The Great Gatsby's Theme



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The Great Gatsby's Theme


On one level the novel comments on the careless gaiety and moral decadence of the period. It contains innumerable references to the contemporary scene. The wild extravagance of Gatsby's parties, the shallowness and aimlessness of the guests and the hint of Gatsby's involvement in crime all identify the period and the American setting. But as a piece of social commentary The Great Gatsby also describes the failure of the American dream, from the point of view that American political ideals conflict with the actual social conditions that exist. For whereas American democracy is based on the idea of equality among people, the truth is that social discrimination still exists and the divisions among the classes cannot be overcome. Myrtle's attempt to break into the group to which the Buchanans belong is doomed to fail. Taking advantage of her vivacity, her lively nature, she seeks to escape from her own class. She enters into an affair with Tom and takes on his way of living. But she only becomes vulgar and corrupt like the rich. She scorns people from her own class and loses all sense of morality. And for all her social ambition, Myrtle never succeeds in her attempt to find a place for herself in Tom's class. When it comes to a crisis, the rich stand together against all outsiders.

Myrtle's condition, of course, is a weaker reflection of Gatsby's more significant struggle. While Myrtle's desire springs from social ambition, Gatsby's is related more to his idealism, his faith in life's possibilities. Undoubtedly, his desire is also influenced by social considerations; Daisy, who is wealthy and beautiful, represents a way of life which is remote from Gatsby's and therefore more attractive because it is out of reach. However, social consciousness is not a basic cause. It merely directs and increases Gatsby's belief in life's possibilities. Like Myrtle, Gatsby struggles to fit himself into another social group, but his attempt is more urgent because his whole faith in life is involved in it. Failure, therefore, is more terrible for him. His whole career, his confidence in himself and in life is totally shattered when he fails to win Daisy. His death when it comes is almost insignificant, for, with the collapse of his dream, Gatsby is already spiritually dead.

As social satire, The Great Gatsby is also a comment on moral decadence in modem American society. The concern here is with the corruption of values and the decline of spiritual life - a condition which is ultimately related to the American Dream. For the novel recalls the early idealism of the first settlers. Fitzgerald himself relates Gatsby's dream to that of the early Americans for, at the end of the novel, Nick recalls the former Dutch sailors and compares their sense of wonder with Gatsby's hope. The book also seems to investigate how Americans lost their spiritual purpose as material success wiped out spiritual goals. The lives of the Buchanans, therefore, filled with material comforts and luxuries, and empty of purpose, represents this condition. Daisy's lament is especially indicative of this:

'What'll we do with ourselves this afternoon?' cried Daisy, 'and the day after that, and the next thirty years?'



Fitzgerald stresses the need for hope and dreams to give meaning and purpose to man's efforts. Striving towards some ideal is the way by which man can feel a sense of involvement, a sense of his own identity. Certainly, Gatsby, with 'his extraordinary gift of hope', set against the empty existence of Tom and Daisy, seems to achieve a heroic greatness. [...] Fitzgerald goes on to state that the failure of hopes and dreams, the failure of the American Dream itself, is unavoidable, not only because reality cannot keep up with ideals, but also because the ideals are in any case usually too fantastic to be realised. The heroic presentation of Gatsby, therefore, should not be taken at face value, for we cannot overlook the fact that Gatsby is naive, impractical and oversentimental. It is this which makes him attempt the impossible, to repeat the past. There is something pitiful and absurd about the way he refuses to grow up.

Metaphor Analysis

Gatsby's green light: Located at the end of the Buchanans' dock, this green light represents Gatsby's ultimate aspiration: to win Daisy's love. Nick's first vision of Gatsby is of his neighbor's trembling arms stretched out toward the green light (26). Later, after Daisy and Gatsby's successful reunion, a mist conceals the green light, visibly affecting Gatsby. Nick observes, "Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever....Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one" (98). This image suggests Gatsby realizes he must face the reality of Daisy, rather than the ideal he created for her.

Valley of ashes: A mid-way stopping point between West Egg and New York City, described as "a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air" (27). This depiction, in conjunction with several key turning points which occur at this location, recalls the moral wilderness of T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Waste Land." It is in the valley of the ashes where Tom has his affair with Myrtle, where Daisy kills Myrtle with Gatsby's car, and where George Wilson decides to murder Gatsby.

Eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg: These gigantic blue eyes without a face look out at the valley of ashes from behind a pair of yellow eyeglasses. This billboard advertisement -- which provides its eternal presence looming above the ash-heaps -- takes on added significance in Chapter 8, as a grief stricken George Wilson refers to it as God. While looking at the giant eyes after Myrtle's death Wilson reveals he had taken his wife to the window just before she died and told her, "God knows what you've been doing, everything you've been doing. You may fool me but you can't fool God!...God sees everything" (167). Thus, the desolation of the valley of ashes may be seen in Fitzgerald's image of an abandoned billboard serving as Wilson's provider of solace and ultimate judge of morality. Following a central theme of modernism, this new God watches over his paradise which has been reduced to ash-heaps by modern man.

Gatsby's house: This image serves as a key symbol of aspiration, reflecting both Gatsby's success as an American self-made man and the mirage of an identity he has created to win Daisy's love. Gatsby follows his American Dream as he buys the house to be across the bay from Daisy, and has parties to gain wide-spread recognition in order to impress her. Yet, Owl Eyes compares Gatsby's mansion to a house of cards, muttering "that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse" (50). Ultimately, the inevitable collapse occurs, as Gatsby loses Daisy and dies (with the exception of Nick) absolutely friendless, prompting Nick to refer to Gatsby's mansion as "that huge incoherent failure of a house" (188).



Theme Analysis

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic twentieth-century story of Jay Gatsby's quest for Daisy Buchanan, examines and critiques Gatsby's particular vision of the 1920's American Dream. Written in 1925, the novel serves as a bridge between World War I and the Great Depression of the early 1930's. Although Fitzgerald was an avid participant in the stereotypical "Roaring Twenties" lifestyle of wild partying and bootleg liquor, he was also an astute critic of his time period. The Great Gatsby certainly serves more to detail society's failure to fulfill its potential than it does to glamorize Fitzgerald's "Jazz Age."

Fitzgerald's social insight in The Great Gatsby focuses on a select group: priviliged young people between the ages of 20 and 30. In doing so, Fitzgerald provides a vision of the "youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves" (157). Throughout the novel Nick finds himself surrounded by lavish mansions, fancy cars, and an endless supply of material possessions. A drawback to the seemingly limitless excess Nick sees in the Buchanans, for instance, is a throwaway mentality extending past material goods. Nick explains, "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- 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" (188).

Part of the mess left in the Buchanan's wake at the end of the novel includes the literal and figurative death of the title character, Jay Gatsby. Certainly, his undeserved murder at the hands of a despondent George Wilson evokes sympathy; the true tragedy, however, lies in the destruction of an ultimate American idealist. The idealism evident in Gatsby's constant aspirations helps define what Fitzgerald saw as the basis for the American Character. Gatsby is a firm believer in the American Dream of self-made success: he has, after all, not only invented and self-promoted a whole new persona for himself, but has succeeded both financially and societally.

In spite of his success, Gatsby's primary ideological shortcoming becomes evident as he makes Daisy Buchanan the sole focus of his belief in "the orgastic future" (189). His previously varied aspirations (evidenced, for example, by the book Gatsby's father shows Nick detailing his son's resolutions to improve himself) are sacrificed for Gatsby's single-minded obsession with Daisy's green light at the end of her dock. Even Gatsby realized the first time he kissed Daisy that once he "forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God" (117).

For the first time in his wildly successful career, however, Gatsby aspires to obtain that which is unattainable, at least to the degree which he desires. As the novel unfolds, Gatsby seems to realize that his idea and pursuit of Daisy is more rewarding than the actual attainment of her. Gatsby recognizes that -- as he did with his own persona -- he has created an ideal for Daisy to live up to. Although Gatsby remains fully committed to his aspirations up until his death, he struggles with the reality of when those aspirations for his American Dream are either achieved or, in Gatsby's case, proven inaccessible. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1924, while working on The Great Gatsby, "That's the whole burden of this novel -- the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don't care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory" (xv).



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