CORRUPTION OF THE AMERICAN DREAM In The Great Gatsby
The American Dream–as it arose in the Colonial period and developed in the nineteenth century–was based on the assumption that each person, no matter what his origins, could succeed in life on the sole basis of his or her own skill and effort. The dream was embodied in the ideal of the self-made man, just as it was embodied in Fitzgerald’s own family by his grandfather, P. F. McQuillan.
The Great Gatsby is a novel about what happened to the American dream in the 1920s, a period when the old values that gave substance to the dream had been corrupted by the vulgar pursuit of wealth. The characters are Midwesterners who have come East in pursuit of this new dream of money, fame, success, glamour, and excitement. Tom and Daisy must have a huge house, a stable of polo ponies, and friends in Europe. Gatsby must have his enormous mansion before he can feel confident enough to try to win Daisy.
What Fitzgerald seems to be criticizing in The Great Gatsby is not the American Dream itself but the corruption of the American Dream. What was once–for Ben Franklin, for example, or Thomas Jefferson–a belief in self-reliance and hard work has become what Nick Carraway calls “…the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” The energy that might have gone into the pursuit of noble goals has been channeled into the pursuit of power and pleasure, and a very showy, but fundamentally empty form of success.
How is this developed? I have tried to indicate in the chapter-by-chapter analysis, especially in the Notes, that Fitzgerald’s critique of the dream of success is developed primarily through the five central characters and through certain dominant images and symbols. The characters might be divided into three groups: 1. Nick, the observer and commentator, who sees what has gone wrong; 2. Gatsby, who lives the dream purely; and 3. Tom, Daisy, and Jordan, the “foul dust” who are the prime examples of the corruption of the dream.
The primary images and symbols that Fitzgerald employs in developing the theme are: 1. the green light; 2. the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg; 3. the image of the East and Midwest; 4. Owl Eyes; 5. Dan Cody’s yacht; and 6. religious terms such as grail and incarnation.
2. SIGHT AND INSIGHT
Both the character groupings and the images and symbols suggest a second major theme that we can call “sight and insight.” As you read the novel, you will come across many images of blindness; is this because hardly anyone seems to see what is really going on? The characters have little self-knowledge and even less knowledge of each other. Even Gatsby–we might say, especially Gatsby–lacks the insight to understand what is happening. He never truly sees either Daisy or himself, so blinded is he by his dream. The only characters who see, in the sense of “understand,” are Nick and Owl Eyes. The ever present eyes of Dr. Eckleburg seem to reinforce the theme that there is no all-seeing presence in the modern world.
3. THE MEANING OF THE PAST
The past is of central importance in the novel, whether it is Gatsby’s personal past (his affair with Daisy in 1917) or the larger historical past to which Nick refers in the closing sentence of the novel: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The past holds something that both Gatsby and Nick seem to long for: a simpler, better, nobler time, perhaps, a time when pe o ple believed in the importance of the family and the church. Tom, Daisy and Jordan are creatures of the present–Fitzgerald tells us little or nothing about their pasts–and it is this allegiance to the moment that makes them so attractive, and also so ro otless and spiritually empty.
4. THE EDUCATION OF A YOUNG MAN
In Chapter VII, Nick remembers that it is his thirtieth birthday. He, like Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy, came East to get away from his past; now that his youth is officially over, he realizes that h e may have made a mistake to come East, and begins a period of reevaluation that leads to his eventual decision to return to the Middle West.
The Great Gatsby is the story of Nick’s initiation into life. His trip East gives him the education he needs to g row up. The novel can, therefore, be called a bildungsroman–the German word for a story about a young man. (Other examples of a bildungsroman are The Red Badge of Courage, David Copperfield, and The Catcher in the Rye.) Nick, in a sense, writes The Great Gatsby to show us what he has learned.
THE GREAT GATSBY: STYLE
Style refers to the way a writer puts words together: the length and rhythm of his sentences; his use of figurative language and symbolism; his use of dialogue and description.
Fitzgerald called The Great Gatsby a “novel of selected incident,” modelled after Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. “What I cut out of it both physically and emotionally would make another novel,” he said. Fitzgerald’s stylistic method is to let a part stand for the whole. In Chapters I to III, for example, he lets three parties stand for the whole summer and for the contrasting values of three different worlds. He also lets small snatches of dialogue represent what is happening at each party. The technique is cinema t ic. The camera zooms in, gives us a snatch of conversation, and then cuts to another group of people. Nick serves almost as a recording device, jotting down what he hears. Fitzgerald’s ear for dialogue, especially for the colloquial phrases of the period, is excellent.
Fitzgerald’s style might also be called imagistic. His language is full of images–concrete verbal pictures appealing to the senses. There is water imagery in descriptions of the rain, Long Island Sound, and the swimming pool. There is religious imagery in the Godlike eyes of Dr. Eckleburg and in words such as incarnation, and grail. There is color imagery: pink for Gatsby, yellow and white for Daisy.
Some images might more properly be called symbols for the way they point beyond themselves to historic or mythic truths: the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, for instance, or Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes, or Dan Cody’s yacht. Through the symbolic use of images, Fitzgerald transforms what is on the surface a realistic social novel of the 1920s in to a myth about America.
Finally, we might call Fitzgerald’s style reflective. There are several important passages at which Nick stops and reflects on the meaning of the action, almost interpreting the events. The style in such passages is dense, intellectual, almost deliberately difficult as Nick tries to wrestle with the meanings behind the events he has witnessed.
THE GREAT GATSBY: POINT OF VIEW
Style and point of view are very hard to separate in a novel that is told in the first person by a narrator who is also one of the characters. The voice is always Nick’s. Fitzgerald’s choice of Nick as the character through whom to tell his story has a stroke of genius. He had been reading Joseph Conrad and had been particularly struck by the way in which Conrad uses the character of Marlow to tell both the story of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and the story of Jim in Lord Jim. In those novels, Fitzgerald learned, we never see the characters of Kurtz or Jim directly, but only through the eyes of other p eople. And when we come to think of it, isn’t that how we get to know people in real life? We never get to know them all at once, as we get to know characters described by an omniscient novelist; we learn about them in bits and pieces over a period of tim e . And so, Fitzgerald reasoned, someone like Gatsby would be much more understandable and sympathetic if presented through the eyes of a character like ourselves. Rather than imposing himself between us and the action, Nick brings us closer to the action b y forcing us to experience events as though we were Nick. The I of the novel becomes ourselves, and we find ourselves, like Nick, wondering who Gatsby is, why he gives these huge parties, and what his past and background may be. By writing from Nick’s poin t of view, Fitzgerald is able to make Gatsby more realistic than he could have by presenting Gatsby through the eyes of an omniscient narrator. He is also able to make Gatsby a more sympathetic character because of Nick’s decision to become Gatsby’s friend . We want to find out more about Gatsby because Nick does. We care about Gatsby because Nick does. We are angry that no one comes to Gatsby’s funeral because Nick is.
The use of the limited first person point of view gives not only the character of Gatsby but the whole novel a greater air of realism. We believe these parties really happened because a real person named Nick Carraway is reporting what he saw. When Nick writes down the names of the people who came to Gatsby’s parties on a Long Island Railroad timetable, we believe that these people actually came to Gatsby’s parties.
Nick is careful throughout the novel never to tell us things that he could not have known. If he was not present at a particular occasion, he gets the information from someone who was–from Jordan Baker, for example, who tells him about Gatsby’s courtship of Daisy in Louisville; or from the Greek, Michaelis, who tells him about the death of Myrtle Wilson. Sometimes Nick summarizes what others tell him, and sometimes he uses their words. But he never tells us something he could never know. This is one of the reasons the novel is so convincing.
THE GREAT GATSBY: FORM AND STRUCTURE
Form and structure are closely related to point of view. Before writing a novel, an author has to ask himself: who is to tell the story? And in what order will events be told? The primary problem in answering the second question is how to handle time. Do I tell the story straight through from beginning to end? Do I start in the middle and use flashbacks?
As many critics have pointed out, the method Fitzgerald adopts in The Great Gatsby is a brilliant one. He starts the novel in the present, giving us, in the first three chapters, a glimpse of the four main locales of the novel: Daisy’s house in Eas t Egg (Chapter I); the valley of ashes and New York (Chapter II); and Gatsby’s house in West Egg (Chapter III). Having established the characters and setting in the first three chapters, he then narrates the main events of the story in Chapters IV to IX, using Chapters IV, VI, and VII to gradually reveal the story of Gatsby’s past. The past and present come together at the end of the novel in Chapter IX.
The critic James E. Miller, Jr., diagrams the sequence of events in The Great Gatsby like this: “Allowi ng X to stand for the straight chronological account of the summer of 1922, and A, B, C, D, and F to represent the significant events of Gatsby’s past, the nine chapters of The Great Gatsby may be charted: X, X, X, XCX, X, XBXCX, X, XCXDXD, XEXAX.”
Miller ‘s diagram shows clearly how Fitzgerald designed the novel. He gives us the information as Nick gets it, just as we might find out information about a friend or acquaintance in real life, in bits and pieces over a period of time. Since we don’t want or ca n ‘t absorb much information about a character until we truly become interested in him, Fitzgerald waits to take us into the past until close to the middle of the novel. As the story moves toward its climax, we find out more and more about the central figure from Nick until we, too, are in a privileged position and can understand why Gatsby behaves as he does.
Thus the key to the structure of the novel is the combination of the first person narrative and the gradual revelation of the past as the narrator fin ds out more and more. The two devices work extremely effectively together, but neither would work very well alone.
Note that the material included in the novel is highly selective. Fitzgerald creates a series of scenes–most of them parties–but does not tell us much about what happens between these scenes. Think of how much happened in the summer of 1922 that Fitzgerald doesn’t tell us! He doesn’t tell us about Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship after they meet at Nick’s house in Chapter V, because Nick wou l d have no access to this information. What the technique of extreme selectivity demands from the reader is close attention. We have to piece together everything we know about Gatsby from the few details that Nick gives us. Part of the pleasure this form gives us is that of drawing conclusions not only from what is included but from what is left out.