The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The Lost Generation

BEFORE

1920 F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” looks at the tension between traditional feminine values and the liberation of the Jazz Age, themes the author revives in The Great Gatsby.

1922 T S Eliot’s The Waste Land prefigures Lost Generation writing in its exploration of the disintegration of culture – including empty sex and loss of spiritual meaning.

AFTER

1926 Ernest Hemingway, in The Sun Also Rises, delves into the themes of love, death, and masculinity.

1930–36 John Dos Passos explores the American Dream with the stories of 12 characters in his U.S.A. trilogy.

The author and literary hostess Gertrude Stein, talking with Ernest Hemingway, spoke of a “lost generation” of the young – those who had served in World War I. Hemingway claimed that Stein first heard the words from a garage owner who had serviced her car, an anecdotal detail that resonates suggestively with the garage scenes in The Great Gatsby. “Lost” in this context means disoriented or alienated, as opposed to disappeared. After Hemingway’s use of it in the epigraph to his novel The Sun Also Rises, the phrase “Lost Generation” came to refer to a group of young American expatriate writers in the creative melting-pot of Paris in the 1920s, which included F Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, and Hemingway himself. World War I had left its mark, and they were restless and cynical, searching for meaningful experience in love, writing, drink, and hedonism.

Fitzgerald, one of the Lost Generation’s most important writers, found himself seduced by the scintillating surfaces of the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s, while at the same time being keenly aware of its defective moral values and the emptiness of its promise of a better life for all. His most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, tells a personal story of Gatsby’s doomed dream of love. However, at the same time it is a story about the doomed American Dream – its promise of a better world revealed as a sham.

"‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’"


The Great Gatsby

New money, new values

Fitzgerald saw the Jazz Age as an era of miracle and excess. A new post-war prosperity was centred on Wall Street, where huge fortunes were made trading in stocks and bonds. The ideal of the self-made man was an attractive antidote to the power of old money passed on by inheritance and marriage among the “best” families. The 1920s in the USA seemed to offer a new social mobility, healing class wounds and challenging snobbery. Those who had sought their fortunes in the West now came East again, to make their fortunes and to spend their wealth on magnificent homes, fine things, and high living – such was the dream, anyway. But the reality was that wealth for some led to the impoverishment of others, and at the same time gave rise to a culture of surface glitter that was morally and spiritually empty at its core. Fakery of all kinds abounded and snobbery still existed – it had just found new targets.

After the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which prohibited the sale of alcohol, many entrepreneurs channelled their talents into bootlegging – the smuggling of illegal liquor, much of it sold in speakeasies (illegal bars). Racism was rife too; in the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan expresses the supremacist view that “if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged”.

Radiance and rottenness

Fitzgerald saw his novel as “a purely creative work – not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere and yet radiant world”. That radiance, reflected in a sensuous prose style suffused with a romantic glow, is seen in the dazzling glamour of fashionable East Coast society that Fitzgerald takes for his subject.

Jay Gatsby owns a colossal mansion, in the style of a French hôtel de ville (city hall), in West Egg, on the shore of Long Island, outside New York. Gatsby is an enigma, an incomer from the Midwest around whom many rumours circulate – that he has killed a man; that his claim to an Oxford education is a lie; that he made his money bootlegging. Every Saturday he throws decadent parties, with hundreds of guests, as described by the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, who rents a small house next door. There is hilarity and jazz in these revels, but also a great deal of drunkenness and falling out, especially between couples. Indeed, men and women speak to each other throughout the book in dialogue that is flippant and insincere.

Nick gets to know Gatsby and learns his secret: that for five years he has been obsessively in love with the beautiful socialite Daisy Buchanan, who happens to be Nick’s cousin, and who is now married to Tom, a wealthy college friend of Nick’s. Daisy is the reason Gatsby bought his mansion on the opposite shore from the Georgian Colonial house she shares with Tom. All Gatsby’s wealth, acquired from shady business dealings with a mafioso-style crook called Meyer Wolfshiem, is paraded with the sole intention of winning back his lost love, now that he finally has the capital to support her.

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Gatsby’s wild, opulent parties, depicted in this 1949 film adaptation of the book, brought together the old-moneyed socialites from East Egg and their brash West Egg neighbours.

The importance of place

The novel’s themes are mapped out in its highly symbolic topography. East Egg, home to Daisy and Tom as well as most of Gatsby’s party guests, stands for traditional values and old money; West Egg where Gatsby lives, for fashionable affluence, the nouveau riche. A short distance away is New York, teeming with dubious deals and clandestine pleasures. In between lies a patch of terrain where the bleakness underlying the glamour is depressingly apparent: the “valley of ashes”. This desolate region recalls T S Eliot’s Modernist poem The Waste Land, whose title refers to the ancient myth of a kingdom blighted by a curse. It is here that Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, lives with her sad, passive, garage-owning husband, near a giant billboard advertising an optician’s business. The spectacles on the sign are ironic, as nobody is clear-sighted in Gatsby’s world – not even Nick, who thinks of himself as “inclined to reserve all judgements” but in fact feels superior to everyone, including his cynical girlfriend, a professional golfer named Jordan Baker.

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"I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."


The Great Gatsby

Colour and time

Jordan and Daisy are first seen in white dresses, but neither is as innocent as this choice of colour might suggest. Colour in The Great Gatsby is symbolic of the book’s themes: Gatsby wears a pink suit and drives a yellow Rolls-Royce – hues denoting his desperate need to make an impression. One of the book’s most prevalent symbols is green, the colour of the light at the end of Daisy’s mooring dock, which Gatsby gazes at yearningly from across the water. In the final pages, alone in Gatsby’s empty garden, Nick has a vision of the “fresh, green breast of the new world”, glimpsed by the first settlers to reach Long Island; he then muses on Gatsby’s belief in that symbolic “green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”. It is here, in the green light and the green land, that the novel’s concerns with individual and national destiny converge.

At the end of the book, feeling that the East is haunted after the book’s final tragedy and “distorted beyond my eyes’ powers of correction”, Nick returns to his Midwestern home. In his shifting, worldly, highly nuanced perceptions and sympathies, Nick is as much the novel’s subject as Gatsby. The thought he leaves us with is that the past pulls us back irresistibly: dreams of progress are fool’s gold.

Belated acclaim

When he was planning his novel in 1923, Fitzgerald wrote that he wanted to produce “something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned”. He achieved this ambition with panache, but the book initially received mixed reviews and sold poorly. By the time of his death Fitzgerald thought of himself as a failure: during the last year of his life only 72 copies of his nine books were recorded as sales in his royalty statements.

Nowadays, The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s subsequent work, Tender is the Night, are widely regarded as among the greatest US novels ever written. Tender is the Night follows a narrative that fictionalizes strands in Fitzgerald’s deeply troubled life, including adultery, mental illness, and an acute sense of personal and creative failure.

The Great Gatsby is the more acclaimed of the two novels. It is particularly admired for its forensic exposure of a flawed milieu; its finely judged prose, combining first-person informality with superbly cadenced description; its brilliantly telling dialogue, capable of revealing a moral vacuum in the briefest of exchanges; and its structural accomplishment – for example, in the placing of Jordan’s account of Gatsby’s back-story, which is both a flashback (telling of past events) and a flash-forward (because Tom tells of Jordan’s revelations out of sequence).

Like the rest of the Lost Generation, Fitzgerald may have been reacting to the mood of his times – disillusionment, a loss of moral bearings, and the focus on the material rather than the spiritual – but his novel transcends the moment of its creation. This is in part because of its continuing relevance in today’s climate of celebrity, corporate greed, and a world economy driven by inflated asset prices. But the book is also timelessly important because every aspect of it, aesthetically, bears witness to Fitzgerald’s unassailable mastery of his art.

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The characters in the novel are fleshed out by the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, who has come to New York to seek his fortune. He befriends Gatsby, who is in love with Nick’s beautiful cousin, Daisy, who is in turn married to the boorish Tom Buchanan.

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."


The Great Gatsby

F SCOTT FITZGERALD

Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA. In 1917 he dropped out of Princeton University to join the army. He fell in love with Zelda Sayre, the daughter of a judge, marrying her after his first novel, This Side of Paradise, brought him success, at the age of 24. He supported the family (they had one daughter) by writing stories for popular magazines. His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, confirmed his reputation as chief chronicler and critic of the Jazz Age. In 1924 he moved with Zelda to the French Riviera to write The Great Gatsby. The couple later shuttled between France and the USA. Fitzgerald had a troubled relationship with alcohol; after Tender Is the Night came out in 1934, he struggled for two years with drink and depression. In 1937 he tried his hand at writing for Hollywood, and died of a heart attack there in 1940, aged 44.

Other key works

1922 The Beautiful and Damned

1922 Tales of the Jazz Age

1934 Tender Is the Night

See also: The Waste Land • Of Mice and Men • The Grapes of Wrath • The Outsider