Written nearly 90 years ago, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald stands as one of American literature’s quintessential novels. Its power resides in the way its evocative prose curls around a central idea. Through all the glitz and glamour, through all the beauty and intrigue, the novel slowly exposes the American Dream as a bewildering and ultimately destructive force.
The Past as Romance
The emotions that drive Jay Gatsby to pursue material wealth and the affection of Daisy Buchanan stem from a lost romance. He can’t forget or move beyond past feelings of love and innocence, transcendence and perfection. As revealed in a flashback, Gatsby once felt “he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” Gatsby carries this youthful idealism into the fray of American capitalism.
The Illusion of Success
In his effort to reclaim a past romance, Gatsby hosts lavish parties at his Long Island estate. His new material success alone suggests that he has seized opportunity and fulfilled the American Dream. But he never appears content. Beneath the opulent veneer, he yearns for something more. Early in the novel, narrator Nick Carraway glimpses this mysterious longing: “He stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward -- and distinguished nothing but a single green light, minute and far away."
The Roots of Wealth
The sources of Gatsby’s wealth are gradually revealed throughout the narrative. When Carraway meets Gatsby’s associate, a notorious gambler named Meyer Wolfsheim, readers are left wondering. Later in the novel, Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, reports that Gatsby had been running a bootlegging operation out of street-side drug stores. The revelation immediately undermines Gatsby’s power over Daisy and belies his ostentatious fortune. Readers also learn that Gatsby had changed his name from James Gatz in order to hide his humble beginnings as a poor midwestern boy. By exposing the roots of fortune, Fitzgerald raises questions about the acquisition of wealth and the darker side of the American Dream.
The extravagant charade of “The Great Gatsby” ultimately gives way to the baseness of human nature: to feuding, power struggles and violence. All the enchantment of the past and all the promise of the future unravel at the touch of a cold, careless reality. Right before he is murdered in his pool, Gatsby realizes the “the high price” of harboring a dream: “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.”
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