John William De Forest coined the term “the Great American novel” in an 1868 article in The Nation, while claiming that as of yet, no one had written one. According to De Forest, such a work of literature would provide “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” He found fault with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great novel The Scarlet Letter for dialogue that did not provide a true American voice, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s outstanding work about race, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for creating characters who were not authentic.
It is arguable that Herman Melville accomplished what De Forest imagined in 1851, with Moby-Dick. Melville’s novel portrays Ishmael, the humble narrator, in search of adventure and an escape from the gray New Bedford winter. What Ishmael finds instead, however, is a sea journey that challenges his very survival. In Captain Ahab, he witnesses an obsessive quest to obtain that which is unattainable — in this case, the great white whale. Ahab’s inability to conquer the whale becomes a testament to the impossible American quest to control the wilderness.
The quixotic nature of the quest may be the most common theme through all great American literature. Our most memorable heroes struggle for that which has been promised to them by a new nation: liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, these ideals are inevitably revealed as illusory.
By the end of the 20th century, multiple works met De Forest’s criteria. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, shows the pursuit of equality by a Black man who will never receive from white society the recognition he deserves. In Beloved, by Toni Morrison, Sethe will never achieve the life of security and serenity she seeks throughout adulthood while being discriminated against and dominated by men, both Black and white. In The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield will never be able to save all the children from growing up into what he sees as the corrupt adult world full of phonies. And in Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Huck accepts by the end of the novel that he is better suited to a life of adventure than the hypocrisy of polite society. None of these characters is flat or stereotypical: every hero has a unique voice that speaks to the American experience from a different perspective. In no other American work of the 20th century is that as perfectly illustrated than in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby.
Gatsby is the story of a man who strives to accomplish the American dream, only to find that it is both elusive and empty. It has a timelessness that resonates still with today’s readers. While grounded in a realistic portrayal of the 1920s and populated with characters who are influenced by their social class, Gatsby can also be read as an allegory illustrating the foolishness of attempting to defy economic, and racial structures — the limitations inherent to mobility in American life. Finally, it satirizes the endeavor itself, while showing the human impulse to repeat it as both inevitable and tragic.
The freedom to invent oneself is an American tradition that appears in literature as far back as Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, published in 1791. Franklin’s memoir tells the story of his life with a slant: he narrates over hundreds of pages many real events embellished with details that distinguish him as an innovative, moral, upstanding individual who met standards he never even approached in reality. Gatsby follows in that tradition, as the story of one man who sets out to reinvent himself as a member of a more educated and wealthy class.
Jay Gatsby, originally named James “Jimmy” Gatz, seems throughout the bulk of the novel to be the quintessential American success story. The truth is that he was born into a family of poor farmers in North Dakota. Desperate to escape his modest origins, Gatsby applied himself and was accepted to college, but dropped out as he could not bear the humiliation of doing janitorial work to earn tuition. Through performing a heroic life-saving deed that summer, his motivations took a turn from ambition to improve himself to desire to become wealthy at any cost. Having rowed out in dangerous conditions to inform a wealthy yachtsman of the oncoming storm, Gatsby is rewarded with a job as the assistant to the wealthy businessman, Dan Cody. After the inheritance Cody leaves him is spirited away by Cody’s mistress, Gatsby vows to earn his own fortune — and he does. However, concomitantly, he loses the inner moral core and sense of himself that led him to save Cody in the first place.
One of the themes of The Catcher in the Rye is that money corrupts. That novel’s narrator and protagonist, Holden Caulfield, observes the corruption of wealthy donors to private schools, the entitlement of elite private school students, and the coldness within his own privileged family, concluding that it is impossible to achieve happiness in American society, even more so among the upper class than elsewhere. A motif of this novel is that “phoniness” is inescapable when becoming an adult “big shot” and a member of what Holden sees grown-ups regarding as polite society. On his path toward experiencing what he sees as adult behavior — drinking, having sex — he learns that he wishes he could protect all children from losing their innocence. In the most famous quote from the novel, Holden sadly remarks that he “is standing on the edge of some crazy cliff,” the cliff representing the line between childhood and adulthood. “What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff,” he tells his sister. But Holden cannot prevent children from maturing — as witnessed by his frustration when he finds profane graffiti on the walls of his little sister Phoebe’s school, at the Museum of Natural History, and elsewhere. He tries to rub the words out, but eventually realizes that his efforts are pointless. There is no stopping the corruption of innocence.
What Gatsby has not yet learned as a young man, having come from a modest background, is how empty the life of the wealthy can be. No “catcher in the rye” steps forward to catch Gatsby as he loses his innocent misperception that accruing wealth will gain him entry to the upper class, and thus, in turn, happiness. Gatsby trades his youthful ideals for his own brand of corruption, never explicitly described, but rumored among his party guests to be nefarious — gambling, bootlegging, and drug trafficking through an association with the mob. For Gatsby, chasing the American dream requires succumbing to immorality. His wealth purchases him a false persona, but not his ideal happiness — in particular, partnership with the object of his romantic obsession, Daisy Buchanan. If money cannot buy happiness, it can also not buy love, and Gatsby, who has conflated the two, must discover how misguided his entire life’s work has become.
Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s narrator, first sees Gatsby as a shadowy figure in the night, standing on the lawn of his grand estate. Gatsby’s arms are raised, reaching out toward dark water and a green light that marks the end of a dock Nick later learns belongs to Tom and Daisy Buchanan. This early scene is pivotal, as it shows the already wealthy Gatsby still striving for something that is out of his reach. In the scheme of the novel, Gatsby represents new, fabulous wealth gained through ill-begotten means, and Daisy and Tom represent old money that carries with it the life to which Gatsby can only aspire, a life that on the surface is replete with the security, privilege, and partnership guaranteed to those born into the American upper class.
Tom Buchanan comprises all the unsavory characteristics associated with the American elite, both in the 1920s and today, including brutal dominance, racism, and entitlement. Nick’s description of Tom’s “[t]wo shining arrogant eyes” which “established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward” immediately establishes Tom as a powerful figure accustomed to feeling superior and in control of every situation. Tom’s racism becomes evident in the first chapter of the novel, when he tells Nick, Daisy, and Daisy’s friend Jordan about the book he has just finished reading, “The Rise of the Coloured Empires,” which is based on a real work, The Rising Tide of Color. “‘Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it,’” Tom says to his guests, adding, “‘The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged.’” Tom’s view of the lower classes as something less than human becomes evident through his treatment of Myrtle, the woman with whom he is having an affair. He abuses Myrtle both emotionally and physically. He strings her along with an elaborately constructed excuse for not being able to leave Daisy, and when she eventually loses patience and criticizes Daisy, Tom breaks her nose.
Myrtle Wilson and her husband George live in what is called the “valley of ashes,” a dull, dusty, rundown region between the elegance of West Egg and the glittering lights of Manhattan. The area has been laid waste by industrialization, and its inhabitants have come to expect nothing more than the dreary day-to-day of the victims of the high capitalism of the early 20th century in America. Everything about the Wilsons — their apartment over the garage, their clothing, their language — indicates that they live a world apart from the Buchanans and Gatsby, a life that hardly seems worth enduring, compared to the luxurious life of their upper-class counterparts. Victimized by Tom, oppressed by class and economics, it is hardly surprising that Myrtle loses her life — after all, she has little to live for.
And then there is her husband. George illustrates that capitalist society would not function without the lower classes; there is no wealth without the poor, there is no privilege without the underprivileged who serve them. Like the narrator of Ellison’s Invisible Man, George is the detritus of the machinery that produces wealth among the few and poverty among the many — his miserable existence is as much a factor of structural discrimination as is racism. He and Myrtle have no more hope of upward mobility than does a character like Sethe in Morrison’s masterpiece, Beloved. Fitzgerald, writing decades before either of these authors, deftly shows that there is only room at the top of the social structure for the white male, who has either inherited wealth or created it. To Tom, George is barely human. His concerns are as negligible as the servants who staff the Buchanan mansion or the African Americans who perform the jazz the upper classes dance to at Gatsby’s parties. In fact, George remains a cipher — he has no agency until the final act of the novel when he takes Gatsby’s life, and then his own, ultimately erasing himself.
Although there is nothing “ordinary” about the upper class as depicted in Gatsby, DeForest would have to agree that Fitzgerald has written a novel about emotion and manners, as twisted as they are in this novel. Every character possesses ways of being and feeling that fit neatly into an allegory of American life in the 1920s and today — a timelessness which in itself testifies to the greatness of the novel.
Although Nick works to make a living, his family ties to the upper class enable him to drift in and out of separate worlds, an observer of the tragic losses and emptiness of both upper and lower-class life. Although invited to witness the extravagance of the Buchanan and Gatsby lifestyles, he is not part of their clan; neither does he suffer the dehumanization imposed upon the Wilsons. Oddly, he is the only character who is not miserable in some way. Representative of the writer himself, Nick comes to understand the misery that surrounds him, while avoiding it in his own more humdrum life.
The suffering of those at the bottom of the capitalist ladder is obvious. That of the upper class is entirely different — not abject misery, but a hollowness at the center of superficial beauty. For example, all of Daisy’s riches bring her no great joy. As retold by her friend Jordan, on the day before her wedding, Daisy receives a letter that the reader is meant to assume is from Gatsby. Jordan comes across Daisy drunk, sobbing, and clutching the letter. Daisy has just discarded a gift from Tom — a pearl necklace worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — recognizing, perhaps, that it is worthless compared to the love she once felt for Gatsby. Still, she does not have the moral fortitude to relinquish the life she knows she will have with Tom in order to wait for Gatsby, still a student at Oxford in a program for veterans of World War I. Whatever attraction they may have initially felt, Daisy and Tom have lost it by the time Gatsby has found her again. Their marriage has become a perfunctory arrangement in which Daisy enjoys the privileges his wealth and social status provide, while Tom engages in a string of affairs he doesn’t even attempt to hide. They embrace not one another, but the illusion of a satisfying life.
Gatsby, on the other hand, suffers from the delusion that by “acquiring” Daisy — as if she is another object he can purchase with his newfound enormous wealth — all of his desires will at last be satisfied. Although proficient at buying his lifestyle, his needs remain bottomless. He desperately pursues all of Daisy’s attention, just as he did the extravagance that surrounds him. However, Daisy is a rounded character, as DeForest would celebrate — a complex human being with perhaps self-destructive agency, but agency nonetheless. In the difficult scene at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, when Gatsby asks her to deny she ever loved Tom at all, she cannot. When she confesses that she does love Tom, and once loved Gatsby, too, Gatsby is forced to confront the fact that she will never leave her life the way she has so carefully constructed it.
Daisy and Tom’s soulless commitment to one another is apparent in the scene in which they sit together at their kitchen table, as cool but as solid as their plate of cold chicken: “[Tom] was looking intently across the table at her … Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement.” There are no illusions between them, and they have chosen one another as partners in maintaining their common front.
Like all great American fiction’s heroes, Gatsby has striven to achieve what is just beyond his grasp — the feeling of belonging in a place he never will, of being loved by someone who cannot love him, of purchasing a place in a society that is, ironically, not worth entering. Gatsby was in love with the idea of being wealthy, the idea of being educated, and the idea of Daisy, and he ends up as lonely and hollow as T.S. Eliot’s “hollow men.” Before he dies, he is forced to recognize that what he has considered the American dream is just an illusion as elaborate as the life he has attained. This great American novel concludes with Gatsby’s quiet funeral, attended by just a few, including the father who still loves him, despite being long ago forsaken for what his son believed would be a better life. Nick, too, is present, witnessing the end of Gatsby’s illusions.
The great American novel has for more than a century now debunked the great American dream of obtaining both equality and happiness. In The Great Gatsby, the hero dies, paradoxically, due to having done an honorable thing — taking the responsibility for Myrtle’s death — while having lived a dishonorable life. Fitzgerald’s novel illustrates the impossibility of merging right and might, and the novel is prescient: in America’s 21st century, the same moral conundrum persists.
World Heritage Encyclopedia. Beloved. Article No. WHEBN0001268726. http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Beloved_(novel) Accessed 7/12/20.
Eliot, TS. “The Hollow Men.” https://msu.edu/~jungahre/transmedia/the-hollow-men.html Accessed 7/12/20.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. https://www.litcharts.com/lit/invisible-man Accessed 7/13/20.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. https://www.planetebook.com/free-ebooks/the-great-gatsby.pdf Accessed 7/10/20,
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20203/20203-h/20203-h.htm Accessed 7/12/20, Published by Project Gutenberg.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2701/2701-h/2701-h.htm Accessed 7/13/20.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved: http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Beloved_(novel) Accessed 7/12/20.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/76/76-h/76-h.htm. Accessed 7/10/20.
Over her college teaching career, Lisa E. Paige, Ph.D., taught literature and writing at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. She holds her bachelor’s degree in German Studies from Harvard University and her master’s and doctorate from Bryn Mawr College, where she concentrated in American literature and contemporary American and British fiction. She has also edited print and online publications and is a freelance writer who focuses on gender and social justice issues.
This essay is part of a new edition of THE GREAT GATSBY, including contextual essays, ten new illustrations, and one piece of fan fiction, available from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08NH2ZTYB