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The Great American Novel

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

first published 1925, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York


How should we define the Great American Novel? Why has this become the blind ambition of nearly every aspiring novelist? And allowing there is such a creature, why attempt what has already been achieved? If the Great American Novel can exist, surely it is The Great Gatsby.

The essence of the Great American Novel is romantic--"a desperate confidence things won't last"--and Jay Gatsby is the quintessential romantic egotist. His is "an honest book" about an idealist and individual. When Dan Cody, whose name conjures the great western frontier, dies, his legacy passes to Gatsby, who becomes the representative of the new frontiersmen of wealth.

Founded by smugglers like John Hancock and freebooters like John Paul Jones, America is uniquely the self-made land of the self-made man. Gatsby is that man, sprung "from his Platonic conception of himself." He lives the American cultural myth of idealists whose dreams are all possible. His life plays out the reality and illusion of the American dream of limitless opportunity and achievement, with the sweep of America's historical adventure.

In all aspects Gatsby is full of jazz, the most American of music; but his story is more than just a history of the Jazz Age. His noble actions arise from the bright vague longing which is a typically American emotion. The implications of that emotion build through the novel toward the final four paragraphs, in which they rise and expand to a distinct manifesto, and resonate far beyond the reading, imparting a "sense of eternity."

The Great Gatsby is not just a novel about Main Street. In form and style it is a pioneering novel, born of the desire "to write something new." His unwavering devotion to Daisy Buchanan and his willful belief the past can be repeated at once raise him above everyday living and doom him to tragedy. Not since the Knight of the Woeful Figure determined to call himself Don Quixote de la Mancha and suffer a life in pursuit of the illusive Dulcinea has there been such a romantic character in literature.

Too many critics read the book as a condemnation of the American dream, the corruption of money and power. They, like the owl-eyed man who marvels at the heroic intensity of Gatsby's dream, see Gatsby's death as his defeat--"The poor son of a bitch." But obviously the Great American Novel cannot be about the end of the American dream. Owl-eyes and the critics simply refuse to accept the triumph of a romantic quest.

Gatsby is great for his willful belief in life's promise. He is obsessed with the wonder of human life and driven, like a visionary or prophet, to make life among the ash-heaps and millionaires "something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." In a nation which is constantly seeking something new, where agents stage events by which to search out the next Fitzgerald, Gatsby spends a brief summer of winter dreams grasping ever hopeful for "a transitory enchanted moment".

Upon his summer arrival in the east, the narrator Nick Carroway mistakenly believed his life was beginning over again. Through Gatsby he had to learn the truth, which the golf pro Jordan Baker already knew: "Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall."

But what does life hold for a moralising man like Nick Carroway?

Though he realises "life is much more successfully looked at from a single window," he follows no grail--unlike Jay Gatsby, who "turned out all right in the end."



Be sure to check out all the classics of literature written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
All Titles by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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