estrangement and death. Gatsby‘s loneliness is emphasized even in the flaw of the novel‘s ending, the way in which Fitzgerald becomes entangled in the East versus West distinction, which he derived, apparently, from Willa Cather. At the end, Carraway returns to the West, where he can keep his moral distinctions straight. Or so he says. But there is a contradiction in terms in his return, since he has already envisioned a darkness spreading across the entire continent, including the West he returns to as sanctuary. Moreover, it is in the West, in the environs of Chicago, that the Buchanan money was made, that Gatsby was closed out of Daisy‘s life originally, that Daisy chose Tom. Further still, the frontier vision served first by Dan Cody and then by Gatsby, and exploded as a cruel illusion, was a dream of the West. Carraway returns to the West not, it seems, as fact so much asadmitted illusion of adolescence, which means that he, like Gatsby, has no place to go, can envision no alternatives to the nightmare he has lived through. . . .
In its vision of modern emptiness, The Great Gatsby is a key document of the twenties, so much so that had it not been written the twenties would actually seem diminished. It is as vivid today (and as “surprising") as when it was written, and has an intense life. Gatsby‘s vividness has been reinforced on so many different levels of myth and folklore that it is difficult to say which most controls his conception. The wood-chopper‘s son, the young man from the provinces come to the great city, Dick Whittington, Horatio Alger—all stand in the background of his conception. But perhaps as importantly as from any other source, Gatsby comes from the fairy tale; for if the novel has, in Henry James‘s phrase “the imagination of disaster,” it also has the imagination of enchantment. There is a sentence in the manuscript, but not included in the book, that reveals Gatsby. It occurs when he isamong Daisy‘s circle at Louisville. “He was a nobody with an irrevealable past,” Fitzgerald comments, “and under the invisible cloak of a uniform he had wandered into a palace.” With its palaces and invisible cloaks, Gatsby‘s imagination has a fairy-tale quality. Almost instinctively, he regards Daisy Fay as a princess, a girl in a white palace, and the spell of the fairy tale, too, marks his ascendancy from his mid-western farm to his own palace of a kind at West Egg. Gatsby becomes a kind of fairy-tale prince in disguise, is deprived of his princehood while retaining his princehood in essence, the consciousness of a noble inheritance, of an inner sovereignty belonging to a prince, even though he wears a shepherd‘s garments.
Fitzgerald refers to Long Island by name very rarely in the novel; it seems disembodied as well as real and is a region of wonder. Carraway‘s recall of his adolescence at the end is, too, part of the child‘s perception of life as wonder, as in the fairy tale. And there is a strong demarcation in the novel between good and evil; the Buchanans‘ world, and the Wilsons‘, seem somehow bewitched by evil forces, which are beyond containment or control. The evocative energies of the fairy tale help to account, I think, for the helplessness one feels before the enchanted horror of the world Fitzgerald creates in the novel, a world in which the good prince is put to death, and the dark prince reigns. Other American novelists before Fitzgerald drew from the fairy tale; Henry James did so in The Portrait of a Lady and other novels. But Fitzgerald is alone in the twenties in drawing from the resources of the fairy tale to create his age, to touch the depths of its irrationality, and at the same time to create one of the most memorable characters in the American fiction of the 1920s.
Since World War II there have been novels published in America that have some claims to seriousness, and yet after one has read them one can hardly remember their characters. Compare with these the power of dramatic projection in The Great Gatsby, the way in which Jay Gatsby lives in one‘s imagination, refusing to be dislodged. Such enduring life is the mark of exceptional achievement, can only be the result of a creative conception of astonishing depth and power, which The Great Gatsby continues to give the impression of being.
Excerpted from Robert Emmet Long, The Achieving of The Great Gatsby: F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920-1925, (1979).