I truly believe that there are very few books that defy becoming lost to the time in which they were written. However, The Great Gatsby is quite simply an anomaly. Its relevance today bears the same weight (if not more) than it did when it was published in the 1920s. The candid yet illustrative symbols woven throughout the novel act as a stark reminder between the opposing factors of fate and circumstance, overreaching and the inability to control time. This is exemplified by the poetic and progressive nature of the novel which flows from theme to theme, encapsulating the double edged sword of the (then) newly orchestrated American dream and coinciding with the unpolished issues found (still) in our society today.
The compelling presentation of the unattainable fallacy is displayed through a litany of dystopian tropes which elucidate the hamartia of chasing the unattainable and also the recklessness in the pursuit of the latter; which I will now explore…
While The Great Gatsby is unequivocally a love story, beneath Gatsby’s pursuit for Daisy lays a much deeper more complex analysis of the true nature of the American Dream. The Great Gatsby is arguably a microcosm of the latter. The American Dream is a flawed yet desired ideal whereby all Americans can propel their social standing and wealth so long as they work hard. However, this ideal is quite simply an unattainable fallacy. This idea is further epitomised by the character of Jay Gatsby who is followed throughout the novel on his pursuit of elevation in the hope of recouping his past relationship with Daisy. The fallacy of this unattainable goal is highlighted through Nick Carraway’s (the narrators) depiction of Gatsby as being “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him.” This idealistic stature is indeed flawed because it is inevitable in life to make mistakes, errors and to fail and yet Gatsby is being compared to this flawless, perfect representation or something which quite literally cannot be achieved.
However, this facade is something which the character of Jay Gatsby himself knows to be false. He intentionally re-invents himself as this profoundly desirable person, as Nick expresses “He invented … the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would … invent.” Through his unethical means of making money, Gatsby is able to provide vibrant and opulent parties he holds flaunting his wealth in an attempt to attract Daisy.
This was not the only problem facing the American Dream though, in this pursuit of vast wealth and excess materialism, a sense of greed, carelessness and hollowness can be ascertained as this unbridled pursuit led to the degradation of morals, disparity between the have and the have nots and recklessness. The degradation of morals and carelessness can be displayed namely through the characters of Tom and Daisy who Nick describes as being “careless people” who retreat “back into their money or their vast carelessness.” This is furthered by Tom who despite being married and part of the “old money” commits infidelity and justify’s his actions because he ” always come back” after seeing Myrtle (his mistress).
This contempt for others and the environment (for example the Valley of Ashes) highlights the seismic damage left as a consequence of their actions. To exemplify, the unrestrained pursuit of wealth can be highlighted by the excess materialism – this can be reaffirmed by the description of Gatsby’s house which is described as a “colossal affair.”
Another major theme in the Great Gatsby which highlights the fallacy of the American Dream is the Valley of Ashes – more specifically, the Eyes of Dr TJ Eckleburg. The Valley of Ashes is an industrial wasteland which is a consequence of the myopic and reckless pursuit of wealth. It is described as a “grotesque garden” whereby “men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” These men are clearly the have nots in society and those who have suffered from the selfish actions of their more elevated (only literally) peers.
In the Great Gatsby, The Eyes of Dr TJ Eckleburg can be argued to act as an illustrative metaphor, exemplifying the notion that there has been a degradation of morals and a shift away from adherence to God. This derelict advertisement in the “grey land” can be said to represent how excessive materialism, debauchery and selfishness has replaced the moral and more preserved ways of life in the past. This interpretation can be furthered by the omniscient notion presented through the quote “we walked back a hundred yards along the road under Doctor Eckleburg’s persistent stare” which infers a sense of judgement as individuals recast their eyes at a forgotten symbol. The image of a Godly, moral guardian is later reaffirmed by George Wilson who makes reference to the Eyes of Dr TJ Eckleburg as being God in the quote “You may fool me but you can’t fool God!“
However, this also evokes a sense of ignorance as they recall Eckleburg’s presence and yet still continue in their selfish pursuit. This is reaffirmed when Daisy loses control of the car and kills Myrtle and Tom and Daisy decide to blame the accident on Gatsby (which ultimately leads to his demise).
From my perspective, the climax of Gatsby’s journey derives very much from the idea of New versus Old money. As mentioned earlier, the superficiality of Gatsby’s character is an attempt to control time and recoup his lost love for Daisy whom he was subordinate to. This heavily controlled reestablishment of Gatsby to be the “son of some wealthy people in the middle-west—all dead now. I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years. It is a family tradition” was simply false and an attempt to conceal his lower-class origins. However, this is arguably where Gatsby’s hamartia arises because despite this vast accumulation of wealth, the true pinnacle of the American Dream is something which you are born into as opposed to this alleged ladder to prosperity. This can be reaffirmed by Nick Carraway from the offset of the novel where his father told him that “a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth” and Tom who describes Gatsby as a “common swindler.”
For Gatsby, the unattainable fallacy can be contained within the symbol of the green light. The green light is arguably a conceit of Gatsby’s purpose, his mission and his determinations to control time and recoup his past relationship with Daisy. The green light acts as a metaphorical envisagement of Gatsby’s hope (albeit delusional and unattainable).
The green light also acts as the finale of Gatsby’s goals if you will in that he has achieved opulence, wealth and a very privileged way of life, however, the quote of “[H]e stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him” implies a sense of longing for his past and trying to attain the unattainable. The green light really reaffirms the fallacy of the American Dream and no matter how hard one tries to control time, superficiality, or to climb, there are limits and some things remain unattainable.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”