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The Great Gatbsy Themes

Get your head around the themes in novel and get some ideas for your own work by reading our essays on themes in The Great Gatsby.

Time

It has been often observed that there are 400 or so words associated with time in the novel. The very time-scheme – where the main character does not appear until half way through Chapter 3, and where we piece together his background through a series of rumours, hints and flashbacks – invites a debate as to the nature of time itself. Gatsby himself seems to ignore the passage of time. He has bought his house directly across the bay from Daisy, his former lover – but to Gatsby there is no such thing as past time. Nick warns him “You can’t repeat the past,” to which he retorts “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.” It is just that kind of foolish idealism that Nick comes to respect, rather than ridicule.

The main action of the novel takes place during the summer months, culminating in the last, certainly the warmest day. Autumn arrives with Gatsby’s death, and his funeral takes place in a thick drizzle. Wolfshiem, who fixed the World’s Series, alters the future, but not even Gatsby can escape the restriction of natural time. He cannot make Daisy say that she has never loved Tom, and he meets her again at Nick’s house he knocks over a clock!

Gatsby tells Nick “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,”– but Daisy didn’t wait for him before, and his idealism is obstructed by the adulterous Tom’s hard malice, when he had thought he could win Daisy back.

At the very end of the book, Nick observes of Gatsby that “his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him...” In the same way, the Dutch sailors’ vision - the fresh, green breast of the new world – has already been polluted by Myrtle’s death, “her left breast...swinging loose like a flap” in the foul valley of ashes where the ash-grey men swarm.

Illusion and the American Dream

James Gatz re-invented himself as Jay Gatsby, rich, successful, popular – at first sight the epitome of the American Dream, whereby, in contrast to the old world of Europe, anyone might aspire to reach the top. How he has made his fortune is never clarified, but he has connections with organised crime the police; Broadway; Hollywood; politics business – indeed his connections extend to virtually every layer of American life.

There is another layer to American society, represented by the valley of ashes and its dehumanised residents, the flipside of the American dream. The main characters pass through the valley en route to the city, but its influence cannot be so easily ignored. The ash symbolically spreads into Gatsby’s world, alluding to T.S. Eliot’s hugely influential poem The Waste Land that was published three years before Gatsby.

The enormous amount of money that Gatsby has apparently made is lavished on extravagant, seemingly endless parties, where huge amounts of food and drink are, guests arrive by the hundreds, many uninvited, and Gatsby himself is barely noticed. Everything is excessive (like Gatsby’s wardrobe), but the overall feeling is of an emptiness. When Daisy disapproves, the parties stop, and at Gatsby’s funeral, the last “party” of the book, only Owl-Eyes turns up.

Gatsby is fixated on Daisy; the wealth he acquires is not of great significance to him. Indeed his main aim is to buy a house opposite Daisy’s green light on the other side of the bay. It is this idealism, this extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person, that Nick admires. He pays tribute to Gatsby’s incorruptible dream. Gatsby’s dream of love for Daisy is greater than mere material acquisition, however deluded, and it links him with the dreams of the first Europeans to set foot in the New World. Nick knows the dream cannot be attained, but he admires the heightened sensitivity to the promises of life embodied by Gatsby, compared to “the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men,”- Of ordinary men. It’s an illusion, but that in the end makes the novel’s title not entirely ironic.

Symbols

The novel is full of car crashes, the most significant being the accident that kills Myrtle Wilson and leads to Gatsby’s death. Jordan Baker is even named after two makes of car! She also left a borrowed car out in the rain with the top down. Wilson runs a garage and it’s a green light – a traffic sign – at Daisy’s house that represents the grail for Gatsby. Owl-Eyes is involved in a crash at Gatsby‘s party, and when told that the wheel came off, the driver replies “No harm in trying.” Tom also rips a front wheel off his car, breaking the arm of a chambermaid with whom he is having an affair. When Nick and Jordan’s relationship breaks up, she claims it’s because he’s “another bad driver.” The novel is set at the beginning of the automobile age in America and Fitzgerald seems to be telling us that already the wheels have come off the American dream.

The valley of ashes – a kind of hell to the supposed paradise of the wealthy – is overlooked by a huge advertisement showing the eyes of Dr T. J. Eckleburg. When Wilson sets out to kill Gatsby he tells Michaelis that “you can’t fool God...God sees everything.” Michaelis assures him that it’s an advertisement, but Wilson is looking for moral certainties in a world that doesn’t offer them. The eyes, “dimmed a little by many paintless days,” may stand for decayed American capitalism and for the inability of the characters to better themselves morally. Wilson does not realise that his wife is having an affair; equally Gatsby cannot accept that his vision is something that Daisy can never live up to. Her soul, like her voice: “full of money”, has already been sold to Tom, who, in contrast to Dr Eckleburg, has “two shining arrogant eyes.”

There is no all-powerful, all-seeing God in this world, to punish the wicked or praise the righteous. When Nick looks up to see the eyes of Dr Eckleburg, he sees instead “other eyes regarding us with peculiar intensity...eyes, wide with jealous terror,” the eyes of Myrtle, mistakenly thinking she’s seeing Daisy in Gatsby’s car. This error will send her running out to her death.