When F. Scott Fitzgerald published his 1925 magnum opus The Great Gatsby, it was during a time when the euphoria of the American dream was at its apotheosis. The relatively recent 2013 film adaptation of the novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire attempts to show New York in all its glitz and glamor that entailed the “dream”. But its aesthetic portrayal, along with Maguire’s monotonous narration as Nick Carraway, fails to grasp the message Fitzgerald was trying to convey through his characters, especially the titular character Jay Gatsby. The same mistake was very much made when some reviewers originally dismissed the novel when it was first released along with its poor sales, one calling it “no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that” (Mencken 1925).
The Great Gatsby contains something powerful that many failed to realise at the time, most likely due to their inability to reflect on the times they were living in. Now, Fitzgerald’s most famous piece is considered one of the greatest novels to come out of the United States. Gatsby’s quixotic quest for the love of his life, Daisy, is one that many know about. But the novel’s historical context of the ‘roaring twenties’ is one that amplifies the realism of his idealistic venture. Gatsby’s excessive materialism is what makes everything ironic. His possessions and wealth fail to satisfy what he really desires. No matter what he has achieved, whether or not through morally questionable means, the realities of circumstance limit his ambitions from being achieved. Gatsby is thus a man who, despite his wealth, is highly relatable through his wanting for something he cannot have.
Gatsby’s character can therefore be seen in two ways thanks to the narration of Nick Carraway, who is arguably the ‘everyman’ of the novel. Through conversations and rumours is Gatsby’s name first introduced to Carraway as a mysterious and charismatic individual, the latter’s fascination for the former quickly turning into admiration. Whilst Gatsby is still trying to pursue his American dream through his observation of the green light, the one shining from Daisy’s home, Carraway sees his dream in the form of Gatsby’s alluring personality as the man he wants to be. Everyone has a American dream, even if one has seemingly achieved it already.
It is evident through the tragic circumstances for nearly all the characters however that the pursuit of this dream can be merely futile or at worst costly. Fitzgerald himself personally experienced this by being unable to wed the woman he wanted most, Ginevra King, eventually having a troublesome marriage with his other love Zelda Sayre. But for the everyman such as Carraway, it is at the very least one of disillusionment, as shown by the unpleasant circumstances that occur on his 3oth birthday:
“Human sympathy has its limits, and we were content to let all their tragic arguments fade with the city lights behind. Thirty – the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.”The Great Gatsby, p. 114.
The Great Gatsby thus offers little joy to people wishing to achieve their greatest desires. Yet the novel’s famed concluding words said by Carraway is one that reveals an universal truth that describes all of us:
“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 out our arms further …. And one fine morning –
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”The Great Gatsby, p. 152.
Even when things prove to be futile in effort or their results fruitless, individuals to a certain degree tend to have an innate determination to keep on going. Gatsby is an example when someone’s ambitions leads to disaster when going beyond his/her limitations; Fitzgerald himself being the opposite when he lost faith in his works and died at the young age of 44 due to his struggles with alcoholism. Despite the 1920s long being over and the American dream having much less believers than it once had, the message The Great Gatsby has to offer is still very much relevant for elucidating the satisfaction everyone ceaselessly seeks in life.
Featured image credit: Cover illustration by Francis Cugat (1893–1981). Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons on Wikimedia Commons
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott (2018) The Great Gatsby. London: Penguin Books.
- Mencken, H. L. (1925) Scott Fitzgerald and His Work. The Chicago Daily Tribune, 3rd May.