F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby

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Ralph Maltese

F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Great Gatsby

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Great Gatsby in high school.  I loved Fitzgerald’s imagery and writing style.  Before I assigned The Great Gatsby, I had students read “Winter Dreams” by the same author.  “Winter Dreams” is almost a prelude to the novel—love sought/love lost.  And the writing is sublime.  “There was a star shining, and a fish jumping, and the lights around the lake were gleaming.”  The driving thematic question for this novel is, “Why is Gatsby great?”

1)      What is the significance of East and West?

Nick says, “I see this was a tale of Midwesterners.”  East and West are geographical symbols of America’s idealized past and corrupt present.  The Midwesterners from Gatsby to Daisy to Nick himself leave the Midwest (Nick in a cowardly attempt to get out of a relationship) and go to the East where they exploit and are exploited.  Nick says to Gatsby, “You can’t recapture the past,” to which Jay replies, “Of course you can.”  Read the last page of the novel about beating against the current.

2)      The use of myth in the novel to reinforce the West (innocence) versus the East (moral corruption).  Here is a list of mythical references:  Dan Cody who becomes Gatsby patron (William F. Cody, Buffalo Bill who brought the west, via his Wild West Show to the East (and to Europe); Meyer Wolfsheim who, in the novel, is said to have fixed the 1919 World Series is a reference to Arnold Rothstein who did, allegedly, have a hand in the fixing and Meyer Lansky who had criminal associations; “Gat” refers to a slang term for a machine gun (Gatsby---it was suspected that he killed a man); In fact the entire myth of Gatsby himself---he develops a mystique around his background and persona.

3)      The Dream Theme

Gatsby is, as Nick’s last words to him explain, “worth the whole damn bunch.”  (Nick later says he is glad he said that).  Why is Gatsby worth the whole damn bunch?  Because he has a dream of regaining Daisy, and even though the dream is flimsy and predicated on a person one might argue is not worth pursuing, Gatsby’s romance and pursuit separates him from the others.  See my notes on Steinbeck and Of Mice and Men for more on the dream concept.  In contrast, Tom Buchanan is brutally pragmatic, Daisy’s voice sounds like money falling, and even Nick is fleeing a bad break up.  Gatsby is noble in an ignoble environment.  As Nick observes, paraphrasing, Tom and Daisy smash up other people’s lives and then crawl back into their money, so this novel in part is about the recklessness and materialism of the Jazz Age (on which Fitzgerald was a personal expert!!)

4)      Some symbols—owl eyed man who is impressed by the truth of the books in Gatsby’s library (they are all real) is the only other person who shows up, beside Nick and Gatsby’s father, is connected (via his ocular disadvantage) to the billboard advertising the occulist Dr. T.J. Eckleberg who also looks out over the ashen landscape.  The billboard of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg knows the truth of Myrtle Wilson’s death (that Daisy was driving the car) and, like the owl-eyed man, may represent God. George Wilson, after learning of his wife’s death, stares out the window at the billboard and says, “You can fool people maybe, but you can’t fool God.”  The green light on Daisy’s dock symbolizes hope, as Gatsby stretches out his arms to it.  But while green has been used to represent hope, it may also be used to symbolize money or jealousy.

5)      The androgeny of Jordan Baker.  Jordan, Nick’s temporary love interest, has a gender neutral first name, excels at what was then a male dominated game, and is rumored to have once cheated.  She, likewise, has been corrupted by the modern era.

6)      Tom Buchanan can represent the drum beats of European Nazism.  He is described in Teutonic terms, is a racist (book he read), is brutal (smashes Myrtle’s nose), and arranges for Gatsby’s murder.

Fitzgerald may be bemoaning a forlorn American innocence.  The Romantic Gatsby is up against a modern cynical America that allows World Series to be corrupted.  Gatsby amasses his entire fortune to impress Daisy (“I never saw so many beautiful shirts.”), to change history.  She refused him when he was a penniless doughboy, and his dream of winning her back, is admirable in its childlike innocence even though the ultimate goal is dependent on a falsehood---that Daisy is worth it.  When she remains silent as Gatsby asks, “Tell him (Tom) that you love me,” Gatsby must have been crushed, but his noble romantic nature still makes him take the rap for Daisy’s manslaughter.

Gertrude Stein said of Hemingway’s contemporaries, which included Fitzgerald, “You are all a lost generation.”  Perhaps Fitzgerald looked at the aimlessness and apparent mindlessness of the Roaring Twenties and came to the same conclusion.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 December 2010 17:39

 

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