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Bookreport

The Great Gatsby

Basis Facts
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

2. First Published in 1925

Historical context

A. Like Britain, America saw an enormous increase in wealth after the Great War (the First World War) that was very unevenly distributed. For a while the period of economic depression that had begun in 1875 seemed over. The generation of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ indulged freely jazz, sex, drugs and drink. Some enlightened tycoons, such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, founded institutes of learning.

During and after the end of the Great War, both Britain and America tried to attack the abuse of alcohol. Drinking had become a national vice. The American solution was far more dramatic. Under President Woodrow Wilson alcohol was completely banned in 1919. The ‘Prohibition Years’ lasted until 1933 and led to ‘bootlegging’ (the illegal distillation and importation of liquor) and to a dramatic rise in organised crime. Prohibition was part of a moral revival, so frequent in modern American history, and almost always under Republican leadership. The cultural climate of the United States now seemed hostile to the arts. Many American writers moved to cities such as Paris and London.

In America the beginnings of technical and cultural developments were seen that would spread to Europe. Soon they would become part of everyday life throughout the developed world. The East and West coasts in America were linked by fast transcontinental trains. The transoceanic liner made regular contact possible between the Old World and the New. The Atlantic cable made it possible to telegraph across the ocean. In 1903 the Wright brothers undertook the first aeroplane flight and aeroplane technology developed rapidly after that.

During the first years of the twentieth century electricity, the telephone and running water were gradually becoming part of everyday life in both America and Europe. However, communication was still primarily by letter.

Technology increasingly influenced people’s lives. Radio programmes were already being transmitted on a regular basis in America as early as the 1920s. Film, which was still silent, also developed steadily by the end of the 1920s. Far-reaching scientific and artistic discoveries were made that influenced modern writers.

B Cities grew as people moved to urban areas to make living. Many of them, however, remained trapped in a purgatory of sorts, looking for a better life but unable to get it, not unlike the people in The Great Gatsby’s valley of ashes.

- Fitzgerald, of course, couldn’t have forecasted the crash of 1929, but in The Great Gatsby, he does suggest, on one level, that society was living in excess and without curbing its appetite somewhat, ruin was just around the corner.

- The commercial growth of the 1920s resulted in rampant materialism, such as that chronicled in The Great Gatsby.

- In Addition to economics, Fitzgerald takes other national issues into consideration in The Great Gatsby. For example, in Chapter 1, Tom has an intense dislike for outsiders.

- Manufacturing and distributing alcohol were big businesses during the years of prohibition and helped make the fortunes of the nouveaux riches (newly rich) found within Fitzgerald’s novel, including Meyer Wolfshiem and Gatsby himself. An understanding of prohibition also helps explain why Fitzgerald puts such an emphasis on drinking within the novel.

- Although political issues underlie The Great Gatsby, so, too, do social issues. In many ways, Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age characters are a fairly honest representation of what could be found in the social circles of the country’s younger generation. Many of the men in The Great Gatsby had served in WWI, and like their real-life counterparts, they returned from the war changed. They found the ideas and attitudes waiting for them at home to be representative of an outmoded way of thinking, and so they rebelled. The women at home, too, found post-war America to be too constructive for their tastes. Many women had entered the workforce when the men went to war and were unwilling to give up the by-products of their employment-social and economic freedom- when the men returned from the war. In addition, the Nineteenth Amendment, enacted in 1920, gave women the right to vote, making their independence even more necessary. In the 1920s, young men and women (including Fitzgerald himself) refused to be content maintaining the status quo, and so they openly and wholeheartedly rebelled.


- Women bobbed their hair and began to give up wearing corsets. Other things women did that were previously unheard of included smoking and drinking openly, as well as relaxing formerly rigid attitudes towards sex. Fitzgerald picks up on the social rebellion of his peers particularly in The Great Gatsby. He shows women of all classes who are breaking out of the moulds that society has places them into (Myrtle, Daisy, Jordan).

C. The Great Gatsby is hailed as one of the foremost pieces of American fiction of its time. Fitzgerald holds up a mirror to the society of which he was part of.

Part of what makes Fitzgerald’s novel such a favourite piece is the way he is able to analyse the society of which he was also a part. Through his characters, he not only captures a snapshot of middle- and upper-class American life in the 1920s, but also conveys a series of criticism as well. Through the characterisation in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald explores the human conditions as it is reflected in a world with a direct underlying historical basis. By emphasising social groupings and how they do or do not interact with each other, Fitzgerald establishes a sense the urgency. The Jazz Age society so clearly shown in The Great Gatsby is, in effect, on a very dangerous course when people like Tom, Daisy, and Jordan are at the top of the ladder, working hard to ensure no one else climbs as highly as they. Through Gatsby, Fitzgerald demonstrates the enterprising Jazz Age, someone who has worked hard and profited from listening and responding to the demands of the society. Unfortunately, despite his success, Gatsby (and all of the people he represents) is never able to capture his elusive dreams. Fitzgerald’s story, although a fiction, is informed by reality, helping to make it one of the most treasured pieces of early twentieth century American fiction.

Characters

Nick Carraway is my favourite character, because he is such a good, modest and smart person. He is the only character who changes substantially from the story’s beginning to its end. He is an educated man who desires more out of life than the quite Midwest can deliver (although it is interesting that before living in the city any length of time he retreats to the country). What helps make Nick so remarkable, however, is the way that he had aspirations without being taken in-to move with the socialites, for example, but not allowing himself to become blinded by the glitz that characterises their lifestyle. When he realises what his social superiors are really like (shallow, hollow, uncaring, and self-serving), he is disgusted and, rather than continuing to cater to them, he distances himself. In effect, motivated by his conscience, Nick commits social suicide by forcefully pulling away from people like the Buchannans and Jordan Baker.

Nick is set off as being more practical and down-to-earth than other characters. He is more modest and less egocentric than the others.

Nick had what many of the other characters lack-personal integrity-and his sense of right and wrong helps to elevate him above the others. He alone is repulsed by the phoney nature of the socialites. He alone is moved by Gatsby’s death. When the other characters scatter to the wind after Gatsby’s death, Nick, unable to believe that none of Gatsby’s associates will even pay their last respects, picks up the pieces and ensures Gatsby isn’t alone in his death. Through the course of The Great Gatsby Nick grows, from a man dreaming of a fortune, to a man who knows only too well what misery a fortune can bring.

Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator, has a singular place within The Great Gatsby; he is both narrator and participant.

Nick rents the small house next to Gatsby’s mansion in West Egg and, over the course of events, helps Gatsby reunite with Daisy (who happens to be Nick’s cousin). Nick’s midwestern sensibility finds the East an unsettling place, and he becomes disillusioned with how wealthy socialites like the Buchannans lead their lives.

Nick Carraway is a round character. He’s extensive described and goes through a development.

Theme

In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald offers up commentary on a variety of themes-justice, power, greed, betrayal, the American dream and so on. Of all the themes, perhaps none is better developed than that of social stratification. Fitzgerald carefully sets up his novel into distinct groups but, in the end, each group has its own problems to contend with, leaving a powerful reminder of what a precarious place the world really is. By creating distinct social classes-old money, new money, and no money-Fitzgerald sends strong messages about the elitism running throughout every strata of society.

The first and most obvious group Fitzgerald attacks is, of course, the rich. He presents two distinct types of wealthy people. First, there are people like the Buchannans and Jordan Baker who were born into wealth. Their families have had money for many generations, hence they are ‘old money’. They don’t have to work and they spend their time amusing themselves with whatever takes their fancy. For the ‘old money’ people, the fact that Gatsby (and countless other people like him in the 1920s; the ‘new money’) has only just recently acquired his money is reason enough to dislike him.
In many ways, the social elite are right. The ‘new money’ people cannot be like them, and in many ways that works in their favour-those in society’s highest echelon are not nice people at all. They are judgmental and superficial, failing to look at the essence of the people around them (and themselves too). The people with newly acquired wealth, though, aren’t necessarily much better. Think of Gatsby’s partygoers.

Just as he did with people of money, Fitzgerald uses the people with no money to convey a strong message. Nick, although he comes from a family with a bit of wealth, doesn’t have nearly the capitol of Gatsby of Tom. In the end, though, he shows himself to be an honourable and principled man, which is more than Tim exhibits.

Myrtle, though, is another story. She comes from the middle class at best. She had distanced herself from her moral obligations and has no difficulty cheating on her husband when it means that she gets to lead the lifestyle she wants, if only for a little while. What she doesn’t realise, however, is that Tom and his friends will never accept her into their circle.

Fitzgerald had a keen eye and in The Great Gatsby presents a harsh picture of the world he sees around him. The 1920s marked a time of great post-war economic growth, and Fitzgerald captures the frenzy of the society well. Although, of course, Fitzgerald could have no way of foreseeing the stock market crash of 1929, the world he presents in The Great Gatsby seems clearly to be headed for disaster. They have assumed skewed worldviews, mistakenly believing their survival lies in stratification and reinforcing social boundaries. They erroneously place their faith in superficial external means (such as money and materialism), while neglecting to cultivate the compassion and sensitivity that, in fact, separate humans from the animals.

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald proudly tackles the theme of spirituality. His attack is stubble, making his message heard most forcefully by what is missing, rather than what is there. The world of The Great Gatsby is one of excess, folly and pleasure, a world where people are so busy living for the moment that they have lost touch with any sort of morality, and end up breaking laws, cheating, and even killing. As debauched as this may sound, however, they have not abandoned spirituality altogether. Rather, Fitzgerald’s post-war parties have substituted materialism and instant creature comforts for philosophic principles, thus suggesting a lack of order and structure in the worlds of East Egg, West Egg, and beyond.

In fact every one of the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust) is well represented. None of the characters, including Nick, are free, from the deadly devices, which at least in times past, have traditionally marked the downfall of a community. It is interesting to note that although the seven deadly sins are depicted time and time again by the people in the novel, the theological counterpart to the seven deadly sins, the seven cardinal virtues (faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) are nearly invisible. Gatsby, of course, has more, hope than all the others put together, but in the end, that one thing, no matter how strong, can’t save him.
Fitzgerald uses act and actions of his characters to convey a sense of growing moral decrepitude, but he compounds his message through other means as well. First, there is the giant billboard, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, which, as George Wilson reveals, represent the eyes of God, which can be interpreted in two ways. On one hand, he could be suggesting that a watchful presence overlooks society all the time, and will hold the world accountable for its actions. Given this interpretation, Fitzgerald seems to be urging readers to remember that they themselves are being watched, so they had better prepare to account for their actions. On the other hand, George’s statement may be taken as a testament to his skew judgement. Has he fallen so far away from standard religion that he does, in fact, believe the enormous eyes watching over the valley of ashes are the eyes of God? Does he interpret the eyes literally, as opposed to metaphorically? If so, Fitzgerald is offering a less uplifting message, suggesting that society as fallen so far away from traditional religious teachings that people have lost all faith and can only misread the significance of the material world around us.

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald presents a world in which value systems have gone out of balance. He is not espousing a heavy-handed Christian message, but rather he is encouraging readers to stop and take inventory of their lives. Although some may see Fitzgerald as implying a return to God is necessary for survival, the text supports something far more subtle: Fitzgerald is urging a reconsideration of where society is and where it is going.

The Great Gatsby: Gatsby is the main character of the novel. I think it’s called the great Gatsby, because for most people Gatsby is a very rich, mysterious man. After all, Gatsby is an ordinary, lonely man. So, I think the title is a bit cynical.

Yes, there is a relation between the theme and the title: it’s about stratification (‘Great’) and lack of morality (the cynical interpretation).

Irene de Vries, 6a