Quick facts about The Great Gatsby
Full Title: The Great Gatsby
Date Written: 1924 – 1925
Date Published: 10th April 1925
Genre(s): A tragedy that revolves around a larger-than-life hero
Setting(s): Long Island and New York City in the USA
Point of view: First person
The Great Gatsby overview
F. Scott Fitgerald set The Great Gatsby in the time of his writing it – the early Twenties. It was a hugely significant decade in American history and Fitzgerald was a spectator in the front row. Historians have named it ‘the roaring twenties’. Fitzgerald wrote a collection of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age, giving the decade another nickname, the Jazz Age. Gertrude Stein, a social and literary commentator, called the survivors of the war “disoriented, wandering, directionless,” and dubbed them ‘the lost generation’.
With the devastating Great War over, Europe was experiencing economic prosperity and with it, social, artistic and cultural dynamism. America was experiencing the same thing. The French called those years the annees folles (the crazy years), acknowledging their cultural and social dynamism. Art, design and fashion flourished – the latter in the expression of unforgettable images of women with bobbed hairstyles and flapper girl garments. The development of cars, films, radio, telephones and electric appliances and their increasing use by ordinary households proliferated. It was also the decade in which the media explosion created celebrities in films and sport. With Prohibition it also introduced large scale organized crime.
The Great Gatsby reflects all of that. The novel presents a vivid, memorable picture of the time, with its flappers, its bootlegging culture, industrialization, and the emergence of new money on a large scale.
The Great Gatsby – the great American novel?
The novel is in contention for the title ‘The great American novel,’ partly because of that memorable depiction of the age, presented by arguably the best prose writer among American writers. Perhaps even more pertinent to its claim to that title is Fitzgerald’s treatment of the ‘American Dream.’
All Americans know what the American Dream is, although for the most part, people interpret it differently. And even to historians, it has a different meaning in the twenty-first century than it had when first expressed in the nineteenth.
The idea originated in frontier life with the impulse to explore and move further and further into the interior and the west, always looking and hoping for something better. It was something that all settlers did wherever they went – Africa, Australia, South America.
In the second half of the nineteenth century immigrants began arriving from Europe. They arrived with a dream – a dream of being free from war, persecution, poverty and social suppression in a land of liberty where they could be free to seek happiness and make honest livings in peace. And then, the Californian gold rush showed that instant wealth was possible in a country rich in natural resources, and the Dream began to be connected with money.
Immigrants flooded into America in the early Twentieth century. Here, again, they came to escape the fetters that tied them down in Europe and dreamt of a better, more fulfilling life in a country where everyone, according to his or her ability, taking advantage of the opportunities provided, could reach the highest levels. Whereas in Europe, one could not rise above the ceiling placed for one at birth, in America there was no limit to social advancement, and the son of even the poorest immigrant could become president. Although that was the basic dream, money was also part of the equation and by the twenties it was one of the main goals in the American Dream. However, social advancement was still central to the American Dream.
Brief plot overview
The Great Gatsby exposes the American Dream as a failure. It tells the story of Jimmy Gatz, a boy from a low status, poor family who dreams of fabulous wealth and social improvement. As a teenager he applies himself assiduously to that goal, and on coming of age, changes his name to Jay Gatsby. During his training as an army officer, while waiting to be deployed to Europe, he falls in love with Daisy, a rich girl from a wealthy, aristocratic family, who promises to wait for him. She does not, however, and marries Tom Buchanan, a young man from a socially similar family to hers.
Gatsby returns after the war, determined to make himself worthy of Daisy. He applies himself obsessively to accumulating wealth with that purpose in mind. He takes advantage of the prohibition and makes a large fortune as a bootlegger. He buys a huge mansion opposite the bay from Daisy’s house and looks for an opportunity to get her attention by hosting sumptuous parties every Saturday night. He hopes that she will turn up to one of them but she doesn’t. With the help of his neighbour, who is related to Daisy, he is united with her again and they embark on an affair.
He loses Daisy when he forces the issue, demanding that she tell her husband that she never loved him and that she loves him, Jay Gatsby. She doesn’t do that, on the basis that even though Gasby is very rich he is not her equal. In spite of not losing any of the luxury she is used to going with him would be a loss for her. Driving Gatsby’s car she kills Tom Buchanan’s mistress and allows Gatsby to take the blame. She loves Gatsby but still regards him as poor because his wealth cannot penetrate the class ceiling. As she puts it – “rich girls don’t marry poor boys.”
The Great Gatsby and the American dream
On the human level, as a drama played out with characters, Daisy is shallow, disloyal and careless. Leaving Gatsby to face the consequences of killing Muriel she turns her back on him and retreats into her secure world of class privilege, preferring to put up with a bullying philandering husband to losing her social advantage. She agrees with Tom’s expression of contempt for Gatsby, ‘the nobody from nowhere,’
On the literary level, the novel exposes the American Dream as hollow. Gatsby is a classical achiever of the American Dream in his rise from poverty to immense wealth but America can’t offer him what he really needs – acceptance as the social equal of everyone else. No matter how high he jumps and how hard he works, he cannot penetrate the ceiling that the American class system has fixed over his head. Daisy’s behaviour makes that clear. The Dream has failed him. It has taken no more than a fickle, shallow debutante to demonstrate that. That is the critique Fitzgerald makes of the American Dream – that it only goes so far before it hits an impenetrable obstacle.
That’s our overview of The Great Gatsby. Make sense? Any questions? Let us know in the comments section below!