What a brilliant book. The moral ambiguity that seeps through all aspects of this novel adds richness and depth that allows for multiple interpretations. Nothing is at it appears. Nick’s unreliable narration tries to be “honest”; yet, creates a myth through selective narration that tells the story of Jim Gatz, a poor farmer who reinvents himself into the wealthy, James Gatz, to win back his wealthy girlfriend, Daisy. Nick’s boast that “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known” should make the reader suspicious of his narration as he or she meets Nick at the opening dinner party, learns from Daisy and Tom’s conversation that he is fleeing the Midwest because of pressure by family members to become engaged to a girl back home. Nick never tells the reader this directly, just as he selectively tells the reader Gatsby’s background creating the illusion of someone “great.” Lies. Illusions. Dreams. Impossibilities. Restlessness. Innovation. Self-invention. You name it. You can find contradictions galore. Even the author’s constant oxymoron’s of “elegant…roughnecks” to “ferocious delicacy” add to the paradoxes in the novel.
Irony abounds as Gatsby doesn’t quite get his masquerade as a re-made wealthy man right. He has amassed money through illegal means of bootlegging and shady bonds deals. His mansion has a fake façade and he is the perpetual outsider, never getting the jokes leveled at him or fitting in with the elite crowd he so craves. There is a painful scene where Tom shows up on a horse and Gatsby thinks he’s accepted with this wealthy aristocratic group who are actually laughing at Gatsby behind his back. Gatsby’s parties have a mix of social classes that reveal his reinvention of himself that isn’t enough for Daisy who decides to stay with her immoral husband Tom, because it is safer to be with “her own kind.” The author captures this historical shift in society and tension where privileged white characters such as Daisy, Jordan, Nick and Tom and their family connections to old money are threatened by the lower-class Gatsby’s of the world who are self-made and can receive a promotion in the army based on meritocracy.
Times were changing in the 1920s with the economy turning toward consumerism and mass production and Scott Fitzgerald shows the contradictions and confusion in characters and national psyche. The materialism is captured in the cars, decadent parties, advertisements, and mansions that challenges established aristocratic families in powerful positions by those that have risen from lower economic statuses. The landscape is becoming mechanized and the resulting alienation can be seen in the character, Gatsby. Gatsby seems most at home behind a machine that he controls such as a hydroplane or car, rather than with others. At his own parties, he is aloof and off to the side or missing – ever the outsider. The rise of the flapper and jazz music was considered rebellious modern expressions by men and women wanting more personal and sexual freedoms mirrored in the infidelities of Daisy, Tom, Nick, Gatsby, and Myrtle.
Contradictions abound and are captured in the national psyche as well as the characters. The author questions the ambiguity of national myths that emerged from World War I and captures the war's effects on citizens through moral disillusionment, physical devastation, and loss of faith. The valley of the ashes is Manhattan or the war’s physical landscape that reflects the restlessness of people. The eyes of Eckleberg in the advertisement are those of an empty God. There is despair and “restlessness” in Nick’s narration that shows the American dream as a hopeful, optimistic, unattainable, limited, phony, or empty illusion. On the hottest day of the year, the five misfits go on an existential quest to find the meaning in life by going to the valley of ashes. There they find destruction and unfulfillment of dreams.
The romantic idealistic Gatsby contrasted with the satirical detachment of Nick’s narration is one way the story is elevated in complexity revealing a questioning of established romantic forms and themes. Gatsby doesn’t let go of his youthful dreams. Gatsby tries to reinstate the past through an illusion and his “capacity to wonder” or create an entirely new life with a career and social position through old romantic ideals found in the Victorian society, not the modern one. He lives in the past and this contrast creates a dynamic tension between a man who is hopeful in a hopeless dream.
While the war has punctured the dreams of most it hasn’t affected Gatsby in the same way. Nick captures this at the end when he imagines how Dutch explorers felt when they first saw Long Island. Nick suggests that when the forests “made way for Gatsby’s house” and “…pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams” that people lost the “capacity to wonder” and while Gatsby made Daisy his impossible object of wonder, it captures his romantic ability to see life in its limitless possibilities whether that “green light” is a person or new country with possibilities for an ecstatic or “orgastic future.”
His character is contradictory embodying a country that says’s one thing but does another; that has myths that are not based in reality. The novels’ references to Horatio Alger’s myth that people can go from rags to riches by re-inventing themselves is false. The references to the Benjamin Franklin myth that ties in with the virtues of Poor Richard’s Almanack is false as well; it that says America is the land of opportunity where a person can make it on meritocracy. This is not the case for Gatsby. Fitzgerald pokes holes and shows the ambiguities of the American dream or myth; the reality is that people are affected by socio-economic status, ethnicity, geography, or family environments and it is not as simple as it seems.
Gatsby embraces the dream, but it is a false one. His counterfeit linguistic tic of saying “old sport” sounds like a re-invented identity. His rainbow-colored shirts and over-reaching to re-make the world in a creative, rebellious effort to reinvent himself by means of the American dream is over-the-top. In the end, he wants money, clothes, and Daisy but finds no fulfillment in this monolithic, obsessive illusion. He cannot fulfill his grand yearning and Daisy falls short of his dream. He has created an object in Daisy that is unattainable. She’s a dream that cannot be achieved or a desire that has been commoditized. He describes her voice as a direct metaphor and not a simile, “Her voice is money.” Gatsby can never attain his desire but only circle it repeatedly looking at it “across a bay” and unable to cross the distance to make it happen. He is from immigrant farmers and is never good enough for Daisy, but he just can’t let go of the idea that he will be in the same class as her and even though he recognizes on some level she can’t give him what he wants he still desires it obsessively. He is a doomed romantic who can’t survive in the modern world. He has a vision for the future as being a self-made man; however, he is a con man.
America today is sort of like this with moral disillusionment in politics, public xenophobia, prejudices toward immigrants or marginalized groups, or institutionalized racism. But let’s face it - historically, issues such as this have existed in cultures over the centuries. There is something beautiful and optimistic about the unattainable American dream or ideal that is strained by reality and the realism of the ancient or modern world. While Fitzgerald captures a specific time brilliantly in his novel when mass production, industrialization, and rapid scientific advances were upsetting the status quo, it can be applied to other historical eras and is haunting in its contradictions of hope and hopelessness for an idealistic future that doesn’t exist. A brilliant book.