Literary Criticism of The Great Gatsby

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Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

Literary criticism encompasses various types of critique on particular elements of a text. Explore different types of literary criticism, particularly those most commonly surrounding the novel, 'The Great Gatsby'. Updated: 11/29/2021

A Great American Novel

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's third novel, was published in 1925. At the time, it was considered a disappointment, as it did not match the sales or critical acclaim of Fitzgerald's two previous novels. However, over the following decades, especially after Fitzgerald's death in 1940, critics and readers rediscovered the book. Today, The Great Gatsby is one of the most read and discussed American novels of the twentieth century. It inspires endless analysis and discussion among readers and critics. These different analyses of the book, focusing on interpretation and contributing to the reader's greater understanding, are known as literary criticism.

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  • 0:04 A Great American Novel
  • 0:46 What Is Literary Criticism?
  • 1:32 Types of Literary Criticism
  • 2:13 Criticism of ''The…
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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What Is Literary Criticism?

When you read an essay by a famous critic explaining the use of literary devices such as metaphor in a novel, this is literary criticism. When you discuss in class or among your friends what a book is really about, you are also practicing literary criticism. Some literary scholars view criticism in an absolute, narrow manner. Great works of literature like The Great Gatsby are great because they cannot be reduced to one single interpretive answer. It's better to think of literary criticism as a discussion. Every critic puts forth what they think is most important in the book and defends this assertion by referring to specific aspects in the text. Someone else then responds with their own interpretation, and the discussion continues endlessly.

Types of Literary Criticism

Critics often fall into groups, or schools, of criticism. A school of criticism is a group of critics who tends to focus on similar aspects of a book, such as its historical background, its use of literary devices, or the psychology of its characters. Critics who focus on the book's time period and how it influences the text are called historicists. Critics who focus on a text's use of literary devices such as metaphor and symbolism are called formalists. Critics who focus on the psychology of the characters are called psychoanalytic critics. There are many schools of criticism, but we will focus on these three in relation to The Great Gatsby.

Criticism of The Great Gatsby

One of the things The Great Gatsby is most known for is its vivid portrait of 1920s New York, which is why it generates a lot of historicist criticism. This was a period when many young men had just returned from World War I and were feeling disillusioned, while young women were exerting their independence like never before. Fitzgerald himself dubbed the era 'The Jazz Age,' a term which is still frequently used to discuss the time period.

A historicist critic would focus on the presence of these historical elements in The Great Gatsby. Gatsby, Nick, and Tom, for example, are all World War I veterans and, in different ways, trying to integrate back into the world. Gatsby has apparently made his fortune through bootlegging, the illegal distribution of alcohol. The book explores how the wealthy people of New York are happy to attend Gatsby's parties and drink his booze, but they never fully accept him. These types of things would be of most interest to a historicist critic.

In contrast, formalists like to ignore all historical background and other such external knowledge and focus on the literary text itself. They discuss how it impacts the reader through use of literary devices such as symbolism and metaphor. Fitzgerald is considered one of the great literary stylists of all time, and his books are filled with beautiful, deeply meaningful imagery. Formalist criticism is a popular approach to The Great Gatsby and his other books.

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