11 March 2010
Symbolism and Egotism in The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby focuses on Jay Gatsby’s wish to bring back a love from his past. The characters in the novel are presented as selfish rich members of society. Their lives are spent partying and wasting money. Fitzgerald uses symbolism to show how selfish people can be. The three symbols of the novel that display this selfish behavior are the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the valley of ashes, and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes on the billboard overlooking the valley of ashes.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Edward and Mollie Fitzgerald. His childhood was very sheltered. He was pampered by his mother; she was too overbearing in the fact that she had invested all her hopes in her son and his successes (Pelzer 2).
Fitzgerald was a poor student. He went to boarding school in New Jersey. While at the Newman Academy, he spent more time being popular rather than doing his schoolwork. At first he tried to fit in by playing football, but he failed at it. He then began writing, and this made him really popular. “His handsome face, social graces, and acute intelligence, he felt certain, would guarantee his success. But Fitzgerald had overestimated his talents and gifts” (Pelzer 2). He attended Princeton but never graduated. He then entered the army during World War I. He was a terrible soldier. He wrote all the time and never paid attention. He made a lot of mistakes and was the butt of many jokes made by fellow officers. The war ended before he was shipped overseas (D. Gross and M. Gross 19).
In 1918, he met Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama. She was a beautiful southern belle. She came from a rich family and wanted a rich husband. They were engaged in 1919 but she called it off until he made something of himself. When he published This Side of Paradise in 1920 she finally agreed to marry him. This was the start of a very wild and reckless marriage. On their honeymoon, they acted so wild and were kicked out of the hotel. Zelda loved attention and made sure she got it from everyone around her. “Zelda was flirtatious, Fitzgerald was jealous, and it was the beginning of a turbulent life together” (Merriman). The couple had a daughter and lived in Connecticut. They traveled a lot to Europe. (“The Great Gatsby”).
The Fitzgeralds partied a lot. They really embraced the “Jazz Age” lifestyle:
Zelda embraced the flapper lifestyle dressing provocatively and smoking cigarettes,
and she and her husband enjoyed the free-thinking, hedonistic pursuits of the
roaring twenties when the post-war American economy was booming. Although it
was a time of prohibition, there was no deficit of alcohol in the Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald tried his best to please his wife; he wrote to earn money. Nothing was ever good enough for her, though. In 1924, Zelda tried to commit suicide after her lover refused to marry her. Fitzgerald spent the entire night trying to save her life. After that, nothing was ever the same in their marriage. In 1930, Zelda had a mental breakdown while they were vacationing in South Africa. She was in and out of mental hospitals for a number of years. Fitzgerald used her mental state in many of his works (Merriman).
Fitzgerald began working
The Great Gatsby is said to have been inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own life. “We learn in the 1925 novel that he [Gatsby] was originally the son of ‘shiftless and unsuccessful farm people’, and the Gatsby persona ‘sprang from his Platonic conception of himself’.” (“The mysterious neighbour who inspired The Great Gatsby”). The story centers on Nick Carraway, a young man from the Midwest who comes to Long Island to make his way in the world. Nick is from a good family with money. When he comes to West Egg, he reunites with his distant cousin Daisy and her filthy-rich husband Tom Buchanan. He also befriends the shady Gatsby, his next-door neighbor. Gatsby throws lavish parties and is spoken about as if he is a ghost. Finally, Nick learns more about Gatsby from the man himself. Nick also learns that Gatsby is in love with Nick’s cousin and wants to reunite their past romance. Nick and Jordan Baker, Nick’s girlfriend, set up a tea party to reunite the two. From there, Gatsby and Daisy have an affair and seem to be very much in love. Daisy is amazed by Gatsby’s wealth, home, and material things. Daisy is easily seduced by money and men who have it.
Eventually, Daisy’s husband Tom catches on to his wife’s affair. While on a day trip into New York City, he openly calls out Gatsby for what he really is – a crook and a bootlegger. Gatsby does not deny his secret life but does not really admit to it either. Nevertheless, Gatsby and Daisy drive back to West Egg together. Along the way, Daisy accidentally hits and kills Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress, with Gatsby’s car. George learns that Myrtle has had an affair with an unknown man and Tom Buchanan leads him to Gatsby. As Gatsby is lying in his pool, Wilson shoots him dead and then turns the gun on himself.
Nick comes home from work and finds Gatsby dead. Upon making funeral arrangements, Gatsby’s father comes to bury his son. This is when Nick learns Gatsby’s true identity – James Gatz, a poor farm boy from the Midwest. His father hails him as a hero to the working class, a boy who rose up from poverty to live in a beautiful home and have such great wealth. In the end, no one but a few people attend Gatsby’s funeral. Nick learns that Daisy and Tom have packed up and left town. All the other party-goers do not show their faces.
Nick eventually decides to move back to his home in the Midwest. He feels that life in the East is full of phony rich people who have forgotten their way in life. He is so disgusted by the behavior of his friends and even by his own behavior throughout the time he has lived on Long Island. He leaves with fond memories of his friend Jay Gatsby, who he referred to as “the only one worth the whole damn bunch put together” (Fitzgerald 154).
The Great Gatsby is full of symbolism. Fitzgerald’s use of it further shows how selfish the characters are as they try to make claim to their desires in life. The first symbol is the green light on Daisy's dock. Jay Gatsby's house is directly across the bay from Daisy and Tom's house. When Gatsby goes out at night, he can see the green light and it gives him hope that he and Daisy will be reunited. In chapter nine, Nick compares the green light that Gatsby looked at across the bay to immigrants coming to a green new land:
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s
wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had
come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that
he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him,
somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the
republic rolled on under the night. (Fitzgerald 180)
Even though Gatsby is dying to reunite with Daisy, his behavior is very selfish. Daisy is married with a young daughter. Regardless, Gatsby could care less. He has spent the last five years of his life trying to make himself a successful rich man so that he could win her back. His intentions are selfish. He cares for no one’s needs but his own. He will only be happy when Daisy is his again.
The second symbol in The Great Gatsby is the valley of ashes. The valley of ashes is actually a place of ashes that were dumped there by the railroad in between West Egg and New York. The ashes represent the poor people. People like George and Myrtle Wilson live there. Myrtle Wilson's only way out of the valley it to have an affair with a rich guy like Tom Buchanan, but she will always be his girlfriend from the poor part of town. In the valley, the sky is grayer and the people are plain miserable. Fitzgerald shows that in the valley life is definitely not greener.
The last symbol is the billboard with the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The billboard overlooks the valley of ashes. Those eyes watch the characters when they go back and forth from Long Island to New York City. The eyes witness the evils of man, the men and women of Long Island. They see all the selfish acts that the people of Long Island are up to: Gatsby’s illegal actions, Tom’s affair with Myrtle Wilson, Myrtle Wilson’s murder, and the breakdown of George Wilson before killing Gatsby.
In conclusion, Fitzgerald used symbols in the novel to show how selfish people really are. Gatsby obsesses over Daisy. He stares at her green light every night just hoping they run into each other. The valley of ashes shows how the poor live compared to the rich, and the eyes on the billboard are watching the shady behaviors that go on. The Great Gatsby shows a certain selfish way of life in America in the 1920’s and the symbols only make the point that much stronger. Fitzgerald was fed up with the excess and wasteful lifestyle of the rich in the 1920’s. The Great Gatsby portrays his disgust through the characters and their own selfish actions. Even Nick Carraway is disgusted by his own actions and those of his “friends” and leaves the east to find peace. “On the most banal level, The Great Gatsby documents the truism that money can’t buy you love, or at least not the tainted money Gatsby acquires in his campaign to take Daisy away from her husband” (Donaldson). Fortunately for readers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s disappointment with his peers inspired his greatest novel.
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