16 F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

Mr. Kiran Keshavamurthy

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This module is an analysis of Scott Fitzgerald’s now classic novel The Great Gatsby published in 1925. Considered to be the forerunner of the modern American novel, The Great Gatsby is a social critique of an age of unprecedented technological innovation, economic prosperity and corruption. The 1920s, also known as the Jazz Age for the evolution of Jazz in America, witnessed the emergence of some of the most important inventions of the twentieth century like the car, electric lighting, the telephone and the cinema. The 1920s was a clear shift from the gaslights, the horse- driven carriages and the railroads of the last decades of the nineteenth century when Fitzgerald was born. Accompanying these technological developments was the emergence of various forms of organized crime, one of whose beneficiaries is the novel’s eponymous protagonist Jay Gatsby. But most importantly, the novel imagines the production of a modern consciousness constantly distracted and disillusioned by the superficial gloss and glamour of technology and new wealth. The novel in many ways upholds and punctures the idealism that characterized the American Dream of self-fulfillment in the early decades of the twentieth century.


The Author: F Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)


F Scott Fitzgerald was born Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald on September 24, 1896 in St Paul, Minnesota. He was born to a family of Irish Catholics that had a small fortune as wholesale grocers. His father, Scott Fitzgerald, opened a wicker business and later became a salesman for Proctor and Gamble when the business failed. The family moved between Syracuse and Buffalo in upstate New York during the first decade of Fitzgerald’s life but when his father lost his job they moved back to St Paul to live off his mother’s inheritance.


Fitzgerald first studied at St Paul’s Academy and when he was thirteen, published his first piece of writing, a detective story in the school newspaper. His parents later sent him to Newman school, a prestigious Catholic preparatory school in New Jersey. He graduated in 1913 and joined Princeton University, where he honed his literary skills as a writer. But his literary pursuits came in the way of his coursework. He was put on academic probation and later dropped out of university. He joined the US army during World War I. Anxious of the possibility of dying in the war without fulfilling his literary dreams he hastily published his first novel The Romantic Egotist that however did not receive much attention.


He was commissioned second lieutenant at Camp Sheridan, outside of Montgomery, Alabama where he fell in love with an eighteen-year-old woman named Zelda Sayre. Fitzgerald left the army before he was ever deployed and tried to launch a lucrative career in advertising hoping to impress Zelda with his wealth. But he only ended up reworking his first novel that was published as This Side of Paradise (1920) that won the twenty-four year old Fitzgerald instant acclaim. He married Zelda and they had a daughter Frances Fitzgerald in 1921.


Following the success of this novel, Fitzgerald’s writing career was marred by his reputation as a playboy and his extravagant lifestyle. It was ironic but not surprising that the last decade and a half of his life was the kind of life that he satirized in his novels. All his novels including the Beautiful and the Damned, Tender is the Night and finally The Great Gatsby satirize the culture of wealth, extravagance, ambition and love that characterized the American Dream.

The Characters


Nick Carraway: The first-person narrator of the novel, Nick is a Yale educated man aged twenty- nine who is originally from the mid-west and in the opening chapter of the novel newly arrives at West Egg. He is Gatsby’s neighbor and a bond salesman.


Jay/James Gatsby: An elusive millionaire, originally from North Dakota, Gatsby owns a mansion  in West Egg. He has mysterious business connections and is later revealed to be a bootlegger. He is in love with Daisy Buchanan, a beautiful young woman from Louisville, Kentucky, whom he had met when he was stationed as a young officer at the army’s Camp Taylor during World War I.


Daisy Fay Buchanan: A young and nervous debutante and socialite from Louisville, Kentucky and identified as a flapper. She is Nick’s second cousin, once removed and Tom Buchanan’s wife. She once had an affair with Jay Gatsby before her marriage to Tom Buchanan and her choice of Tom Buchanan over Jay Gatsby forms one of the central conflicts of the novel.


Thomas/Tom Buchanan: A millionaire who lives on East Egg and Daisy’s husband. He is a strong and arrogant man who was once a football star at Yale. He has an affair with Myrtle Wilson.


Jordan Baker: An athletic sportswoman and Daisy Buchanan’s long-time friend. She is also Nick Carraway’s girlfriend for most of the novel. She is described as an arrogant and aloof woman with a penchant for untruthfulness.


George B Wilson: A mechanic and the owner of a garage, he is Myrtle Wilson’s husband. His wife and Tom Buchanan are contemptuous of him. When his wife is accidentally killed by Gatsby’s speeding car, he shoots Gatsby wrongly assuming he was driving the car. He then shoots himself.


Myrtle Wilson: George B Wilson’s wife and Tom Buchanan’s mistress. She is disappointed with her complacent marriage and is desperate to find a way out of it but this ends in her tragic death.


Meyer Wolfsheim: A Jewish friend and mentor of Gatsby’s described as a gambler who fixed the World Series. He only appears twice in the novel and in the second instance refuses to attend Gatsby’s funeral.


The Plot


Nick Carraway, a World War I veteran, Yale graduate and the narrator of the novel, finds a job as a bond salesman in New York. He arrives from the Midwest and rents a house in the fictional village of West Egg in Long Island. His house neighbors Gatsby’s lavish mansion. He goes to meet his second cousin Daisy Buchanan and her millionaire husband Tom Buchanan who also a college acquaintance of Nick’s. There he is introduced to Daisy’s long-time friend Jordan Baker, a golfer with whom he has a romantic relationship. Through Jordan he learns of Tom’s affair with a married woman named Myrtle Wilson who lives in the valley of ashes, an industrial dumping ground between West Egg and New York. Nick accompanies Tom and Myrtle to an apartment in New York where they have their affair. During a vulgar and bizarre party at the apartment, Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose over a disagreement about Daisy.


Over the summer, Nick is invited to Gatsby’s party where he encounters Jordan Baker and meets Gatsby, a surprisingly young and elusive man whom he recognizes from their same division in war. Through Jordan Nick discovers Gatsby was in love with Daisy before her marriage when he was posted in her own hometown Louisville during World War I. Gatsby builds his mansion close to where Daisy lives in the hope of rekindling their romance. He now wants Nick to arrange a meeting between them, which ends in their awkward reunion. Tom grows increasingly suspicious  of Daisy’s affair and his suspicion is confirmed when at a luncheon at their house, Daisy expresses  her open love for Gatsby. Although Tom is having an affair with Myrtle he is enraged with his wife’s affair. He forces the group to drive to New York and confronts Gatsby at a suite in the Plaza Hotel, asserting that he and Daisy have a history he will never understand. He tells his wife Gatsby is a criminal who has earned his money from bootlegging alcohol and other illegal activities.

Daisy realizes her allegiance lies with Tom, and he contemptuously sends her back with Gatsby, convinced he can never hurt him.


As Nick, Jordan and Tom drive back through the valley of ashes, they discover Gatsby’s car crashed into Myrtle killing her instantly. Her husband Wilson who suspects his wife’s affair assumes Gatsby was Myrtle’s secret lover. With Tom’s help he tracks him to his mansion and shoots him and himself. Nick stages an awkward funeral for Gatsby, ends his romantic relationship with Jordan who casually declares her engagement to another man and returns to Minnesota disillusioned with the Eastern lifestyle.

The Narrative


The novel is in many ways an autobiographical novel. On one level, it is autobiographical in the factual sense; like Nick, Fitzgerald was from Princeton, an Ivy League School and like Nick and Gatsby, was a World War I veteran on a posting when he met his wife. Like Gatsby who had to become wealthy in order to impress Daisy and win her love, Zelda’s preference for wealth, fun and leisure, meant Fitzgerald had to delay their wedding until he could prove himself a success. The novel reflects his experience of attending parties at mansions in Long Island. Fitzgerald idealized the rich and their extravagant lifestyles and saw in Zelda a woman who symbolized everything that he wanted. And yet there is an unmistakable sense of disillusionment with the hollowness of wealth and love that suggests Fitzgerald’s conflicted feelings about the transcendent American vision of wealth as a sign of personal worth and self-making.


The novel as a product of its times, registers the impact of new forms of technology like electric lighting, the telephone, the car, the cinema, and photography in defining the perception of reality and organizing sociality. For instance, in the opening chapter, Nick compares Gatsby’s personality to “one of those intricate machines that registers earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” (Fitzgerald, 1925: 3). Or what fascinates Nick about New York is its mechanical vitality, “the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye” (Fitzgerald, 1925: 37). The flicker becomes an oft-repeated symbol to describe the nervous energy of the modern, the new. The flicker of the electric light of the car, the flicker of an image as movie film clatters through the projector, the flicker of the modern, distracted consciousness and so on. Nick’s flighty and alert perception of the world around him becomes symbolic again of urban modernity. As he becomes fascinated with Gatsby’s war record, Nick reflects, “My incredulity was submerged in fascination now, it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines” (Fitzgerald, 1925: 43). The setting of scenes in artificial, electric light provides metaphors for the glamor, allure and ultimate artificiality of the jazz age. It creates an environment that is at once natural and man-made. This can be seen in the brilliant description of New York or in Daisy’s encounter with Gatsby, “He literally glowed; without a word or gesture of exultation a new well- being radiated from him and filled the little room” (Fitzgerald, 1925:57). And when it stops raining, Gatsby “smiled like a weather-man, like an ecstatic patron of recurrent light” (Fitzgerald, 1925: 57).


The novel is indebted to the new technologies of the camera and the cinema that are both represented and constitute the texture of the narrative. All the guests who come to Gatsby’s parties are film stars, and Myrtle buys “a moving-picture magazine” (Fitzgerald, 1925: 18) when she first comes to New York. But the narrative also has a photographic and cinematographic feel in its visual immediacy. The snapshot images of Gatsby stretching out his arms in the green light, the panorama of the great party, the car crash, Gatsby’s body in the pool. Fitzgerald also parodies the new obsession with photography in the character of McKee, Myrtle Wilson’s sister Catherine’s neighbor, who takes portrait pictures of his wife and creates banal landscapes.


Another invention is the telephone that had a shrinking and homogenizing effect on American society. The telephone had a decisive impact on conversations and social relations, as one could not see whom one was speaking to. One had to decipher meaning from the tone of the voice. To the listener who overhears someone on the phone there was the question of what was being said on the other end. The elusiveness and mystery of the phone conversation gives a modern feel to one of the novel’s central questions: how do we know what lies in the human heart? Nick does not know what lies in Gatsby’s heart and Gatsby misunderstands Daisy. Thus in an age of a multiplicity of media of communication, there is ironically greater misunderstanding. The novel’s catalogue of fractured and elusive phone conversations suggests this. The phone also becomes a means of sustaining criminal activity. It is through the phone that Gatsby is able to maintain his shady business connections in Detroit and Chicago.


Central to the novel is Fitzgerald’s vision of the twentieth century as one characterized by consumerism, financial speculation and the rise of the leisure class. The Great Gatsby shows a society transitioning from industrialization to being driven by leisure and consumption. Fitzgerald gives a lot of importance to leisure in the novel for it represents the corruption of the idealism of the Founding Fathers and the colonists, which has now mutated into a consumerist ideology (Reynolds, 1993: xii). Liberation and happiness is now equated to a series of choices offered by capitalism where one plays golf or buys a pair of shirts. At a time when the average American did not earn more than a thousand two hundred dollars a year, the amount of wealth concentrated in the hands of the millionaires in the novel is obscene by any standards. For example, Daisy’s wedding pearls cost $ 350,000 and Jordan Baker accidentally loses $175 on a trip and is nonchalant about it. The narrator places Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship at the centre of this consumerist environment. Daisy seems to be more in love with the things that Gatsby possesses than him. Love is thus mediated and constituted by other desires and takes the form of an acquisitive urge for things. It becomes a form of materialism that substitutes the person for his possessions.


While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher – shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.


‘They are just beautiful shirts’, she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before.’ (Fitzgerald, 1925: 59).


When Daisy confesses her love for Gatsby, she couches it in her admiration for his “cool” appearance, his shirts and his ability to remind her of the advertising image of Doctor TJ  Eckleberg. In another instance, Nick realizes he does not really love Jordan admits he wants to be associated with a well-known and elite golfer. He sees through Jordan’s “affectations” and believes she is spoilt and irresponsible and “incurably dishonest”, avoiding “clever, shrewd men” who can see through her (Fitzgerald, 1925: 38).


Underlying the leisure society is a new form of capitalism driven by finance and speculation. Although Nick comes from a family of Midwestern industrialists that symbolize an old economy of self-made men, driven by workmanship and materialism, Nick’s own job is never quite clear. His job as a bond salesman is new and unknown and untried out. Nick reads books to understand the rules and strategies of this new business in finance. Unlike Nick’s father who earned a hardware business or Gatsby’s adoptive father Dan Cody who was a speculator in Montana copper, Nick and Gatsby are involved in the bond business, issuing long term loans to businesses and governments. There is in addition to this Gatsby’s criminal reputation; his bonds could have been counterfeit. Compared to the older ways of doing business, the idea of lending money for paper guarantees would seem rather abstract. Money in the novel is earned through sports, or finance or stock, all of which share an invisible affinity. The 1919 World Baseball Games Series Nick learns from Gatsby, was fixed by gamblers, Jordan Baker is rumored to cheat at golf and so on.


Novel and Production


The novel is essentially about production; production, not just in terms of the production of machines, things and wealth, but the production of ideas, places and persons (Reynolds, 1993: xiv). In terms of place, the novel is about the city and the suburb. The novel describes the city of New York and its environs. Gatsby’s mansion is in the fictional village of West Egg in Long Island, outside the city of New York. Nick lives in East Egg, a neighborhood of the nouveau riche who unlike Nick are seen to lack refinement and social connections. The East is initially seen as the land of wealth but this perception is disillusioned and attributed to the innocence of the beholder. The East is suspended in a state of spiritual stagnation where “the richer become richer and the poor have children.” But neither is the Midwest a romanticized and untainted alternative for it is also seen to be stagnating in the moral codes of family traditions. The space between New York and West Egg is an industrial dumping ground called the valley of the ashes, which is perceived as the West of the East. Wilson’s car-shed where cars are bought and sold form a part of this suburban landscape. The novel also offers a glimpse into the world outside that of the leisure class. Through Nick’s snobbery there emerges a society that is divided by class and ethnicity. His perception of Wilson for instance is “faintly handsome” but “spiritless and anaemic” (Fitzgerald, 1925: 17). Myrtle is herself described as the “thickish figure of a woman” (Fitzgerald, 1925: 17). Waiting for Myrtle, Tom and Nick watch a “grey, scrawny Italian child” (Fitzgerald, 1925: 18). Passing a funeral cortege, Nick sees the “tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe” (Fitzgerald, 1925: 44). These descriptions suggest Nick’s sense of distance from the working-and lower middle class, and his sharpened response to immigrants. Unlike these people whose failings and sickness are apparent, the leisure class is uniformly good looking and smart. Nick is thus both an analyst and symptom of a class-based society (Reynolds, 1993: xv).


The production of the major characters of this novel is reflective of Fitzgerald’s ambiguous response to the capitalist ethos of the jazz age. Through Nick, the author is able to achieve the aesthetic distance from his own morally ambiguous experience of the jazz age. Nick, apparently following his father’s advice, initially claims to reserve his judgment of people because everyone does not enjoy the same privileges in life. And yet he admits his snobbishness as a shortcoming, his privileges are “fundamental decencies…parceled out unequally at birth” (Fitzgerald, 1925: 7). Thus an arrogant pride is revealed under the guise of humility and objectivity. There are many other instances where Nick exposes his hypocrisy like when he is shocked at the sight of some “modish negroes” being driven by a white chauffeur or when he decides to play panderer for Gatsby but has an impulse to call the police when he discovers Tom and Myrtle Wilson’s affair. And when the police have to be called, Nick becomes an accomplice to Myrtle’s murder by concealing Daisy’s crime. His silence has important consequences leading up to Gatsby’s murder and  Wilson’s suicide. Nick is clearly not the reliable and neutral narrator that he claims to be in the beginning of the novel.


Gatsby is the one apparent exception to Nick’s reserved judgment. Nick admires Gatsby even though he represents everything Nick detests about the world of the East. There is a contradiction between Nick’s knowledge of Gatsby’s corruption and his belief in the dream, which he embodies as “incorruptible”. This is only resolved by Nick’s last and most serious of compromises with truth that leads to Gatsby’s death. In other words, it is the dream itself that is corrupt. There is no development I believe in Nick’s perception of Gatsby or the world he is a part of; indeed, his claim to objectivity is only a foil to conceal a flawed and ambiguous perception. By the end of the novel, there is no revelation of maturity or knowledge or awareness but a reiteration of Nick’s hypocrisy and moral ambiguity. Consider his contrasting valuations of Gatsby and Tom, where Tom remains an aggressive and arrogant white supremacist and misogynist whose social and economic stature is something that was passed down to him rather than earned. This is unlike Gatsby whose income from bootlegging does not compromise Nick’s admiration for the man. Gatsby claims to have a large set of accomplishments including an Oxford education, to having hunted big game and collected jewels in Europe, to having been awarded medals by various European countries in  World War I. This is belied by the revelation of his past as a poor college student who paid his tuition by working as a janitor. He leaves his humiliating job and switches to fishing. It is then that he meets an alcoholic millionaire named Dan Cody, who mentors him and leaves him twenty five thousand dollars. But finally Cody’s mistress robs him of his inheritance. Gatsby dedicates himself to becoming wealthy and successful. This transformation from poverty to wealth is contrasted to another portrayal of Gatsby as a young lovesick soldier whose life seems to have been dedicated to the woman he loves. Gatsby is an amalgam of greed and moral corruption and the hope and authenticity of love. His vision of the future despite his belief to capture the past, appears  spiritually fulfilling. And yet even love in this world is not untainted by an acquisitive urge to possess things as a measure of self-worth. Nick realizes for Gatsby, money and Daisy’s love are measures of his own self-making. As Nick describes it, Gatsby had “a Platonic conception of himself” or an ideal identity that Gatsby invents as a teenager, when he is mentored by the millionaire Dan Cody (Fitzgerald, 1925: 98). Cody’s largesse and Daisy’s love offer Gatsby the acknowledgement he never had as the child of unsuccessful and itinerant farmers. They confirm “the instinct to future glory” that compels Gatsby to transform into a mysterious man of wealth (Fitzgerald, 1925: 98). Love is thus not a quest for companionship but a source of confirmation of perfected identity.


The contrast between Daisy and Myrtle is stark and perceived through their respective lovers and Nick. Even their names suggest their differences, while Daisy is an attractive woman whose beauty is idealized in musical and spiritual terms, Myrtle is described in earthy, physiological terms. Daisy has a “low thrilling voice…that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” (Fitzgerald, 1925: 9). And Myrtle is “in the middle thirties, faintly stout…she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can.” (Fitzgerald, 1925: 25). Tom’s attraction for Myrtle is purely physical but Gatsby’s attraction for Daisy is purely idealistic, romantic or even metaphysical. But Nick sees Daisy differently, as someone who like her husband, falls short of Gatsby’s ideal. He rates her lower than Myrtle. But Nick sympathies ultimately lie in Gatsby and his vitality as a visionary. The novel, through Nick, still clings on to the promise of the American Dream. Despite the wealth he amassed by bootlegging, Gatsby is considered noble and redeemed, symbolizing as he does the hope and optimism of the American Dream.


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