Node your homework
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In The Great Gatsby how does Fitzgerald present a vivid picture of America in the year of prohibition and what criticisms of the American Dream is he making through the character of Jay Gatsby?
The Great Gatsby is much more than a mere denunciation of the ‘American Dream.’ Fitzgerald shows the dream to be something that is aesthetically beautiful, and in fact, as a dream, it functions properly. Yet the underlying purpose of the book is, I believe, a warning; just like Moby Dick before it. Jay Gatsby has projected his personal Deity onto a human form; Daisy Buchanan, yet once he has placed all meaning in life upon an earthly object, when he finally attains Daisy his dream collapses. He realises that there is nothing more to life than abstractions, and human life is a process of seeking these abstractions.
His house, cars and wealth are all outwards manifestations of his dream but these will never replace the dreams themselves, and thus he will always be unhappy. Fitzgerald is almost telling us to take a long, hard look at Gnosticism, just as Melville did when he showed Ahab as a character whose existence was sapped of all meaning when he places all meaning on a human, attainable entity. Don;t put your faith in a doll! Don;t put something on a pedestal! Shakespeare warned of this is Twelfth Night, as did Tennyson when he wrote Mariana.
To the user Optiks (and it's interesting to note that that is his only writeup - did he rush to E2 depserate to express his disgust for a writeup on "The Great Gatsby"?), I say think about it: the book isn't about one thing. Its about lots of things, and never forget that, as Philip Larkin said, "the poet can only warn." Literature isn't, as far as I can see, about casting moral judgement. I don't really now any classics where the author pours scron upon a particular idea.
The Great Gatsby is not Fitgerald spitting at the American Dream. In fact, he's almost opening our eyes to the fact that it's a dream and it's beautiful but hey, be careful, it is just a dream!
Just as Carraway is about to talk to Gatsby, ‘he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – 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 except a single green light, minute and far away.’
Although the symbolism is thrust upon the reader a little obviously (it's almost patronising), Fitzgerald looks at Gatsby’s attempt to capture his soul’s abstractions with a mixture of pity and disgust. The ‘trembling’ of Gatsby’s hands suggests Fitzgerald is drawing parallels with Gatsby’s fixation and some sort of mental or temporary body disorder, and the analogy is, perhaps, apt considering the book is set during prohibition.
The restriction of alcohol is used by Fitzgerald as a metaphor to show the manner in which people are forced to live in reality, and thus all success can only be material.
Gatsby aspires to transcend this limited reality, and, as Melville says, ‘grasp the ungraspable phantom of life.’ The fact that Gatsby reaches out to this light next to the sea is also significant, in that it symbolises false gnosis: Gatsby sees his own reflection in the water and, like Narcissus before him, must impose this onto the external world.
Nick Carraway, however, realises that to achieve this ultimate goal one must only look inside oneself. He expresses disgust at the unnecessary ‘aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired,’ and thus makes an important point. I do not believe (and judging by the other writeups, neither do E2 noders) Fitzgerald is condemning the American Dream. It is a dream and thus separated from reality. Nor is Fitzgerald claiming that material success will invariably lead to destruction. The failing, I believe, lies with human desire to believe that the ultimate goal is in the external world; it is not, and any search for it there is futile.
Fitzgerald’s setting is American in the 1920s, during prohibition and this provides the Romanticism that Gatsby desires; however, his attempts at chivalry are laced with irony because the purity he sees in Daisy is nothing more than a reflection of his own soul, and furthermore, he sees precisely what he wants to see.
The purity and innocence that are present in Daisy’s very name are collapsing, and even if they are present, what meaning do they have in the modernist world that Fitzgerald presents? When Carraway tells him otherwise, Gatsby says, “Can't repeat the past? ...Of course you can!" Grappling with his fading dreams, Gatsby sets out to recreate archaic concepts of true love and purity in the ‘valley of ashes.’ The valley itself is also symbolic, in that it suggests the characters are already dead. Physically, their bodies function but Fitzgerald suggests that they live for the past or the future, never in the present.
The cities that Fitzgerald presents are similar, in fact, to Eliot’s ‘unreal city,’ where the lavish parties that Gatsby throws are merely bizarre shows of wealth; charades that the characters put on to assert their normality and to suppress the mental anguish they suffer. Indeed, the absence of a God or an ethical compass results in a haunting guilt that pervades each and very character and manifests itself as ‘the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.’
These eyes are not only moral guardians however; they function as an ironic symbol of the lack of self-awareness. Gatsby, like the giant eyes, looks everywhere for his ultimate goal; everywhere except inside himself.