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Interpreting Literature -- American Culture Through the Lens of The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby presents the dark side of the American Dream and does so with unusual panache. The shimmering surface of Fitzgerald's prose style mirrors the daylight optimism of the dream, reflecting the ideal of a society wherein talent and hard work routinely get rewarded and upward mobility is based at least as much on merit as on luck or charm or who you know.

Ruthlessness or deceit … but who could need such things?

The narrator, Nick Carraway, likewise begins this adventure with a fair measure of this robust American optimism. He envies the high society spoons in his new top drawer of polished acquaintances, interpreting their frivolity and hedonism as an abundance of life.

Yet as the narrative progresses, this bright-eyed optimism dims. Nick sees, on the one hand, heirs to inherited wealth who are arrogant, bigoted, selfish, and only superficially cultured – Tom Buchanan and his ilk. On the other hand, he sees those who are mere party animals and fair weather friends. And finally, the one rich guy who is genuinely magnanimous, likeable – and also largely self-made in his fortunes – turns out also to be wildly self-deluding and reliant upon criminal enterprises for his lifestyle leverage.

All kinds of early 20th century capitalist men seem to prize and to vie for the affections of women who are monstrously vain and superficial and easily mixed in their loyalties. It's American high society in a nutshell.

What's more, Gatsby unfolds in the Roaring 20s, the Gilded Age, a time of both great fortunes and great despair, and the time of greatest income inequality in all of American history... until now. Since about 2007 or 2008, we've been at an all-time high for the kind of disparity wherein a huge percentage of all new wealth created flows to a tiny percentage of cultural high-rollers who generally start out from inherited wealth and from there learn how to work a very loaded system; meanwhile, the rest of the country competes for scraps and the disappearing middle class gets pitted against the poor and the poor against themselves on issues like the minimum wage.

We live in a time when an alarming number of young people, particularly young men of color in the inner cities, look at drug lords as models of success and prosperity, a time when even popular musical artists adopt "gangsta" personae. How different is the contemporary high-style and culturally savvy gangster from Jay Gatsby, a man who is polished and well-mannered, yes, on the surface, but has built his fortunes on bootlegged liquor and scams in the bonds market?

The human dynamics at work are cyclical and recalcitrant; we've once again found ourselves in a gilded age, different only in style or inflection and enhanced by the latest technologies.

The message here is not that we should become jaded or cynical, but that through the lens of a great American novel and the light it sheds upon our societal and cultural history, we can become more fully aware of our own identities in reference to that history as well as the cultural impulse of the moment. From this increased awareness, we may grow not only in our aesthetic appreciations, but we just might find a way to live a more fully human and authentic life.

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Mark V. is an experienced book editor and former director of education for an online creative writing program. As a WyzAnt tutor, he specializes in language arts and helps students with expanded vocabulary and improved grammar, reading comprehension, expository and creative writing skills, as well as improved verbal reasoning and test preparation.

Note to students: please don’t quote from the above essay without proper attribution. Plagiarism of materials found online is incredibly easy to detect and the penalties can be steep.
 
"Is the Great Gatsby Still Relevant?" Trading blows with Literati pros: WyzAnt language tutors draw down on Gatsby's artistic merits and cultural relevance with remarks both trenchant and generous -- while mostly resisting characteristically book report style deliveries and formal essay structure, as well, shunning those features which would provide easy temptation for academic fraud. Instead, students are encouraged to emulate the thinking on offer, but also challenge it. You may incorporate points from the best arguments while rejecting others, but ultimately you should take a deeper and more searching look, guided by your own lights. Paraphrase and quote from others with proper attribution, then demonstrate where your own thinking diverges. How will you answer this question?

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Mark V.

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