The 1920s were a time of change for America. The war was over and America was ready for some fun. The poor lived in a world of little opportunity and destitution, while the rich threw lavish parties in exquisite gardens. These parties were portrayed in magazines and the lives of the rich and famous were everywhere. These glimpses into the lives of the rich provided food for fantasy in the minds of those less fortunate. They wanted to be like them and to have all of the material things that symbolized their fortune in life. However, behind this public image of grandeur was a corrupt world built on deception and deceit. Greed was the master of destiny. The contrast between the "American Dream" and reality is the central theme of the Great Gatsby. Gatsby represented the ideals and attitudes of an era. He stands for ideals common to humanity, and is not limited to the scope and time period of the novel. In this way, The Great Gatsby should be classified as a modern myth, not simply as a piece of period fiction. The following will demonstrate that the Great Gatsby has all of the elements commonly found in classical mythology and will use the theme of illusion to support this thesis.
Often, people aspire to be something that they are not. They may see another person, whom they admire, or a famous public figure and wish that they were like them. Sometimes they may do this because they are unhappy in their own existence, or because they want more. Little girls dream of being Princesses and little boys of being Kings. Human dreams of grandeur have remained the same since the beginning of time. However, if one actually were to explore the private lives of public figures, they would find that their lives are as filled with problems as our own, and at times may even be worse. Princess Diana was a good example of this. When you think of Lady Diana, you might picture the image of a beautiful princess riding away with her prince in the royal carriage to live happily ever after. But history would reveal that the illusion was quite different from the reality. Her marriage to Prince Charles was filled with unhappiness, and rumors of an affair. Yet, they still appeared as the happy storybook couple and were able to keep up this "public face" for quite some time, undiscovered. In the same way, the Great Gatsby is a critical look at the "American Dream" and the corruption and deception that lies behind the scenes. It portrays the American Dream as an illusion, behind which lies corruption and greed.
In her essay, Scott Fitzgerald's Criticism of America, Marius Bewley, describes Gatsby like this, "a romantic baptism of desire for a reality that stubbornly remains out of his sight" (Bewley, in Mizener, p. 127). Gatsby represents our dreams and aspirations that are always just out of reach, yet we relentlessly pursue them, rather than accept our current lot in life. The Great Gatsby can be compared to the heroes of the Norse Sagas and other myths. They did not represent a real person, but instead represented an idea. For instance, Aphrodite stood for love and King Arthur for honor and loyalty before all else. Moby Dick pitted the ultimate good, Captain Ahab, against the ultimate evil, the Whale. These characters personified an abstract ideal. This is the same idea that embraces the Great Gatsby. Like these other heroes, Gatsby is the personification of the idea of the "American Dream" and does not represent a single person. He can be called an American Icon. However, he never actually existed, so that makes him a myth.
Gatsby is similar to other mythological characters in another aspect; he has no private life. Everyone wants to know what he is doing all the time. This is one of the major characteristics of a mythical creature. Many of the people whom we look up to have the same situation. It is difficult to picture Arnold Schwartzenagger going to the grocery to get a loaf of bread. Even if we could imagine that, we would envision him as getting a very expensive, gourmet loaf of bread, not ordinary sliced white bread. This is the illusion, which differs from the reality. In our minds we picture him in his mansion in Hollywood, while his servants bring him fine drinks served in expensive glasses. Perhaps we see him as one of his characters in his movie roles. We cannot picture him performing mundane tasks such as mowing the lawn or taking out the garbage. It is almost as if this image destroys the dream. We want to imagine him as larger than life, we do not want to picture him as an ordinary person just like us. Gatsby saw the others around him as his idea of perfection; he wanted to be like them and ignored their human side. He therefore surrounded himself with all of the riches that he felt symbolized what he wanted to be. It is not unlike the dream of sitting by Arnold Schwartzenagger's pool, while his servants bring drinks to us...only it is not Arnold's pool, it is ours.
Mythological creatures have private lives full of trials and tribulations. Romeo and Juliet was a Shakespearean tragedy about unattainable love and a dream of peace, where in reality, there could be none. The love of Gatsby for Daisy had many of the same elements of the forbidden love between Romeo and Juliet and in the end was a part of Gatsby's demise, just as in Romeo and Juliet. Tabloid newspapers are filled with the mis-dealings, trials, and tribulations of the rich and famous. This is much like the illusion in the Great Gatsby. Behind the illusion of heaven on Earth is a world of corruption and deceit. The public image that we know and adore is only a facade that overlies the dark reality. Gatsby's wealth was built on racketeering. Tom Buchanan existed by corruption and theft. However, on the outside, it would seem like a perfect world.
The Great Gatsby highlights the lack of substance that the American Dream embodies. It is much like a movie set. On the front side of the canvas, we see a beautiful mountain. However, if we look on the other side, we would see nails and wood and a messy prop area with paint cans and brushes. The scene is shallow and lacks depth. This is the vision of the American Dream that Fitzgerald portrays in the Great Gatsby. The American Dream is only on the surface and no one ever sees the paint cans and brushes that were used to create it as in the scene where the servants spend all day Monday busily cleaning up the aftermath and making repairs.
This aspect reminds us of MacBeth. MacBeth was a man of great power and respect among his people. However, it is his wealth that finally leads to his demise. When people have wealth and outward signs of power, others become envious and wish to have it for themselves. Often it is the wealth and power that lead to their demise. A central theme of MacBeth comes in the end when all of his wealth and power cannot save him and in the end he dies a very mortal death, after a seemingly heroic life. This same theme can be found at the end of Great Gatsby, when the once great and powerful Great Gatsby meets a mortal death.
Gatsby's failure to obtain the love of his life, Daisy and the failure to achieve his dream serve to exemplify the fact that they are only an illusion. They cannot be achieved because they are not real. Daisy represents the embodiment of the Jazz age and has all of the symbols of wealth. Gatsby, in his blind pursuit of the dream of fame and fortune, can be compared to Don Quixote, who battles a ferocious beast and refuses to believe that is only a windmill. Gatsby is so caught up in the dream that he refuses to see things as they are in reality. This is made evident when Daisy returns after five years and Gatsby finds that they cannot communicate with each other as well as they used to. Time has made the dream fade and it has become replaced with reality. This proves that the dream had no substance in the first place, and only existed in the mind of Gatsby, just as the ferocious "monster" windmills only existed in the mind of Don Quixote. The scene is exaggerated as Gatsby walks among discarded fruit peels and drink favors. The fruit is used and discarded, as is the relationship with daisy.
Like the classic mythological creature, Gatsby has his own antagonist in the form of Tom Buchanan. The antagonist serves to provide a contrast against which the hero can be compared. This…