Major Themes in The Great Gatsby
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby belongs to that set of novels which do not gain fame during the author’s lifetime but are later regarded as classics. The literary themes that can be perused from the analysis of the novel depict the quintessential Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties of America.
1920’s America: Influence of Wealth on Class
Fitzgerald set the novel, The Great Gatsby, in the tumultuous 1920’s America. The nation at this time is coming out of the ravages of the great World War I. The society, by this time, has been divided by types of wealth. On the one hand, there is the old aristocracy like Tom Buchanan and Daisy, which has inherited money; on the other, is the new crop of moneyed men like Gatsby and Wolfshiem, who have taken recourse to criminal activities and deception to earn a fortune. In the novel, the former is designated by the East Egg, while the latter is positioned around the West Egg. The established aristocracy looks down upon the new class of wealthy men, who are mostly young Americans who after coming back from the war have invested in shares and bonds to reap off an unstable economy.
Thus, money or wealth becomes a theme statement of identity and is divided into two classes – the ‘new money’ and the ‘old money.’ The class division is apparent when Tom scorns Gatsby for his supposed ways of earning money. A point to note is that Fitzgerald masterfully underlines the emotional atrophy of the old aristocracy in opposition to the new wealthy class. The new class is careless, ostentatious and sloppy with their wealth symbolized by Gatsby, while the Buchanans’ show exemplary class and taste. However, the old class shows complete disregard for religion which may be a hint to their emotional and moral depravity.
Love Divided by Time
Connected deeply with the theme of wealth and class is the central theme of the novel – love. Love comes in two sections of time, and in both parts, it underlines how the corrupt American society pinned material affluence on love. During his days as a young soldier going to war, Gatsby falls in love with Daisy, and they make love before Gatsby goes to war. But this whole affair was based on the lie that Gatsby comes from a noble, wealthy family. When Gatsby does not return on time, Daisy quaintly marries a wealthy idiot by the name of Tom Buchanan, a friend of Nick Caraway, the narrator, and brother of Daisy.
Hope and Isolation
Weaved with the themes of love and time are the themes of hope and isolation. When Gatsby returns as a phenomenon in Long Island, Daisy quickly realizes that Gatsby can save her from Tom’s lascivious and robust frailties. Daisy hopes for a quick and selfish fulfillment in the arms of her former lover. She aligns herself with Gatsby but never gives in fully. Gatsby lives in a fool’s paradise and in turn, hopes for a consummate reunion between him and Daisy. He invites Daisy to Nick’s house for tea and is nervous to meet his former lover. Gatsby follows Daisy’s trail under the false assumption that Daisy will eventually leave Tom.
In Tom’s house, Daisy feels stifled and isolated as her emotional needs are unquenched. Gatsby, on the other hand, is isolated by his infamous rise in the world and lives as a shadow in his own palace. The difference between Gatsby and Daisy is that of character, while Daisy is narcissistic, shallow and selfish; Gatsby is selfless, innocent and idealistic.
Marriage and Innocence
Fitzgerald dissects the society clinically by exposing the decline of conventional values like loyalty and responsibility. The apparently polished upper-class gentry like Tom and Daisy indulge in amorous affairs only to satisfy their whims. The only glimpse of innocence in the novel is seen in Nick and Gatsby. Nick realizes how Daisy and Tom are betraying Gatsby and stays beside Gatsby till the end. While Gatsby follows an innocent dream of idealistic love, Nick falls for the middle-class morality and arranges for Gatsby’s funeral alone.
The Corrupted American Dream
The American dream as declared in the Declaration of Independence considers all men and women to be equal and ensures all of them have an equal opportunity at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The ethos of this idea was based on enthusiasm for knowledge, discovery, rationality and fraternity. During the 1920’s, however, these values saw a steep decline. The young men who had come back from the war were utterly disillusioned by a society that was culturally and financially hollow. With the stock market soaring after the debacle of the war, many men got engaged in nefarious activities related to bonds and shares. They became very wealthy but on morally corrupt terms; and were hence looked down upon by the old aristocracy of the East Egg.
Examples of moral corruption abound in the novel like Meyer Wolfsheim’s criminal activities, Jordan baker’s cheating to make herself famous, Tom Buchanan’s extramarital affair etcetera.
Scott Fitzgerald weaves the symbol of the green light with the theme of the American dream and love. The green light at the end of Daisy’s East Egg dock symbolizes the new America coming out of the destruction of war. It also acts as a motif signifying Gatsby’s dreams of a future with Daisy. The green light almost connects all the major themes through its conception and execution.
Revenge and Death
When Daisy mistakenly runs over Myrtle, Tom’s whore, Gatsby not only takes the blame for the crime but waits the entire night under Daisy’s window so that Tom cannot assault Daisy. Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, assumes that the driver of the car which ran over Myrtle was her lover. He questions Tom whom he saw driving the car earlier that day and comes to the conclusion that it was Gatsby who murdered Myrtle. He visits Gatsby’s mansion and shoots him out of a false sense of revenge. The real culprit Tom Buchanan moves away from Long Island. When Gatsby is murdered (which suggests the underlying theme of violence which the famed East Egg can easily commit), Daisy doesn’t even come to his funeral. She moves to a different place and lies smug in her selfishness and betrayal. This highlights another minor theme of appearance versus reality as the apparently noble class shows no emotions while the gross newly rich Gatsby holds onto the middle-class values of loyalty and care.
Considered among one of the best American novels, The Great Gatsby is like a moving picture of the erstwhile American society centered on a tender story of love, passion, and betrayal.