Gatsby: The Great Disillusionment What defines a great American novel and is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “The Great Gatsby,” truly an exemplification of such a work? In its most rudimentary form, the great American novel as introduced by John DeForest in his 1866 essay of the same title is one that embodies the zeitgeist of an important period of United States history. Thus, to determine whether Fitzgerald’s masterpiece merits such a title, one must consider the historical backdrop of the 1920’s in which it was published, and whether or not, “The Great Gatsby,” clearly represents America’s cultural identity at this time; that is, a country undergoing a profound sense of postwar disillusionment. That being said, Fitzgerald utilizes his Byronic hero Jay Gatsby as a sardonic demonstration of American society during the roaring twenties. This representation is substantiated through the illusion of Gatsby’s identity, in the overarching theme of the decline of the American dream in which Gatsby fails to self-actualize his dream of being with Daisy Buchanan, and in the central motif of lies and deceit in which Gatsby uses to maintain his false appearance. With consideration of the historical context of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “The Great Gatsby,” a compressive analysis of J. Gatsby’s character, the novel’s overarching theme, and central motif illustrates how the literary work personifies the state of disillusionment that America experienced during the 1920’s which validates the claim that the book acts as an example of the great American novel.
“Who is this Gatsby anyhow?” (107) This simple inquiry raised by Tom Buchanan in the sixth chapter of Fitzgerald’s novel illustrates how the true nature pertaining to Gatsby’s background and identity remains hidden behind a veil of enigma throughout the vast majority of “The Great Gatsby.” Consequentially, the stories main character maintains his ostentatious persona through wild rumors such as, “He’s a nephew or cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm’s. That’s where all his money comes from.” (32) However, the grandiose image of Gatsby is merely a façade based upon a self-made fantasy of the type of individual he wished to be. The narrator Nick Caraway confirms this notion as he notes, “The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself…and to this conception he was faithful to the end.” (98) Essentially, Gatsby utilizes this falsified ideation of himself to blanket the reality of how he is actually James Gatz, the son of poor and unsuccessful Nebraskan farmers, who made his wealth through bootlegging. That being said, the stark juxtaposition between the illusion of who Jay Gatsby is as compared to the actuality of his true character acts to epitomize the sense of postwar disillusionment, in that the revelation is greatly disappointing; much like that which was felt on a national level during the specific epoch of American history in question, which coincidentally enough was fueled by a false perception of wealth that inevitably lead to the country’s depression. Although it is evident that the illusory quality of Gatsby acts to symbolize the state of America in the 1920’s, the overarching theme of the decline of the American dream further bolsters the argument that, “The Great Gatsby,” captures what DeForest describes as, ‘the American spirit.”
When speaking of Gatsby’s infatuation with Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker comments, “Gatsby bought that house so that Daisy would be just across the bay.” (78) Fundamentally, narration such as this throughout, “The Great Gatsby,” exemplifies how the central character does everything in his power to manifest his romantic dream of being with Daisy. Yet, as the story progresses, it seems as if Gatsby is more enamored with the idea in and of itself as opposed to actually doing so, as is demonstrated in the passage, “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.” In essence, the affair between the two built off of the hopes of one Jay Gatsby serves to promote the all-encompassing theme of the novel, which is that of the decline of the American dream. Despite his tireless efforts, Gatsby never fulfills the one thing he desires most in life; Daisy Buchanan. With consideration of this socioeconomic markers of the roaring twenties, such as that of easy money and loose social and moral values that lead up to the deterioration of this idea of the American dream, this central theme in, “The Great Gatsby,” irrefutably captures the state of America in the 1920’s that resulted from postwar disillusionment. While both Gatsby’s fallacious identity and the stories main point both validate how, “The Great Gatsby,” captured the nature of what it meant to be a part of a disappointed American society during the 1920’s, the primary motif within the text of lies and deceit additionally substantiates the assertion.
In his outing with Nick Caraway, Gatsby states, “I’ll tell you God’s truth….I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West. I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford… My family all died and I came into a good deal of money.” (65) On a rudimentary level, this quotation demonstrates how Gatsby’s character is the most painstakingly obvious representation of deception, the primary motif in, “The Great Gatsby.” As a character whose identity is built around an imaginary conception of himself, lies such as this one must be utilized by Gatsby in order to preserve this construct. In order to help the reader navigate their way through the lies and deceit that are found throughout, “The Great Gatsby,” Fitzgerald brilliantly incorporates the trite fly on the wall narrator, Nick Caraway, who so humbly holds that “I am one of the few honest people that I’ve ever known” (65). As a result, it is Nick who reveals the true nature of this statement as he provides a more accurate depiction of James Gatz’s background. Moreover, the motif of lies and deceit further compliments Fitzgerald’s ability to capture the quintessence of postwar disillusionment that America experienced during the 1920s; Gatsby’s story of his upbringing was as real as the sense of wealth that the United States believed it maintained, which was just another dream that came crashing down with the stock market on October 29th, 1929.
“The Great Gatsby,” is unquestionably an example of the great American novel. This fact is validated in the way that Fitzgerald so profoundly synchronized the novel’s main character, overall theme, and motif together to portray the American environment during the 1920’s which has been characterized by a feeling of disillusion following the war. In so doing, “The Great Gatsby,” meets the very criterion of a great American novel, in that it captured the cultural identity of the United States during this crucial epoch of American history; A country that, like Gatsby, believed in its own green light in a sense, determined to, “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (153).