Tale as Old as Time: analysis of the Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tale as Old as Time The famous question of “what to do with the time that is given to us” made famous by renowned author J.R.R.
Tolkien dates far back into the history of man, challenging humans to define “time well spent” and pursue their ambitions whether they are based on love, revenge, lust for fame or, more recently, the need to make a dent on the world. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beloved novel, The Great Gatsby, addresses this time-worn subject from multiple angles. Set in the volatile American 1920’s, Gatsby features a range of flawed yet intriguing characters and classic crowd-pleasing archetypes, culminating in the tragic end of arguably the most beloved character in American literature, enigmatic millionaire Jay Gatsby. These assets of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece are what make the work so timeless; years later, the artistic style, messages and generalizations examined in Gatsby are still being circulated, taught and appreciated. The complexity of his characters, perpetually appealing archetypes and examination of the most important question for mankind protect The Great Gatsby from the very force that the novel itself names all-powerful: time.
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Baz Luhrmann, director of the film rendition of The Great Gatsby, describes the work as “a great, tragic love story”. The Great Gatsby is indeed a love story, but not in the way most people think. Fitzgerald’s dynamic and delusional Jay Gatsby is, while seemingly caught up in a love triangle including his childhood sweetheart and her husband, involved in a deeper love affair with less tangible objects. It is his interior desires that make Fitzgerald’s character so realistic—Gatsby’s ruthless and unquenchable desire to attain the dreams of his childhood. While readers are repulsed by the characters’ patent flaws, the empathy and pity that accompany this disgust is what stirs them and makes Gatsby the enduring classic it is.
Gatsby, whose rash decisions, impulsiveness and irresponsibility repel both characters in the novel as well as readers appears disillusioned and impractical but his indomitable famous hope completes the irresistibly admirable personality that Fitzgerald uses to embody the American dream. As a young man seemingly in love with Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby is truly in love with her wealth and the world of comfort and luxury that she dwells in, “above the hot struggles of the poor”. The rest of his life is spent relentlessly pursuing the dream of his childhood: to escape the grasp of poverty and rise to the world of the elite and prosperous. While his fortitude and determination are unparalleled in his society and his celebrated hope the dearest feature of American society, there is no way to ignore to his unrealistic stubbornness and irrational, impulsive blindness to reason and logic. Even when he has attained the wealth and societal status he had aspired to achieve, Gatsby still needs the finishing piece: Daisy Buchanan. Indeed, his willingness to go any lengths be they illegal or socially unacceptable to complete his dream adds another less admirable trait to Gatsby’s personality: egocentricity.
The truth is no human is completely self-absorbed nor completely sinless, and Gatsby’s debatable greatness is what makes him so fascinating. Fitzgerald’s incorporation of traits we attempt to purge ourselves of and qualities that are, even if not likeable, understandable, conjure characters whose struggles and triumphs are so like our own. The simultaneous repugnance and compassion Fitzgerald evokes in his audience touches generation after generation through his realistic and relatable characters. Illustrious titles like The Iliad and Oedipus, ageless well-loved literature whose popularity seem only to grow with time share with The Great Gatsby the archetype that never fails to entrance audiences: the tragic hero. What continues to attract readers to these stories is the fascinating catastrophic fall from power, wealth and grace. Fitzgerald skillfully integrates this famous archetype into his novel, creating a sense of familiarity with the plotline while surprising readers at every page.
Gatsby, the underdog from poor beginnings raised to great heights through his own unceasing toil (if of questionable legality), the classic rags-to-riches success story, the result of nothing but his own efforts, is in short the hero we have been taught to glorify. As his own creator affirmed, “action is character”, and Gatsby certainly exemplified this statement. What makes him so enthralling for audiences generations after the end of Gatsby’s time period is his great demise, the morbid reminder that there is more to life than the material goods that we unconsciously use as means of gauging success. What else is there, after all, to make success a measurable quantity other than the universal product of hard work and effort, the traits we regard as vital to true success—money. The tragic hero falls due to hubris, greed, or pride, among other faults, and in Gatsby’s case, a combination of multiple failings. Every disappointment from Gatsby’s flawless dream turned sour to his palace reduced to “a failure of a house” reiterates the fact that wealth will not guarantee satisfaction.
Fitzgerald uses his character’s infatuation with the superficial to emphasize the futility of earthly possessions and human desperation to achieve some elusive happiness at all costs. Fitzgerald’s use of this archetype not only contributes to the enforcement of his point but also attracts readers to the dramatic and timeless storyline of the explosive destruction of power. Fitzgerald’s discussion of the mortality of time is indisputably one of the most well-known of American literature, enhanced by motifs, symbols and the author’s distinct writing style. As summarized by critic Sam Jordisan of The Guardian, “the clock that we all have running against us…ticks louder in The Great Gatsby than any other novel”. The fact that the story itself is recounted with a dim awareness of some future catastrophe indicated on the first page reinforces Fitzgerald’s relentless message that our days are counted, our time impossible to regain and “the elations of men…short-winded”. The author’s depiction of the transient nature of time as a motif is presented by means of multiple symbols, for example the tipping clock upon Daisy and Gatsby’s reunion and the song Klipspringer performs for them during the early stages of their newly formed romance.
Gatsby’s efforts to regain the era of his life that was “the freshest and the best” upsets the natural progression of time; catching the falling clock during his first meeting with Daisy in five years represents his attempt to salvage the last fragment of his dream, disturbing the balance of time. Fitzgerald again reiterates his point through the lyrics of Klipspringer’s song: “in the morning, in the evening…ain’t got money…but oh, we got fun…the rich get richer and poor get—children, in the meantime, in between time”. The lyrics are not only significant because of the implication that the passage of time is inevitable and struggle against it is futile, but also ironic; Gatsby and Daisy are reunited and hear a song whose lyrics indicate that money is not connected to happiness but money was the very reason they were separated in the first place—no amount of time can undo the time lost. Fitzgerald’s unique writing style involving various symbols and foreshadowing to support his statement regarding the nature of time; it is the incorporation of this presentation of the mortality of time that continues to intrigue readers as we search for the definition of time well spent. Timeless and beloved, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s world-renowned novel The Great Gatsby has been called “writing that makes us see the world afresh” by WSJ’s Blake Baily and “the great American novel” by critic Robert Egert.
The complexity of his characters evokes simultaneous sympathy and disgust in his readers, making them not only realistic but relatable. Additionally, Fitzgerald’s incorporation of well-known archetypes appeal to our fascination with drama and destruction, especially of those of prominence and power. But what truly attracts and amazes audiences generation after generation is the message in Fitzgerald’s writing that pertains to all humans, regardless of environment, background or age: time is precious and it is what we choose to spend it on that defines us.