F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby, was written in the 1920s about that time, and the elite of American society that came to be at that time. As Robert Emmet Long wrote, "The Great Gatsby emerges out of a quite definite intellectual literary milieu, and expresses its concerns" (172). It was the time of America's great economic success, as the post-war Europe was not a match for it. It was the time of jazz and speakeasies, the time of glamour and luxury. It was the "roaring 20s". Overall, the novel talks about the original American Dream and its corruption by money at the time of Gatsby, and about "the foreclosure of the American dream" in general (Robert Emmet Long,174). It is probably best summarized by the following paragraphs.
The novel, however, is dry and bitter in tone instead. F. Scott Fitzgerald used it to criticize the modern society through symbol and the novel's background, through his characters and their "props".
"Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except for shadowy, mowing glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of an old island that flowered here for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world.....
....He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
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 our arms further.... And one fine morning--
"So we beat on, boats against current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (Fitzgerald,182)
This "green light" in the novel is no mere illumination, but is in fact probably the main key to understand the novel: green is the color of the "orgastic future" of the first American colonists and pioneers, and it is the color of the greenback dollar, and to Gatsby it was also the color of Daisy Buchanan's eyes. Together, this intertwined trio - Daisy, the dollar, and the American Dream - form the main story line of "The Great Gatsby", for they are literally the fuel of Gatsby. However, F. Scott Fitzgerald did not use only this symbolism to criticize his society - he also did it through his characters, the general background setting and other "props". Thus, "The connection between Gatsby's individual tragedy and the tragedy of the American civilization is also made, and again through symbol, with respect to historical attitudes. Gatsby's philosophy of history is summed-up in his devotion to the green light burning on Daisy's dock" (Edwin Fussel, 251). (Incidentally, the phrase "blue lawn" probably is not accidental either. Blue is the color of the sky and of Daisy's dress - blue is the color of Gatsby's dreams in other words.)
The larger part of F. Scott Fitzgerald's social criticism lies in the setting - in "The Great Gatsby", space co-relates to the time of the 1920s to show the actual injustice and the social problems of these times. The main antagonists of the novel, the Buchanans, live in the East Egg. This is most likely an allegory of the eastern states, the New England, the original 13 colonies, where the scions of the old-money families made their main domain. Fitzgerald's New England (and especially Manhattan) is a place of glory and riches, appearing at a first glance if not exactly as Heaven on Earth, then close enough. But is it truly so? For the characters of the novel, the road to Manhattan lies through the valley of ashes - the terrible desolation that lies beyond the pleasant settings of the East and West Eggs. These ashes are not just industrial cast-offs, for they are foreshadows of the upcoming future of all this glitter - the Great Depression.
This motif, of a pleasant faГade hiding something empty and desolate, later reflects in Gatsby's parties and his mansion. The mansion of Gatsby is grand, especially if compared with Nick's dwelling, but it is almost hollow, empty. Barring the parties and the guests, the mansion is practically empty, and some of its rooms, like the library room, are nearly unused. (Gatsby's books are real, but they were not read, and one of Gatsby's guests eventually tells Nick that this whole mansion is a stage, a production number, and - a type of a trap, which attracts guests like moths to a flame, and like moths from a flame they eventually vanish and die.) Incidentally, by the end of the novel all the guests have vanished without a trace - thus, to all intents and purposes, these parties (and the car crash) at the end of one foreshadow the fall of "the roaring 20s" into "the depressing 30s", when all of these glittering parties vanished without a trace.
Now the cars - of the guests in general and Gatsby in particular - are more than just props for the people. Instead, they are too used as symbols. Gatsby's vehicle is golden in color (the color of wealth) with green upholstery. It may look ridiculous, but it can also remind the readers about Gatsby's infatuation with green-eyed Daisy Buchanan, who is connected (in Gatsby's eyes, at any rate) to the American Dream. Thus, Gatsby's yearning in the west (West Egg) while yearning for the green light and Daisy in the east (East Egg) is the yearning of a man, perhaps of a poor European man (like Gatsby's own parents) for freedom over the water, the American Dream. But "....Fitzgerald knew that at its most depraved levels the American dream merges with the American debutante's dream - a thing of deathly hollowness" (Marius Bewley,273). Or, in simpler terms, Daisy "the American Dream" is not with Gatsby - but with Tom Buchanan, who is Gatsby's complete opposite. Tom is old money, Gatsby is new, Tom is an easterner, Gatsby is a westerner, and Tom is pragmatic, Gatsby romantic. In the end, with the confrontation of Gatsby and Tom, Daisy chooses Tom, even though personality-wise Gatsby is clearly better. Thus, the American Dream, as Marius Bewley writes, is lost to the original American spirit in favor of the corrupt pseudo-European noble easterners like Tom (273). It should be noted that in the 1920s, the Americans from the western states were treated as the backwards, unsophisticated people by the Americans from New England and adjoining states. Furthermore, in his concluding paragraphs F. Scott Fitzgerald subtly compares "the old island" with the American West, hinting that it is back there that the original American Dream is flourishing freely.
Furthermore, if Gatsby's car is on a par with Daisy and Daisy is used as an allegory of sorts for the American Dream, then the deaths of Myrtle Wilson, who is run down by Daisy is a similar allegory as well - the destruction of the old-fashioned American values (including family values) by the new, easy-going morality - progress, in other words.
As a matter of fact, this assault of the new values on the old started earlier, in chapter 3, when we learn that Myrtle is the mistress of Tom Buchanan. Daisy does not know that, though, but Nick Carroway does and he feels rather disgusted about that (Fitzgerald, 21). Furthermore, though he does like Jordan Baker, he decides to first settle his affairs at home, before beginning a relationship with her (Fitzgerald, 59).
Some time toward midnight Tom Buchanan and Mrs. Wilson stood face to face, discussing in impassioned voices whether Mrs. Wilson had any right to mention Daisy's name.
"Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!" shouted Mrs. Wilson. "I'll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai--"
"Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand." (Fitzgerald, 37)
Now, America in theory (or rather in the American Dream) was supposed to be a kind of tabula rasa, a blank piece of slate where everyone had equal opportunities for success. Instead, we see a tightly structured hierarchy, where everyone should know their places, and their places are determined by their financial status (not race - there is an instance of a white man chauffeuring three Afro-Americans from one of Gatsby's parties -Fitzgerald 69.) Thus, the way Tom Buchanan treats Myrtle and her husband and the McKees is no worse than the way they treat those who are beneath them.
Thus though Myrtle has come out for the worse in the confrontation with Tom, she treated others no better than how she was treated herself:
"I told the boy about the ice." Myrtle raised her eyebrows in despair at the shiftlessness of the lower orders. "These people! You have to keep after them all the time" (Fitzgerald,32).
Of course, in his own way, Gatsby is not such a nice person himself - he is working with Wolfsheim, who lives in Chicago, a city notorious for gangsters in the 1920s (and whose friends have a habit of dying from violence). He has forgotten about his poor relatives and does not have any taste, etc. His worst sin, though, is:
"Gatsby's guilt, insofar as it exists, is radical failure--a failure of the critical faculty that seems to be an inherent part of the American dream--to understand that Daisy is as fully immersed in the destructive element of the American world as Tom himself... They instinctively seek out each other because each recognizes the other's strength in the corrupt spiritual element they inhabit" (Marius Bewley282).
Gatsby does not understand that this is no world for a knight-like figure he fancies himself to be, and that heroes do not always get their girls - and the girls do not always want to be rescued by heroes either. What redeems Gatsby (at least in the eyes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nick Carroway) is that he, in his romantic foolishness, is possibly the last true American, one who does not want money or financial power, but love. He lives in the West Egg (allegory for the western states of the USA), he is a direct descendant of the poor European laborers (the Gatzes), and he earns for the east (East Egg, the eastern states of the USA) and that green light that shines in it - the American dream. Another westerner Nick Carroway (the narrator) too came to the east in search of the fortune of his dreams, but, at the end, of the novel he leaves, rather disillusioned by the reality he discovers.
Needless to say, as the narrator, Nick deserves a mention of his own. He is, in many ways, Gatsby's foil - a westerner who came east to make his fortune after fighting in WWI; Nick develops a relationship with Daisy's friend Jordan, who has a personality similar to Daisy's, etc. But what makes Nick a different person from Gatsby is that Nick has his "brakes", and he does not lose his head as Gatsby does. Thus, he manages to survive his eastern experience while Gatsby does not; he lives to tell the tale, but not Gatsby.
Fitzgerald, belonged to the social group known as "The Lost Generation" - people, whose lives were twisted by the World War I, and then they were blindsided by the hollow but dazzling glory of the Jazz Age - just like Gatsby and the Buchanans. These people had no goal in life, no meaning, and many of them did not make it through the thirties, when reality struck, and they ended-up in their "valley of ashes". Tragically, F. Scott Fitzgerald's suggestion to "go west" helped them little because the "valley of ashes" proved to be literally, not just metaphorically real as well. Thus, F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters and their setting and their props tightly interweave to record the exact downfall of the society of the 1920s.
Bewley, Marius: Scott Fitzgerald's Criticism of America, Ed. The Great Gatsby: A Study,
Charles Scribner's Sons 1962. 273, 282
Fussel, Edwin: Fitzgerald's Brave New World, Ed. The Great Gatsby: A Study, Charles
Scribner's Sons 1962. 251
Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons Macmillan
Publisher Company 1953. 21, 32 37, 49, 69, 182
Long, Emmet Robert: The Achieving of The Great Gatsby, Cranbury, New Jersey: