Upon finishing Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I took to the internet in search of others’ interpretations of the conclusion and message of the classic. The prevalent themes of opinion were that Fitzgerald ‘criticises the American dream’ and ‘deconstructs the possibility of true love’. Each of these seems a rather short-sighted and incomplete conclusion to draw from the novel, and does not focus precisely enough on the moral position which Fitzgerald presents.
America in the 1920’s is displayed as a commotion of materialistic, capitalist greed where people are focused solely on superficial appearance. Gatsby is the epitome of this system, changing his very name in the interest of apparent wealth and fame. No one is sure quite how he gained the socioeconomic position he did. The key here, though, is that he did. Gatsby did climb the economic ladder and literally create a life for himself. Is it thus fair to say that Fitzgerald generally condemns the American dream in its entirety? I would argue that it is not. If the American dream is a position, and that position is attainable then is the dream futile? It would be fair to say that Fitzgerald highlights the hollowness of the methods with which Gatsby attains said position, but the dream is not thus debunked.
In this way, Fitzgerald does not make some sweeping comment about materialism or love, but a specific one about both. The author asserts that love exceeds the realms of materialistic gain and that prohibition America was itself a loveless ‘valley of ashes’: full of death, betrayal and heat. There is one excerpt from which I think this idea can be wholly deduced:
”Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that green light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.”
Here we see a comparison between object and subject, concrete and abstract, ‘thing’ and emotion. As previously mentioned, it is undeniable that Gatsby has managed to create a collection of ‘enchanted objects’. However, the green light is more than an object. The symbolism of the green light is twofold. On a surface level, it symbolises Gatsby’s love and attraction to Daisy; on a more complex level the very attachment of the green light to an emotion represents the genesis of Gatsby’s downfall. Gatsby’s epiphany (above) comes when he experiences Daisy in person for the first time in an aeon, in other words when he comes into contact with the aforementioned emotion. In looking at that emotion face to face, the imperfection caused by his coveting of love stares back at him.
The problem is, that Gatsby has idolised and coveted Daisy’s requited love as if it were an object. Whilst coveting the objects that come with the American dream is heartless but not futile, it is clear that to covet love in the same way is. In fact, when Daisy comes into contact with Gatsby’s possessions this futility is equally as clear:
”’They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before’”
Materialism is the facade for emotion here, as Daisy can only attempt to explain a complex emotional system by attaching her emotion to objects around her.
Gatsby’s want for Daisy became hyperbolic at times, because of its muddled grounding in reality. In materially coveting a relationship where it could not be objectively quantified, Gatsby becomes obsessed with the relationship’s qualities. He demands that Daisy tell Tom that he had never loved him. This, of course, is fuel for the argument which eventually ends in Gatsby’s demise. Why? Because Gatsby treated Daisy’s love like an object, yet it did not possess the capacity which an object does to be quantified within certain bounds. For example, the house which Gatsby owns can be unequivocally said to be ‘large’, for example. Daisy’s love for Gatsby, however, outside of the physical realm cannot be confidently quantified based on experience, but only imagined based on expectations. Perhaps it is Gatsby’s success in aiming for and attaining superlatively sized and valued objects which leads him to instinctively quantify Daisy’s love superlatively. In any case, his expectations are beyond reality.
In summary of my opinion, Fitzgerald’s novel is not broadly fatalistic and pessimistic when talking about love, but rather specifically deprecatory about materialism when love is involved. Perhaps Gatsby was not so great after all.