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The Great Gatsby

Basic Understanding of the Novel

The Great Gatsby is a tale of luxury, lust, deceit, and murder. In Long Island, NY, Nick Carraway lives next door to the mysterious Jay Gatsby—owner of a huge mansion and host of frequent and lavish parties. Although prohibition has made alcohol illegal, Gatsby always has a surplus available at his wild social gatherings. As Nick starts to spend more time with Gatsby, he begins to learn about Gatsby’s past, his strange profession, and his love for Nick’s cousin, Daisy. The story that unfolds truly highlights the scandalous and risky nature of the Roaring Twenties.

To achieve a greater level of basic understanding of the novel, you may want to look at:

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.
Bloom, Harold. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Infobase, 2006. Google EBook.

Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald is considered one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. He was born in the Midwest and began writing at a relatively young age. He fell in love in his twenties, but his romantic interest would not be convinced to marry him until he achieved financial success. Only after he gained fame and fortune did she agree. He lived a life of extravagance and died quite young at the age of 44. Some critics assert that Fitzgerald included many autobiographical elements in many of his works, including The Great Gatsby.

A great deal of the adulterous and scandalous behavior described in The Great Gatsby was reflective of Fitzgerald’s personal life at the time in which he wrote the novel. Fitzgerald was living lavishly, throwing parties and indulging frequently with his wife, Zelda, who was also involved with another man. This, in addition to F. Scott’s flirtatious conduct with women, put pressure on their relationship; it can be seen in the novel through Tom and Daisy Buchanan, as Daisy begins getting to know Gatsby.

For more information on Fitzgerald’s life or how it may relate to his novel, you can read:

Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Scottie Fitzgerald. Smith. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: the Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2002. Google EBook.
Gross, Dalton, and MaryJean Gross. Understanding The Great Gatsby: a Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998. Google EBook.
Willet, Erika. “Biographies: F. Scott Fitzgerald and the American Dream.” PBS. Web. 28 Oct. 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/kteh/amstorytellers/bios.html>.

Symbolism: What’s with the green light?

In The Great Gatsby there is a constant fixation with a green light across the water from Gatsby’s home. The light creates desire, hope, and motivation to accomplish a goal. Daisy provides the green light in Jay Gatsby’s life, but a sense of drive and yearning can be found in many of the characters, and the color green resonates in many aspects of their lives. Perhaps this desire to achieve is both universal and timeless, allowing critics and readers to relate more closely to the novel and its characters.

Green also brings to mind money and greed; maybe the desire to achieve is fueled by the yearning and pressure from society to become rich. Money meant so much in the 1920s, and it provided a means to distinguish status. Additionally, green conjures thoughts of envy and jealousy. Everyone wants something they don’t have and come to resent others because of their jealousy. Colorful symbolism in The Great Gatsby feeds itself—ambition is driven by jealousy, which is driven by money and greed.

For a closer look at the green light, check out:

Ornstein, Robert. “Scott Fitzgerald’s Fable of East and West.” College English 18.3 (1956): 139-43. JSTOR. Web. 27 Oct. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/372321>.
Rimer, Sara. “‘The Great Gatsby’ Resonates with Urban Adolescents.” The New York Times. 7 Nov. 2008. Web. 28 Oct. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/world/americas/17iht-gatsby.1.10107935.html>.

Morality and Gatsby

Many of the characters in The Great Gatsby are badly behaved. They are greedy, lustful, vengeful, and, as some critics would even argue, immoral. The question of ethics runs rampant through the pages of Gatsby and its commentary on the world, especially in America, during the 1920s. Values, particularly with regards to wealth, are skewed. Each character in the novel demonstrates a different set of values and seems to be in various stages of personal moral development.

Almost every character in the book lies to the other characters or lives an entire sham of a life. There is little concern for the repercussions of these lies or other immoral actions in general. In fact, dishonesty sometimes makes characters more appealing in The Great Gatsby. Gatsby’s commitment to his false life draws in characters and readers alike.

To learn more about Gatsby’s ethics or Kohlberg’s stages of Moral Development:

McAdams, Tony. “‘The Great Gatsby’ as a Business Ethics Inquiry.” Journal of Business Ethics 12.8 (1993): 653-60. JSTOR. Web. 28 Oct. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25072450>.
Crain, W.C. “Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.” Theories of Development. Prentice Hall, 1985. 118-36. Web. 28 Oct. 2011. <http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/kohlberg.htm>.

Society and Economic Disparity in the 1920s

The Roaring Twenties bring to mind flappers, parties, speakeasies, prohibition, and eventually the Depression. People wanted to live glamorous lives and have a chance to be a part of the upper echelons of society. Taking advantage of wealth and status seemed to be the best way to accomplish any variety of objectives. The novel’s title character exemplifies a true understanding of America’s obsession with money and the country’s economic disparity; after all, he assumed his new identity in order to rise above his former status and become accepted as a member of the exclusive upper-class. What does this say about the materialism of Gatsby’s world? What is it all really worth in the end?

Gatsby himself had to work around the law (and potentially ethics) in order to fabricate his new life in New York and have a fresh start. He incessantly tries to meet higher levels of materialistic expectations in order to impress Daisy, and eventually this need to impress others leads to his murder at his lavish home. Concern for money and objects is all-consuming and fails to bring satisfaction, happiness, or internal prosperity to the characters of the novel.

To gain more perspective on the effect of the Roaring Twenties on The Great Gatsby, read:

Godden, Richard. “‘The Great Gatsby’: Glamor on the Turn.” Journal of American Studies 16.3 (1982): 343-71. JSTOR. Web. 28 Oct. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27554197>.
Weinstein, Arnold. “Fiction as Greatness: The Case of Gatsby.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 19.1 (1985): 22-38. JSTOR. Web. 28 Oct. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1345714>.

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