A critical analysis of The Great Gatsby
It is all useless. It is like chasing the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:26). The “it” in this case, F Scott Fitzgerald’s groundbreaking novel The Great Gatsby, refers to the exhaustive efforts Gatsby undertakes in his quest for life: the life he wants to live, the so-called American Dream. The novel is Fitzgerald’s vessel of commentary and criticism of the American Dream. As he paints a vivid portrait of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald defines this Dream, and through Gatsby’s downfall, expresses the futility and agony of its pursuit.
Through Gatsby’s longing for it, he depicts its beauty and irresistible lure in a manner of which the Philosopher himself would be proud.
The aspects of the American Dream are evident throughout Fitzgerald’s narrative. Take, for example, James Gatz’s heavenly, almost unbelievable rise from “beating his way along the south shore of Lake Superior as a clam-digger and a salmon-fisher” (Fitzgerald 95) to the great, i.e. excessive, Gatsby, housed in “a colossal affair by any standard… with a tower on one side… a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden” (Fitzgerald 11).
The awe in which Fitzgerald presents his awakened phoenix clearly conveys the importance of improvement, or at least what one thinks is improvement, in the American Dream; it is not necessarily a life of excesses and wealth Fitzgerald defends as the Dream, for the audience sees clearly their detriments in the novel through Tom and Daisy, but rather a change in the style of life, reflecting the equally-American pioneering spirit.
Nevertheless, wealth does certainly play an important role in the American Dream. With wealth, supposedly, comes comfort, as Nick mentions regarding his home: “I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbour’s lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires” (Fitzgerald 11). Wealth, states Ross Possnock in his quoting of Karl Marx, is the great equalizer of inequality:
I am ugly, but I can buy the most beautiful woman for myself. Consequently, I am not ugly, for the effect of my ugliness, its power to repel, is annulled by money… does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their opposites? (Possnock 204).
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Gatsby’s incapacities, generally of an emotional nature, inhibitions preventing his successful capture of his long-lost love, Daisy, are washed away with the drunkenness provided by the dollar:
However glorious might be his future as Jay Gatsby, he was a present a penniless young man without a past, and at any moment the invisible cloak of his uniform might slip from his shoulders… He took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously – eventually he took Daisy one still October night (Fitzgerald 141).
Once armed with the lucre, however, he is prepared to contribute equally to the relationship, making it truly an equal relation of love.
Love represents the other side of the coin of wealth: as opposed to material wealth, it refers instead to emotional wealth. Whatever its plane of existence, love plays a pivotal role in the American Dream, in Gatsby’s Dream. Perhaps love is the most valuable of the aspects presented thus far of the Dream; “He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes” (Fitzgerald 88). Such is his love for her; the bootlegging Gatsby values this emotional wealth to the extent that he essentially abandons the material for just a moment, losing himself in the winds of passion stirred up by the swaying of Daisy’s dress as she inspects Gatsby’s lookout tower for the green light. His emotional wealth is so suddenly multiplied that “none of it [his possessions] was any longer real. Once he nearly toppled down a flight of stairs” (Fitzgerald 88).
Sharing the same side of the coin is the need for social acceptance. Gatsby prides himself on his openness; his lavish parties where strangers “came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission” (Fitzgerald 43), proof of not only his tolerance, but also of his acceptance of those whose drinking make him grow “more correct as the fraternal hilarity increased” (Fitzgerald 51). Gatsby certainly wants the people on his side: from his house labeled a Norman “Hotel de Ville,” or City Hall, open to the public, to Lucille’s replacement dress from Croirier’s, courtesy of Gatsby, no expense is too great in his quest to win others support. Gatsby needs as much popular support as he can get, in the face of such random acts of contempt as “he killed a man once” (Fitzgerald 45) to “he was a German spy during the war” (Fitzgerald 45).
Improvement, wealth, love, popularity: all contribute to the definition of the American Dream. What is missing from the preceding list is, however, perhaps the most important quality of all: that the American Dream is exactly that, a mere dream. “Our eyes can never see enough to be satisfied; our ears can never hear enough” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). The key words here are “never” and “satisfied”; it is the essence of the American Dream, satisfaction. Unfortunately, the quest for satisfaction and happiness is unending, like eternally chasing one’s tail; hence the “never.” It is a vicious circle, one of many traps laid out by Fitzgerald for the sake of educating his audience of the perils of imagination.
Indeed, given the thin line between the intrinsic desire for self-improvement and the waste and futility of pursuing mental illusions, and the consequences of the latter, the peril is quite extreme. Esteemed Gatsby inquisitor Marius Bewley succinctly defines the American Dream as “life on a level at which the material and the spiritual [i.e. imaginary] have become inextricably confused,” (Bewley 37) whose “blackest devils [are] limit and deprivation” (Bewley 38). Higher and higher the summit of its ideals climb, until surely and eventually the mountain becomes insurmountable for mortal man.
“What has happened before will happen again. What has been done before will be done again” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Such is Gatsby’s battle cry as he marches off on a mission to re-discover, or rather to re-implant, the passion he found years earlier in the person of Daisy: ” ‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!… I’m going to fix everything just the way is was before,’ he said, nodding determinedly. ‘She’ll [Daisy] see’ ” (Fitzgerald 106). So begins the heartbreaking circle which started on that selfish day “in the middle of spring with the arrival of Tom Buchanan… The letter reached Gatsby while he was still at Oxford” (Fitzgerald 144).
Just as Daisy re-enters Gatsby’s life and sets the circle moving, does she fulfill the reverse: she, in an equally shocking and abrupt manner, flees Gatsby, his eyes still scintillating in the reflection of the Dream, thus bringing this aspect full-circle and pounding in the first nail in the Dream’s coffin.
The second nail to further seal the coffin is the revolving door quality of the rise and fall from rich to poor as the pocketbooks of the Dreamers lines with money, their moral character is chipped away.
Once the conscience is destroyed, one can predict that as the money runs out, character returns. Proof of this circle is offered towards the end of the novel: heading back into East Egg from the city after a tense incident on a scorching summer’s day, Gatsby and Daisy spend their last moments together in the car; upon her return to East Egg, Daisy, Gatsby’s most valued possession, the standard against which “he revalued everything in his house” (Fitzgerald 88) leaves him and returns fully to Tom, thus leaving Gatsby “bankrupt.” As this decision transpires, Gatsby selflessly accepts the blame for the accident where Daisy, in control of the car, is at fault.
Given the sheer number of its examples, the lack of morals in the materially-rich is indeed an element Fitzgerald wished to impress upon his audience. The lack of respect for life present in high society is demonstrated most strongly by Daisy’s relationship, or lack thereof, with her daughter, Pammy. Appearing only once or twice in the novel, Pammy’s non-existent role in the plot and Daisy’s life prove Daisy’s misplaced priorities as a mother and as a “successful” American Dreamer. Neglect becomes synonymous with high society in Chapter II; Myrtle’s Airedale, referred to simply as one of Mrs. Wilson’s “other purchases” (Fitzgerald 31), is last seen “sitting on the table with blind eyes through the smoke, and from time to time groaning faintly” (Fitzgerald 38) as “people disappeared, reappeared, made plans to go somewhere” (Fitzgerald 38).
By the end of the book Pammy and the dog (Myrtle doesn’t even bother naming him) are forgotten, victims of the American Dreamers’ quest for happiness. Daisy’s whims wreak havoc on other’s lives as she continues her quest for “happiness,” driving Gatsby’s car at supersonic speeds, plowing through Myrtle Wilson’s body… and not even bothering to stop. Not only does she continue without batting an eye, Daisy allows Gatsby to essentially hang for her crimes without a simple “I’m sorry” or a token “I love you.” Tom, for his part, forgets the woman in favour of whom he cheats on Daisy. “There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together” (Fitzgerald 138).
Fitzgerald sums up his judgement of the financially-superior/morally-inferior:
They were careless people… 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 (Fitzgerald 170).
The mess they had made; the heaps of ashes left in their wake. Unfortunately, dreams don’t come cheap. Nor do they come without work. The dreams achieved by high society, such as the creation of the enclave known as East Egg, are built, as Marx would say, on the backs of the workers; the workers who sweat and toil for the benefit of the American Dreamers (or perhaps to join their ranks) creating and living in the vast ashheaps of America, separate from their economic rulers. They do not live the Dream; they don’t have the opportunity to. This exclusionary characteristic of the American Dream appears as the distinct snobbery evident through East Egg’s assertion of “membership in a rather distinguished secret society” (Fitzgerald 22).
From “I [Nick] lived at West Egg, the – well, the less-fashionable of the two” (Fitzgerald 10), to ” ‘my opinion on these matters is final,’ he [Tom] seemed to say, ‘just because I’m stronger and more of a man than you are’ ” (Fitzgerald 13), to “Tom… deferred to the sensibilities of those East Eggers who might be on the train” (Fitzgerald 29), it certainly seems that East Egg suffers from a superiority complex: a condition due, no doubt, to their “success” in embodying the American Dream.
“So I realized that all we can do is be happy, and do the best we can while we are still alive” (Ecclesiastes 3:12). The beauty of the American Dream is that, as an unattainable yet seemingly plausible goal for all intents and purposes, it continues to inspire humanity of all nationalities to stretch to a new level of existence, regardless of their current social status. The quest for happiness is perhaps the most venerable of all human institutions due to the natural human desire for a hedonistic existence: a simple pursuit, hardly; a palpable pursuit, possibly; a consuming pursuit, definitely.
While the pursuit of the American Dream can easily be branded selfish and greedy, one must admire those American Dreamers with the gall to embark on its realization. The lengths to which Gatsby goes to bring his world to fruition are, to say the least, extensive. An example is his building of “gonnegtions” with less than scrupulous business partners to finance the erection of a tower from which to gaze at a green light, a task requiring years of work, as his partner Meyer Wolfshiem reminisces: ” ‘My memory goes back to when I first met him [Gatsby]’, he said. ‘A young major just out of… the war .’… ‘Did you start him in business,’ I [Nick] inquired. ‘Start him! I made him’ ” (Fitzgerald 162). While one might criticize his hyperactive imagination and perhaps even his sanity, one must grant him credit for his seemingly innocent and juvenile idealism; he is a true romantic.
One must also admire his tenacity and strength of will: where lesser men would have collapsed under the strain of reality, the strong Gatsby persevered against all odds and, for a moment, held “Daisy’s white face” (Fitzgerald 107) and “she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete” (Fitzgerald 107). The facing of such a challenge is no less heroic than catching a marlin or warding off a raging bull: all three require intense mental preparation, and though each expends different physical force, all three leave the hero exhausted physically and emotionally.
Where Gatsby’s inferiors depend on alcohol to wash away their inhibitions and uncertainties – “Never had a drink before, but oh how I [Daisy] enjoy it” (Fitzgerald 74) declares a drunken, uncertain, about-to-be-married Daisy in the face of mounting stress and anxiety over her commitment; or “the bottle of whiskey – a second one – [which] was in constant demand by all present” (Fitzgerald 37) at the heated scrutinize-Tom’s-relationships meeting in Tom’s/Myrtle’s apartment – Gatsby charges headfirst, conscious without anaesthetic, straight into the source of potential joy – and potential heartbreak. “I [Nick] wondered if the fact that he [Gatsby] was not drinking helped to set him off from his guests, for it seemed to me that he grew more correct as the… hilarity increased” (Fitzgerald 51).
The pathetic hilarity with which the novel ends – with Gatsby dead, sincerely believing that Daisy will call back, and Tom and Daisy continuing on, living without memory of their brief affairs of the summer of 1922 – accomplishes two things: firstly, it validates Gatsby and the American Dream; Fitzgerald contrasts the unforgivable, despicable actions of Tom and Daisy with the seemingly innocent and juvenile fantasies of Gatsby. The latter earns the audience’s sympathy, while the former are condemned for their inhumanity. Secondly, it debunks the American Dream: in spite of all the efforts and labours Gatsby invests to bring his Dream to fruition, he and his bold vision are cut short, left to rot floating in a pool of blood, rejected by reality; a strong message that material existence does not take kindly to Dreamers.
And the battle returns to its origin; Dreamers recommence their offensive, reality braces itself; and the story continues. “It is all useless. It is like chasing the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:26). Or is it?
Bewley, Marius. “Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Great Gatsby. Ed. Ernest Lockridge. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968. 37-53.
“Book of Ecclesiastes.” Good News Bible. Manila: Philippine Bible Society, 1980.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. London: Penguin Books, 1990.
Possnock, Ross. ” ‘A New World, Material Without Being Real’: Fitzgerald’s Critique of Capitalism in The Great Gatsby.” Critical Essays on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Ed. Scott Donaldson. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1984. 201-213.
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