Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Decline of the American Dream in the 1920s
On the surface, The Great Gatsby is a story of the thwarted love between a man and a woman. The main theme of the novel, however, encompasses a much larger, less romantic scope. Though all of its action takes place over a mere few months during the summer of 1922 and is set in a circumscribed geographical area in the vicinity of Long Island, New York, The Great Gatsby is a highly symbolic meditation on 1920s America as a whole, in particular the disintegration of the American dream in an era of unprecedented prosperity and material excess.
Fitzgerald portrays the 1920s as an era of decayed social and moral values, evidenced in its overarching cynicism, greed, and empty pursuit of pleasure. The reckless jubilance that led to decadent parties and wild jazz music—epitomized in The Great Gatsby by the opulent parties that Gatsby throws every Saturday night—resulted ultimately in the corruption of the American dream, as the unrestrained desire for money and pleasure surpassed more noble goals.
When World War I ended in 1918, the generation of young Americans who had fought the war became intensely disillusioned, as the brutal carnage that they had just faced made the Victorian social morality of early-twentieth-century America seem like stuffy, empty hypocrisy. The dizzying rise of the stock market in the aftermath of the war led to a sudden, sustained increase in the national wealth and a newfound materialism, as people began to spend and consume at unprecedented levels. A person from any social background could, potentially, make a fortune, but the American aristocracy—families with old wealth—scorned the newly rich industrialists and speculators. Additionally, the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, which banned the sale of alcohol, created a thriving underworld designed to satisfy the massive demand for bootleg liquor among rich and poor alike.
Fitzgerald positions the characters of The Great Gatsby as emblems of these social trends. Nick and Gatsby, both of whom fought in World War I, exhibit the newfound cosmopolitanism and cynicism that resulted from the war. The various social climbers and ambitious speculators who attend Gatsby’s parties evidence the greedy scramble for wealth. The clash between “old money” and “new money” manifests itself in the novel’s symbolic geography: East Egg represents the established aristocracy, West Egg the self-made rich. Meyer Wolfsheim and Gatsby’s fortune symbolize the rise of organized crime and bootlegging.
As Fitzgerald saw it (and as Nick explains in Chapter 9), the American dream was originally about discovery, individualism, and the pursuit of happiness. In the 1920s depicted in the novel, however, easy money and relaxed social values have corrupted this dream, especially on the East Coast. The main plotline of the novel reflects this assessment, as Gatsby’s dream of loving Daisy is ruined by the difference in their respective social statuses, his resorting to crime to make enough money to impress her, and the rampant materialism that characterizes her lifestyle.
Additionally, places and objects in The Great Gatsby have meaning only because characters instill them with meaning: the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg best exemplify this idea. In Nick’s mind, the ability to create meaningful symbols constitutes a central component of the American dream, as early Americans invested their new nation with their own ideals and values. Nick compares the green bulk of America rising from the ocean to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.
Just as Americans have given America meaning through their dreams for their own lives, Gatsby instills Daisy with a kind of idealized perfection that she neither deserves nor possesses. Gatsby’s dream is ruined by the unworthiness of its object, just as the American dream in the 1920s is ruined by the unworthiness of its object—money and pleasure. Like 1920s Americans in general, fruitlessly seeking a bygone era in which their dreams had value, Gatsby longs to re-create a vanished past—his time in Louisville with Daisy—but is incapable of doing so. When his dream crumbles, all that is left for Gatsby to do is die; all Nick can do is move back to Minnesota, where American values have not decayed.
The Hollowness of the Upper Class
One of the major topics explored in The Great Gatsby is the sociology of wealth, specifically, how the newly minted millionaires of the 1920s differ from and relate to the old aristocracy of the country’s richest families. In the novel, West Egg and its denizens represent the newly rich, while East Egg and its denizens, especially Daisy and Tom, represent the old aristocracy. Fitzgerald portrays the newly rich as being vulgar, gaudy, ostentatious, and lacking in social graces and taste. Gatsby, for example, lives in a monstrously ornate mansion, wears a pink suit, drives a Rolls-Royce, and does not pick up on subtle social signals, such as the insincerity of the Sloanes’ invitation to lunch. In contrast, the old aristocracy possesses grace, taste, subtlety, and elegance, epitomized by the Buchanans’ tasteful home and the flowing white dresses of Daisy and Jordan Baker.
What the old aristocracy possesses in taste, however, it seems to lack in heart, as the East Eggers prove themselves careless, inconsiderate bullies who are so used to money’s ability to ease their minds that they never worry about hurting others. The Buchanans exemplify this stereotype when, at the end of the novel, they simply move to a new house far away rather than condescend to attend Gatsby’s funeral. Gatsby, on the other hand, whose recent wealth derives from criminal activity, has a sincere and loyal heart, remaining outside Daisy’s window until four in the morning in Chapter 7 simply to make sure that Tom does not hurt her. Ironically, Gatsby’s good qualities (loyalty and love) lead to his death, as he takes the blame for killing Myrtle rather than letting Daisy be punished, and the Buchanans’ bad qualities (fickleness and selfishness) allow them to remove themselves from the tragedy not only physically but psychologically.
In the monied world of The Great Gatsby, class influences all aspects of life, and especially love. Myrtle mentions this with regard to her husband, George, whom she mistook for someone of better “breeding” and hence greater prospects: “I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn’t fit to lick my shoe.” Similarly, Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy is bound up with class. Only after amassing a large fortune does he feel able to make his move. At the end of the book, class dynamics dictate which marriage survives (Tom and Daisy), which one is destroyed (George and Myrtle), and which one will never come to be (Gatsby and Daisy). Only the most affluent couple pulls through the events that conclude the book. In fact, it seems that the accident may have brought them closer. When Nick spies on them through the window, he reports that “there was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.” Because of their elite class status, Tom and Daisy share a belief that they are immune to the consequences of their actions. In the final chapter, Nick calls Tom and Daisy “careless people” who “smashed up things and . . . let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
The American Dream
The American Dream refers to a shared set of ideals that guide the spirit of the United States. These shared ideals include a notion of freedom that ensures all Americans the possibility of upward social mobility, as long as they work for it. Every character in The Great Gatsby draws inspiration from the American Dream’s promise of wealth and prosperity. At the same time, the novel itself critiques the notion of the American Dream. Readers may end the novel wondering if the American Dream is actually attainable at all. Gatsby suffers the most from the promise of social mobility inherent to the American Dream. He spends his life believing that if he makes enough money and acquires enough possessions, he can transcend his lower-class birth and become equal to Daisy and Tom. However, even though Gatsby succeeds in acquiring wealth, he is never accepted by the upper class. Gatsby’s failure to attain the American Dream suggests the Dream is both an unattainable and unwise goal.
Love and Marriage
The ideals of love and marriage are profoundly strained in The Great Gatsby, a book that centers on two loveless marriages: the union between Tom and Daisy Buchanan and between George and Myrtle Wilson. In both cases, the marriages seem to be unions of convenience or advantage than actual love. Myrtle explains that she married George because she thought he was “a gentleman,” suggesting she hoped he’d raise her class status. Daisy nearly backed out of her marriage to Tom the day before her wedding, and Tom had an affair within a year of the wedding, but the couple is well-suited because of their shared class and desire for fun and material possessions. Even Gatsby’s all-consuming passion for Daisy seems more of a desire to possess something unattainable than actual love. Nick, meanwhile, dates Jordan Baker throughout the book, and though their relationship has its moments of warmth and kindness, both parties generally seem lukewarm and emotionally distant. “I wasn’t actually in love,” Nick recalls, “but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.” Such “tender curiosity” may be the closest thing to love in the entire novel.