The Endurance of Gatsby
Written over 90 years ago, The Great Gatsby is both written and set in a culture very different from our own. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, narrated by Nick Carraway, “The parties were bigger, the pace was faster, the buildings were higher, and the morals looser.” Yet if this seemingly simple book written about the love affairs of young elites appears outdated, why is it still being taught in high schools around the globe and seen as a staple in the literary world? It is because the characters are not so different from the readers and their struggles are something the readers see in themselves, whether conscious or not.
Jay Gatsby and the American Dream
As the namesake for the novel, Jay Gatsby carries a lot of weight. He is at once a mystery and an open book to the few he allows into his inner circle, finding no issue with disclosing certain information such as his goal to win back Daisy, yet tight-lipped when it comes to his past. The most mysterious characteristic of Gatsby, however, is his wealth. Throughout the novel the reader discovers a story of a young man who works hard throughout his youth until it finally pays off in the form of money, landing him a fantastic mansion and unlimited resources. This idea epitomizes the American Dream as well the spirit of the American people, and while the phrase “American Dream” isn’t as prominent as it once was, its meaning has certainly never faded. Many readers may resonate with the ideas that Gatsby’s massive wealth is not without repercussions.
Socializing and Superficiality
While Gatsby’s wealth draws crowds of hundreds to his mansion on a regular basis, the personal connection between Gatsby and his guests is severely lacking. Rumors abound among party-goers as they speculate on who Gatsby is, and Gatsby has no wish to form genuine bonds with anyone other than the people closest to Daisy. Because Gatsby has no true friends until Nick comes along, he remains relatively unknown as a person thus causing a void in his life. He tries to fill this void with more people at his parties, hoping one will lead him to Daisy, and the draining cycle continues. Similarly, social media can provide the same void in people’s lives today. Adding someone to a network is the new definition of a “friend” on social media platforms, rather than adding a human being desiring true friendship and bonding. Social media users today might have a huge network but have very few, real personal connections with the people who make up the network, which can produce the same void Gatsby feels. While methods of communication have changed dramatically over the years, the unfortunate results of artificial connections continue to manifest themselves.
Money as a Link Between Decades
One of the most present themes in the novel is that of money. Financial wealth is the thing that makes or breaks social status, and determines how élite one can become, in addition to how long they can last. Tom and Daisy have “old money,” money that has been in their families for years. Gatsby, however, is “new money,” as his wealth is recently acquired. Though two kinds of wealth are laid out in the novel, it is clear wealth of any sort determines superiority and respect. The jarring depiction of the Valley of Ashes in the novel emphasizes the disparities between the upper and lower classes, as does Tom’s affair with Myrtle. Not only is he cheating on his wife, but he is mixing classes, “lowering” himself and tarnishing his status and reputation. Because Myrtle lives in the Valley of Ashes, any visit to her or through the area becomes associated with the feeling of discomfort simply because it lacks wealth and class.
This distinction between wealth and poverty is somewhat ambiguous today, not seeming as blatant as it was in the 1920’s. While the crossing of socioeconomic classes doesn’t appear as pointed as it was back then, the defining connection between the time period of The Great Gatsby and now is not the perception or place of one’s wealth, but rather the wealth itself. The comforts and benefits of the wealth in Fitzgerald’s novel entices readers, yet they quickly realize the cost associated with it, as the consequences of greed befall the titular character.
The Price of a Dream
What makes Jay “great” is the idea of his put-together life, but in reality his life is falling apart at the seams. His efforts to woo Daisy Buchanan are admirable yet borderline obsessive, so why does one root for his success? Most readers may not want Gatsby to feel the same emptiness they feel, and instead would want him to meet the goals they could never reach themselves. However, Gatsby gives in to self-destructive actions at the end of the novel, revealing that despite his resources and influence, he is ultimately nothing but the shell of a man whose money cannot give him the one thing he desires: love.
While not everyone is seeking a person to fill the void in their life, everyone does have some goal they wish to meet. When people fall short of this, they are left much like Gatsby is: alone (whether they truly are or not), lost, and desperate. Gatsby gives every ounce of himself for Daisy, even willing to take the blame for her accidental crime. In the end we are left with a criminal and her husband going free, and the death of our protagonist, who leaves the world clinging to the hope of one last chance.
The Past as a Mirror of Our Present
By some viewpoints, “history repeats itself,” and to some extent this is true. Moreover, maybe this is why The Great Gatsby continues to connect with readers everywhere. Money is a universal language no matter the decade, as is the desire for love and purpose. Gatsby demonstrates the ideals of the American Dream yet he fails, and the élite Tom and Daisy Buchanan face no consequences for their actions. Nobody likes losing, especially not a loss accompanied by the sting of paying for someone else’s mistake, something that hasn’t faded since the 1920s. The characters of Fitzgerald’s novel deal with many of the same issues people face today despite their different culture, thus making them so easy to identify with. Gatsby’s longing to feel worth instead of emptiness is something many readers also experience, although some are hesitant to admit it. The last line of the novel can at first puzzle the reader, yet it explains so well exactly why we read this novel: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” We read not simply for pleasure or escape, but to find answers stuck in our past to gain understanding for our present situation.
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