© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896–1940) The Great Gatsby has often been considered to be the greatest of all American novels. It is also one of the central examples of American modernist fiction. Though it lacks the overt and obvious stylistic experimentalism of great modernist novels such as Joyce’s Ulysses, published just three years earlier, Gatsby does some interesting things with style. In particular, the book’s style complements its subject matter, which is very much America in the 1920s, just as Joyce’s book is about Dublin in 1904. Meanwhile, evidence in the text suggests that the action of The Great Gatsby is set in 1922, the year of the publication of Ulysses[1]. Both Ulysses and Gatsby are also informed by an intense sense of crisis, by an awareness that the worlds they are depicting are teetering on the brink of extinction. Moreover, neither Ulysses nor Gatsby, at the level of content, shows much confidence that the new future that looms on the horizon will be much of an improvement. Yet both books do contain a strong utopian dimension that is embodied in their own status as self-consciously great works of literature.

Historical Context

One of the key reasons why The Great Gatsby is such a highly respected novel is that it captures so effectively the spirit of the 1920s “Jazz Age” in which it is set. The 1920s were a particularly crucial decade in the progress of American history. Following the traumatic decade of the 1910s (marked by a world war, a deadly pandemic, and widespread right-wing, white supremacist violence), the 1920s seemed to be a relatively optimistic and energetic time. The new consumerist form of capitalism that had begun to transform American society at the beginning of the twentieth century was nearly derailed by the upsets of the 1910s, but it now finally hit its stride, entering a period of explosive growth in which vast fortunes could seemingly be made by anyone with sufficient courage and daring to go after them. It was a decade of spectacle and hope. As William Leach, whose book Land of Desire is the best history of the rise of American consumer capitalism, puts it,

“Much glimmered in the twenties. Fashion spectacles glimmered in such cities as Philadelphia and Chicago. There were color and light spectacles, too, and big spectacle parades for adults and children, including extensive pre-Christmas parades. America’s mecca of color and light, Times Square, emerged as the nation’s most famous glimmering district. And behind these spectacles, as rationally managed in their way as the contemporary promotional strategies, was what Fitzgerald said, in The Great Gatsby, could be heard in the voice of beautiful Daisy Buchanan: “‘Her voice was full of money’” (313).

On the other hand, The Great Gatsby also shows a great deal of skepticism toward the burgeoning glitter of the 1920s, a skepticism that would appear prescient a few years later, in 1929, when the stock market crashed, and America (along with the rest of the Western capitalist world) was plunged into a decade-long economic depression. This skepticism is expressed in The Great Gatsby in a number of ways, as when wealthy characters such as the Buchanans are portrayed as pursuing frivolous lifestyles, often thoughtlessly doing considerable damage to others (especially to others, such as the Wilsons, who are less wealthy). “They were careless people,” narrator Nick Carraway tells us with obvious disapproval of the Buchanans, “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness.”

Nick himself is very much a figure of the so-called lost generation, the disoriented, directionless, and disenchanted generation of Westerners (especially Americans) who were born near the end of the nineteenth century, then grew up amid a swirl of change that at least suggested the possibility of a glorious future. They then became seriously disoriented and disillusioned as a result of World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, and other calamities of the late 1910s that called everything they believed into question just as they were becoming adults. Much of the literature of the 1920s expresses the sensibilities of this lost generation, with Fitzgerald and his friend Ernest Hemingway generally being regarded as the leading literary chroniclers of their experience (though the term “lost generation” actually comes from Gertrude Stein). For members of this generation, the booming capitalist world that they see around them seemed unreal and unreliable, perhaps due to collapse at any moment (as, in fact, it did).

Nick’s (and the novel’s) skepticism toward wealth and the wealthy is perhaps portrayed most obviously in the profligate lifestyle of Jay Gatsby, with all those extravagant parties at his sparkling mansion clearly representing an attempt to impress Daisy Buchanan, but it is also an attempt to use wealth to create a community of the wealthy to which he can feel he belongs, an attempt that is obviously unsuccessful. The superficiality and inauthenticity of these celebrations are obvious, while it is also clear that the parties are fueled by copious amounts of alcohol.

Alcohol, in fact, is a key image of American society in The Great Gatsby. The eighteenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution instituted a nationwide ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages that lasted from 1920 to 1933, so that alcohol was illegal in the U.S. throughout the 1920s. And yet alcohol was still widely consumed, especially among the rich, who found still another reason to think of themselves as above the law, while Prohibition as a whole became a symbol of the way in which Americans often espoused morally conservative values while failing to live up to those values in their own lives.

The Great Gatsby also suggests (without ever clearly specifying the details) that Gatsby’s wealth was acquired by mostly illegal means, including bootlegging. The character of Meyer Wolfsheim, one of Gatsby’s associates, is a gangster type involved in bootlegging, gambling, and a variety of other shady activities. That Wolfsheim is based on a real historical personage is one measure of how engaged The Great Gatsby is with its historical context[2]. Meanwhile, the Buchanans themselves certainly don’t seem to have earned their wealth by any respectable means, which comments on the lives of the idle rich in the 1920s. As Carraway notes, the Buchanans “had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.”

Tom Buchanan, in particular, is an oafish and despicable figure, which certainly casts his social group of those who have inherited great wealth in a negative light. In addition, as the daughter of a wealthy Southern family, it is likely that Daisy Buchanan has inherited wealth that originated in the exploitation of slave labor before the Civil War, reminding us that American wealth in general often has a very dark history. But the novel is centered very much in the New York area, home of the major American stock exchange and headquarters of the ultra-wealthy robber barons of the late nineteenth century, who had built vast fortunes by often ruthless and unscrupulous means.

Gatsby has used overtly criminal means in an attempt to catch up to the families that had become wealthy in the late nineteenth century. As a result of the newfound nature of his wealth, the superficiality Gatsby’s wealth seems particularly obvious. It is clear that he tries too hard to display his wealth through his mansion and his parties, but also in other ways, as in the impressive library he has built in his mansion. This library, as the libraries of the wealthy often were at the time, is impressively stocked with expensive volumes that serve as signs, not of intellectual accomplishment, but of ostentatious wealth. In one scene, Nick wanders into Gatsby’s library and finds an “owl-eyed” man there who discourses excitedly on the books, noting that they are real books, not simply cardboard fakes. The man also notes, however, that the pages haven’t been cut (which would be necessary in order to read the books), indicating that they are purely for show and not for reading[3]. The man pulls down one of the books and shows it to Nick: “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco[4]. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”

Race and Class in The Great Gatsby

Gatsby’s story is seemingly the story of the American Dream, an all-American tale of upward mobility, of rising from humble beginnings to achieve great wealth. That he has had to do so by illegal and unscrupulous means, though, suggests a serious flaw in this all-American story. That it ultimately leads to his death suggests a possible looming disaster for American capitalism. Moreover, it is also clear that people like Tom, who have inherited their wealth, still do not regard people like Gatsby, who have had to make their wealth, as their equals. And the text makes it quite clear that Tom would feel the same way, even if Gatsby had somehow been able to acquire his wealth by legal means.

Tom does not encounter Wolfsheim in the novel, but it is a safe bet that he would regard the gangster with even more disdain, partly because the gangster is clearly Jewish, while Tom is clearly portrayed as a racist and white supremacist, who feels that “Nordics” like himself should be the dominant race. Early in the book, for example, Tom alludes to “Goddard’s The Rise of the Coloured Empires,” which is obviously based on a real book by Lothrop Stoddard entitled The Rising Tide of Color, which became a bestseller in the U.S. in the early 1920s, reflecting some of the deepest fears of white American society at that time, fears that unfortunately remain in full force today. Importantly, Tom clearly endorses the argument of this book, which argues that the White race is the natural ruling race of the world, having produced all things of value to civilization, but that nonwhite races are on the rise and must be stopped before they overturn White hegemony. Tom himself summarizes the argument of the book: “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

Even Daisy reacts to Tom’s endorsement of this white supremacist argument with skepticism and mockery, and it is quite clear that Fitzgerald intended for us to view Tom’s racist attitude as contemptible. At the same time, there are moments when even Nick appears to be casually racist, and the book does nothing to critique his attitude. For example, as he rides in Gatsby’s fateful yellow car, he treats us with this bit of information: “As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.” Nick obviously finds it hilariously incongruous that three black people would be passengers in a car driven by a white chauffeur, while finding it impossible to resist indulging in a common racist cliché about the comical rolling eyeballs of African Americans.

Wolfsheim is the only non-“Nordic” character to have any substance at all in the novel, and even he is something of a caricature. Indeed, the representation of him through a series of anti-semitic stereotypes has caused many readers to conclude that the novel itself might be anti-semitic. As a gambler and a man engaged in a number of shady enterprises, it seems clear that he is meant to be perceived as a Shylock-like figure, devoted to the acquisition of money by any means necessary. Wolfsheim is described as “a small, flat-nosed Jew” with “tiny eyes” and “two fine growths of hair” in his nostrils. Indeed, the narrative seems fascinated with Wolfsheim’s Jewish nose, describing it as “expressive,” “tragic,” and able to “flash … indignantly.”

One could argue, of course, that any antisemitism in these remarks might be attributed, not to Fitzgerald, but to Nick, though Nick has a clear misanthropic streak that causes him to describe almost everyone in the story negatively, regardless of their ethnicity. More often, critics have suggested that Fitzgerald was merely using the kind of language that was typically used to describe Jewish people in the 1920s, and that he shows no malice toward Jews in using this language. At the same time, Fitzgerald (or perhaps Nick) does nothing to contradict any negative visions of Jews that might arise from the depiction of Wolfsheim in the novel.

The same might be said for the depiction of the working-class Wilsons in The Great Gatsby. The Wilsons are almost cartoonish figures of working-class people, of the kind of people who populate the world that Gatsby has struggled so hard to escape. One could argue that the Wilsons are described in this stereotypical way because Nick, with his social background, has simply never known any working-class people, and has no idea that they might actually have thoughts and dreams, instead of mere physical lusts. After all, Nick might not be personally rich, but he does have a Yale education and come from a “good” family; he also has every reason, within the context of the early 1920s, to feel that he might become rich someday, after which he will have no trouble attaining the social respectability that Gatsby so desperately craves and could never achieve, given his background.

Indeed, the combined focus on classism and racism in The Great Gatsby suggests that the two categories are intertwined. Gatsby, with his working-class background, can no more hope to be accepted by the Tom Buchanans of the world than could a black man be accepted as white. Except, of course, unless the black man could pass as white. It is easy to see Gatsby’s story as one of passing, based on class rather than race, all of his gaudy displays of wealth serving largely as disguises—though their very gaudiness also suggests his own distorted view of what it means to be upper-class in America[5]. Thus, Lewis suggests that Gatsby’s narrative of upward mobility can be seen as a kind of “passing” that is “figuratively rendered in terms of racial blackness” (Lewis 174). That Gatsby is ultimately unable to fool “real” upper-class people, meanwhile, suggests that class might be even harder to overcome than race in America (though the two are certainly not separate categories but intersect significantly).

The Great Gatsby and The American Dream

The Great Gatsby, often seen as a crucial social document of American life in the 1920s, depicts that decade as the culmination of the previous three decades of explosive growth in American consumer capitalism. But it is, in many ways, a negative culmination. As Malcolm Bradbury puts it, Gatsby is “the story of a gross, materialistic, careless society of coarse wealth spread on top of a sterile world; on it is cast an extraordinary illusion, that of the ex-Jay Gatz, the self-created Gatsby. A man whose poor past and corrupt economic supports are hidden in his own glow, Gatsby likewise decorates his entire world through his love for Daisy Buchanan” (87).

The Great Gatsby carefully depicts America as a land whose once-limitless utopian promise has collapsed beneath the weight of the rampant commodification of everything via the growth of modern consumer capitalism. On the one hand, Gatsby’s ultimate failure to overcome his class-based distance from Daisy demonstrates the fictionality of the American myth of unlimited upward mobility. On the other, Daisy herself becomes a fiction, commodified in Gatsby’s fantasies as simply another object of consumerist desire. Meanwhile, Nick Carraway, in closing his narration, notes that the New World of America had once served as a powerful locus of utopian dreams, dreams that have now been swept away in much the same way as Gatsby’s dream of possessing Daisy. Moreover, the death of the American dream announces, for Carraway, the death of utopian dreams altogether. Looking over a Long Island now blighted by capitalist development, he notes that

“its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder” (189).

The elegiac tone and sense of loss in this passage are clear. In this sense, The Great Gatsby has a great deal in common with Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, which so explicitly thematizes the death of utopian dreams in modern America. At the same time, one might argue that there is a certain blindness inherent in this depiction of a pristine America encountered by the first European settlers, because it entirely fails to mention the presence of the Native Americans whose world would be destroyed by these settlers.

Style and Narrative Voice

What perhaps saves The Great Gatsby from being thoroughly dismal is Fitzgerald’s own literary achievement in the novel. The fictional characters in the book might be mostly unlikeable and achieve very little in the way of true success, but Fitzgerald himself achieves a great deal, even if the modernist complexity of the novel means that the exact nature of his achievement is open to debate. For example, some have seen the book’s flights of poetic language as achievements in themselves. Others might see this language as excessive and flashy (much like Gatsby’s parties), actually serving as a parody of literary language. That the book works for either kind of reader is a clear indication of its sophisticated modernism.

I prefer the second reading, but, in either case, perhaps the most obvious way in which Gatsby is a modernist novel is its intense, self-conscious focus on style, however one interprets that focus. For me, the novel employs a barrage of poetic passages that seem somehow at odds with the actual subject matter of the story. Meanwhile, the style of the novel is inseparable from the question of its narrative voice. Because the story is narrated by Nick Carraway in first-person, it is natural to assume that the style of the novel is Nick’s style. And yet, these flights of poetry do not really seem appropriate to Nick, a young bond trader who has no obvious artistic or literary inclinations[6]. Indeed, Nick, in general, comes off as cynical and disillusioned, contrasting sharply with the poetic language he employs and asking us to examine that language closely for signs of inauthenticity.

Nick employs all sorts of poetic conceits in telling his story. One of his favorites is the trope of personification, whereby he attributes human- or animal-like characteristics to inanimate objects. Wilson’s car, Nick tells us, “crouched in a dim corner,” while Gatsby’s roared along “with fenders spread like wings.” Gatsby’s numerous fancy shirts are stored in “hulking” cabinets, and his brightly-lit house at one point seems to have “winked into the darkness” (81). Finally, Nick tells us late in the narrative that midwestern towns are “bored, sprawling, swollen.”

A typical flight of poetry occurs in Nick’s description of the romantic hopes of the young Gatsby, just beginning to seek out a new life that will transcend the poverty of his childhood:

“But his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor. Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.”

Here, Nick’s poetic language is clearly intended to capture the state of mind of the young Gatsby, which already shows the capacity for hope for which Nick, elsewhere in the text, seems to profess admiration. For example, he notes near the beginning of the narrative that Gatsby had an “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.”

And yet, in the almost excessively poetic description of the ambitions of the young Gatsby, we can find a hint of the kind of interpretive uncertainty that runs throughout the novel. If we read these lines closely, we can just discern a number of apparent contradictions and a possible note of mockery that suggests Gatsby’s hopes to have been naïve and unrealistic. For example, the suggestion that Gatsby’s imagination created a “universe of ineffable gaudiness” suggests that there is something a bit unreal and vulgar about Gatsby’s fantasies, while the immediate indication that this universe “spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor” creates a contrast between these soaring dreams and the down-to-earth reality of ticking clocks and wet clothes.

Such contradictions occur throughout Gatsby. Thus, Gail Sinclair, in her analysis of the style of the novel, notes that

“Fitzgerald also uses poetically evocative yet seemingly vacuous, nonsensical, or carelessly disjunctive language that serves more than a descriptive function. Very early in Gatsby, readers are forced to slow down, step back, and reexamine opinions the narrator has just given them. In the novel’s third paragraph, Nick says, ‘I’m inclined to reserve all judgments’ (1). But almost immediately he negates this statement, saying, ‘And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit’ (2), and then proceeds indiscriminately to critique everyone he encounters. Nick calls himself a “well-rounded man” who nevertheless lives by a controlling philosophy that ‘life is much more successfully looked at from a single window’ (4). In the next chapter, he reveals, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (35). Nick’s odd or imprecise language and shifting assessments highlight his propensity for dramatically opposing views, as readers might begin to note” (Sinclair 150).

Of course, the rampant contradictions that give The Great Gatsby so much of its flavor are also the stuff of capitalism itself. Indeed, one of the reasons why this novel is so special is the way in which it captures the spirit of 1920s capitalism, not only in its content, but in its very style. An understanding of the contradictory nature of capitalism drove Karl Marx (1818–1883), in what is still the most salient description of the workings of the capitalist system, to insist that capitalism must be described dialectically through the analysis of the contradictory ideas that underlie the system and that have driven its historical evolution. Indeed, The Great Gatsby is congruent with the work of Marx in a number of ways, the most obvious of which is its central focus on class as the most important form of social categorization.

Nick’s suggestion that Gatsby’s dreams were informed by a “hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing” is also descriptive of capitalism itself. This passage is, for example, very much in accordance with the description of capitalism put forth by Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848). Here, Marx and Engels express great admiration for the ability of capitalism to adapt and change, overcoming all obstacles in its path toward global domination. At the same time, they also note that this immense capacity for innovation creates a world of constant, dizzying change that can be disorienting and dehumanizing. In one of their more famous passages, they note that

“constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudice and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solidmelts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, in his relations with his kind” (6).

This passage, initially written to describe European society in 1848, would seem to provide an even better description of America in the 1920s, the last of several decades of unprecedented and fundamental change that had created the sense of insubstantiality that this passage so well captures and that The Great Gatsby so well dramatizes. Gatsby’s flashy parties and Nick’s flashy style can both be taken as emblems of this new America, changing with an exhilarating, but potentially terrifying, speed, rich and exciting, but excessive and somehow not quite real.

Finally, Nick’s frequent use of contradictory language, which so closely parallels the contrast between his roles as a world-weary bonds salesman and as a poet who writes with the talents of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is accompanied by structural contradictions within his narrative. In particular, Nick often provides detailed first-person accounts of events that he did not personally observe, which, at a minimum, raises questions about how he knows this information and, at a maximum, suggests that Nick is a highly unreliable narrator who might not be providing us with any reliable information at all but might simply just be making it all up.

The Characters of The Great Gatsby

One of the most memorable aspects of The Great Gatsby is its very clearly delineated characters. On the other hand, the book’s modernist evasion of definitive interpretation leaves a great deal of room for varying views of the individual characters. One reason for these varying views is that some of the characters are rather complex. The principal reason, however, is that the characters of Gatsby do not function as representations of real individual human beings as they would in a realist novel. Instead, the characterization in Gatsby is essentially allegorical, with each character standing in for particular social forces within American society in the 1920s.

This mode of characterization can be quite complex, though, partly because the novel does not depart from realistic characterization altogether. For example, Tom (surely the book’s most unlikeable character) clearly represents rich white men who feel entitled to take and use anyone and anything they encounter. Tom believes it is his right to rule the world, even though he contributes nothing of value to that world. He regards other people as things that are there for his convenience and pleasure, especially when they are women. Thus, while Daisy, his beautiful wife, is from the same social class as Tom, he regards her as little more than another of his expensive possessions, a highly patriarchal attitude that also makes him feel entitled to have dalliances with other women, especially working-class women (such as Myrtle Wilson or the hotel chambermaid that got him into trouble in Chicago).

What Tom represents, then, is fairly clear. Some might say too clear, because he seems on the verge of caricature. The Great Gatsby, though, asks us to consider the possibility that the idle rich might, indeed, really be this awful. Of course, we see almost nothing of Tom’s interior life and we have very little idea what challenges he might have faced, despite his privileged background, that have made him the way he is. His characterization is particularly shallow and superficial, partly because he is such an allegorical figure. But this portrayal might have a realistic aspect as well: perhaps men like Tom Buchanan really are shallow and superficial, precisely because they have faced so few challenges.

Daisy is, in her own way, is equally shallow and has led an equally entitled life. She, again, is more of a social type—the rich, spoiled, beautiful Southern belle, than a distinct individual. Again, we know almost nothing of her interior life—partly, again, because her interior life might be almost non-existent. We do know, however, that she is accustomed to being catered to and to being desired by men, and it is clear that Gatsby’s attentions are welcome to her, not because she genuinely loves him (she barely knows him), but because she finds his seeming devotion to her a flattering relief from boredom. She has been taught to see herself as a shiny bauble, and she feels entitled to the admiration of men. However, when paired with Tom, Daisy clearly becomes a victim. She may not have had to overcome much adversity until the events of this novel, but she has also had relatively few choices in life. She has, in fact, been groomed since childhood to become the wife of a man like Tom, which, of course, makes it unthinkable that she might marry a man like Gatsby, just as it would be unthinkable that she might not marry anyone at all. Yet a man like Tom is ill equipped to treat Daisy as anything other than an acquisition.

The clear allegorical center of this novel, of course, is Gatsby, who, as I noted above, is an obvious figure of upward mobility. As Giltrow and Stouck note, “Gatsby’s story belongs to a particularly American version of naive or folk romance, the rags-to-riches story at the ideological heart of capitalism, wherein the hero’s dream of success and romantic love is realized through the pursuit of material wealth” (139). In this case, though, the romance of this rags-to-riches story is immediately complicated by the fact that Gatsby has acquired his riches by criminal means. Further, his story is complicated by the fact that, even though he might now be as wealthy as (or possibly even wealthier than) Tom Buchanan, he could never be accepted into Tom’s social circle and would no doubt never be regarded as a proper match for Daisy. Similarly, the book’s title is double-voiced. There is a way in which Gatsby can be regarded as truly great, given what he has been able to achieve, but there is also surely some irony in this title, given that the means through which he has attained his achievements are disreputable, making them somewhat inauthentic.

Almost everything about Gatsby is similarly marked by contradictory meanings. Some might see his quest for Daisy as romantic, and the narrative does endow Gatsby’s devotion to winning Daisy with a certain nobility. Many readers come away with admiration for the fact that he has spent a lifetime trying to move into a position from which he might be able to convince Daisy to marry him. However, it should be noted that it has actually only been five years since his first brief encounter with Daisy back in Kentucky, and two of those were spent overseas in the military. He has, therefore, only spent three years amassing his fortune, which might be impressive in itself, but it does raise the question of what sort of crimes he has had to commit in order to make so much money so quickly.

Moreover, a close look at Gatsby’s passion for Daisy suggests that there is something suspect about his devotion to her. Just as she barely knows Gatsby, so, too, does he barely know her, and there is clearly a question as to whether he is really devoted to Daisy or simply devoted to the idea of what marrying her would represent in terms of his upward climb. Essentially all Gatsby knows about Daisy is that she is beautiful and rich and comes from a distinguished old family. As a result, acquiring her as his wife (and surely it would be an acquisition) might simply be another step in his desperate drive to win social status. In many ways, Daisy is just another version of his impressive mansion, both serving as expensive symbols of his success.

Many readers might wish for a “happy” ending in which Gatsby and Daisy get together, but it is not at all clear that this ending would represent much of an improvement in Daisy’s life, because she would still be caught in the same patriarchal trap of functioning primarily as a symbol of the success of a man. Meanwhile, a match between Gatsby and Daisy would be less likely to raise his social status than to lower hers, which is probably one reason why anyone viewing this situation from the outside can see that there is very little likelihood that Daisy would ever have divorced Tom and married Gatsby.

Ross Posnock notes Gatsby’s strikingly contradictory characterization in the novel: “A figure at once exalted and impoverished, utterly rare and embarrassingly derivative, Gatsby is both ‘gorgeous’ in his ‘heightened sensitivity’ and ‘romantic readiness,’ and pitifully empty, less a man than an ‘advertisement,’ in Daisy’s word” (202). For Posnock, though, Gatsby’s doubleness is a product of the contradictory nature of capitalism itself, arising from Fitzgerald’s essentially Marxist understanding of capitalism. I largely agree, though I would also say that at least some of Gatsby’s doubleness in the novel arises from the fact that all we see of him is filtered through the consciousness of Nick Carraway, who seems to be ambivalent about almost everything.

Of course, Nick’s ambivalence can be attributed to the fact that he himself is the product of a capitalist society that is filled with contradictions. Similarly, one reason we learn so little about the interior lives of all the other characters is that all of our information about them comes from Nick, who doesn’t really know any of the other characters very well, and who is so alienated and distanced from all the other characters that he could surely never hope to understand their interior lives. Per Marx, such alienation is one of the key results of a capitalist society that glorifies individualism, while at the same time reducing all individuals to interchangeable elements of a faceless economic system. As a result, individuals under capitalism are encouraged both to think of themselves as different from everyone else and to regard everyone else as economic commodities rather than genuine human beings.

It is not surprising, then, that Nick not only doesn’t know any of the other characters well but is also not particularly interested in knowing any of them. This is especially the case with the Wilsons, but Nick is also rather dismissive of the book’s rich characters, with the possible exception of Gatsby, whom he at least partly views as a mysterious, romantic figure who might help him escape from the suffocating routine of life in a capitalist world in which he is expected to devote himself to making money and accumulating all the signs of success that Gatsby so desires. But even here Nick remains thoroughly ambivalent. For example, just after he relates to us a scene in which he declares Gatsby to be worth “the whole damn bunch [of the other rich characters] put together,” he immediately informs us that “I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”

Sinclair notes that Nick’s contradictory descriptions of the book’s other characters “work against clear, concise evaluation and hinder easy binary division into the good/bad, moral/immoral, heroic/villainous distinctions perpetuated by Nick” (151). Of course, these contradictions also hinder our evaluation of Nick himself, and one of the key characteristics of The Great Gatsby that makes it a modernist novel lies in the fact that we know so little about Nick, even though the entire narrative is told to us from his perspective. In fact, Nick is a highly enigmatic figure. On the one hand, he seems capable of great flights of poetic language. On the other, he cynically dismisses all romanticism, as might be expected from a member of the lost generation.

Nick is, in fact, one of the great characters in American literature, not because his depiction is so vivid, but because it is so vague. Though narrating in first person, Nick actually tells us very little about himself—and what he does tell us is often contradictory. As a result, generations of readers have entertained themselves with speculations about Nick’s character. One of the most popular of these speculations has concerned the possibility that Nick might be gay (something that has often been rumored about Fitzgerald himself). Such speculations have focused especially on Nick’s odd encounter with the “pale, feminine” Mr. McKee, which is conveyed with significant ellipses that leaving it to readers to speculate on exactly what is happening. But, of course, the possibility that Nick might be gay is probably most important for the way it gives his fascination with Gatsby a whole new dimension—such as the fact that the virtual impossibility of open, successful gay relationships in the 1920s mirrors the impossibility of Gatsby’s quest for Daisy[7].


Bradbury, Malcolm. The Modern American Novel. Viking, 1993.

Froehlich, Maggie Gordon. “Jordan Baker, Gender Dissent, and Homosexual Passing in The Great Gatsby.” The Space Between, vol. 6, no. 1, 2010, pp. 81–103.

Giltrow, Janet, and David Stouck. “Teaching Mode, Style, and Politics in The Great Gatsby.” Approaches to Teaching Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Edited by Jackson R. Bryer and Nancy P. VanArsdale, Modern Language Association of America, 2009, pp. 139–47.

Lewis, Charles. “Babled Slander Where the Paler Shades Dwell: Reading Race in The Great Gatsby and Passing.” LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory, vol.18, 2007, pp. 173-91.

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[1] In his 2013 postmodern film adaptation of the novel, Baz Luhrmann seems to emphasize this connection when he has his version of Nick Carraway (played by Tobe McGuire) pick up a copy of Ulysses, suggesting that Luhrmann’s Carraway might be a bit more literary than Fitzgerald’s. Note, though, that, until 1934, Ulysses was banned in the United States as pornographic, so this would have to be an illegal bootleg copy of the novel.

[2] Wolfsheim is clearly modeled on real-world racketeer Arnold Rothstein, famed for having fixed the 1919 World Series. The story of the 1919 World Series is very effectively told in John Sayles’ brilliant film Eight Men Out (1988), which reveals the tactics used by Rothstein and his associates to bribe eight members of the Chicago White Sox to lose the series intentionally. However, the film clearly identifies the roots of the scandal in the exploitative practices of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, who makes huge profits from the team but pays the players so poorly that they become fair game for unscrupulous gamblers who offer them a chance at easy money by throwing the Series.

[3] Books had become a symbol of wealth in the early nineteenth century in Britain, when newly rich capitalist often displayed their wealth through collecting expensive leather-bound volumes, often without ever cutting the pages.

[4] David Belasco (1853 –1931) was an American theatrical producer, impresario, director, and playwright, known for his showmanship.

[5] Froehlich suggests that the gaudiness of Gatsby’s displays indicates that the metaphor of “passing” does not really apply to his case, as he is clearly not “flying under the radar” (81). I think this reading misses the point of Gatsby’s displays, which is precisely help him pass as rich, because this is the way he perceives rich people to act.

[6] Nick does refer to himself as the author of the book we are reading, but of course we know he is not, and there is nothing within the story itself to suggest that Nick is a writer. Still, Luhrmann overtly makes Nick a writer in his film adaptation of the novel, presumably because that would explain Nick’s use of such literary language.

[7] See Froehlich for a discussion of the representation of homosexuality in Gatsby that sees Jordan Baker as a potentially lesbian figure.