Read an analysis of The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby is a short novel, just nine chapters, each built around a party scene — though the final “party” is, of course, a funeral.
The story itself is about a poor boy from a farming background who becomes fabulously wealthy. It is also a love story. Both those stories are fascinating but perhaps, at its deepest level, it is an examination of the American Dream that reaches a pessimistic conclusion. The accumulation of great wealth and the aspiration to win the lady end in tragedy because the Dream does not live up to what it promises. The concept of money, which is at the centre of the Dream is complex. There is a tension between “old money” and “new money,” represented in the novel by the towns of East Egg where the old rich, including the Buchanans, live, and the downmarket West Egg, where Gatsby’s mansion is. In the end Gatsby is killed as a result of the events they are all involved in, and the Buchanans survive unharmed by retreating into the privileged society that will always protect them
The story is underpinned by a rich pattern of symbolism. For example, Gatsby’s ambition, both to gain Daisy’s love and to make it into a privileged social setting, is symbolised by the green light at the end of the dock at Daisy’s house.
The industrial wasteland where George and Myrtle Wilson live, known as The Valley of Ashes, is a contrast to the green light. It’s a dumping ground for the refuse of the factories that are producing the gadgets and appliances filling the homes of the post-war generation as the economy booms. Rejected, failing people like the Wilsons live there, an underclass without hope, exploited by the privileged.
The huge billboard bearing the eyes of the occulist, Dr T J Eckleburg, tower over the dump. The eyes are the moral conscience, looking down, like God, witnessing the corruption all around. On another level, they advertise another man trying to make money out of the poor people who live there.
Reading The Great Gatsby is the total reading experience. Apart from its compelling story and memorable and interesting characters, it is written in prose that is probably the finest in all American literature – before and after its publication.
Fitzgerald’s style in this novel encompasses everything that prose is capable of – not only that but at the highest level: it is sophisticated while being ironic; it’s full of metaphors and figurative imagery and all the devices of poetic language to convey its dominant tone of nostalgia and loss. Looking back from Gatsby’s death near the end of the novel, it seems to be an extended elegy for Gatsby. As narrator Nick Carraway puts it, he has told this story about a man who has gained his respect in spite of being someone “who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.”
Nick describes Gatsby as elegant graceful and stylish in sentences that flow in musical cadences. Other characters are described in similar language while at the same time the author is exposing their unsavoury nature. That gives the exalted language a kind of irony and suggests ridicule rather than praise.
An example of that is the description of a Gatsby party in the language of the sophisticated, sober Nick. He describes the music, the colour, and the activity, creating a vivid, memorable picture. The guests are sophisticated people – powerful men, beautiful women, celebrities – but they become drunker and drunker, their sophistication evaporating as the night draws on. By the time the party ends many of them are blind drunk and incoherent. Their slurred and inelegant speech – “wonder’ff tell me where there’s a gas’line station” – is in great contrast to the language Nick uses to describe them: “The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath: already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.”
That is all one sentence, bound together by punctuation and conjunctions. It gives a vivid picture of the scene. Fitzgerald creates a strong sense of continual movement with words and phrases like” glide on,” “dissolve,” “wanderers,” “constantly changing,” “swell,” “form” – effortless movement, offering a view of youth and vitality celebrating their era, embracing it effortlessly with ceaseless motion.
The text has a highly evocative quality. Fitzgerald employs poetic devices to effect that. For example, the alliteration and repetition contribute to that in this passage where Nick and Tom meet Myrtle in the city. They are in an apartment and Nick imagines someone down below looking up at them through a window. “Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” “Within and without,” “enchanted,” “repelled” reflect Nick’s simultaneous restlessness and fascination with New York.
Nick’s metaphorical descriptions stand in contrast to the unsophisticated speech of the vulgar characters. Wilson tells Tom about his suspicion about his wife’s infidelity. “I just got wised up to something funny …. that’s why I been bothering you about the car.”
The actual text is short, only 50,000 words, but also like poetry, it is the compression of an enormous amount of content and meaning.
Ernest Hemingway, a friend of Fitzgerald, was not very kind to him and considered his first novel, The Beautiful and Damned, as greatly inferior. The very successful Hemingway thought that Fitzgerald would never make it as a writer. But after reading The Great Gatsby he said that he now had to “try to be a good friend” to Fitzgerald, and wrote “If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one”
Some would say that no American has written a better novel than The Great Gatsby.
That’s our take on The Great Gatsby themes. Make sense? Any questions? Let us know in the comments section below!