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Gatsby as a Representation of Modernism
Prt 1 - Desire's Second Act
Prt 2 - Desire's Second Act
Gatsby as a Representation of Modernism
To understand modern literature, one must develop a sense of the structured and ordered lifestyle prior to modern culture. Before the era of modernism, lifestyles were systematically organized through standard traditions. When World War I started, Americans felt the impact of modernism at its strongest with men going off to battle and women working in factories. Lifestyles were beginning to divert from family traditions. People started to abandon their traditional values and adapt to the challenges that were altering lifestyles and thus modernism surfaced.
Modernism did not have one specific definition, but an array of definitions and interpretations. The modernist authors who were beginning to surface at this time did not adhere to any one specific interpretation of modernism. According to C. Hugh Holman modernism is “A strong and conscious break with traditional forms and techniques of expression…Modern implies a historical discontinuity, a sense of alienation, of loss, and of despair. It not only rejects history, but also the society of whose fabrication history is a record. It rejects traditional values and assumptions, and it rejects equally the rhetoric by which they were communicated. It elevates the individual and his inner being over social man, and prefers the unconscious to the self-conscious.” (325) Modernism is an intermingling vision of fantasy and reality caused by daring changes in traditional values of society, economics, and the conception of the individual.
The general tendency of the modernist is to move away from the ordered structure from previous generations by neglecting traditional values emphasized through ceremony and ritual. “The nostalgic loss of unity as a civilization and the nostalgia arose from the loss of tradition”(Alter 388). With the evolution of modernism, the values thus become inner directed and less in accord with the social structure. The traditional values changed from a prescriptive set of structured rules and order to a more relaxed emphasis on the chosen direction by the individual. The prescriptive order is controlled by society and the individual’s behaviour must conform to the expectations of the traditional society. Modernism focuses more on diverse choices each person is entitled, thus pulling away from the structured society as a whole and therefore, placing more emphasis on personal choice. These attitudes transformed people socially by breaking away with the traditional songs, books, and historical artworks. Modernism allows people to explore various types of music, literature, and art, where no limits are placed on the imagination.
In addition, the economy of America was being redefined from an agricultural to an industrial society. The new economy created booming business profits for a certain class of people, which in turn raised their standard of living. The American dream appeared to be coming true in this period of economic prosperity. The social structure and economic status was flourishing and the American people felt they were on a pedestal protected from uncertainty, economic depression and the failure of the American dream. Even though there was great hope in America early in this period, this hope was also starting to come a part. Many early American writers were part of this period of hope and explored avenues in literature, which reflected a booming social and economic expansion. John Aldridge states that “the generation of writers to capture our imaginations and to dramatize an image of the literary life with which we could identify…explore the fullest possibilities of feeling and being”(65). These modernist writers were able to capture emotional, social, and economic issues in their literature by displaying the hidden truth of the American dream as a fairytale ending as a nightmare.
Modernism wanted us to access all possibilities of the self and society by making a conscious break with traditions and structural values where no rules exist for the modernists and their dreams. The dreams that we carry with us in life are what give us dimension and shape and are played out by our own fate. The change that a modernist may have made or was looking to make was so abrupt that it confused reality and the pursuit of the American dream. The conflict between society’s traditional values and the values of a modernist’s inner self created a great struggle between the past and the future. Following one’s inner being in obtaining one’s unconscious aspirations or desires causes a conflict with the traditional values of an ordered society and the individual self. Modernism portrays the changing from a ritualistic to a chosen visionary lifestyle. Modernists can be considered a bridge between the (old) past and the (new) future of the individual.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s
The Great Gatsby
, a novel from this period, explores the American dream. He studies the way one acquires wealth and status, specifically through the character of Gatsby. In acquiring his fortune and status, Gatsby’s American dream becomes very irrational. Gatsby is an average man who falls in love with an unattainable society and all that it represents. As long as he has faith in life’s possibilities, Gatsby continues to strive for his dream “of regaining Daisy’s love” (Sutton 104). Although Gatsby fails to achieve his quest regarding Daisy by his untimely death of being fatally shot, he succeeds in being a great example of the timeless American. Rationalizing him as a timeless American, Gatsby acquires money through an irrational venture that is essentially a pursuit of the American dream. Gatsby is trying to capture the wealth and power of the American dream by accumulating many materialistic objects thinking it will provide his happiness.
Gatsby is an essential representation of modern fiction in its taking apart the American dream, showing how it is an illusion.
The Great Gatsby
is the ongoing search of the individualized vision of the American dream ultimately leading to the crash of the American dream. “The fatal crash of illusory values and the way in which this affects a group of characters of the first post-war generation” (Straumann 112). The story begins with an introduction to Nick Carraway, the narrator. He is portrayed as an honest, friendly young man that listens to everyone’s problems and is “inclined to reserve all judgements” (5). Nick introduces the reader to the other main characters in the novel, his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan, as well as the namesake of
The Great Gatsby
, Jay Gatsby himself.
The Great Gatsby
, we learn about Jay Gatsby’s vision of the American dream. These inner visions become his reality, which ultimately destroy Gatsby. Jay Gatsby acquires wealth and power quickly in order to fulfil the vision he has made of himself. To achieve these images, Jay reaches into the past and relies on an old dream he had promised to himself when he was a young boy. Jay Gatsby’s boyhood was spent on his family farm, living a very traditional family lifestyle. Through his father’s words, actions, and social functions, Jay Gatsby understood that being a poor farmer was his destined future. However, Jay Gatsby could not accept this. He immersed within himself, and mapped out a lifestyle he dreamed. He had made a list of General Resolves [which would allow him to practice repetitively the acts of] elocution, poise and how to attain it, study needed inventions, no wasting time, no smoking or chewing, bath every other day, read one improving book, save $5.00, $3.00 a week, be better to parents (182). Because he rejects the traditional world he came from and is not accepted into the world he is attracted to, Gatsby finds himself alienated from both of these worlds. American aristocracy is the prominence of the rich upper-class lifestyle of Daisy and Tom Buchanan. “Daisy and her husband transplanted Westerners who have drifted to the new centre of energy and power, the East turns out to be the America of the moment” (Rowe 93). The Buchanan’s have the patterned traditions set forth by their previous generations, but their true happiness is corrupted by the emptiness in their lives. They try to fill this emptiness with all of the material things money can provide and the satisfaction of these objects only last for a moment.
Gatsby’s life on the other hand is full of ambition and excitement as he has a goal in reaching his vision of the America Dream. Gaining wealth so as to win Daisy’s heart is the epitome of his dream, an illusion of fitting in with a long time established upper crust of which he’ll never be accepted into because of his roots. While Gatsby has acquired his wealth corruptibly as a bootlegger, he is what is commonly known as the “nouveau rich”. The sheer extravagance of the time period which included, glittering parties held on a regular basis, shallow and fatuous guest whose extramarital affairs are commonplace, and the hint of crime and underworld dealings, all alienate Jay Gatsby from his traditional lifestyle. “Gatsby’s dream divides into three basic and related parts: the desire to repeat the past, the desire for money, and the desire for incarnation of ‘unutterable visions’ in the material earth” (Lockridge 11).
Considering these irrational conditions, Gatsby has become alienated by the traditional life he once knew as well as the modern life he want to belong, but Gatsby remains faithful to his illusory American dream. “One of the great facts about him is his lack of familiarity with real wealth; when he acquires money he cannot quite believe in its reality, does not know what to do with it, converts it immediately into the material of romance” (Long 69). Gatsby and those like him who have made huge fortunes lack the traditions associated with inherited wealth and are considered crude by the upper crust. Living a pretentious life only to fulfill an illusionary vision or dream does not bring true happiness to the individual. Gatsby “stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way…he was trembling. Involuntarily…and distinguished nothing accept a single green light, minute and far away” (26). Gatsby saw hope and happiness through Daisy’s lifestyle of the upper crust. Nevertheless, Daisy’s lifestyle was unreachable for Gatsby; it was the illusion he desired. “For Gatsby, Daisy does not exist in herself. She is the green light that signals him into the heart of his ultimate vision” (Bewley 19). Likewise, what Daisy Fay saw as happiness in Jay Gatsby was also an illusion as it was only a diversion to escape her mundane and pompous life. It was a means of providing some excitement and possibly a manner of fulfilling her inner emptiness. Gatsby “had given Daisy a sense of security; he let her believe that he was a person from much the same strata as herself--that he was fully able to take care of her” (156).
The idea of the American dream still holds true in today’s time, whether it is wealth, love, or fame. One thing never changes about the American dream, each person desires something in life and each person somehow strives to get it. Gatsby is a prime example of how pursuing the American dream is only an illusion of the individual’s state of mind.
Aldridge, John, W. “The Writers of the Twenties.” Readings on F. Scott Fitzgerald. California: Greenhaven Press, 1998. Alter, Robert. “Modernism and Nostalgia.” Partisan Review 60 (1993): 388. Bewley, Marius. “Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America.” Modern Critical Interpretations The Great Gatsby. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Holman, Hugh C. A Handbook to Literature. New York: Bobbs-Merril Co. 1972. Lockridge, Ernest. Introduction. Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Great Gatsby. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1968. Long, Robert Emmet. “Gatsby is a Fairy-tale Hero for the Middle Class.” Literary Companion to American Literature The Great Gatsby. California: Greenhaven Press: 1998. Rowe, Joyce A. “Delusions of American Idealism.” Literary Companion to American Literature The Great Gatsby. California: Greenhaven Press: 1998. Strauman, Heinrich. “The Fate of Man.” American Literature in the Twentieth Century, 3rd Edition. New York: Harper and Rowe, 1965. Sutton, Brian. “Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.” Explicator 58 (2000): 103-106.
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