The Great Gatsby: Theme Analysis
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic twentieth-century story of Jay Gatsby's quest for Daisy Buchanan, examines and critiques Gatsby's particular vision of the 1920's American Dream. Written in 1925, the novel serves as a bridge between World War I and the Great Depression of the early 1930's. Although Fitzgerald was an avid participant in the stereotypical "Roaring Twenties" lifestyle of wild partying and bootleg liquor, he was also an astute critic of his time period. The Great Gatsby certainly serves more to detail society's failure to fulfill its potential than it does to glamorize Fitzgerald's "Jazz Age."
Fitzgerald's social insight in The Great Gatsby focuses on a select group: priviliged young people between the ages of 20 and 30. In doing so, Fitzgerald provides a vision of the "youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves" (157). Throughout the novel Nick finds himself surrounded by lavish mansions, fancy cars, and an endless supply of material possessions. A drawback to the seemingly limitless excess Nick sees in the Buchanans, for instance, is a throwaway mentality extending past material goods. Nick explains, "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made" (188).
Part of the mess left in the Buchanan's wake at the end of the novel includes the literal and figurative death of the title character, Jay Gatsby. Certainly, his undeserved murder at the hands of a despondent George Wilson evokes sympathy; the true tragedy, however, lies in the destruction of an ultimate American idealist. The idealism evident in Gatsby's constant aspirations helps define what Fitzgerald saw as the basis for the American Character. Gatsby is a firm believer in the American Dream of self-made success: he has, after all, not only invented and self-promoted a whole new persona for himself, but has succeeded both financially and societally.
In spite of his success, Gatsby's primary ideological shortcoming becomes evident as he makes Daisy Buchanan the sole focus of his belief in "the orgastic future" (189). His previously varied aspirations (evidenced, for example, by the book Gatsby's father shows Nick detailing his son's resolutions to improve himself) are sacrificed for Gatsby's single-minded obsession with Daisy's green light at the end of her dock. Even Gatsby realized the first time he kissed Daisy that once he "forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God" (117).
For the first time in his wildly successful career, however, Gatsby aspires to obtain that which is unattainable, at least to the degree which he desires. As the novel unfolds, Gatsby seems to realize that his idea and pursuit of Daisy is more rewarding than the actual attainment of her. Gatsby recognizes that -- as he did with his own persona -- he has created an ideal for Daisy to live up to. Although Gatsby remains fully committed to his aspirations up until his death, he struggles with the reality of when those aspirations for his American Dream are either achieved or, in Gatsby's case, proven inaccessible. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1924, while working on The Great Gatsby, "That's the whole burden of this novel -- the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don't care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory" (xv).
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