“The value of reading a text closely is that you can see what the writer is doing- how he or she has used structure or setting or characters or a particular point of view or some aspect of language to direct the reader’s response.”
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Show how the writer has used one or more of these to direct your response in The Great Gatsby.
In the novel The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald shows a clear contempt of the American Dream, an ideal that the characters that he has created either chase or have achieved. Through his excellent writing technique, Fitzgerald reduces the characters of the novel to seeming obsessed with material possessions, petty, superficial and selfish, and indeed he seems to attribute much of this to the setting of the novel, America in the 1920’s. Through both subtle hints within the plot, as well as passages that blatantly support Fitzgerald’s own views, the reader is left only to agree with Fitzgerald’s feelings towards post war upper class Americans after concluding the novel.
The main characters in The Great Gatsby all have very different personalities. Despite this however, all of the characters are affected by money, and Fitzgerald uses this fact to influence the response of the reader. Some characters, like Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, have money, and are very expressive with it. Examples of this are Gatsby’s expensive Rolls Royce and Tom’s polo horses that he flew in from Chicago. Nick mentions that everybody had seen Gatsby’s car (pg 63), pointing to the fact that Gatsby flaunted the vehicle and by association his wealth, and Tom flying in polo horses from another city would obviously be outrageously expensive. Other characters, such as Myrtle, lust for money. Essentially being of the middle class, Myrtle’s attraction to Tom is not one based on love and affection. Rather, Tom represents something that Myrtle has never had- endless wealth- and with this Myrtle correlates happiness. The lust for and obtrusive use of money by the characters is an obvious central theme throughout the novel, but as the text draws to a close Fitzgerald emphasises that money cannot govern human emotions. Gatsby’s money fails to entice Daisy away from her husband, and the death of Myrtle is an event that cannot be erased by any amount of money on Tom’s part. More then anything, the ending of the novel reinforces to the reader that money is a superficial desire and that, inevitably, it cannot be responsible for bringing happiness or the fulfillment of a dream.
Through the course of the novel we see the characters that Fitzgerald has created continually act in a superficial way. Tom Buchanan is an excellent example of a trivial and superficial man. He displays this in the first chapter of the novel, with the comments he makes about the threat to white supremacy. To further emphasis his superficial nature, Fitzgerald uses irony later in the novel, when Tom insists that he has “almost a second sight sometimes” (pg 116), a fact that is so obviously incorrect that it is humorous. However, Tom is convinced that he is something of an intellectual and seems to get satisfaction from making what he believes are smart comments, such as when he says: “here’s your money. Go buy ten more dogs with it” (pg 30), as well as trying to listen to other intellectuals talk: “do you mind is I eat with some people over here? A fellow’s getting off some funny stuff.” (pg 102) Daisy too comes over as being a shallow character, a fact best supported by her comment “what’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon? And the day after that, and the next thirty years?” Daisy does not phrase the question seriously. She is merely wondering how she will fill her empty days for the rest of her life.
There is no doubt that many of the characters in The Great Gatsby are extremely selfish. In fact with the exception of Nick, and possibly Jordan, the personality trait of selfishness is found in every major character of the novel. Tom is by far the most selfish of the characters of the novel, doing as he pleases, with no regard for potential consequences. His open affair with Myrtle is testament to this. Daisy too shows signs of selfishness, We get the impression that her attempts to set up Jordan and Nick are more for her own amusement then for their own good, and she has no qualms about using Nick to help get reacquainted with Gatsby. Even Gatsby is utterly selfish at times, for the strength of his friendship with Nick is mainly based on the fact that he is related to Daisy.
Fitzgerald uses the contrasting morals and values of the characters of his novel to best show the warped lives that those chasing the American dream lived. Gatsby and Tom, although having both amassed great wealth, are very different characters, and the disparity between them is a central focus of the book. Gatsby is a dreamer and a romantic, a man who, by following his dreams, went from rags to riches. He is proud of the fact that he has been able to accumulate his wealth independently, despite the fact that it is hinted that much of his money was earned illegally. Nick’s comment that Gatsby was “a Son of God” (pg 95) is not meant to be taken in the traditional, Christian sense. Rather, Nick means that Gatsby is of the breed that worships the god of materiality. Tom, on the other hand, is a realist and a straightforward man. He does not dream, as Gatsby does, he merely acts on his instincts. He has not earned his great wealth- he has inherited it. Although he may stretch the laws of prohibition slightly, he is essentially a law-abiding man. When Gatsby and Tom are thrown together, it is inevitable that they will dislike each other and noticeably be of great contrast to each other. Even Nick can see this, when he mentions that after Gatsby’s encounter with Tom in chapter seven he “had broken up like glass against Tom’s hard malice.” (pg 141)
The character that Fitzgerald evidently wants his readers to dislike the most is Tom Buchanan. From his description of Tom in the opening chapter we can tell this much. He is described as having a “body capable of enormous leverage- a cruel body” (pg 12) and Daisy reproachfully calls him “hulking” (pg 17). In every novel there has to be a hero and a villain, crude terms but ones that can be simply applied to characters. Tom is obviously the villain in The Great Gatsby, but we must questions the reasons for this. Once again, the answer lies in Fitzgerald’s cynicism towards the great American dream. For Tom is a man who has achieved the American dream, being wealthy, powerful and successful. Throughout the novel Fitzgerald has emphasised that the results of achieving the American dream are not necessarily desirable. As such, Fitzgerald reflects this on Tom, a man who has attained the American dream so well that he is almost, in his mind, aloof and superior to others. We read of no friends of Tom’s (even Jordan seems to be a friend only of Daisy’s) and he seems to make no effort or show any inclination to gain friends. His qualities are so dislikable that we truly begin to share Fitzgerald’s opinion of the American dream. The trivial pursuit of gaining it, and the dull existence one leads after it has been attained.
The only relationship that Fitzgerald has created to show that the American dream is not always easily attained is the one between Gatsby and Daisy. Although it may seem to us that Gatsby has well and truly obtained the dream, that is becoming successful and rich, we must recognise that Daisy herself is a further personification of it. The true function of Gatsby becoming rich and successful is so that he can finally have Daisy, and Fitzgerald recognises that reality is not always kind to dreamers. In this case, the strong, bullying character of Tom represents reality, and with his powerful nature he easily quashes any hopes that Gatsby may have of a relationship with Daisy. Although Fitzgerald may despise all that the American dream stands for, more importantly he illustrates that it is not always easy to obtain it. For those born into wealthy families, Fitzgerald hints that the American dream is a hereditary right. For those from lower classes however, Fitzgerald makes it clear that acquiring the fulfillment of the dream is not always as easy.
To fully understand the attitudes of the characters in The Great Gatsby it is vital to understand the time and place in which the novel was set. Upper class Americans in the 1920’s were arrogant and extravagant living lives of luxury while looking down their noses at people of lower classes and in other countries of the world.
Much of the American arrogance can be attributed to the events of World War One. It is generally acknowledged that without the intervention of America in 1917, the Allied Powers would not have been capable of winning the war. Americans were justifiably proud of this fact, but in some classes this pride was stretched to great arrogance.
The early 1920’s were a time of great financial trade and upper class Americans were very wealthy. In a time before the Great Depression occurred, which would have lasting effects in America, money was spent lavishly and this resulted in lighthearted and careless behaviour by many. Numerous examples of these ways of living can be found in the text such as Gatsby’s car, and his great parties, as well as the nature of people who came to his parties. These people didn’t come because they were friends of Gatsby’s; they came to act freely, without having to worry about possible consequences. Fitzgerald also writes of the house of Tom and Daisy Buchanan as being extremely extravagant. Nick mentions that it was “more elaborate than I had expected” (pg 12) and in the oppressive heat that Fitzgerald describes in chapter seven, their house is still “shadowed well with awnings dark and cool. Daisy and Jordan lay upon an enormous couch, like silver idols.” (pg 110) The setting that Fitzgerald describes lends to the characters seeming selfish and insignificant, drifters only floating towards the ideal of the American dream, something that society has defined for them.
The novel ends with the death of Gatsby. This may seem surprising to the reader, as Fitzgerald seems to have built Gatsby up as being one of the true heroes of the novel, and he has certainly defined Tom as the major “villain”. However, Fitzgerald understands that reality is often very harsh to dreamers, a central quality in Gatsby’s character. The death of Gatsby, and the unaffected life of Tom after both Gatsby’s and Myrtle’s death is testament to the fact that illusion is often shattered when confronted with reality. Rather then this fact detracting from Gatsby’s character however, the reader supports the image of Gatsby all the more, a man who has died while in pursuit of something worthy, as unattainable as it may have been. This is a far more pleasing response then the only possible alternative. That is, to support Tom Buchanan, a man who only has a shallow nature and a sense of superficiality after achieving a dream so far twisted by society that it does not represent at all the original, honourable dream put forward by Thomas Jefferson in 1766.