The Great Gatsby Study Guide

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel of the roaring 20's, told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, who moves in next door to the eccentric millionaire Jay Gatsby. Over the course of the summer of 1922, Nick becomes drawn into Gatsby's world of excess, a world that also includes Nick's married cousin Daisy Buchanan, the object of Gatsby's obsession. Portraying a world of decayed social and moral values, The Great Gatsby serves as a critique of the Upper class and an exploration of the decline of the American dream.

The Moral Bankruptcy of Capitalism and the Decline of the American Dream in the 1920's

Fitzgerald intended Gatsby's relentless pursuit of wealth as a commentary on the downfall of the American Dream, and the moral bankruptcy of capitalism. In essence, Fitzgerald communicates that the traditional American Dream of "roast beef and apple pie" has been warped by capitalism, transformed from the pure-intentioned quest for sufficiency and satisfaction to a greedy, gluttonous, and ruthless crusade for class and material wealth.

The Great Gatsby illuminates the dark underside of the American Dream. Gatsby will stop at nothing to earn his fortune, and dabbles in numerous illegal operations, including selling bootleg liquor, and trading stolen funds to amass his wealth. Although it is never explicitly clear how Gatsby has earned all of his fortune it is intimated, namely by his business relationship with the seedy character Meyer Wolfsheim, that he has made most of his money through sketchy means. Gatsby's lustful, relentless pursuit of wealth and status begins innocently as an endeavor to impress and win the affection of his beloved Daisy, but quickly disintegrates into a labyrinth of dishonesty and deceit.

The Great Gatsby demonstrates that even the fullest achievement of the capitalistic American Dream -- that is, by acquisition of wealth and class status -- does not necessarily result in happiness. Once Gatsby's dream is realized, he is left feeling more hopeless than ever. His idealization of his future with Daisy, and of his life as a millionaire has been shattered by the reality of it, which is disappointing and unsatisfying. Gatsby and his American Dream die together, at once. Despite his immense wealth, Gatsby is emotionally tortured and alone; he has not even one friend to attend his funeral.

Similarly, Daisy, the product of a wealthy family, has all the material riches one could desire, but she is a fickle, foolish girl who lacks moral character. Her attractive qualities, beyond her riches, are scarce.

The valley of ashes epitomizes the moral decay and spiritlessness that results from the pursuit of money characterized by the American Dream. The valley, home to the poor working class, is a desolate, gray wasteland, barren but for the ashes dumped there by commercial industry. This wasteland is inhabited by spiritless, downtrodden characters, such as George Wilson, and represents the negative, life-draining effects of the American pursuit of happiness which, in essence, translates to the ruthless pursuit of material wealth. Wilson, an auto mechanic, epitomizes the oppressed, honorable working man. Although he owns his business, he is impoverished and exhausted, and struggles to survive.

The large, bespectacled eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg's further signify the moral emptiness of capitalism, and the downfall of the American Dream. Eckleburg's eyes watch, unflinching, from an old billboard that hangs over the valley of ashes. The eyes had been painted onto the billboard many years ago, and are now faded and peeling. Eckleburg's eyes are like the eyes of God, a moral judge, staring down onto the valley of ashes, disapproving of its social and moral decay, and that of American society. The faded poster, an obvious entity of capitalism and commercialism, is equated with the divine; here, there is no distinction between God and capitalism. Similarly, Gatsby is dogmatic about his pursuit of wealth, and commits himself to it as if a faithful practitioner of religion.

The Amorality of the Upper Class

Gatsby's extravagant parties exemplify the excess and hedonism characterized by the 1920's Jazz Age, when America's traditional moral values were challenged. The Jazz Age comes on the heels of the emotional and economic devastation of World War I, and thus celebrates indulgence in the pleasures which most were deprived of during the war.

In Chapter IX, Nick imagines the opulent, "new rich" community of West Egg, Long Island as a skewed dream: a drunken woman in a white dress is taken from her house on a stretcher, her arm hanging limply over the side, sparkling with "cold jewels." "No one knows the woman's name, and no one cares," says Nick. Nick's vision exemplifies the cold, impersonal, and selfish ways of the upper class. The aristocracy of Long Island, West Egg, in particular, does not value human social relationships, but money and material wealth.

Excepting Wilson, Nick is the only featured character in The Great Gatsby with an active conscience. Notably, Nick and Wilson are the only characters in the novel who do not live a life of luxury. As he, himself, claims, Nick is indeed an honest man, a characteristic that sets him apart from the other characters in the novel. Nick represents the traditional values of the Mid-West; he detests the superficial values of the privileged, and condemns them for their excesses and disgraceful falsehood. Ultimately, Nick, who is not a member of the upper class, is the only character to survive the downfalls of corruption. Nick identifies such corruption with the East, which seems dominated by capitalistic greed.

Although he is disgusted by some aspects of the aristocratic New York lifestyle, Nick is also entranced by it. As an observer, he appreciates the frantic pace of urban life, and expresses awed disbelief at the opulence of Gatsby's extravagant parties. Likewise, Nick is attracted to Jordan Baker, the woman he dates throughout the summer, for her cosmopolitan sophistication and blas attitude, despite her profuse dishonesty. Nick is well aware of Jordan's duplicity, and though he disregards it in the beginning of their romance, he is soon offended by it. Just as Nick feels uncomfortable at Gatsby's lavish soirees, he feels equally out of place as a Westerner in the amoral East.

Further, Nick concludes that Tom and Daisy are "careless people," people who have little, if any, regard for their affect on those who enter into and out of their lives. Tom and Daisy are inherently selfish, and thus reckless in their relationships. Undoubtedly, it is their wealth that makes them careless, as they use their money to shirk their depraved actions.

Nick abhors the blas amorality of the upper class, and, throughout the novel, comments on the the moral destitution of capitalistic endeavors, and the hollowness of the aristocracy. He detests the superficiality of the wealthy, their egotism and self-importance; he detests gossip, the livelihood of New York socialites, and pities Tom for his absolute moral ignorance. Nick's reflections on the amorality of the Eastern upper class prompt his return home, to the Mid-West, which he identifies with respectable moral values and integrity.

Struggle Against the Past

At once, Gatsby embraces and rejects select parts of his past. He denies his true, humble roots as the poor, uneducated son of two Mid-Western farmers, yet he yearns - and, moreover, intends--to recover the days of his youth when his romance with Daisy smoldered.Gatsby's true, humble background is not revealed until late in the novel. Until then, much speculation surrounds Gatsby's past. Guests at his parties propagate rumors that he once killed a man in cold blood, and that he earned his fortune as a bootlegger. Others, like Jordan Baker cast doubt upon his supposed Oxford education.

Gatsby is a master illusion, for he lives a life and projects a persona which he has created deliberately to reject his true upbringing, which is not revealed until late in the novel. To conceal his true background, Gatsby invents his past, telling Nick in Chapter IV that he is from a wealthy Mid-Western family, was educated at Oxford University, and was a highly decorated soldier in World War I. Gatsby even produces physical evidence as proof of his bogus history, including a photograph from his days at Oxford, and a medal of honor awarded to him for his military service.

Upon his planned reunion with Daisy, Gatsby knocks over the clock on Nick's mantle, and catches it just before it smashes to the ground. The clock represents Gatsby's idealization of the future, his compulsive denial of and simultaneous obsession with the past, and his conviction that he can recreate his former love affair with Daisy.

In Chapter IX, in the final scene of the novel, Nick stares out at Long Island Sound and muses:

So we beat on, boats against the current,

borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The boats, as they struggle against the current, mirror Gatsby's own unsuccessful struggle against his past. Like the boats against the current, Gatsby tries earnestly to deny his humble Mid-Western past, and to overcome it, though his efforts ultimately backfire.

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