America, 1920s; the lights are brighter, the parties bigger and the money is flowing. Hope has returned with the end of WWI and has given people a new sense of living. It’s all about prosperity, entertainment and illegal activities (like bootlegging alcohol). A certain moral emptiness and loose lifestyles seem to take over the image of the era. It is in these years that Fitzgerald writes his most famous works; This side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned and finally, in 1925, the book that takes place in 1922 and that is often called ‘the Great American novel’: The Great Gatsby.
The Great Gatsby is about a complicated love story which takes place in the roaring twenties, with on the background the problematic lack of social and moral values. Fitzgerald shows how far (rich) people are willing to go to fill the emptiness in their lives; cherishing unworthy objects and illusory dreams.
The story follows Nick Carraway, a young man who exchanges his ordinary life in the Midwest for a fancy life in the fictional ‘West Egg’ near Long Island, New York. There he becomes fascinated by the (upper-class) life of his mysterious millionaire neighbour Jay Gatsby, whom he meets at one of Gatsby’s many extravagant parties. However, Gatsby has a hidden dream, which he desperately wants to fulfil; he has been obsessed by his first love, ‘old money’ Daisy Buchanan, ever since not having been able to marry her as a poor soldier when he met her a few years before.
Fitzgerald died in 1940, thinking that his work would be forgotten. However The Great Gatsby is nowadays ranked among the greatest works of American literature and must be read by every American student. Whether it is for its moral, its American spirit, or its history, The Great Gatsby is definitely an interesting book to read.
The book’s main subject and point of critic is the phenomenon of ‘The American Dream’. Whereas it had begun with hardworking people, hoping to find happiness, Fitzgerald empathises in this book, that people forgot the ‘key ideals’ and started dreaming about either more money, entertainment or, like Gatsby in this book, about an idealised past, thinking that he was able to change it into the future with his money, for he had already achieved so much. The American dream was corrupted.
I think The Great Gatsby’s success lies largely in its timeless and realistic plot, but also in the glimpse that it gives the reader into the society of the 20s. Fitzgerald’s story is a network of interwoven lifelines and the many fast and slightly dramatised events fit together like puzzle pieces, matching the hurried and eccentric sphere of that time.
The book’s characters aren’t heroes but ‘real’ people; not all the characters are therefore likeable, but recognisable. In fact, the reader practically doesn’t really get to know the ‘inside’ of the characters -they’re almost as empty as the lifestyle of that time. However Fitzgerald has the ability to say so much about a specific feature or a situation with his amazing accuracy; Daisy’s voice is ‘full of money’ and Gatsby’s smile ‘has eternal reassurance in it’.
“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” Page 33
But it is what he doesn’t say that makes this book even more unique; the hidden significance he can give to seemingly unimportant objects, actions and settings, and how he makes them important for the story is outstanding. He gives the reader an endless amount of possible interpretations.
So don’t read The Great Gatsby because it’s short, but because it’s special; it’s the thing that Fitzgerald gives us; a mirror for our own society, a life lesson about the importance but emptiness of material. It is the meaning a person gives to something that makes it valuable. The Great Gatsby teaches us that we can dream, as long as we don’t lose the reality like Gatsby did, for our American dream could turn into an American Nightmare.
“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 – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning —” Page 120
The Great Gatsby has inspired many people over the last 90 years, from writers to producers. This modern movie version, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, opened the Cannes Film Festival of 2013.