F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published in the 1920’s, the jazz age of America. One critic has noted that at the time “gin and sex were the national obsession.” Americans chased whatever gave them happiness (as they still do today). If it felt good at the time, it was deemed acceptable, whether morally correct or not. The novel is told from the viewpoint of a first person narrator named Nick, a man trying to make a living in America. Nick relates some events that transpired around Long Island, New York, events that would affect him deeply. None of the events concern him, however, but other characters instead.
Rich Jay Gatsby entertains thousands with his luxuriant parties and festivities. Nick attends each nightly revel, celebrating the endless varieties of entertainment available to the visitors. Nick looks for Gatsby, wishing to meet him, for he was invited to attend the parties by Gatsby himself. When Nick finally meets the famous man, he is charmed by Gatsby’s kind disposition. But he doesn’t manage to learn much about Gatsby; there is mystery still. Until, that is, one day when Gatsby decides to take Nick with him in the city, introducing him to new people and places. Nick learns that Gatsby has had an interesting history, one involving war and adventure. He didn’t start out as rich but made his way to the top, though many suspect him of being a bootlegger (a person smuggling profitable alcohol into the market during the time of Prohibition).
By talking to a girl named Jordan, Nick learns that Gatsby is in love with Daisy, a rich lady who lives across form Gatsby’s mansion. Gatsby has been throwing his parties, not so much for the rich public, but for Daisy, in the hope that she will visit him. Gatsby has a romantic history with Daisy, back in the time he was off to fight in World War I. But there is a huge problem; Daisy is currently married to a snob named Tom. Tom cheats on Daisy on a regular basis with another lady in the slums of New York, where poor workers labor under the eyes of Dr. Eckelberg (a street sign showing a large pair of blue eyes under wire spectacles). Daisy, in spite of the fact she’s married to Tom, decides to elope with Gatsby. Nick suddenly finds himself in a whirlwind of passion and deception, being the narrator who sees all these things transpire right in front of his eyes.
Tom notices Daisy’s attraction to Gatsby and tries to insult him by questioning his roots. One afternoon, Gatsby leaves with Daisy in his yellow car, while Tom rides away with Nick and Jordan. As the night progresses, Nick learns that the girl Tom was seeing was killed by Gatsby’s car, putting her husband, Wilson, into a state of perpetual grief. Nick finds Gatsby, infuriated at him for hiding from the police. But Gatsby reveals that it was Daisy who drove his car out of control. Tom puts Wilson on the track of Gatsby, lying to him about what an evil man Gatsby is. Wilson murders Gatsby outside his mansion and commits suicide. Demoralized by the fact Daisy turns back to Tom for security, Nick concludes that they both “were careless people,” people who destroyed lives and left others to clean up their messes.
The novel ends by mentioning the green light; throughout the book, Nick notices Gatsby reaching towards the light, longing for Daisy. Over the years, literary critics suggest that the green light is a symbol for desire itself, or, more in the context of America, “The American Dream.” The United States presents an ideal, that humans can pursue any road they choose to, that they can live happy and fulfilling lives. What this means is different for different people. For Nick, it is a much needed job, for Gatsby, Daisy, for Tom, women in general, and for Wilson’s wife, the desire to escape a poor existence. It seems that Fitzgerald wants the reader to see that desire does not always pay off in the end; by pursuing a dangerous female, Gatsby endangers his life and ultimately pays a heavy price. But for Gatsby, nothing could be more important than reclaiming the past and an existence full of sweetness. Gatsby is essentially chasing his dreams, fully confident he will succeed. I enjoy seeing the novel this way. It teaches me that, even if what you desire is risky, it’s much better to have something to live for than hide in safety all your life. We all must take a risk in life eventually. Otherwise, have we truly lived? And relying on wisdom isn’t always the best, seeing as conventional wisdom tends to differ among many people. One must decide for themselves what is best.
The book may also question as to whether or not God exists for our favor. The eyes of Eckelberg have come to allude to God Himself. But the eyes on the sign simply watch. There is no sense that justice has been executed by God by the end of the novel since Tom and Daisy triumph in their foolishness. The world Fitzgerald presents is a world of capitalism, one where competition rules and each person must fend for themselves. But this seems to be more of a plight for the poor than the rich. Fitzgerald may be questioning capitalistic society, whether or not sprawling business is worth it in the end. Or, whether or not it is a just system for Americans. On the other hand, since Gatsby has a generous heart towards others, Fitzgerald may be presenting an uncommon view of the rich; they are well mannered and fair. This view most likely will not fly with the poor. The rich are often seen as corrupt and maniacal. Either way, the reader has liberty to interpret what they will and conclude accordingly.
The reason Fitzgerald’s novel is a classic is that it presents a historical, distinctly American era that universally resonates with us still. Issues concerning the rich and poor have never been more prevalent, and in a failing economy, the question as to whether the American Dream needs to be evaluated still lingers. In the end, though, humans will still pursue their dreams, no matter what the cost.