F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" is set against the backdrop of 1920's Long Island. It explores multiple themes about the human condition as experienced through the actions of the story's lead character, Jay Gatsby, and the narrator, Nick Carraway.
I have selected three such themes from the book as the basis for this paper. Each of them revolves around Fitzgerald's core assessment of class differences that existed between the have's and the have not's in the society of excess and indulgence which emerged after America's participation in World War I. The first theme I will examine relates to the promise, pursuit and subsequent failure of the American dream; specifically, the expectation that the acquisition of enough money can buy one's way into all of the right circles and hearts. The second theme is that of the superficiality of the upper classes and how their worth as human beings is measured by the quantity of their possessions, not the quality of their souls. Last of all, I will discuss how the obsessive desire to rewrite one's past in anticipation of a more favorable outcome is more often than not an exercise in futility, owing to the individual's failure to properly translate the original circumstances.
Jay Gatsby's quest for financial and social success stemmed from both his mentoring by the self-made millionaire, Dan Cody, and his life-long passion for Nick's cousin, Daisy, a pampered debutante who -- in Gatsby's lovestruck eyes -- was nothing less than golden perfection. The fact that she married the vulgarly pompous Tom Buchanan while Jay was off at war should have been enough of a clue that she wasn't his soulmate. Jay's interpretation, however, is that Daisy simply married for money and security and that if he can subsequently match those outrageous sums and build her an even more opulent mansion through whatever means possible, Daisy will come running back to him. While the message behind the American dream is that anyone can seek the symbolic green light and achieve greatness, it fails to address that social acceptance isn't an automatic prize that comes with it. Fitzgerald not only paints a pronounced line of division between the West Egg and East Egg families but a corresponding separation between West Egg's nouveau riche and the inhabitants of the valley of ashes where Buchanan's earthy mistress, Myrtle, resides. In Buchanan's estimation, the relative distance in terms of class consciousness and social worth is about the same, evidenced by his belief that Daisy is no more likely to leave him for Jay than he is to desert Daisy for Myrtle. Buchanan also challenges the American-made premise that all men are created equal by espousing the supremacy of his own race and class and prescribing ethnocentric limits on just how far outsiders should be allowed to progress up the ladder of economic prosperity. Fitzgerald further muddies the American dream by illustrating that those who first came to America to escape the oppression and decadence of European nobility ended up having descendants who repeated those very scenarios by building themselves castle-like homes, furnishing them with European art, throwing lavish and wasteful parties, and treating the lower classes like inconsequential peasants. Gatsby's single-minded objective is to compete with the wealthy on both sides of the Atlantic and become richer than Croesus in order to win Daisy back. This blinds him, however, to the reality that the lofty goal he has set for himself is as artificial as the assumption that enough money can solve virtually any problem. Just as his party guests are figurative moths drawn to the flame of brilliance he projects, Gatsby's reinvention of himself accordingly strips away anything solid and of substance that might have warranted a genuine crowd of mourners upon his death.
Daisy Buchanan represents everything that Gatsby believes is perfection. Consequently, he can't see the critical flaws of her character, nor the fact that she and Tom are actually well suited to each other. She is a parrot of her husband's opinions, a co-dependent enabler in his open affair with Myrtle, and a mother who essentially keeps her own baby in the closet because it conflicts with the image of youthful innocence and elegant fashion that she has crafted for herself. While the initial promise she made to Gatsby that she would wait for him during the war may have been based on romance, her upbringing and narrow value system ultimately would not have accommodated her "marrying down" and living in lesser surroundings than those she was used to. Likewise her tearful reunion with Gatsby and exposure to his new and improved lifestyle are no substitute for being part of Long Island's upper-crust, the insular world she shares with her husband. Her justification to renew her earlier passion is based more on one-upping Tom's infidelity than it is recognizing that Gatsby's unabashed worship of her was the impetus for his pursuit of wealth. Buchanan is also the epitome of shallowness in his treatment of both Daisy and Myrtle. His flaunting of the affair to his wife suggests that maybe he harbors real affection for his mistress. And yet, when we actually see him in Myrtle's company, his dominance over her affirms the Them vs. Us mentality that she exists only for his convenience and is constantly reminded not to step out of line. Another portion of the superficiality equation is found in the gossip-mongering guests who frequent the West and East Egg soirees, especially those who are invited to the Gatsby mansion. The fact that they feel perfectly comfortable spreading vicious rumors about their enigmatic host at the very same time they are consuming his food and drinking his expensive champagne speaks volumes about their lack of personal integrity. Finally, there is the character of Gatsby himself, a man whose stories about his background seem to change as often as his wardrobe, depending on who is listening. In spite of the enviable strides he has made in amassing a fortune, the embarrassment about his roots and the rumored sources of his income have compelled him to fabricate a history that will be pleasingly acceptable to the social circles he desperately wants to infiltrate. Most of all, however, he wants to dazzle and impress the love of his life and believes that being rich is the only way that goal can be achieved. Because Daisy herself is a falsehood, the confrontation which might have facilitated her freedom from a loveless marriage is instead the disintegration of Gatsby's fantasy existence.
The third theme of my thesis is a direct offshoot of the second and utilizes the analogy that if a structure is built on a poor foundation that subsequently causes it to fall down, a second structure built on top of the ruins is just as susceptible to collapse. Gatsby's sole motivation for living is to win Daisy. Because he has determined that money is the only obstacle to making that happen, he fails to see that Daisy would never have married him anyway. Nor will she leave her husband and marry him now. The reason is because, in her mind, he will never be her social equal. The same period of absence that has made Gatsby's heart and reminiscences grow even fonder has turned Daisy and her contemporaries into bored-with-it-all cynics. They have become so well entrenched in the Long Island social scene and the enjoyment of excess that it has been at the expense of forming any meaningful relationships based on love and respect. Accordingly, Daisy's ability to function without affection runs counter to Gatsby's zealous determination to have his affections returned. The scene in which a nervous Gatsby knocks over Nick's clock as he awaits the arrival of his beloved is not so much an accident as it is symbolic…