What is there to love about The Great Gatsby?
F.Scott Fitzgerald’s writing here leaves only a little to be desired. The characters themselves seem shallow and empty, lacking in morality and you could take all this into consideration and instantly report: ‘well that’s a shallow book if ever I’ve heard of one.’ However it can also be seen that, The Great Gatsby is a scathing social commentary that explores the fruitlessness of pursuing dreams. Particularly dreams that are nothing more than shadows. To that end The Great Gatsby is a brilliant piece of fiction designed to criticise the lack of morality among its rich and selfish inhabitants who parasitically devour the work of the poor.
One of the most beautiful elements in this novel is the depiction of the Valley of Ashes, which ultimately all the characters pass through regardless of being rich or poor. It is a place of equality and reminds one of the idea of the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ mentioned by the Psalmist David, and in the novel itself Wilson relates those giant eyes to the eyes of God, a God who sees all that men do. Which is such a brilliant image to present to the reader. It is imagery like this that haunts one far after finishing this novel. Imagery remembered emphatically.
It is also the language of Fitzgerald’s work that draws one in. It may not always be flawless writing but it is vivid and alive. Fitzgerald’s is essentially thoughtful writing. It is the language of quotes that act as prison bars to keep the reader enthralled by the novel.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
Of course The Great Gatsby will always be a polarising text due to its characters and the debate about whether it is truly a novel about the American Dream. It is a polarising effect that stems from the allure of the book – the way in which the novel hauntingly hints at something greater while remaining so brilliantly flawed. One certainly cannot fully explain their own fascination with the book, save that it does that rare thing that strong literature should do. It serves, as Franz Kafka said, to be “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” An axe in a forest of frozen dreams – poetically carving up a vision of one man forever haunted by the failings of his own dream.
‘To Dream, to Sleep’
It is often said that The Great Gatsby is purely about the failings of The American Dream. This idea that any man, woman or child in America, regardless of race or upbringing, should have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential and better themselves if they work hard and play by the rules. In Fitzgerald’s novel the way in which Gatsby himself becomes the near legendary and wealthy figure of ‘Gatsby’ mimics and mocks this idea of how anyone can attain power and a legacy in American society. He attains this wealth by possibly illegitimate means, therefore making a mockery of this dream in great regard. However, to consider The Great Gatsby as merely a tale about The American Dream misses the point entirely.
This is a novel that more seeks to depict a particular era of history and therefore preserve it. As a result this work of art features the failed American Dream as a central theme, rather than a key focus. The marvel of Fitzgerald’s work is not in the prose itself, which is in itself marvellously poetic, albeit a touch melodramatic (thereby adding to the sense of the era), but in the descriptions and what the nuanced edges of the prose reference. Fitzgerald’s writing is as much about what is implied or ignored, equally as much as what he explicitly states. His narrator, Nick Carraway, is often described as the perfect example of the reliable narrator because there is no sense that anything is being hidden and yet despite using a reliable narrator Fitzgerald is able to weave language by omitting certain descriptions to leave behind a mystery for the reader to fill in as directed. It is a painting, a tapestry of words, where the artist has placed red and white close together to give the illusion of a pink blend being formed. This is what Fitzgerald does with his language.
The characters of this novel are perfect literary creations. They are not characters to befriend but they are, in their own particular way, uniquely lifelike. Their dialogue through the way words and ideas are left hanging cleverly by Fitzgerald grants the illusion that the reader is observing a transcript of real individuals (Fitzgerald did base some of the characters on real individuals he knew). Among the characters, Nick (the sole likeable character and the narrator), Daisy, Tom, Gatsby, Jordan Baker and Meyer Wolfsheim are brought to life in incredible detail.
It is interesting that The Great Gatsby has been filmed multiple times as a lavish spectacle of a film. In many regards this ironically misses the entire point of the novel and at the same time serves the novel very well as a vehicle of its themes. In the way that Gatsby himself throws wild luxurious parties, so the film is in itself a vehicle of the spectacular sense of wastefulness inherent in the novel. It is this hedonism, this wastefulness, that is perceived as the real underlying theme of the novel. The American Dream is a mere side affect of the core idea Fitzgerald attempts to reconcile the reader with – the idea of flawed humanity. Why else would all Fitzgerald’s characters be tainted with such particular flaws? Nick himself notes that he believes his flaw to be grounded in honesty; Jordan Baker’s is found in dishonesty; Gatsby’s flaws are in his profound naivety; Meyer Wolfsheim’s flaws are in his sense of indestructible invincibility; Daisy possesses the flaw of being superficial; and Tom possesses a narcissistic and supercilious streak to his persona.
“I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to 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…”
What readers should see then is that The Great Gatsby is more than the novel of The American Dream. It is a novel about flawed ordinary human beings when you break them down and examine them. It is a novel that explores how ultimately equality can be seen in how all men must die and how all men will pay for their crimes or selfishness, perhaps not immediately but in the future. It is a novel about many things because it is a novel that does not limit itself to being one thing alone. It is a masterpiece, flawed in every way and perfect in so many ways.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
These are some of the most potent words to end any novel. They highlight the sense given by other quotes – “‘Can’t repeat the past,’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!'” – that time eventually catches up to all individuals and that humanity is bound to repeat various cycles or stages of its own history. In this regard perhaps The Great Gatsby could be seen as a pessimist’s novel. It can be read therefore as a cynic’s novel about the fruitlessness of human endeavour. Yet, to read it as such is to miss the sense of optimism Fitzgerald provides in his language.
Yes, he states, yes we do keep trying to push forward into the future believing in our dreams and in those unobtainable ideals. Yes, we do keep falling back into the past, a past we cannot, as Nick states, repeat. A past we cannot repeat and profit from. But we as humanity should aim for better!
Our aim, Fitzgerald seems to urge, must be to learn from the past and to not let the current of history sweep us back into old cycles of life.
“You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn’t I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride.”
In many ways the dream of The Great Gatsby is that humanity can learn to wake from dreaming. That humanity can stop being careless and fixated on the unobtainable. Gatsby’s dream, Nick notes, “was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city.” For Gatsby, in seeking to move onward and to go back to what he once had he forgot what truly lay behind and therefore failed. Because he himself had become one of those many reckless individuals in how he tried to reach his dream.
The Great Gatsby seems to be a keen warning and perhaps it is for this reason that it remains a polarising novel. Yet, love it – or hate it – or even regardless of indifference, it is a novel for the ages. A narrative fixated on reminding humanity to learn from its mistakes and to continue learning, reading and developing – pushing on against the current of the tide.