Many regard F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as one of the great literary achievements of its time. Published in 1925, the story accurately reflects a cross-section of post-World War I America. Referred to as the Jazz Age, the early- to mid-1920’s brought unprecedented economic gain to post-war America, benefiting primarily the established upper class, but also creating a new class of wealthy individuals known as the nouveaux riches. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald presents an unflattering view of the Jazz Agers, a segment of society that he and his wife Zelda were intimately familiar.
In his novel, Fitzgerald addresses a number of different themes, but the most developed is that of social stratification. At the heart of the story is the conflict between those with old money, those with new money, and those with no money. Jay Gatsby, the protagonist and namesake of the story and a man of new wealth, must contend with the elitism of the old-money Buchannans in order to be reunited with Daisy Buchannan, the love of his life. Nick Carraway, a man of modest means who happens to be Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s second cousin, is recruited by Gatsby to help reunite the couple. Through his association with Gatsby, the Buchannans, and those who associate with them, Nick bears witness to the shallow, self-serving nature of both the old and new rich.
Part of the brilliance of The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s use of Nick Carraway as a first-person observer-narrator. Even though Nick is the focal point of the story, he remains primarily in the background mostly observing and reporting, giving the appearance that this is the story of Jay Gatsby. As the story unfolds, however, we get deeper into Nick and come to understand not only what he is seeing, but how he feels about it. By the final three chapters it is apparent that this is not Jay Gatsby’s story at all, but that of Nick Carraway.
In the first six chapters of the novel, the threads of the story are loosely woven but slowly converging, and although Nick has been observing and reporting and expressing a mild aversion for what he is seeing, he has not yet taken a strong moral stance. It still seems to be Gatsby’s story. In chapter seven, however, everything changes. The threads of the story become tightly woven around a love triangle between Tom Buchannan, his wife Daisy, and Gatsby, and subsequent events test all of the characters. We also witness the death of Gatsby’s dream. By the end of the chapter, the Buchannans are seen as the superficial, uncaring people that they are, and Gatsby is reduced to a pathetic romantic who won’t let go of a dying dream. Only Nick comes away changed, and changed in a positive way.
Up to this point, Nick has been at odds with the Buchannans and everything they represent, but he has kept his opinions to himself and has refrained from showing overt disrespect. By his own admission in the beginning of the story, he has always been regarded as a “politician” because he is “inclined to reserve all judgments.” By the end of chapter seven, however, he is ready to cast judgment and admits to himself that he can no longer tolerate these people:
I was feeling a little sick and I wanted to be alone. But Jordan lingered for a moment more.
“It’s only half-past nine,” she said.
I’d be damned if I’d go in; I’d had enough of all of them for one day, and suddenly that included Jordan too. She must have seen something of this in my expression, for she turned abruptly away and ran up the porch steps into the house.
For the first time in the story Nick has taken a strong moral stand, and for the remainder of the novel his morality strengthens. This, along with his increasing disgust and disillusion finally drives him away from Eastern society and back to his Midwestern home.
By the end of Chapter seven and through the rest of the novel it is clear that The Great Gatsby is Nick Carraway’s story and not the story of Jay Gatsby. Gatsby, although a likeable and tragic figure, does not change over the course of the novel. Neither do the Buchannans, whose actions are reprehensible by story’s end. The only character that changes is Nick. According to author and editor Rust Hills in his book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, “Even when a narrator seems to be a peripheral observer and the story is “about” someone else, in fact it is the narrator who is changed, and must be, in order for us to be satisfied by our emotional identification with him or her.” And closely related to this is the likeability of Nick. Nick Carraway is the one “everyman” in the story that readers can relate to. Gatsby is sympathetic, but he can not easily be identified with, and the stratum of society he represents is not at all sympathetic. The Buchannans, who represent old money, are reprehensible and are not sympathetic at all.
In the end, The Great Gatsby is Nick Carraway’s (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s) scathing commentary on the excess and elitism that pervaded the Jazz Age society of the 1920’s, and the only way to present an unbiased view is through the eyes of an outsider who had an intimate glimpse into that society.
If you went to high school in this country you’ve probably read this book, and I would welcome any comments you may have. If you are an aspiring writer and you haven’t read it recently, I strongly encourage you to do so. This novel is a masterwork of the narrative arts.