Reading and Responding to Literary Criticism #1 In addition to support from the novel, you will need to use secondary sources in your paper on The Great Gatsby. The essays that follow are secondary sources on The Great Gatsby that provide literary criticism. Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. It provides an interpretation by analyzing, commenting on, and judging the contents, qualities, and techniques of the text. These sources will help you develop and support your ideas.
Take 30 minutes to read and annotate the following essays. These essays will be your secondary sources. They will help you discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald, his writing, and The Great Gatsby. Your annotations should:
1. Highlight the author’s main argument. What point is he/she making about F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby?
2. Highlight three significant details. What are some of the details from the novel the author uses to support his argument?
3. Highlight two ideas that you find particularly interesting or thought provoking. Source #1: “Capturing the Jazz Age”
Born: September 24, 1896 in Minnesota, United States, St. Paul
Died:December 21, 1940 in California, United States, Hollywood
If ever there was one person who captured the prosperity of the Roaring 20s and the Jazz Age, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald. His books, including The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), The Great Gatsby (1925), and Tender Is the Night (1934), depict characters who seem to be thoroughly enjoying life, but who, under the surface, are sad, aimless, and lonely.
Fitzgerald attended but never graduated from Princeton University (New Jersey), where he wrote many theater scripts for Princeton productions. Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), catapulted him to almost instant fame. His clear literary voice instantly appealed to other people of his generation, who felt lost in a world that had been devastated by World War I (1914-1918), in which it seemed that many men had died needlessly.
In his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald introduced Jay Gatsby, who pursues and obtains incredible wealth to impress the woman he loves. But while the characters in The Great Gatsby are rich and enjoy extravagant parties, they lack any strong moral sense, and this leads to their undoing.
Despite his early success as a writer, Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, lived a lavish lifestyle that frequently left them in debt. Fitzgerald turned to writing profitable short stories for magazines, which helped pay the bills. But this plan took his attention away from writing novels--Fitzgerald spent a great deal of time crafting and then revising his work. Still, the above four novels Fitzgerald was able to complete before dying at the age of 44 (a fifth one, The Last Tycoon, was published after his death) captured the modern American attitudes that came with a new century.
Source Citation: Lusted, Marcia Amidon. "Capturing the Jazz Age." Cobblestone July-Aug. 2011: 33. Gale Student Resources In Context. Web. 23 May 2012.
Source #2:“Themes and Construction: The Great Gatsby” EXPLORING Novels, 2003 Themes and Construction: The Great Gatsby
By juxtaposing characters from the West and East in America in The Great Gatsby , Fitzgerald was making some moral observations about the people who live there. Those in the Midwest—the newly arrived Nick Carraway—were fair, relatively innocent, unsophisticated, while those who lived in the East for some time—Tom and Daisy Buchanan—were unfair, corrupt, and materialistic. The Westerners who moved East, furthermore, brought the violence of the Old West days to their new lives. Fitzgerald romanticizes the Midwest, since it is where the idealistic Jay Gatz was born and to where the morally enlightened Nick returns. It serves metaphorically as a condition of the heart, of going home to a moral existence rooted in basic, conservative values. Further, the houses of East Egg and West Egg represent similar moral differences. The East is where Daisy and Tom live, and the West is where Gatsby and Nick live. Fitzgerald refers to the West as the green breast of a new world, a reflection of a man's dream, an America subsumed in this image. The materialism of the East creates the tragedy of destruction, dishonesty, and fear. No values exist in such an environment.
Gatsby represents the American dream of self-made wealth and happiness, the spirit of youth and resourcefulness, and the ability to make something of one's self, despite one's origins. He achieved more than his parents had and felt he was pursuing a perfect dream, Daisy, who for him embodied the elements of success. Gatsby's mentor, Dan Cody, was the ultimate self-made man who influenced Gatsby in his tender, impressionable youth. When Gatsby found he could not win Daisy's love, he pursued the American Dream in the guise of Cody. Inherent in this dream, however, was the possibility of giving in to temptation and to corrupt get-rich-quick schemes like bootlegging and gambling. Fitzgerald's book mirrors the headiness, ambition, despair, and disillusionment of America in the 1920s: its ideals lost behind the trappings of class and material success.
Examples of the American Dream gone awry are plentiful in The Great Gatsby: Meyer Wolfsheim's enterprising ways to make money are criminal; Jordan Baker's attempts at sporting fame lead her to cheating; and the Buchanans' thirst for the good life victimizes others to the point of murder. Only Gatsby, who was relatively unselfish in his life, and whose primary flaw was a naive idealism, could be construed as fulfilling the author's vision of the American Dream. Throughout the novel are many references to his tendency to dream, but in fact, his world rests insecurely on a fairy's wing. On the flip side of the American Dream, then, is a naivete and a susceptibility to evil and poor-intentioned people.
Appearances and Reality
Since there is no real love between Gatsby and Daisy, in The Great Gatsby, there is no real truth to Gatsby's vision. Hand in hand with this idea is the appearances and reality theme. Fitzgerald displays what critics have termed "an ability to see the face behind the mask." Thus, behind the expensive parties, Gatsby is a lonely man. Though hundreds had come to his mansion, hardly anyone came to his funeral. Owl Eyes, Mr. Klipspringer, and the long list of partygoers simply use Gatsby for their pleasures. Gatsby himself is a put-on, with his "Oggsford" accent, fine clothes, and "old boy" routine; behind this facade is a man who is involved in racketeering. Gatsby's greatness lies in his capacity for illusion. Had he seen Daisy for what she was, he could not have loved her with such singleminded devotion. He tries to recapture Daisy, and for a time it looks as though he will succeed. But he must fail, because of his inability to separate the ideal from the real. The famous verbal exchange between Nick and Gatsby typifies this: concerning his behavior with Daisy, Nick tells him he can't repeat the past. "Can't repeat the past," Gatsby replies, "Why of course you can!"
The wealthy class is morally corrupt in The Great Gatsby , and the objective correlative (a term coined by poet and critic T. S. Eliot that refers to an object that takes on greater significance and comes to symbolize the mood and world of a literary work) in this case is the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, which preside over the valley of ashheaps near Wilson's garage. There are no spiritual values in a place where money reigns: the traditional ideas of God and Religion are dead here, and the American dream is direly corrupted. This is no place for Nick, who is honest. He is the kind of person who says he is one of the few honest people he's ever met, and one who is let down by the world of excess and indulgence. His mark of sanity is to leave the wasteland environment to return home in the West. In a similar manner, T. S. Eliot's renowned poem "The Wasteland" describes the decline of Western civilization and its lack of spirituality through the objective correlative (defining image) of the wasteland.
Point of View
The Great Gatsby is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, one of the main characters. The technique is similar to that used by British novelist Joseph Conrad, one of Fitzgerald's literary influences, and shows how Nick feels about the characters. Superbly chosen by the author, Nick is a romantic, moralist, and judge who gives the reader retrospective flashbacks that fill us in on the life of Gatsby and then flash forward to foreshadow his tragedy. Nick must be the kind of person whom others trust. Nick undergoes a transformation himself because of his observations about experiences surrounding the mysterious figure of Jay Gatsby. Through this first-person (``I'') narrative technique, we also gain insight into the author's perspective. Nick is voicing much of Fitzgerald's own sentiments about life. One is quite simply that "you can never judge a book by its cover" and often times a person's worth is difficult to find at first. Out of the various impressions we have of these characters, we can agree with Nick's final estimation that Gatsby is worth the whole "rotten bunch of them put together."
As in all of Fitzgerald's stories, the setting is a crucial part of The Great Gatsby . West and East are two opposing poles of values: one is pure and idealistic, and the other is corrupt and materialistic. The Western states, including the Midwest, represent decency and the basic ethical principles of honesty, while the East is full of deceit. The difference between East and West Egg is a similar contrast in cultures. The way the characters line up morally correlates with their geographical choice of lifestyle. The Buchanans began life in the West but gravitated to the East and stayed there. Gatsby did as well, though only to follow Daisy and to watch her house across the bay. His utter simplicity and naivete indicates an idealism that has not been lost. Nick remains the moral center of the book and returns home to the Midwest. To him, the land is "not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that." He finds that he is unadaptable to life in the East. The memory of the East haunts him once he returns home. Another setting of importance is the wasteland of ash heaps, between New York City and Long Island where the mechanization of modern life destroys all the past values. Nick's view of the modern world is that God is dead, and man makes a valley of ashes; he corrupts ecology, corrupts the American Dream and desecrates it. The only Godlike image in this deathlike existence are the eyes of Dr. J. L. Eckleburg on a billboard advertising glasses.
Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in the form of a satire, a criticism of society's foibles through humor. The elements of satire in the book include the depiction of the nouveau riche ("newly rich"), the sense of vulgarity of the people, the parties intended to draw Daisy over, the grotesque quality of the name "Great" Gatsby in the title. Satire originated in the Roman times, and similarly criticized the rich thugs with no values, tapped into cultural pessimism, and gave readers a glimpse into chaos. The Great Gatsby is the tale of the irresponsible rich. Originally, the title of the book was "Trimalchio," based on an ancient satire of a man called Trimalchio who dresses up to be rich.
In The Great Gatsby, the author uses light imagery to point out idealism and illusion. The green light that shines off Daisy's dock is one example. Gatsby sees it as his dream, away from his humble beginnings, towards a successful future with the girl of his desire. Daisy and Jordan are in an aura of whiteness like angels—which they are not, of course, yet everything in Gatsby's vision that is associated with Daisy is bright. Her chatter with Jordan is described as "cool as their white dresses and their impersonal eyes " by Nick. The lamp light in the house is "bright on [Tom's] boots and dull on the autumn-leaf yellow of her hair." Gatsby comments to Daisy and Nick how the light catches the front of his house and makes it look splendid, and Nick notes how Daisy's brass buttons on her dress "gleamed in the sunlight." Between the frequent mention of moonlight, twilight, and the women's white gowns, Fitzgerald alludes to the dreamlike qualities of Gatsby's world, and indirectly, to Nick's romantic vision. On the other hand, Meyer Wolfsheim, the gambler, is seen in a restaurant hidden in a dark cellar when Gatsby first introduces him to Nick. "Blinking away the brightness of the street, my eyes picked him out obscurely in the anteroom," says Nick.
Source Citation: "Themes and Construction: The Great Gatsby." EXPLORING Novels. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resources In Context. Web. 23 May 2012.
Reading and Responding to Literary Criticism #2
In addition to support from the novel, you will need to use secondary sources in your paper on The Great Gatsby. The essays that follow are secondary sources on The Great Gatsby that provide literary criticism. Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. It provides an interpretation by analyzing, commenting on, and judging the contents, qualities, and techniques of the text. These sources will help you develop and support your ideas.
Take 40 minutes to read and annotate the following essays. These essays will be your secondary sources. They will help you discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald, his writing, and The Great Gatsby. Your annotations should:
1. Highlight the author’s main argument. What point is he/she making about F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby?
2. Highlight three significant details. What are some of the details from the novel the author uses to support his argument?
3. Highlight two ideas that you find particularly interesting or thought provoking. Source #3: “Our Gatsby, Our Nick” DISCovering Authors, 2003
`Our Gatsby, Our Nick'
[In the following excerpt, Gross discusses the appeal of Jay Gatsby as a tragic hero.]
The Great Gatsbyand the twenties are still, of course, inseparable. Published in 1925, the exact middle, the exact peak of the decade, the novel has become a cultural document. Without intending to, Fitzgerald wrote a love song to and a threnody for a time. Like Janus, he looked back and forward simultaneously, back to all the dreams that had impossibly come true, ahead to all the nightmares that were surely to come.
Yet, hand it to a college freshman who knows nothing about the twenties and he knows precisely what the novel is about. Unlike most critics, whose Great Gatsby is rarely the Great Gatsby one reads, he responds to it as it was meant to be responded to. Of all the responses to the novel Fitzgerald had heard, he thought that of Roger Burlingame, an editor at Scribners, best described "whatever unifying emotion the book has." Mr. Burlingame said the novel made him "want to be back somewhere so much."
But where? If the emotion the novel elicits is nostalgia, then today's college freshman cannot possibly feel anything akin to what Mr. Burlingame might have felt. The novel does elicit a nostalgic response, but not the sort of nostalgia we usually think of. It is not nostalgia for a time or a place. It is nostalgia for an attitude.
Listening to Gatsby, Nick Carraway is reminded of an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, something heard somewhere a long time ago. Listening to Nick, so are we. We are reminded of an attitude toward life that we still stubbornly hold to despite the world's refusal to confirm it. We are reminded of heroism.
The Great Gatsby satisfies very basic needs that few contemporary novels can satisfy. It satisfies our need to see ourselves writ large. It satisfies our need to remember our infinite capacities. It satisfies our need to confirm our stubborn faiths in the ideals of courage and honor and love and responsibility. Like Gatsby's smile, the novel concentrates on us with an irresistible prejudice in our favor, believes in us as we would like to believe in ourselves, assures us that it has the impression of us that, at our best, we hope to convey....
The Great Gatsby was an act of faith, an act of courage. At three o'clock in the morning [Fitzgerald] saw the dark night of the soul, but he also saw something else. He saw things as they were, what Lionel Trilling calls the condition, the field of tragedy, but he also saw things as they should be. It is this tension between realism and idealism, between knowledge and faith that lies behind all great tragedy. It is this tension that cannot be resolved, that can only be accepted, that Keats, his favorite poet, called negative capability, that Fitzgerald came to call the wise and tragic sense of life.
Fitzgerald gave it a peculiarly American twist. To those who would insist that America cannot, by definition, produce tragedy, Fitzgerald provided proof that it could. In the past such affirmation in the face of defeat was the prerogative of great men alone. Before him only Melville had succeeded in elevating an American to tragic height. But Ahab achieves the tragic height of a Macbeth, not of an Oedipus or a Hamlet or a Don Quixote. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald was able to endow two good men with the wise and tragic sense of life.
He did not regard the attainment of such a perception as a mark of greatness. He regarded it as a necessity for any life at all. Without it, life would be an extinction up an alley. With it, life would at least be a journey, a journey of hope. The hope would, in the end, be dashed. The attempt to control one's destiny is foredoomed. But that really is no matter. Still the journey must be undertaken. Still the attempt must be made.
That is what The Great Gatsby is about and that is why we continue to cherish it. Our contemporaries tell us ours is an anti- heroic, anti-tragic age, but we do not really believe them. We persist in believing, despite all proofs to the contrary, the opposite. That is why we go out of our way to honor the hero and extol him when we think we recognize him, whether his name is John Kennedy or Martin Luther King or Che Guevara.
We are Nick Carraway, grown a little solemn with the feel of those long winters of our discontent, grown a little complacent from having been raised in the house of our security. Cautious, politic, wise, meant to swell a rout or two, but not Prince Hamlet. Yet we yearn to acknowledge our Hamlet, not just the Hamlet out there but the Hamlet in us. If Gatsby is the great Gatsby, it is because Nick thinks he is....
Disillusioned and lonely, Nick finally meets Gatsby, who clearly represents everything Nick has been taught to scorn, to disapprove of. Gatsby's house is a huge and incoherent eyesore. His tastes run to pink suits and flashy cars. His parties follow the rules of the most vulgar amusement park. He is rumored to be a criminal, a killer.
Yet, against all logic, Nick finds himself attracted to Gatsby. He listens to Gatsby's preposterous autobiography with first incredulity, then fascination, and finally belief. He wants to believe Gatsby, wants to believe that this elegant roughneck, this proprietor of the elaborate roadhouse next door, is a person of consequence. And when Jordan tells Nick about Gatsby's five-year love for Daisy, Nick's beliefs are confirmed. Gatsby comes alive to him because Nick wants him to. Gatsby is the antidote to Nick's interior rules which keep him at a standstill, to his fear of involvement which keeps him from living.
Contrary to all his principles, he allows himself to become involved, allows himself to be used as a Pandarus to Gatsby's Troilus and Daisy's Cressida. But it is really Nick who uses Gatsby. He uses him as a model. There are only, Nick realizes, the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired. Gatsby is all of these and possessed by intense life. Nick is none of these and possessed by a fear of life. He overcomes his repulsion at life's inexhaustible variety long enough to commit himself to Jordan Baker.
But Nick discovers, as James Baldwin puts it, that connections willed into existence can never become organic. Gatsby has thrown himself into his dream of Daisy with a colossal vitality, a creative passion that Nick cannot begin to approximate. Unlike Nick's, Gatsby's commitment is not to a woman but to a vision. That is why, although Daisy is corrupt, Gatsby's dream of her is not....
But to understand why Gatsby's dream of Daisy is incorruptible, we must go back to the night Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder that mounted to a secret place above the trees. He knew he could climb to it and once there suck on the pap of life, drink down the milk of wonder. He also knew he could climb to it only if he climbed alone, only if he devoted all his energies, all his commitments to getting there. Such a climb could not be made half- heartedly.
But there was Daisy standing beside him, breathless, immediate. He knew that once he kissed her his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. Daisy could not be won by halves either. He must choose between the stars and a mortal flower. Against all logic, he weds his unutterable visions to her perishable breath and the incarnation is complete forever.
His commitment is to his Platonic conception of himself. To this he is faithful to the end. Gatsby's greatness resides in this vigil, in his protection of an internal flame. His vision comes from an inner light which he sustains and follows. He looks at life from a single window, an isolation that insures his purity....
This is the greatness of the visionary and, as such, is inimitable. Nick cannot be Gatsby because he cannot choose to have a vision. And even if he could, he would not. The total commitment to an impossible dream is, of course, insane and very dangerous. Nick is too sensible to ever want to pay the price for living too long with a single dream. As an ideal, Gatsby is unapproachable. He can only be wondered at, not emulated.
Nevertheless, he is an ideal we need to recognize and affirm. For Gatsby represents nothing less than wonder itself, the heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, the extraordinary gift for hope, the romantic readiness that makes life something more than an extinction up an alley, that makes life a journey. Gatsby is one with the Dutch sailor whose boat was similarly propelled against the current by a fidelity to an impossible dream....
Gatsby's morality may be nothing more than a chivalrous reflex, nothing more than what H. L. Mencken called it, the sentimentality of a sclerotic fat woman. But it is a morality nevertheless and in lieu of any other. In this too Gatsby atones for the world's failure, its failure to provide standards in terms of which human behavior may be measured and judged. Gatsby's moral response has to do with that Platonic conception of himself, with those ineffable dreams that permit him to transcend a brutal and materialistic world. In Gatsby Nick finds the connection between ideality and morality, between the capacity for wonder and the capacity for responsibility. The price for living too long with a single dream is too high. But the price for living too long without one is even higher, not to the physical but to the spiritual life.
Although Nick must disapprove of Gatsby from beginning to end, he is able to recognize and affirm what Gatsby represents. In that recognition and affirmation lie Nick's heroism. He is able to affirm Gatsby in words when he tells him he is worth the whole damn bunch put together. He is able to affirm him in gestures when he erases the obscene word scrawled on Gatsby's steps. He is able to affirm him in deeds when he commits himself to and assumes responsibility for the dead Gatsby, when he invests his intense personal interest to which everyone is entitled at the end.
More important even, he is able, finally, to assume responsibility for himself. He left the Midwest without confronting the girl he was fleeing but before he leaves the East he confronts Jordan Baker. No longer able to lie to himself and call it honor, he admits his dishonesty and carelessness. He has learned not to be like the Buchanans who smash up things and people and then retreat back into their vast carelessness, leaving other people to clean up the mess they make. He has learned not to trust some obliging sea to sweep his refuse away....
He wants, he says, no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. He wants, he says, the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever. He is no longer interested, he says, in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.
But the only sort of moral order the world can create is the order of the inquisition which spares only children and the very old. The only order that is liberating is the one each man must create for himself. The riotous excursions are, at least, excursions, and not extinctions up an alley. The abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of the human heart are what makes it beat.
In the final analysis, Nick knows all that. In telling Gatsby's story and his own, he does create an order, he does affirm the sorrows and elations of the heart. He becomes, in earnest, the guide, the pathfinder he fancied himself to be when he first arrived at West Egg. He captures the elusive rhythm, remembers the lost words, communicates the incommunicable something heard somewhere a long time ago.
Gatsby is the hero we need to acknowledge and affirm, but the hero we dare not be. Nick, who is, like us, within and without, simultaneously repelled and enchanted by the inexhaustible variety of life, is the hero we can and must become.
Source Citation: Gross, Barry. "`Our Gatsby, Our Nick'." DISCovering Authors. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resources In Context. Web. 2 June 2012.
Source #4: Charles Thomas Samuels. "The Greatness of Gatsby." EXPLORING Novels. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Gale Student Resources In Context. Web. The Great Gatsby's fundamental achievement is a triumph of language.
I do not speak merely of the "flowers," the famous passages: Nick's description of Gatsby yearning toward the green light on Daisy's dock, Gatsby's remark that the Buchanans' love is "only personal," the book's last page. Throughout, The Great Gatsby has the precision and splendor of a lyric poem, yet well-wrought prose is merely one of its triumphs. Fitzgerald's distinction in this novel is to have made language celebrate itself. Among other things, The Great Gatsby is about the power of art.
This celebration of literary art is inseparable from the novel's second great achievement—its management of point of view, the creation of Nick. With his persona, Fitzgerald obtained more than objectivity and concentration of effect. Nick describes more than the experience which he witnesses; he describes the act and consequences of telling about it. The persona is-as critics have been seeing-a character, but he is more than that: he is a character engaged in a significant action.
Nick is writing a book. He is recording Gatsby's experience; in the act of recording Gatsby's experience he discovers himself.
Though his prose has all along been creating for us Gatsby's "romantic readiness," almost until the very end Nick insists that he deplores Gatsby's "appalling sentimentality." This is not a reasoned judgment. Nick disapproves because he cannot yet affirm. He is a Jamesian spectator, a fastidious intelligence ill-suited to profound engagement of life. But writing does profoundly engage life. In writing about Gatsby, Nick alters his attitude toward his subject and ultimately toward his own life. As his book nears completion his identification with Gatsby grows. His final affirmation is his sympathetic understanding of Gatsby and the book which gives his sympathy form: both are a celebration of life; each is a gift of language. This refinement on James's use of the persona might be the cause of Eliot's assertion that The Great Gatsby represented the first advance which the American novel had made since James.
In Nick's opening words we find an uncompleted personality. There are contradictions and perplexities which (when we first read the passage) are easily ignored, because of the characteristic suavity of his prose. He begins the chronicle, whose purpose is an act of judgment and whose title is an evaluation, by declaring an inclination "to reserve all judgments." The words are scarcely digested when we find him judging:
“The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality [tolerance] when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.”
The tone is unmistakable-a combination of moral censure, self-protectiveness, and final saving sympathy that marks Nick as an outsider who is nonetheless drawn to the life he is afraid to enter. So when he tells us a little later in the passage that "Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope," we know that this and not the noblesse oblige he earlier advanced explains his fear of judging. Nick cannot help judging, but he fears a world in which he is constantly beset by objects worthy of rejection. He is "a little afraid of missing something"; that is why he hears the promise in Daisy's voice, half-heartedly entertains the idea of loving Jordan Baker, and becomes involved with the infinite hope of Jay Gatsby-"Gatsby, who represented everything for which [Nick had] an unaffected scorn."
When Nick begins the book he feels the same ambivalence toward Gatsby that characterizes his attitude toward life: a simultaneous enchantment and revulsion which places him "within and without." When he has finished, he has become united with Gatsby, and he judges Gatsby great. Finally he has something to admire; contemplating Gatsby redeems him from the "foul dust [which had] temporarily closed out [his] interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men."
The economy with which Fitzgerald presents those sorrows and short-winded elations is another of the book's major achievements. In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald contrived to develop a story by means of symbols while at the same time investing those symbols with vivid actuality. Everything in the book is symbolic, from Gatsby's ersatz mansion to the wild and aimless parties which he gives there, yet everything seems so "true to life" that some critics continue to see that novel primarily as a recreation of the '20s. The Great Gatsby is about the '20s only in the sense that Moby Dick is about whaling or that The Scarlet Letter is about Puritan Boston. Comparing the liveliness of Fitzgerald's book with Melville's or, better still, with Hawthorne's (which resembles its tight dramatic structure and concentration), you have a good indication of the peculiar distinction in Fitzgerald's work.
Of the novel's symbols, only the setting exists without regard to verisimilitude, purely to project meaning. The Great Gatsby has four locales: East Egg, home of the rich Buchanans and their ultra-traditional Georgian Colonial mansion; West Egg where the once-rich and the parvenus live and where Gatsby apes the splendor of the Old World; the wasteland of the average man; and New York, where Nick labors, ironically, at the "Probity Trust." East and West Egg are "crushed flat at the contact end"; they represent the collision of dream and dreamer which is dramatized when Gatsby tries to establish his "universe of ineffable gaudiness" through the crass materials of the real world. The wasteland is a valley of ashes in which George Wilson dispenses gasoline to the irresponsible drivers from East and West Egg, eventually yielding his wife to their casual lust and cowardly violence.
Fitzgerald's world represents iconographically a sterile, immoral society. Over this world brood the blind eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg: the sign for an oculist's business which was never opened, the symbol of a blindness which can never be corrected. Like other objects in the book to which value might be attached, the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg are a cheat. They are not a sign of God, as Wilson thinks, but only an advertisement-like the false promise of Daisy's moneyed voice, or the green light on her dock, which is invisible in the mist.
These monstrous eyes are the novel's major symbol. The book's chief characters are blind, and they behave blindly. Gatsby does not see Daisy's vicious emptiness, and Daisy, deluded, thinks she will reward her gold-hatted lover until he tries to force from her an affirmation she is too weak to make. Tom is blind to his hypocrisy; with "a short deft movement" he breaks Myrtle's nose for daring to mention the name of the wife she is helping him to deceive. Before her death, Myrtle mistakes Jordan for Daisy. Just as she had always mistaken Tom for salvation from the ash-heap, she blindly rushes for his car in her need to escape her lately informed husband, and is struck down. Moreover, Daisy is driving the car; and the man with her is Gatsby, not Tom. The final act of blindness is specifically associated with Dr. Eckleburg's eyes. Wilson sees them as a sign of righteous judgment and righteously proceeds to work God's judgment on earth. He kills Gatsby, but Gatsby is the wrong man. In the whole novel, only Nick sees. And his vision comes slowly, in the act of writing the book.
The act of writing the book is, as I have said, an act of judgment. Nick wants to know why Gatsby "turned out all right in the end," despite all the phoniness and crime which fill his story, and why Gatsby was the only one who turned out all right. For, in writing about the others, Nick discovers the near ubiquity of folly and despair.
The novel's people are exemplary types of the debasement of life which is Fitzgerald's subject. Daisy, Tom, and Jordan lack the inner resources to enjoy what their wealth can give them. They show the peculiar folly of the American dream. At the pinnacle, life palls. Daisy is almost unreal. When Nick first sees her she seems to be floating in midair. Her famous protestation of grief ("I'm sophisticated. God, I'm sophisticated") is accompanied by an "absolute smirk." Her extravagant love for Gatsby is a sham, less real than the unhappy but fleshly bond with Tom which finally turns them into "conspirators." Her beauty is a snare. Like Tom's physical prowess, it neither pleases her nor insures her pleasure in others. Tom forsakes Daisy for Myrtle and both for "stale ideas." Jordan's balancing act is a trick; like her sporting reputation, a precarious lie. They are all rich and beautiful—and unhappy.
Yearning toward them are Myrtle and Gatsby. Like Gatsby, Myrtle desires "the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves... gleaming...above the hot struggles of the poor." Unlike him, her "panting vitality" is wholly physical, merely pathetic; whereas Gatsby's quest is spiritual and tragic. Myrtle is maimed and victimized by Daisy's selfish fear of injury (Daisy could have crashed into another car but, at the last minute, loses heart and runs Myrtle down); Gatsby's death is but the final stage of disillusionment, and he suffers voluntarily.
Gatsby is, of course, one of the major achievements I have been noting. Although we see little of him and scarcely ever hear him speak, his presence is continually with us; and he exists, as characters in fiction seldom do, as a life force. He recalls the everlasting yea of Carlyle, as well as the metaphysical rebellion of Camus. His "heightened sensitivity to the promise of life" is but one half of his energy; the other being a passionate denial of life's limitations. Gatsby's devotion to Daisy is an implicit assault on the human condition. His passion would defy time and decay to make the glorious first moment of wonder, which is past, eternally present. His passion is supra-sexual, even super-personal. In his famous remark to Nick about Daisy's love for Tom, he is making two assertions: that the "things between Daisy and Tom [which Tom insists] he'll never know" are merely mundane and that the Daisy which he loves is not the Daisy which Tom had carried down from the Punch Bowl but the Daisy who "blossomed for him like a flower," incarnating his dream, the moment he kissed her. Gatsby's love for life is finally an indictment of the life he loves. Life does not reward such devotion, nor, for that reason, does it deserve it. Gatsby is great for having paid life the compliment of believing its promise.
When Hamlet dies amidst the carnage of his bloody quest for justice, he takes with him the promise that seeming will coincide with being and the hope that man can strike a blow for truth and save a remnant of the universe. When Ahab dies a victim to his own harpoon, he kills the promise that man may know his life and the hope that knowledge will absolve him. When Gatsby dies, more innocently than they (since, though a "criminal," he lacks utterly their taste for destruction), he kills a promise more poignant and perhaps more precious, certainly more inclusive than theirs: Gatsby kills the promise that desire can ever be gratified.