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THEMES / THEME ANALYSIS
A good novel has a number of themes. The following are important themes of The Great Gatsby.
1. THE CORRUPTION OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
The American Dream-as it arose in the Colonial period and developed in the nineteenth century-was based on the assumption that each person, no matter what his origins, could succeed in life on the sole basis of his or her own skill and effort. The dream was embodied in the ideal of the self-made man, just as it was embodied in Fitzgerald's own family by his grandfather, P. F. McQuillan.
The Great Gatsby is a novel about what happened to the American dream in the 1920s, a period when the old values that gave substance to the dream had been corrupted by the vulgar pursuit of wealth. The characters are Midwesterners who have come East in pursuit of this new dream of money, fame, success, glamour, and excitement. Tom and Daisy must have a huge house, a stable of polo ponies, and friends in Europe. Gatsby must have his enormous mansion before he can feel confident enough to try to win Daisy.
What Fitzgerald seems to be criticizing in The Great Gatsby is not the American Dream itself but the corruption of the American Dream. What was once-for Ben Franklin, for example, or Thomas Jefferson-a belief in self-reliance and hard work has become what Nick Carraway calls "...the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty." The energy that might have gone into the pursuit of noble goals has been channeled into the pursuit of power and pleasure, and a very showy, but fundamentally empty form of success.
How is this developed? I have tried to indicate in the chapter-by-chapter analysis, especially in the Notes, that Fitzgerald's critique of the dream of success is developed primarily through the five central characters and through certain dominant images and symbols. The characters might be divided into three groups: 1. Nick, the observer and commentator, who sees what has gone wrong; 2. Gatsby, who lives the dream purely; and 3. Tom, Daisy, and Jordan, the "foul dust" who are the prime examples of the corruption of the dream.
The primary images and symbols that Fitzgerald employs in developing the theme are: 1. the green light; 2. the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg; 3. the image of the East and Midwest; 4. Owl Eyes; 5. Dan Cody's yacht; and 6. religious terms such as grail and incarnation.
2. SIGHT AND INSIGHT
Both the character groupings and the images and symbols suggest a second major theme that we can call "sight and insight." As you read the novel, you will come across many images of blindness; is this because hardly anyone seems to see what is really going on? The characters have little self-knowledge and even less knowledge of each other. Even Gatsby-we might say, especially Gatsby-lacks the insight to understand what is happening. He never truly sees either Daisy or himself, so blinded is he by his dream. The only characters who see, in the sense of "understand," are Nick and Owl Eyes. The ever present eyes of Dr. Eckleburg seem to reinforce the theme that there is no all-seeing presence in the modern world.
3. THE MEANING OF THE PAST
The past is of central importance in the novel, whether it is Gatsby's personal past (his affair with Daisy in 1917) or the larger historical past to which Nick refers in the closing sentence of the novel: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." The past holds something that both Gatsby and Nick seem to long for: a simpler, better, nobler time, perhaps, a time when people believed in the importance of the family and the church. Tom, Daisy and Jordan are creatures of the present-Fitzgerald tells us little or nothing about their pasts-and it is this allegiance to the moment that makes them so attractive, and also so rootless and spiritually empty.
4. THE EDUCATION OF A YOUNG MAN
In Chapter VII, Nick remembers that it is his thirtieth birthday. He, like Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy, came East to get away from his past; now that his youth is officially over, he realizes that he may have made a mistake to come East, and begins a period of reevaluation that leads to his eventual decision to return to the Middle West.
The Great Gatsby is the story of Nick's initiation into life. His trip East gives him the education he needs to grow up. The novel can, therefore, be called a bildungsroman-the German word for a story about a young man. (Other examples of a bildungsroman are The Red Badge of Courage, David Copperfield, and The Catcher in the Rye.) Nick, in a sense, writes The Great Gatsby to show us what he has learned.