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American literature knows many writers with a tragic fate, who came off the scene prematurely, without realizing what their talents promised. In the middle of noisy celebrations of American life, they perished from loneliness, from alcoholism, from hopeless despair, without any help, without a kind word as if they were in a desert. Each such case, again and again, draws the attention of thinking people all over the world to vices of American capitalist culture and "American way of life", indifferent to human destinies in which common flaws of bourgeois-capitalist civilization have not only merged, but have reached the utmost sharpness.
In the period between two wars, the saddest drama of this kind was the death of one of the most outstanding representatives of the new American prose, the author of "The Great Gatsby" Francis Scott Fitzgerald.
In 1920, the twenty-four-year-old Fitzgerald published a novel about the American student youth – "This Side Of Paradise" and the first of his generation, ahead of Hemingway and Faulkner, who were still preparing their literary debuts, achieved loud recognition. The book brought success and money to the author. An unknown provincial yesterday, he became a wealthy man, settled with his wife in one of the most expensive New York hotels. Very soon the young Fitzgeralds, who have money to throw around, wild fast livers, become "heroes" of the American secular chronicle.
Fitzgerald was a writer of bright and undeniable talent; entering literature, he ardently believed in his talent and optimistically painted his own writing future. However, he was unable to immediately draw a firm defensive line that would separate his goals and the artist's ideals from the baser goals of the American propertied classes. Without this, he inevitably had to fall victim to the destructive influence of bourgeois civilization.
If one proceeds from external facts of the young Fitzgerald's life alone, it may seem as if he did not hesitate for a long time or even resisted and came to the conclusion that the carefree life of a wealthy man is his ideal, which is quite compatible with writing activity; that he has the right to exploit his talent, as if it were an invested capital or a mineral oil spring.
In reality, the situation was more complicated. It is on this fundamental issue that a deep and painful contradiction emerged in the soul world and in the work of Fitzgerald from the very beginning. Full awareness of it, however, came to the writer much later.
In 1925, Fitzgerald created the "Great Gatsby," his most perfect work, in which, although he did not realize it, he appeared as an artist "voting" against American capitalism, separating his ideal beauty and morality from aesthetic and moral standards of the American ruling classes. "The Great Gatsby" showed the strength and depth of Fitzgerald's talent, but had no commercial success in the United States. One waited demanded "jazz rhapsodies" from Fitzgerald, with which the advertisement already firmly tied his name.
After the "Great Gatsby" the life catastrophe of Fitzgerald and the gradual fall of his talent comes, though interrupted by some creative rises. From a merry debauchee, he turns into a drunkard and brawler; he drowns in wine dissatisfaction with himself, his life and his creativity, destroying his health and undermining faith in himself as an artist.
"The Great Gatsby"
This book belongs to the heights of American literature and can rightfully be considered one of the brightest achievements of the American social novel of the 20th century.
Undoubtedly, this is a social novel, although the plot of this unusually capacious book, limited to half a year, seems to be closed in a very close circle of events and concerns the narrow relationship of five or six young people who suddenly met in a whimsical concatenation of circumstances and soon parted tragically and forever. The social nature of Fitzgerald's book is determined by the fact that both events and characters depicted in it and the underlying conflict that determines its action have a direct and vital relation to the fate of all people in society, which the artist describes.
It is about the disastrousness of a false civilization imposed on a person, in which happiness is artificially identified with material success and all spiritual and moral stimuli of human nature are subordinated to the religion of wealth.
Who Is Gatsby, the Hero of Fitzgerald's Novel?
A son of a poor farmer from North Dakota, as befits an energetic young American, looked for wealth and happiness from the very childhood. By the time the US joined the First World War, Gatsby was a young officer. For a time, the military uniform serves him as a pass to the higher society. He falls in love with a girl from a wealthy family, hides his poverty, achieves reciprocal love. Daisy promises to wait for his return from the war, but, without waiting, marries a man of her "circle", a very wealthy Tom Buchanan.
Gatsby comes home with orders, but without a penny in his pocket, as before. Inspired by the dream of returning Daisy, he embarks on the path of semi-legal scams, so customary in the American system of capitalist gain, and achieves wealth. He manages to meet Daisy and carry her away by the power of his loyalty and love. But Daisy and Tom represent the American ruling class, the caste of hereditary rich people, masters of the country. Any attempt to challenge their life rights, to violate their peace must inevitably come upon their inner solidarity, as a blank wall. They destroy Gatsby, throw him out of their way, kill him. And then they leave, fed, cruel, indifferent.
What Is So Great About Gatsby?
What is the meaning of the title of the novel?
Apparently, this epithet, with reference to Gatsby, has a double meaning in the book. Gatsby is tawdry "great" in his role of a rich man with a mysterious reputation, master of absurdly lush festivities, which he arranges in the hope of drawing Daisy's attention – these Gatsby’s features evoke the irony of the narrator-moralist. At the same time, he is for certain great by the power of his feelings, his devotion to the dream, the rare gift of hope, as it is said about him in the book, with his soul generosity, which, in another environment and in another situation, perhaps, would make him a hero.
The significance of these traits in the character of Gatsby is determined by the fact that, experienced in brutal art of "making money", he, from the moment when he discovers that Daisy, for which he entered this path, rejected him, loses all interest in his wealth and everything connected with it, and actually ended it all even earlier than he is overtaken by the murderer’s bullet.
Fitzgerald's novel can also be regarded as a "novel of upbringing" in a certain sense. If you take it in this aspect, the narrator Nick Carraway will be at the center of the book, a permanent witness, commentator, and, at times, an active participant in the unfolding events. He emerges wise from them with a sad experience, which will leave an imprint on his whole life from now on. It does not matter that the school lasted only a few months and that the hero was already an adult, entering into it. It was equal to a whole moral university and, as it were, crystallized many of the ideas, perhaps, accumulated before, but which did not receive a decisive test of life. Until that moment.
Nick Carraway belongs to the so-called "lost generation" of American intelligent youth; the First World War was between the university and the practical life, in which he enters with a great delay. He is enriched with front-line experience and regards the postwar life boasting of wealth with some distrust.
Friendship with Gatsby and participation in the unfolding drama produce a profound moral shift in him. He enters a cycle of events, still confident that he understands basic moral values well enough. After getting acquainted with Gatsby, he says that he embodies all that he, Nick Carraway, sincerely despised and despises. On the contrary, much is close to him in Buchanan, as well as in Daisy's friend, Jordan Baker, he like it or, at least, it is closer to him. These sympathies and dislikes, inspired by his skills and environment, are subjected to a severe test and unexpectedly collapse for him.
The shock experienced by Carraway forces him to abandon moral compromises that he considered acceptable to him. He glances sadly ahead, does not see any salvation from the evil ruling in life and considers his duty to honestly tell about what he saw, not embellishing vice and giving due to the boldness of the human heart.
From the beginning to the end, Fitzgerald refuses to idealize Gatsby, but it is obvious that although in many key points the author's position is expressed in the viewpoint and in statements of Nick Carraway, emotional threads that bind the author directly to Gatsby are strong. Once Fitzgerald called Gatsby his "big brother". In a letter relating to the creation of the novel, he admits that although he began to portray Gatsby, referring to some stranger familiar to him, then suddenly began writing about him regarding himself. The problem of Gatsby, who failed to separate his ideal of love from the ideal of wealth, boils down to the moral and aesthetic capitulation of a man to the power of money.
The author draws the attention of a reader to that external sensual brilliance that things and people acquire in the frame of wealth and material comfort. It is enough to recall the description of young women (Daisy and her friend Jordan) in the rich house of the Buchanan or an amazing episode in the house of Gatsby when, hurling his new shirts in a pile, one more beautiful than the other, Gatsby brings Daisy to tears.
The house of Gatsby and his fantastic festivals radiate mysterious charm associated with the aura of luxury and wealth. Even skeptical Nick Carraway initially yields to this heady feeling.
But Fitzgerald also shows how this shine is illusory and how fragile charm is if you look through its blinding surface. As soon as genuine human feelings come into play, soul's important interests and attachments are put under attack, the sham is collapsing. "Deciphering" of Daisy's voice is remarkable in this sense, a description of the extraordinary, hardly perceptible charm of which constitutes one of the main features of her characterization in the novel. Deciphering, strangely enough, does not belong to Carraway, but Gatsby, who love makes insightful almost to "genius".
He says that money rings in this voice.
Destruction of Illusions
The last visit to the party in the house of Gatsby is held under the sign of disappointment for Nick Carraway. Everything that recently seemed fun and exciting, appears in a tawdry and vulgar appearance. Further, as the tragedy of events increases, Nick, as already mentioned, retreats to the position of "stoic pessimism". There is no such way out for Gatsby; he has neither intellectual nor moral preparation to analyze the surrounding reality, to resist its false values. The betrayal of Daisy overshadows the whole world for him at once.
Lyrical richness of Fitzgerald's prose in "The Great Gatsby" is at times approaching lyrical richness of the verse. Not only the spiritual movement of the hero, but every physical gesture gets an intense emotional characteristic. This also applies to the central characters in the novel – to Gatsby, Buchanan, Wilson, Jordan Baker – and to characters of the second and third plan, such as half-grotesque in comparison with Nick Carraway, but, at the same time, strongly and precisely performed figures, as Wolfsheim, a dark businessman who first introduced Gatsby into the world of illegal profit, or always a drunken nameless guest called "Owl Eyes" in the novel and – one of the innumerable guests of Gatsby – attending his funeral. The emotional atmosphere of the novel is far from simple; it is always a "fusion" of the inner voice of heroes and indifferently mocking at first, and then sad and stern voice of the narrator.
A special role in the system of the novel belongs to the moral and lyrical digressions, in which Fitzgerald wants to convey the basic mood of the "Great Gatsby", the inner sense of the fragility, social and moral groundlessness of this civilization built on a false principle, a premonition of its impending collapse, both material and spiritual. Belonging to the narrator, Nick Carraway, they, at the same time, belong to the author, serve as the verdict of the depicted life. The last pages of the novel are particularly important in this sense, two moral and philosophical endings, the first of which concerns the noisy carnival of New York life, a showcase of American civilization; the second is American history and life in general.
It should be noted that already from the first chapters of the novel, Fitzgerald has a gloomy and somewhat ominous beginning in the image of New York. It is connected with the Valley of Ashes, a city dump, which is passed by Nick Carraway going to serve in the bank daily by train. There reigns old signboard of an unknown oculist with huge eyes with glasses as an impersonal, indifferent-cruel to human destinies fate. The Valley of Ashes and accompanying thematic motifs compete with the poetry of the big city, which Fitzgerald feels so strongly, and gradually eclipses and pushes it out.
Having made the decision to return home to provincial life, wearisome and stuffy, but still something dear to him from memories of childhood and adolescence, Nick Carraway takes with him the vision of New York, which possesses him, in the end. Symbolism of this vision conveys a feeling of wearisome emptiness and anxiety, imbued with an almost "apocalyptic" premonition of the imminent collapse of "New Babylon".
On the eve of departure, in the evening, lying on the coastal sand in front of the Gatsby’s empty house, Nick Carraway again reflects on causes and circumstances of the death of Gatsby and from thoughts of his fate turns to thoughts about the life and fate of the American people. The green light on the Buchanan dock, manning Gatsby and nurturing his dream, he compares to the "untouched green bosom of the new world", which captivated people who discovered the new continent and connected the dream of getting rid of all hardships, of cloudless happiness forever with it. Like Gatsby, they believed in attainability of this unimaginable happiness, like Gatsby, they could not understand that the dream was left behind, that they extend their hands only to the phantom of former illusions, live in irrevocable memories.
"The Great Gatsby" has features that are no longer repeated. Despite the sad meaning of events depicted in the book, it highlights jubilant thirst for life and boundless faith in oneself, so characteristic of young Fitzgerald. The bitterness of his middle period has not penetrated in works of the writer yet. The celebration of the artist who created the work of art is heard in the "Great Gatsby" as nowhere in Fitzgerald’s books.