F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' is considered by many critics to be the greatest American novel. Watch our video lesson on the novel to find out why!
Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby, was actually named after his distant cousin Francis Scott Key, of 'Star-Spangled Banner' fame. While they never met (Key died in 1843, and Fitzgerald was born in 1896), they both gained fame for writing works that seemed to epitomize the American experience of their time.
The 'Star-Spangled Banner,' of course, captures the emotion of the Revolutionary War and the excitement of the United States becoming an established, independent nation, whereas The Great Gatsby takes a more skeptical look at the American dream and the American identity in the early 20th century.
We're going to take a look at the major players, events and themes of this highly influential American novel. As you watch this video (and, I hope, read the novel yourself), I'd like you to think about Fitzgerald's take on the American identity. Is he optimistic about the future of this country, the way his cousin Francis Scott Key was, or does he think America's best days are behind it? We'll come back to this idea a little bit later.
When the novel was originally published in 1925, many of Fitzgerald's contemporaries, including my favorite American author, Edith Wharton, liked the book a great deal, but a lot of readers dismissed it as trivial, unable to look past the money, liquor, jazz and sex to see the message Fitzgerald was trying to send. What message was that? Let's find out.
Meet Nick Carraway
The novel is told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, a quintessential Midwestern boy who moves to New York in the summer of 1922 to get into bonds. Keep in mind that the story takes place pre-Great Depression when the United States was experiencing great economic prosperity.
The opening line of the novel, which first introduces Nick, has become quite famous. It goes like this: In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. 'Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.'
When the story begins, Nick has recently moved to an area of Long Island known as 'West Egg,' a neighborhood inhabited by the 'nouveau riche' or newly wealthy, who are looked down upon by the residents of 'East Egg,' whose wealth is established and long-standing (think massive inheritance).
Nick isn't any kind of wealthy and is renting a modest little cottage next to some impressive mansions, most notably a mansion owned by one Mr. Jay Gatsby. At first, all Nick knows about Gatsby is that he has a huge house and throws crazy, raging parties on the weekends. Depending on how you feel about crazy, raging parties, Gatsby may sound like your ideal neighbor or your absolute worst nightmare at this point.
Nick's cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom Buchanan, live over in East Egg and invite Nick over for dinner. There, he meets their friend, Jordan Baker, who becomes a love interest for Nick. Through Jordan, Nick learns that while Tom and Daisy appear to have a perfect marriage, Tom actually has a mistress named Myrtle who lives in a dirty industrial area between West Egg and Manhattan.
As he observes Tom and Daisy's seemingly perfect but actually quite flawed life, he seems to be able to reserve judgment the way his father had taught him to, going so far as to accompany Tom into Manhattan to spend a drama-filled day with Myrtle and some other friends.
Meet Jay Gatsby
You might be asking yourself right now, 'Where's Gatsby in all this? I thought the book was about him.' We meet Gatsby when he invites Nick to one of his famous parties. Jordan's also there and learns that Gatsby has a romantic history with Daisy and wants Nick to arrange for them to meet. It turns out that Gatsby has never forgotten Daisy, and actually purchased the house he lives in in order to be near her and throws these crazy parties in the hopes that Daisy will one day attend.
Gatsby admits that he still carries a torch for Daisy.
We learn that he is obsessed with a green light on the end of her dock, which he can see from his house. The green light is an important symbol that we'll discuss later on, but for now, just remember that it's there, it's green and Gatsby's obsessed with it.
Nick - not one to judge someone for carrying a torch for another person for five years and wanting to set up a secret meeting with this person despite the fact that she's married to someone else and has a child - agrees to invite Daisy over to his place for tea, without mentioning Gatsby at all. Smooth, right?
While the meeting is a little contrived and Gatsby and Daisy's reintroduction is awkward at first, it's quickly clear that Daisy still has feelings for Gatsby, too, and the two quickly rekindle their relationship. Again, Nick seems to observe all this without judging, which may be a tough thing for the reader to do.
The End of the Affairs
Gatsby isn't content with just seeing Daisy on the side. He wants her to leave Tom and be with him completely. When Tom gets wind of their affair, he is quite upset, despite his own infidelities, and has a bizarre showdown with Gatsby at a fancy hotel in New York, where Tom, Gatsby, Daisy, Nick and Jordan have all gathered for an ostensibly fun but mostly awkward get together. Daisy admits to having feelings for Gatsby, but seems like she's going to pick Tom in the end.
Gatsby and Daisy end up driving home together in Gatsby's car and on the way, accidentally end up hitting and killing Myrtle, Tom's lover. It's a scene that's too heartbreaking and too disgusting for me to do justice to here, so please go read it yourself. Tom, Jordan and Nick, who followed in Tom's car, see the aftermath of the hit and run, and Tom is understandably quite upset.
We eventually learn that it was Daisy who was driving at the time, but Tom convinces Myrtle's husband, George, that it was Gatsby who was driving and leads him to believe that the person who was driving the car was also having an affair with Myrtle, but of course, we as readers know this part isn't true. In his rage and grief, George drives out to Gatsby's place and shoots Gatsby (who's in his fabulous swimming pool at the time) and then himself. And, that's pretty much how the book ends.
In revenge, Tom frames Gatsby for the accident and the affair.
Symbols and Themes in Gatsby
Okay, let's get back to the green light. What could it represent? All right, let's think of other things that are green: grass, Kermit the Frog, delicious avocados, and of course, money. Money plays a huge role in The Great Gatsby. We learn that Daisy and Gatsby's relationship failed at first because he was poor, and all the wealth he has amassed after their split was in an attempt to win her back.
The green light is also tied to the pursuit of the American dream. It's something that Gatsby can see off in the distance and he believes represents his potential for future happiness, but he can never quite reach it.
At the end of the book, Fitzgerald says Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ------
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
We can interpret this to mean that Gatsby believed that, through attaining wealth, he could become the kind of man Daisy would marry and achieve all the things he wanted in life. Despite all the obstacles in his path - Daisy's husband and child, his own humble beginnings - he kept trying. This part seems pretty clear, based on what's available in the text.
What's up for us to decide is Fitzgerald's attitude. What does he think of Gatsby? What does he think of America? Does he believe the American dream is attainable for any of us? Arguments can be made in either direction. Depending on your perspective, this ending could be profoundly depressing or wonderfully hopeful.
In summary, F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby in 1925. It was a novel that some viewed as shallow because it focused primarily on the lives of wealthy people pursuing a good time, but a closer look at the character of Gatsby and symbols, like the green light, show that there was more going on in the novel than just the surface events - namely an examination of the American dream and the value of the pursuit of wealth.
When you've finished this lesson, the following goals should be easy to meet:
- Summarize the plot and important characters in The Great Gatsby
- Explain F. Scott Fitzgerald's background
- Describe the novel's impact on American literature
- Identify symbols and themes found in The Great Gatsby