Why Is Gatsby So Great Essay
They called him an "ultra-modernist" and dismissed his books as overrated and forgettable, just "so much unnecessary evanescence travelling first class". When his third novel was published, on 10 April 1925, a characteristic review complained: "The boy is simply puttering around. It is all right as a diversion for him, probably … But why he should be called an author, or why any of us should behave as if he were, has never been satisfactorily explained to me." At the last minute, he had asked his editor if they could change the new novel's title to Under the Red, White and Blue, but it was too late. F Scott Fitzgerald's ultra-modernist novel about jazz-age America would be called The Great Gatsby, and one anonymous reviewer spoke for most of its first readers in describing it as "one of the thousands of modern novels which must be approached with the point of view of the average tired person toward the movie-around-the-corner, a deadened intellect, a thankful resigning of the attention, and an aftermath of wonder that such things are produced".
The Great Gatsby would indeed create an aftermath of wonder – in ways that its initial audience could not have imagined. Almost 90 years later, Gatsby is regularly named one of the greatest novels ever written in English, and has annually sold millions of copies globally. This slim novel of fewer than 50,000 words, a story of secret visions and gaudy revels, of sudden violence and constant envy, shimmers with a magic that readers have long recognised. But over the past two years, both The Great Gatsby and its author have been seeing a marked resurgence of interest. In the last 12 months in Britain alone, there have been stage versions at Wilton's Music Hall and the King's Head theatre in London, the eight-hour reading, Gatz, was staged by the American Elevator Repair Company last year to rave reviews, and the Northern Ballet's dance adaptation will open soon at Sadler's Wells. Some of Fitzgerald's long-overlooked poems, letters and stories are suddenly being published and are circulating online. Several new books are in the works, one about The Great Gatsby's enduring appeal, and two about Fitzgerald's time in Hollywood, while my own book, which traces the genesis of The Great Gatsby, is about to be published. Gatsby has been thoroughly inspected and crawled over, lifted up and shaken out for every last detail it can surrender to its fascinated readers, but this remarkable novel has some surprises left.
Meanwhile Scott's wife, Zelda, often called the original flapper, has been enjoying her own renaissance, with a play last year at Trafalgar Studios about her life, and several books about her life coming out this year. When iconic figures re-emerge into the spotlight, you can bet that merchandising will soon follow: we are surrounded by haute couture and high street "Gatsby" dresses, speakeasies and prohibition cocktails, beads and headdresses, Gatsby clutches and iPhone covers, 1920s jazz standards and Charleston lessons.
Reading this on a mobile? Click here to view
All this, and Baz Luhrmann, too: Luhrmann's new film version of The Great Gatsby, which will open the Cannes film festival before Charlestoning its way around the world, is released this month. Leonardo DiCaprio will play the hopeful hero with a shady past, and Carey Mulligan is Daisy, the shallow woman he adores. Joel Edgerton is very well cast as Daisy's husband, the bullying Tom Buchanan, while Tobey Maguire must create a character from the voice of the elusive, self-effacing Nick Carraway, the novel's narrator, which is probably the trickiest aspect of dramatising The Great Gatsby, harder even than bringing the magnetic, paradoxical, chimerical Jay Gatsby to life.
Gatsby has been filmed four times to date, but it has been nearly 40 years since the last big-screen adaptation, Jack Clayton's 1974 version, with a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby. It was the first version to be filmed in colour. Luhrmann's taste for extravaganza seems to most people to suit Gatsby perfectly, although it is in fact a far more tightly controlled novel than it seems, and Luhrmann is not known for his restraint.
Previews suggest a film of decadent, epicurean extravagance and debauchery. Its reputation for revelries aside, Fitzgerald's novel in fact features just three parties, and only one of these offers paeans to its own splendours. The first party is the sordid little gathering in the flat of Myrtle Wilson, Tom Buchanan's mistress, when Tom breaks Myrtle's nose for merely mentioning his wife Daisy's name. The third and final party is at Gatsby's mansion, but Fitzgerald uses it to shift the story's mood definitively from enchantment to disenchantment: Daisy and Tom attend, and their contempt for Gatsby's world exposes its tawdriness, its tinsel wrappings. Only the second party, with Nick as lyrical witness to its glories, features the magical prose that lingers in readers' minds – the girls floating among the whisperings and the moths and the champagne, yellow cocktail music rising over the blue gardens, the opera of voices pitching a key higher — and even that party has little of the saturnalia that seems to characterise Luhrmann's vision.
Reading this on a mobile? Click here to view
Although colour is central to the novel, the first surviving film version is a black-and-white noir thriller from 1949 starring Alan Ladd. In true Hollywood mid-century style, the film grows deeply uncomfortable with the reprehensible behaviour of its characters and forces them all to repent at story's end; the final moments of the film bring a cascade of changes of heart. Even Tom feels contrite and tries to save Gatsby, while Gatsby delivers a remarkably incoherent speech about saving young men like him from older men like him ("What's going to happen to kids like Jimmy Gatz if guys like me don't tell them we're wrong?"). Twenty years before the noir Gatsby was the first cinematic version, a silent film from 1926 that has been lost, although the academic Anne Margaret Daniel recently revealed in the Huffington Post that a letter in the Fitzgerald archives shows that Scott and Zelda attended a screening of the film in 1927: Zelda wrote to their daughter that it was "ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left."
Whether Fitzgerald would have enjoyed any of the subsequent stage and film versions any better is open to some question. Gatsby is about the superiority of imagination over reality, which makes it very difficult to dramatise well. It is a novel of layered projections: Gatsby projects his fantasies on to Daisy, and we can't be certain whether Nick is projecting his fantasies on to Gatsby, or is instead the only person to see past Gatsby's facade to the grandeur of the real man.
Among the dismissive early reviews of the novel was one by the influential critic HL Mencken, who called Gatsby little more than "a glorified anecdote". Understandably frustrated at the general failure of critical acumen all around him, Fitzgerald wrote to his friend Edmund Wilson: "Without making any invidious comparisons between Class A. and Class C., if my novel is an anecdote so is The Brothers Karamazov … Of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about." He might well have said the same thing about the dramatic versions to come, which some of us would argue move ever further away from what the novel is about, and toward our myths about it. But, beyond question, Fitzgerald would have been delighted at the adulation his masterpiece has long inspired.
When he composed The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald was one of the most successful writers of his era, among the decade's highest-paid writers of magazine fiction. He had been young, brash, ambitious; when he became his own success story he won Alabama belle Zelda Sayre and the pair rapidly became legendary for their revels, incarnating the "flappers and philosophers" who populated the jazz age – the name Fitzgerald himself bestowed upon the era he and Zelda still embody.
But Fitzgerald also had serious artistic ambitions, and when he began The Great Gatsby he set out to write "a consciously artistic achievement". "I want to write something new," he told his editor, Max Perkins, in the summer of 1922, "something extraordinary and beautiful and simple & intricately patterned"; later he added that his new novel must have "the very best I am capable of in it or even as I feel sometimes, something better than I am capable of". From beginning to end this is a story about capability, about our reach exceeding our grasp.
What made Gatsby emphatically "new" was not its focus upon modern life, however: Fitzgerald had written of nothing else since the start of his career. Since the appearance of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, readers had been shocked at his revelations about the younger generation, the gin-swilling, party-hopping, table-dancing young men and women who shot craps and danced to the déclassé rhythms of jazz. And one of the reasons that most of its early readers couldn't see Gatsby's greatness was because it, too, seemed merely to report on their modern world.
What they couldn't yet appreciate was that this insider's guide to the enchantments of the jazz age was also an uncanny glimpse into the world to come. To take just one example, in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald wrote one of the most glamorous novels in history, which has itself become a kind of glittering celebrity novel. But it also demolishes the workings of celebrity, parsing the way that gossip becomes currency in the fame business, rumour a gauge of spurious greatness. Today, more often than not any artistic work itself is subordinated to the "vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty" that is celebrity culture, but Gatsby's pleasures transcend the pleasure-seeking world that it indicted.
It was a world few understood better than the Fitzgeralds. When the 20s started to roar, Scott and Zelda grabbed a drink and jumped into the centre of the stage, where they stayed until 1930, when the centrifugal force of their lives suddenly sent them both reeling into extremity. Until then, the Fitzgeralds were the life and soul of the prohibition party, and he was its greatest chronicler.
"There seemed little doubt about what was going to happen," Fitzgerald wrote later. "America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history." By the early 1920s, he could already sense that "the whole golden boom was in the air – its splendid generosities, its outrageous corruptions and the tortuous death struggle of the old America in prohibition". As the spree kicked off, Fitzgerald found that "a fresh picture of life in America began to form before my eyes". By 1924, he was painting an indelible picture of that new life, setting his new novel in 1922 (just after the "general decision to be amused that began with the cocktail parties of 1921"), in order to tell of "a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure".
The party had begun, and all of America was invited. Wealth remained a social barrier, but it was no longer impenetrable. Speakeasies were breaking down old social barriers by creating spaces where the upper crust rubbed shoulders with the lower orders. At the same time, the new money from bootlegging and its related enterprises, and from an almost totally unregulated stock market, enabled the rapid rise of energetic men – and some women – prepared to break a law or two: and the riches to be gained soon enticed the well-educated into joining the fray. Corruption was rife, law-breaking suddenly a way of life. But even amid the boom, poverty lingered: in the underground economy of bootleggers, hustlers, gangsters, prostitutes, pimps and cocaine dealers, and in the legitimate service economy of chauffeurs and taxi drivers, bellboys and chambermaids, immigrants from Europe, or black migrant workers from the south, driven into the great migration north, and ending up in Harlem. Nightclubs sprang up where they played jazz and drank gin and danced the Charleston and the Black Bottom.
Fitzgerald understood early that the party couldn't last for ever. "It was borrowed time anyhow – the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls." Less than five years after Gatsby was published, the market would crash, and the Great Depression fell like a curtain over the festivities. Fitzgerald began to reflect on the age he had come to epitomise in a series of great essays – "My Lost City,""Echoes of the Jazz Age,""Early Success," and the largely forgotten "My Generation" – and stories, including the haunting "Babylon Revisited".
The jazz age may have ended, but the age of advertisement had begun, and in Gatsby Fitzgerald wrote one of the earliest indictments of a nation in thrall to the false gods of the marketplace. Nearly a century later, his cautionary tale has returned to haunt us, warning again of the perils of boom and bust, holding a mirror up to our tarnished world. Fitzgerald's hero, the poor farm boy named Jimmy Gatz who reinvents himself as Jay Gatsby, who "sprang from a Platonic conception of himself", epitomises the self-made man. But Gatsby is also unmade by his faith in America's myths and lies: that meritocracy is real, that you can make yourself into whatever you want to be, that with money, anything is possible. (The historical irony is that Gatsby is destroyed because in his world money did not make everything possible – but in our world it increasingly does. Today the illusion of Jay Gatsby would not have shattered like glass against Tom Buchanan's "hard malice": Gatsby's money would have insulated him and guaranteed triumph – an outcome that Fitzgerald would have deplored more than anyone.) Attempting to pass himself off as a patrician, Gatsby tries too hard, his every gesture and word a dead giveaway to the people around him. Tom Buchanan doesn't believe that Gatsby went to Oxford because he wears a lurid pink suit. The marginal character Owl-Eyes, who has been drunk for a week, can see clearly that Gatsby is putting on a show. Gatsby is not merely a fake, he is an obvious fake.
But the novel works in the opposite direction. Its performance is almost perfect: an apparently insouciant ease belies the intensely clever, dynamic writing and carefully limited perspective. It is a novel of ellipses: to understand it well, we must learn to read between the lines, as Gatsby fails to do. The gilded, art deco opera of Fitzgerald's language is extremely risky, always in danger of becoming as kitschy as Gatsby's pink suit. Once or twice Fitzgerald's command does slip: when he is reunited with Daisy, for example, Gatsby is delighted to discover "twinkle-bells of sunshine in the room", and when he falls in lovewith her he wants to "suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder". Sometimes even a classic falls short of our dreams – frankly, the less said about twinkle-bells of sunshine and breastfeeding wonder, the better. But for the most part Fitzgerald's prose is a kind of experiment in restrained extravagance.
Just as the style is nearly paradoxical in its ability to cut both ways, so are the novel's meanings. It is a celebration of intemperance, and a condemnation of its destructiveness. It is about trying to recapture our fleeting joys, about the fugitive nature of delight. It is a tribute to possibility, and a dirge about disappointment. It is a book in which the glory of imagination smacks into the grimness of real life. As Fitzgerald's editor Max Perkins wrote in 1925: it is "a story that ranges from pure lyrical beauty to sheer brutal realism". The hard facts of power and economics play out against the mythological promises of fantasy and ideology. Gatsby learns the hard way that being found out is inevitable, escape from his past impossible; but Nick beats a retreat back home, escaping back into his own nostalgic past. We find ourselves surveying the waste and wreckage after the party ends, but ready to carouse some more.
Gatsby is a fable about betrayal – of others, and of our own ideals. The concept that a New World in America is even possible, that it won't simply reproduce the follies and vices of the Old World, is already an illusion, a paradise lost before it has even been conceived. By the time Gatsby tries to force that world to fulfil its promise, the dream is long gone. But that doesn't stop him from chasing "the green light" of wealth and status, the dangled promise of power that can only create a corrupt plutocracy shored up by vast social inequality.
If that sounds familiar, it should: our gilded age bears a marked resemblance to Fitzgerald's. It has become a truism that Fitzgerald was dazzled by wealth, but the charge infuriated him: "Riches have never fascinated me, unless combined with the greatest charm or distinction," he insisted, adding later, "I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works". He wasn't in thrall to wealth, but making a study of how it was corrupting the country he loved. "Like so many Americans," Fitzgerald wrote in his 1927 story "Jacob's Ladder", "he valued things rather than cared about them."
The materialistic world of Gatsby is defined by social politics in a metropolitan America. It is a story of class warfare in a nation that denies it even has a class system, in which the game is eternally rigged for the rich to win. As the eminent critic Lionel Trilling observed in 1951: "Fitzgerald, more than anyone else of his time, realised the rigorousness of the systems of prestige that lie beneath the American social fluidity." In fact, as a young man Fitzgerald described himself as a socialist, and in the 1930s, like almost all writers of his era, he became interested in communism (although he was soon unimpressed). And it is certainly true that if Fitzgerald was a socialist, he was the original champagne socialist.
He was so far ahead of his time that we are only just catching up with him. Fitzgerald even recognised our obsession with youth, writing in 1934 of Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night: "she was enough ridden by the current youth worship, the moving pictures with their myriad faces of girl-children, blandly represented as carrying on the work and wisdom of the world, to feel a jealousy of youth." And he understood early that Americans try to liberate themselves from history, to float free from it, because part of the so-called American dream, bound up with fantasies of starting over, is the escape from time and mutability into a purely sybaritic present.
Gatsby is destroyed by the founding American myth: that the marketplace can be a religion, that the material can ever be ideal. At the beginning of the novel Fitzgerald writes of Gatsby's capacity for hope; at the end he writes of man's capacity for wonder. And the distance that the novel traverses is the defeat of that capacity, its surrender to our capacity for cynicism. All that enchantment withers up and blows away, skittering with the leaves across Gatsby's dusty lawn.
In the unforgettable closing passage of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald makes it clear that if his story is about America, it is also a universal tale of human aspiration. Nick Carraway wanders to the shore at the edge of the continent and imagines Dutch sailors seeing America for the first time: "Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."
The trees are long gone, replaced by vulgar mansions and the wasteland of ash heaps next to which poor George and Myrtle Wilson live, "contiguous to absolutely nothing". What is left is what was always there – the imagination. But even this Fitzgerald undercuts: pandering, after all, is ministering to mere gratification. The idea that America panders to our fantasies is the precise opposite of the American dream. We are forever chasing the green light, a chimera, a false promise of self-empowerment in which we are desperate to believe. And yet although it is a lie, we can't survive without it, for we always need something commensurate to our capacity for wonder, even if it compels us into a contemplation we neither understand nor desire.
And so we falter forward, lost in the aftermath of wonder that follows The Great Gatsby.
• Sarah Churchwell's Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby will be published by Virago on 6 June. The Great Gatsby directed by Baz Luhrmann is released on 10 May
The Great Gatsby is an outstanding piece of classic American literature. F. Scott Fitzgerald discussed in it issues of post-war society, American dream, love, and wealth which draw attention of the reading audience until today. Especially interesting is the question of whether the protagonist even deserving of being called great or is the title ironical. Samuels (1966, p.789) claims that despite of the uselessness of his beginnings, Gatsby is great due to the intensity of his will. However, it is my contention that Jay Gatsby is a person whose false love, materialism, and egotism led him to the tragic end.
It might be argued that Gatsby’s feelings for Daisy were genuine. With striking determination he worked hard to be close to Daisy: he settled in the house just opposite, threw grandiose parties with the hope that she might appear there, arranged a meeting with her after five years of separation. Finally, he took the blame upon himself after she killed Myrtle Wilson in the car accident: “Was Daisy driving?” “Yes,’ he said after a moment, ‘but of course I’ll say I was” (Fitzgerald,1993, p.154). Nevertheless, as Hermanson (1997) points out, the protagonist is more “committed to an idea of Daisy that he has created than to the real woman she is.” Self-centered Gatsby imagined himself just about the son of God and considered Daisy as a trophy, as a means of realization of his dreams. An “ideal” Daisy existed as a phantom of imagination in Gatsby’s mind, but in fact she could not meet that image. In addition, Daisy’s love was not strong as well: “I did love him once—but I loved you too” (Fitzgerald,1993, p.142).
Gatsby tells Nick Carraway: “My family died and I came into a good deal of money” (Fitzgerald, 1993, p.71). At first this seemed to be a reasonable explanation to the enormous wealth such a young man possessed. Although, as a novel develops, we see that material possessions which helped Jay to reach high status were obtained illegally (bootlegging, stolen securities). In order to understand how Gatsby became so rich one should consider a substantial influence of Dan Cody and Meyer Wolfshiem on his character formation. When the protagonist came back from war he was so poor that for some time could not even buy new clothes. Dan Cody, a silver mining millionaire, took young Gatsby aboard of his yacht and provided him with different jobs while they sailed around the continent. At that time Gatsby’s character began to take shape – he was approaching his dream – to belong to the upper class. No lesser influence on Gatsby had another shady character – Meyer Wolfshiem; he, eventually, made his fortune: “Did you start him in business?’ I inquired. ‘Start him! I made him” (Fitzgerald, 1993, p.182). Now, we see that the bad influence of Cody and Wolfshiem, combined with Jay’s desire to be rich in order to win Daisy spurred him on to criminal activity and materialistic view of life.
“We were close friends” (Fitzgerald, 1993, p.179). This is how Nick describes his relationship with Gatsby in the end of the story. It could be said that their friendship was strong. Nick agreed to help Gatsby arrange a meeting with Daisy and objected against Jay’s “support” in return; they had an intimate conversation about Daisy and only Nick was privileged to hear a whole story of their relationship. Furthermore, it is Nick who organizes Gatsby’s funeral when everybody is unconcerned. However, according to Lewis (1985, p.47), Gatsby’s wealth and hospitality which secured him a hold on many peoples’ memories was empty. Klipspringer cares more about his lost tennis shoes than Gatsby’s death. His parties were crowded but “no French bob touched Gatsby’s shoulder” (Fitzgerald, 1993, p.55). Even relationship with Nick looks doubtful because we cannot be sure whether Gatsby made a friendly request asking him to arrange a meeting with Daisy, or he just used Nick to get closer to her. Thus, in his pursuit of material success, Gatsby didn’t develop any real friendships at all.
It has been shown, therefore, that Jay Gatsby cannot be regarded great in a very real sense. Striving to gain Daisy’s love, climbing out of poverty to the upper class, crowds of people at his parties could create an impression that the protagonist was no ordinary man. But if we probe a little deeper we will see false illusions about Daisy, unlawful manner of business and egotism which isolated Jay Gatsby from other people.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1993). The Great Gatsby. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
Samuels, C. Thomas (1966). The Greatness of Gatsby. The Massachusetts Review Vol. 7, No. 4 (Autumn), pp. 783-794
Casie, E. Hermanson, (1997). An overview of The Great Gatsby. In Some critical essays of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby… Retrieved from http://stephaniesandhurst.tripod.com/id4.html
Lewis R. (1985). Money, Love, and Aspiration in the The Great Gatsby. In Bruccoli M. J. (Ed.) New Essays on The Great Gatsby (120 pp.) London: Cambridge University Press.
Our The Great Gatsby essay covers the issue of how to write a paper in literature. Read also other sample on our site – we have examples for other subjects as well. If a particular essay is difficult for you to write, than simply leave it to EssayShark.com. Our writers are ready to write a paper of any topic, level, and difficulty. Whether you need to write a simple essay or a complicated thesis, our writing service can help with any writing assignment. Choose our site if you don’t have time to deal with your paper on your own. Place an order right now and we will solve any of your writing problems!