What makes a “classic” such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, originally published in 1925, and ever since, in print. Considered to be the author’s finest work, it has in recent years, been put forward by critical acclaim as the “best novel of his generation” – that of the Jazz Age. And it is the Jazz Age with its frothy characters and the era of superb banality, almost representative of a shadow play, which evokes the major theme – that of character delineation – in Fitzgerald’s above mentioned book.
The story is kept “simple” in respect to its basics. Narrated by (Fitzgerald’s character named) Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner recently graduated from Yale, who sells bonds in New York City and rents a house on West Egg, Long Island, next to Jay Gatsby, also a Westerner. Gatsby’s dream of reviving the love he once shared with Daisy Fay, now married to Tom Buchanan, is the main thread of the story. Nick’s attraction to Jordan Baker, a friend of Daisy’s, and Tom Buchanan’s affair with Myrtle Wilson, a garage owner’s wife, are the parallel plots. The dramatic climax, with melodrama firmly controlled, is the accidental death of Myrtle Wilson, run down by Gatsby’s car – but driven by Daisy. Tom tells Wilson that Gatsby was the driver when Myrtle was killed. Wilson believes this, kills Gatsby at his estate and then kills himself. Few people other than the servants, Gatsby’s father and Nick Carraway, show up at Gatsby’s funeral, with Daisy and Tom Buchanan having left New York, forwarding address unknown. Later, after the inquest, in which neither Tom’s affair with Myrtle nor Daisy’s guilt are brought out, Nick leaves for the Midwest, but not without an afterthought:
I spent my Saturday nights in New York because those gleaming, dazzling parties of his were with me so vividly that I could still hear the music and the laughter, faint and incessant, from his garden, and the cars going up and down his drive . . .
. . . with my trunk packed and my car sold . . . I went over and looked at that huge incoherent failure of a house once more . . .
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock . . .
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us (Fitzgerald 181-182).
Fitzgerald, alike Gatsby, was captivated by the rich and their expensive manners – (both author and character) and forgot that too much money in America, as elsewhere, was often identifiable with the parallel of vulgarity and wickedness. His characters lived undisciplined lives, and practiced mostly total detachment and impersonality, an absence of human character.
The people who come to Gatsby’s house represent somewhat a mock epic. Carraway, when meeting Gatsby, hears from him a history as fantastic in its entirety as the single bit of documentary evidence he offers as proof. Gatsby’s party also parallels a meeting between Nick, Gatsby, and Meyer Wolfsheim, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. (It should be noted here that, according to an old timetable, Gatsby’s parties were conducted in July, of 1922).
“Meyer Wolfsheim? No, he’s a gambler.” Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: “He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919” (Fitzgerald 74).
The character of Nick Carraway is one of the book’s triumphs. The somewhat shifting character of Gatsby is kept stable by the firmness of Carraway’s characterization, making it possible to learn some truths about Gatsby, shadowily created but taking on a certain tangible form as related according to the solidity of Nick’s character.
Tom Buchanan and Daisy are both careless and corrupt; both provincials and both having come East. The image of the Western past is the green past; the image of the ash heaps, the contemporary wasteland. The American dream and the American disillusion meet within the pages of The Great Gatsby – so does Nick Carraway’s reaction to both the dream and the disillusion: he cannot separate Jordan Baker from the society which infects her, which results in leaving her when he returns, alone, to the West.
I looked around. Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands.
Even Jordan’s party, the quartet from East Egg, were rent asunder by dissension (Fitzgerald 52).
To Nick, Jordan Baker does seem to be “fundamentally dishonest,” because of himself being both a realist and an observer, too moral, too reasonable, too cool. Yet, Jordan is not dishonest for reason of being possessed with imagination; her dishonesty is rather that which is enslaved to fact and to ego and total lack of vision. On the other hand, Nick’s honesty suffers when he takes to lying twice: both times facing Tom Buchanan, firstly, when Tom charges Gatsby with being a bootlegger (Nick must know), and lastly, when he had a chance to tell Tom that it was Daisy who was driving the car that hit Myrtle Wilson.
Tom Buchanan, the person with highest social position, fulminates against all races other than the Caucasian; yet he defers to Myrtle Wilson, the garage owner’s wife who, in turn, sneers at the bellboy bringing ice. Climbing farther down the ladder of the social scale, Mrs. McKee talks disparagingly of the Kike, far below her social standards, whereas her husband, Chester McKee, prides in the fact that he has photographed his wife 127 times since they were married. Excellent characters were established with seemingly insignificant but pure classic observation by the author during his time period.
Daisy Fay is probably the weakest and the least defined of the main characters – possibly because so much is asked of her within the text of the novel. Loosely, she comes close to truth unable to perceive itself; a beauty necessarily constrained to take on material form and an ideal consumed in its realization.
. . . Daisy . . . leaned slightly forward with a conscientious expression – then she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh, and I laughed too and came forward into the room.
”I’m paralyzed with happiness.”
She laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was the way she had (Fitzgerald 9).
While returning to Tom Buchanan again, his physical strength and past history, his arrogance and uncertainty, his sensuality and his prudishness seem to mold a perfection in character study.
Fitzgerald uses incidents and observations to create character, fix moods, and shape attitudes – for instance: Tom buying the dog for Myrtle; the man sent by Gatsby to cut Nick Carraway’s grass in the rain; Meyer Wolfsheim displaying his cufflinks; and the director all through the second of Gatsby’s parties slowly inclining to kiss the cheek of the actress, “a gorgeous, scarcely human orchid of a woman.”
We must not forget the giddiness and frivolity that existed during the Jazz Age in which people partied and puppets seemed more real than people.
By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors, and hair worn in strange new ways, and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile (Fitzgerald 40).
It was an era cut out to stand all by itself within its insincerity, its pretentious talk, its liveliness and exaggerated dancing to music which had originated in New Orleans in the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Alike the poem quoted on the inside title page of The Great Gatsby, by Thomas Parke d’Invilliers reads:
“Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, Till she cry ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!'”
It was the time of prohibition, when the sale of alcoholic beverages was forbidden by Article IVIII, Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America.
Fitzgerald brought this era into the setting of the “great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound.” The author describes it as “that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York and where there are, among other natural curiosities, two unusual formations of land.”
These “two unusual formations of land” were called East Egg and West Egg – the less fashionable of the two, of which Fitzgerald writes using Nick Carraway’s point of view:
My house was at the very tip of the egg . . . . The one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard–it was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby’s mansion . . . . My own house was an eyesore . . . overlooked, so I had a view of the water, . . . my neighbor’s lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires – all for eighty dollars a month (Fitzgerald 5).
So, after having dwelled upon the Jazz Age and its setting, there still remains Dr. Eckleburg, through whose eyes various readers of Fitzgerald’s novel will see different significances: great unblinking eyes, expressionless, looking down upon the human scene.
In conclusion, it may be of interest to observe that while the great character delineations worked so well within the written novel, Hollywood failed to transfer their impact onto the silver screen, a total of three times: first, in 1926, starring Warner Baxter in the title role; secondly, in 1949, with Alan Ladd as Gatsby, and last, with Robert Redford playing the part in the 1974 version.
It was Fitzgerald’s superb descriptive writing that remained unmatched on the scene:
And inside, as we wandered through Marie Antoinette music- rooms and Restoration salons, I felt that there were guests concealed behind every couch and table, under orders to be breathlessly silent until we had passed through. As Gatsby closed the door of “the Merton College Library” I could have sworn I heard the owl-eyed man break into ghostly laughter (Fitzgerald 92).