The Great Gatsby is the quintessential Jazz Age novel, capturing a mood and a moment in American history in the 1920s, after the end of the First World War. Rather surprisingly, The Great Gatsby sold no more than 25,000 copies in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime. It has now sold over 25 million copies. If Fitzgerald had stuck with one of the numerous working titles he considered for the novel, it might have been published as Trimalchio in West Egg (a nod to a comic novel from ancient Rome about a wealthy man who throws lavish parties), Under the Red, White and Blue, or even The High-Bouncing Lover (yes, really).
How did this novel come to be so widely acclaimed and studied, and what does it all mean? Before we proceed to an analysis of Fitzgerald’s novel, here’s a quick summary of the plot.
The Great Gatsby: plot summary
Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, is a young man who has come to New York to work on the stock exchange. He lives on the island of West Egg, where his neighbour is the wealthy Jay Gatsby, who owns a mansion.
One evening, Nick is dining with his neighbours from East Egg, Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Tom is having an affair, and goes to answer the phone at one point; Daisy follows him out of the room, and their fellow guest, a woman named Jordan Baker, explains to Nick about Tom’s mistress. A short while after this, Nick is with Tom when Tom sets up a meeting with his mistress, Myrtle, the wife of a garage mechanic named Wilson. Nick attends a party with Tom and Myrtle; Tom hits his mistress when she mentions Daisy’s name.
In the summer, Gatsby throws a number of lavish parties at his mansion. He meets Jordan Baker again and the two are drawn to each other. Nobody seems to know the real Gatsby, or to be able to offer much reliable information about his identity. Who is he?
Gatsby befriends Nick and drives him to New York. Gatsby explains that he wants Nick to do him a favour: Jordan Baker tells him that Daisy was Gatsby’s first love and he is still in love with her: it’s the whole reason Gatsby moved to West Egg, so he could be near Daisy, even though she’s married to Tom. Gatsby wants Nick to invite both him and Daisy round for tea.
When they have tea together, Gatsby feels hopeful that he can recover his past life with Daisy before she was married. However, he knows that Daisy is unlikely to leave Tom for him. When she expresses a dislike for his noisy parties, he scales down his serving staff at his house and tones down the partying.
When they are all at lunch together, Tom realises that Daisy still loves Gatsby. Tom goads Gatsby as he realises he’s losing his mistress and, now, his wife. While staying together in a suite at the Plaza Hotel, Daisy tells Tom that she loves both men.
On their way back home, Gatsby’s car accidentally hits and kills Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress, who has rushed out into the road after her husband found out about her affair. Tom finds her body and is distraught. Nick learns that Daisy, not Gatsby, was driving the car when Myrtle was killed.
Gatsby also tells Nick that he had built himself up from nothing: he was a poor man named James Gatz who made himself rich through the help of a corrupt millionaire named Dan Cody.
The next day, Nick finds Gatsby dead in his own swimming pool: Wilson, after his wife was killed by Gatsby’s car, turned up at Gatsby’s mansion to exact his revenge. Wilson’s body is nearby in the grass. The novel ends with Nick winding up Gatsby’s affairs and estate, before learning that Tom told Wilson where he could find Gatsby so he could take revenge.
The Great Gatsby: analysis
The Great Gatsby is the best-known novel of the Jazz Age, that period in American history that had its heyday in the 1920s. Parties, bootleg cocktails (it’s worth remembering that alcohol was illegal in the US at this time, under Prohibition between 1920 and 1933), and jazz music (of course) all characterised a time when Americans were gradually recovering from the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic (1918-20).
One reason The Great Gatsby continues to invite close analysis is the clever way Fitzgerald casts his novel as neither out-and-out criticism of Jazz Age ‘values’ nor as an unequivocal endorsement of them. Gatsby’s parties may be a mere front, a way of coping with Daisy’s previous rejection of him and of trying to win her back, but Fitzgerald – and his sympathetic narrator, Nick Carraway – do not ridicule Gatsby’s behaviour as wholly shallow or vacuous.
Fitzgerald’s choice to have a first-person narrator, rather than a more detached and impersonal ‘omniscient’ third-person narrator, is also significant. Nick Carraway is closer to Gatsby than an impersonal narrator would be, yet the fact that Nick narrates Gatsby’s story, rather than Gatsby telling his own story, nevertheless provides Nick with some detachment, as well as a degree of innocence and ignorance over Gatsby’s identity and past. Nick Carraway is both part of Gatsby’s world and yet also, at the same time, an observer from the side-lines, someone who is not rich and extravagant as many in Gatsby’s circle are, yet someone who is ushered into that world by an enthusiastic Jay Gatsby, who sees in Carraway a man in whom he can confide.
Nevertheless, Fitzgerald deftly sets the world of West Egg, with Gatsby’s mock-chateau and swimming pool, against the rather grittier and grimier reality for most Americans at the time. If Gatsby himself symbolises the American dream – he has made himself a success, absurdly wealthy with a huge house and a whole retinue of servants, having started out in poverty – then there are plenty of reminders in The Great Gatsby that ‘the American dream’ remains just that, a dream, for the majority of Americans:
About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.
This is the grey, bleak, industrial reality for millions of Americans: not for them is the world of parties, quasi-enchanted gardens full of cocktails and exotic foods, hydroplanes, and expensive motorcars.
Yet the two worlds are destined to meet on a personal level: the Valley of Ashes (believed to be modelled on Corona dump in Queens, New York, and inspired by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) is where Wilson’s garage is located. The dual tragedy of Gatsby’s and Wilson’s deaths at the end of the novel symbolises the meeting of these two worlds. The fact that Gatsby is innocent of the two crimes or sins which motivate Wilson – his wife’s adultery with Tom and Daisy’s killing of Myrtle with Gatsby’s car – hardly matters: it shows the subtle interconnectedness of these people’s lives, despite their socioeconomic differences.
What’s more, as Ian Ousby notes in his Introduction to Fifty American Novels (Reader’s Guides), there is more than a touch of vulgarity about Gatsby’s lifestyle: his house is a poor imitation of a genuine French chateau, but he is no aristocrat; his car is ‘ridiculous’; and his very nickname, ‘the Great Gatsby’, makes him sound like a circus entertainer (perhaps a magician above all else, which is apt given the magical and enchanted way Carraway describes the atmosphere and detail at Gatsby’s parties). And ultimately, Gatsby’s lavish lifestyle fails to deliver happiness to him, too: he doesn’t manage to win Daisy back to him, so at the same time Fitzgerald is not holding up Gatsby’s ‘success’ uncritically to us.
Is Gatsby black? Although he is known for having been played in film adaptations by Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio, and the novel does not state that Gatsby is an African American, the scholar Carlyle V. Thompson has suggested that certain clues or codes in the novel strongly hint at Gatsby being a black American who has had to make his own way in the world, rising from a poor socio-economic background, and not fully accepted by other people in his social circle because of racial discrimination. Whether we accept or reject this theory, it is an intriguing idea that, although Fitzgerald does not support this theory in the novel, that may have been deliberate: to conceal Gatsby’s blackness but, as it were, hide it in plain sight.
In the last analysis, The Great Gatsby sums up the Jazz Age, but through offering a tragedy, Fitzgerald shows that the American dream is founded on ashes – both the industrial dirt and toil of millions of Americans for whom the dream will never materialise, and the ashes of dead love affairs which Gatsby, for all of his quasi-magical properties, will never bring fully back to life.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.