F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1926) is, at first sight, a novel about love, idealism and disillusionment. However, it soon reveals its hidden depths and enigmas. What is the significance of the strange "waste land" between West Egg and New York, where Myrtle Wilson meets her death, an alien landscape presided over by the eyes of T J Eckleburg whose eyes, like God's, "see everything"? And what are we to make of the novel's unobtrusive symbolism (the green light, the colour of American dollar bills, which burns at the end of Daisy's dock, the references to the elements - land, sea and earth - over which Gatby claims mastery, the contrast between "East" and "West"), or its subtle use of the personalised first narrator, the unassuming Nick Carraway?
It is a novel which has intrigued and fascinated readers. Clearly, as a self-proclaimed "tale of the West", it is exploring questions about America and what it means to be American. In this sense Gatsby is perhaps that legendary opus, the "Great American Novel", following in the footsteps of works such as Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn. We will return to this aspect of the novel in more detail later on. However, we also need to be aware that it is a novel which has much to be say about more abstract questions to do with faith, belief and illusion. Although rooted in the "Jazz Age" which Fitzgerald is so often credited with naming, it is also a novel which should be considered alongside works like The Waste Land, exploring that "hollowness at the heart of things" which lies just below the surface of modern life. Eliot himself remarked that the novel "interested and excited me more than any new novel I have seen, either English or American, for a number of years". Viewed from more distant perspectives it is possible to see Gatsby as an archetypally tragic figure, the epitome of idealism and innocence which strives for order, purpose and meaning in a chaotic and hostile world. In this sense Gatsby contains religious and metaphysical dimensions: the young man who shapes a "Platonic vision of himself" and who endows the worthless figure of Daisy with religious essence, eventually passes away into nothingness, with few at the funeral to lament the passing of his romantic dream.
The Vision and the Waste Land
If we approach the novel firstly in terms of the metaphysical and existential dimension we can see that, at its heart, the novel dramatises the attempts to construct order and purpose in a disparate and chaotic universe. Nick, the narrator, strives to make sense of all the chaos and carnage, but it is Gatby's attempts to construct a sense of order for himself which dominates the novel. Eventually we learn that Gatsby is an invention, a self-constructed figure, who arises out of the West and, in the best traditions of American self-help, strives to "get on" and "make something of himself". Nothing is more poignant in the novel, I'd suggest, than the extracts from Jimmy Gatz's "Schedule", the notes at the end of the young lad's copy of Hopalong Cassidy. From these humble beginnings Gatsby had constructed a new image of himself, achieved through the emulation of father figures - Dan Cody and Walter Wolfsheim - and the rejection of his true father, the "solemn old man" Henry Gatz who arrives from the West, at the end of the novel, to attend his son's funeral. And Gatsby, motivated by ambition and a romantic conception (ultimately flawed) of love for Daisy. Right to the end of the novel Gatsby is inspired by the twin dreams of romantic fulfilment and money, and to this end he conquers and masters the elements. This desire for "unutterable visions" is, as Nick Carraway affirms, sothing positive when set against the forces of violence and destruction, the "winds of chaos" as Nick describes them. Against Gatsby the novel presents us with the violence of Tom Buchanan (who, early in the novel, voices for the first time this sense of underlying chaos - "Civilisation's going to pieces"), the arid waste ground where Tom's mistress and cuckolded husband live, the insufferable and stifling heat of New York, or the pointless conspicuous consumption of Gatsby's many hundreds of pleasure-seeking party guests. For Nick, who presents Gatsby to us as "worth the whole damn bunch put together", his neighbour may well be a romantic and an idealist, but ultimately he strives for order and purpose, guided by principles which he believes to be sacred and enduring.
What this amounts to is that, for all his faults, Gatsby is presented as a type of existential hero within this novel, guided by a vision and a mission, but ultimately and inevitably unable to withstand the forces of chaos and violence. In this he has much in common with Fitzgerald's other heroes, who also are in relentless pursuit of an elusive dream which is within their grasp but which ultimately eludes them. Some critics have detected the influence of Fitzgerald's own life on this preoccupation: certainly there is much to support this approach if one looks into Fitzgerald's biography, particularly in accounts of his marriage life with Zelda, or his wrestling matches between writing and alcoholism. And yet one can also see the influence of writers such as Conrad (the Conrad of Lord Jim or Heart of Darkness), and their treatment of central characters torn between their own idealism and the way that they find the world to be. Yet it would not be appropriate to present the novel simply as a timeless tale of a tragic innocent, for it would be hard to find a novel which is more deeply rooted in a specific time and culture, and it is here that we should start considering the novel as a tale of American life and the American Dream.
An American Tale
Near the end of the novel Nick pulls back from his account to reflect that his has been a "tale of the west": Gatsby, Tom, Daisy, Jordan, Nick himself, all originate in the West and, Nick suggests, therefore "possess some sort deficiency" which makes them "subtly unadaptable to the Eastern life." What does this mean? In the novel's terms we can see that the 'West' is characterised in terms of a certain sort of innocence, of idealism, of rawness perhaps, when contrasted with the sophistication and glamour of the 'East'. Gatsby, like Tom and Daisy, "goes East" to pursue his dream, perhaps the American Dream but, unlike them, becomes a victim and fails in his vision.
To understand what is going on here we have to understand the wider context of this version of America's self-imaginings and what it meant in the 1920s. The need to come to terms with America, to understand what it means to be American, lie deeply rooted in the American cultural psyche: mythology (whether of the "New Adam" or the "Final Frontier") are integral and vital components of the American cultural imagination, perhaps understandably so given the sheer size and diversity of the country. For the Founding Fathers, who first ventured to Virginia or New England, a passage to America was to a new Eden, an opportunity to start again. By the middle of the nineteenth century we can see the myth of the "West" emerging, a resilient image of the West as being on the frontier between culture and nature, and travellers going to the raw wilderness of the West in search of gold and a fresh start. By the time that Fitzgerald writes this national mythology has turned full circle from the vision of the Founding Fathers. Within the novel the East is a place which is both ancient and corrupt, whereas the West possess virtuous qualities of rawness, innocence and idealism - the novel's internal visions of East Egg and West Egg develop this symbolism in various ways. The vision which Gatsby pursues when he goes East is one of success, of fulfilment, one fuelled by a dream of the distant and romantic past (the idyllic times with Daisy, back there in the west), and one which continually draws him on, as he looks out at night to the "green light" which beckons him on.
What this leads up to is the view that the novel identifies Gatsby with America herself. His dream, the novel suggests, is also that of America, with its emphasis on the inherent goodness within nature, on healthy living, youth, vitality, romance, a magnaminious openness to life itself, a dream of the East which has been dreamed up in the West. In this sense the novel becomes various things, a "pastoral documentary of the Jazz Age", an exploration of the American Dream, or perhaps a savage criticism of that dream. Gatsby, lured on by Daisy, who is no more than a symbol for him, pursues the Green Light, the dream of progress and material possessions, and is eventually destroyed. And in this, the novel suggests, we are witness to the possible destiny of America herself, failing to look back to that "vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night", and forever looking Eastwards, to the Green light, to Europe, to a new dawn.