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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Book Notes
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11. This is a particularly good essay topic if you have already studied Heart of Darkness. Both novels are short, compact, intense. In each case, an inexperienced young man who is the narrator (Nick in Fitzgerald's novel, Marlow in Conrad's) goes on a journey and meets an extraordinary character who has a profound influence on the young man's life. In each case the young man comes to admire the extraordinary character, even though that character is someone the world might not admire. The heroes (Gatsby and Kurtz) die, and the young narrators are moved by those deaths to tell their stories. Fitzgerald modeled The Great Gatsby on Heart of Darkness, and a study of the two books together would be most rewarding.

If the essay is a shorter one, then merely compare and contrast Nick and Marlow or Gatsby and Kurtz. --

12. If you have read Eliot's famous poem, published in 1922, you cannot help but be struck by some of the ways in which Fitzgerald learned from Eliot. Eliot's poem is full of barrenness, dryness, and sterility. His "Waste Land" is a desert land, thirsty for the water of spiritual rebirth. In Eliot's world the characters are shallow, without lasting values, without deep feelings. Fitzgerald's characters, even the minor ones who show up at Gatsby's parties, suffer from the same emptiness, symbolized by "dust." Fitzgerald's valley of ashes is a symbol that may have been inspired directly by Eliot's masterpiece. Both Eliot and Fitzgerald were young men who became spokesmen for their generation. Many young men in the 1920s who read "The Waste Land" said that the poem expressed their own feelings about life; many said the same about Fitzgerald's work. --

13. How do we get to know people? We meet them, become interested in them, start a friendship perhaps, and then take an interest in their past lives. We get to know Gatsby in the same way. In the first three chapters Fitzgerald explores the present-the summer of 1922. In Chapters IV, VI, and VIII he takes us into the world of Gatsby's past. Gatsby is a kind of mystery to be solved, and we are given more and more clues as we go along.

Our last piece of information about Gatsby's past does not come until Chapter IX, only pages before the end of the book. Discuss whether you find this movement back and forth from past to present more interesting than being told a story chronologically. (For more details, read comments on Form and Structure.) --

14. Fitzgerald often said that he had a romantic side that made him throw himself passionately into parties, and into other intense experiences with Zelda. That side didn't know when to say "no," and it often drove Fitzgerald into situations that were dangerous and destructive. The other side of Fitzgerald was hard working, disciplined. This side of him wanted to be a famous writer and knew how much self-restraint and hard work were required to do the job well. You can argue in your paper that these two sides of Fitzgerald are captured in turn, by Nick and Gatsby.

It will help you to reread the section of this guide called The Author and His Times, and to read one of the fine Fitzgerald biographies by Arthur Mizener or Andrew Turnbull. You may want to take your essay a step afield by considering Gatsby and Nick as the two sides of any human being including yourself. --

15. This subject has been treated frequently throughout this guidebook. See especially the comments under Themes, in the section called Other Elements. Marius Bewley's excellent essay, "Scott Fitzgerald's Criticism of America," is also very helpful. (see The Critics section). You will need to think about what the phrase "the American dream" means and whether or not it means the same thing as "the American dream of success." If it is "American" for a young man without money or family background to want to make it big, what is wrong with Gatsby's dream?

Fitzgerald hints at an answer to this and related questions in the extraordinary passage on the final page of the novel (see commentary on Chapter IX). You will have to decide finally whether you think Fitzgerald is criticizing the American dream itself or just the form that the dream is taking during the 1920s.

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