Themes in The Great Gatsby

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The American Dream

Gatsby seems to represent the American Dream - he went from being "James Gatz from North Dakota" and having nothing, to being so rich that he can afford to buy a complete stranger a dress worth "two hundred and sixty-five dollars."

He is 'new money' - he made his forture rather than inherited it, and it seems that this is a fundamental American value; that anyone from anywhere can make it rich.

However, though he has achieved this dream he is unfullfilled; he still searches for something "uncommunicable," something more that life has to give.

Fitzgerarld seems to be commenting on the emptiness and futility of the American Dream; even if you achieve it your life will not be perfect, because there is something more than just making it rich. Fitzgerald, through Nick tells us that what is admirable is Gatsby's "extraordinary gift for hope," that it is having a purpose and passion that makes your life meaningful.

Also, that fact that the story was going to be called "Under the Red, White, and Blue," cements how central the dilution of core American values is to the text, as red, white, and blue are the colours of the American flag.

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New Money v Old Money

Gatsby is 'new money' - he made his own wealth, wheras Nick and Daisy are 'old money' - they inherited their wealth and come from a long line of rich people.

Even though Gatsby is also rich, he is ostracized by other rich people for not being the 'right kind of rich' - Tom assumes he's a "bootlegger" right from the start and criticises Gatsby for "turning his house into a pigsty;" letting people he doesn't know into his parties.

Fitzgerald, who came from 'old money' himself, but rejected it, seems to be saying that their are definite social divisions between the upper classes in American - that there is a snobbery to do with where one gets one's money from. 

To Tom, Gatsby might as well be poor, because he didn't inherit his money and is therefore not as good as Tom and Daisy. 

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All of the characters in the novel have a closer relationship with money than they do with each other; Myrtle says that she wanted to get to know Tom after seeing him wearing a "dress suit and patent leather shoes."

Also, an advertisment, the "eyes of T.J. Eckelberg," an old occulist, looks down like the "eyes of God." It seems that adveristing - material things -  have taken the place of God in this society. When Myrtle is killed, Wilson looks out and sees the sign and says dramatically "God sees everything," and whilst his friend assures him that is is "just a advertisment," it seems that this advert has become a sign of God; materialism is God.

The characters don't have very close relationships with each other, and as Nick says, Tom and Daisy, "retreat back into their money" whenever anything goes wrong. It seems that wealth is also a shield from the 'real' world as well as a world of it's own.

Fitzgerald seems to be commenting on the shallow nature of American life in the 1920s, where capitalism and materialism had taken over.

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Social Tensions

Tom, who is wealthy, has an affair with Myrtle, who is poor, and through this we can see the stark contrast between the lives of the rich and poor. Myrtle and Wilson's garage is described as "unprosperous and bare," whilst Tom lives in a "Georgian Colonial mansion."

More than this the "valley of ashes" where to working class of New York live is a "desolate area of land," described continuously with the word "grey." It seems that the less wealthy did not have a high standard of living in the '20s, in contrast with the extravagent decadence of the rich like Gatsby, who owns "more than forty acres of lawn and garden."

Tom is also racist, claiming that white is the "dominant race." It seems that, for the upper classes, intergration of races is unthinkable.

In contrast to this, when Gatsby and Nick cross the Queensborough Bridge, they see "a limousine...driven by a white chauffeur, which which sat three modish negroes." To Nick this is a fantastic image, proving that "anything can happen," but it seems that, in the working class world, intergration is not so abominable.

Is Fitzgerald saying that wealth makes you ignorant? Perhaps it shields us from the real world.

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Most of the characters in the novel are aimless; they have no purpose in life and just "float through" on their money

Daisy, commenting on much more than the extreme heat, asks "what'll we do with ourselves this afternoon? And the day after that, and the next thirty years?" This captures how purposeless her life is, how she has no passion.

Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and even Nick seem to go to party after party, dinner after dinner, with no real lust for life or passion.

In contrast, Gatsby, who is the only one who "turned out alright in the end," has his "uncorruptable dream," which he searches after with ferver, and Nick certainly thinks that this is admirable, as he says Gatsby has an "extraordinary gift for hope."

Fitzgerald seems to be saying that what gives your life meaning and worth is to be passionate about something, and without this our lives are boring and monotonous. Even though Gatsby is a "criminal" he is the most admirable character in the whole novel, so important is having a dream.

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A Tale of the West

Nick says that "this has been a story of the West, after all," and it seems that what he means by this is that is has been a story about fundamental American values.

Nick, Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and Gatsby are all originally from the West, and it seems that, in coming to the East, they were all corrupted by materialism and apathy

Fitzgerald seems to be saying that the 'true' America is that of the West, where core American values are still present. 

Nick compares Gatsby's dream to the wonder that "flowered once for Dutch Sailor's eyes," obviously referring to the discovery of America. He says that this was the "last and greatest of all human dreams." Here, Fitzgerald seems to be saying that the discovery of America, the move West, was when Americans truly had passion and honorable desire

It seems that the West is a symbol of human, or American, achievement, where American values were pure and honest, not corrupted as they are in the East.

Fitzgerald seems to be saying that what is honorable is this sense of wonder and passion, and that we should all strive to be more like the West.

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Nick says that, after returning from the East, he "wanted the world to be at a sort of moral attention forever." He seems to be commenting on the reckless and loose nature of the morals in the East.

It seems that empathy is rare in the novel. when Nick meets Tom again after Gatsby's death, Tom remarks that Gatsby "had is coming for to him." The Eastern way of life breeds apathy, as it asks everyone to be self-sufficient.

There is also very little honesty in the story, Wolfsheim "fixed the World's series," Jordan Baker cheated at golf, and at the start even Gatsby lies about his past, saying he was from a wealthy family in "San Francisco." 

Even Nick, who claims that he is "inclined to reserve all judgement," ends up judging almost every character in the Novel, saying Tom has "arrogant eyes" and that Jordan has a "discontented face." It seems that Nick is not being honest with himself.

At the end of the novella, Nick tells Jordan that he is "five years too old to lie to [himself] and call it honour," when she says that she thought that he was "honest, straightforward." Perhaps Nick has learnt his lesson by the end of the tragic events, or perhaps he is still ignorant of his own faults.

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