“Gaudy primary colors and hair shorn in strange new ways and shawls beyond the wildest dreams of Castille. . . The air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and the enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names. . . The party has begun.”
The beauty and splendor of Gatsby’s parties masked the innate corruption within the heart of the Roaring Twenties. Jazz-Age society was a bankrupt world, devoid of morality, and plagued by a crisis of character. Jay Gatsby is a misfit in this world. He tries, ironically, to fit into the picture: he fills his garage with status, his closet with fashion, his lawns with gaiety, his mannerisms with affectation. However, he would never be one of “them”. Ironically, his loss seems to Nick Caraway to be his greatest asset. Nick reflects that Gatsby’s drive, lofty goals, and, most importantly, dreams set him apart from this empty society. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses Gatsby to contrast a real American dreamer against what had become of American society during the 1920’s. This same world referred to by Gertrude Stein as the “Lost Generation”, by T.S. Eliot as “The Wasteland” was to Fitzgerald none other than New York. By magnifying the tragic fate of dreamers, conveying that twenties America lacked the substance to fulfill dreams and exposing the blindness in Jazz-Age Americans, Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, foreshadows the destruction of his own generation.
Since America has always held its entrepreneurs in the highest regard, brandishing them with praise and mounting the most successful on the highest pedestals, it is almost automatic to predict that Fitzgerald would support this heroic vision of the American Dreamer within his novel. However, to enforce the societal corruption evident in the twenties, Fitzgerald contradicts the notion of the successful dreamer by indicating, instead, that dreamers during this era led the most ill-fated lives of all. Dan Cody exemplifies the destruction of the dreamer. Cody is a miner, “a product of the Nevada silver fields, of the Yukon, of every rush for metal since seventy-five.” He becomes a millionaire through hard work, ambition and a little bit of luck. Yet, it is his fate to die alone, drunk, and betrayed. Through Dan Cody, Fitzgerald shows how twenties society treats their dreamers; it manipulates them, uses them for money, and then, forgets them.
This pattern plays through again through Gatsby. A child growing up in a nameless town in the middle of Minnesota, Gatsby dreams the impossible and achieves it. He sets out methodically, with a list of “General Resolves: Study electricity, baseball, practice elocution and how to attain it. . . ” And after less than two decades, he is one of the richest men in New York. Yet, Gatsby, too, was just another tool used for the fun of society. He was never truly a member of this society. At his own parties, “. . . Girls were swooning backward playfully into men’s arms, even into groups, knowing that someone would arrest their falls – – – but no one swooned backward on Gatsby, and no French bob touched Gatsby’s shoulder, and no singing quartets were formed with Gatsby’s head for a link.” His home was full of the Leeches, Blackbucks, Ferets and Klipspringers, while the champagne was flowing. Yet, when he died, no one came. Gatsby, too, died alone. Dreamers in a healthy society are respected and encouraged. Yet, in the twenties, they were used and mistreated. Fitzgerald uses the notion of destroyed dreams to exemplify his lost generation.
Even more substantial to the degradation of society than the destruction of dreamers, was the sad truth that twenties society lacked the ability to fulfill its dreamers’ desires. As a child, Gatsby dreams of climbing the ladder to success and being accepted by society’s rich. When Gatsby finally invites the Sloans and Buchanans to his home for the afternoon, they show nothing less than utter disrespect for him. After Gatsby accepts an invitation for dinner with Mrs. Sloan, the party rebukes him behind his back. They leave without him, saying they “couldn’t wait.” Although, Gatsby is wealthy and successful, the inherent divisions between “new money” and “old money” keep him far away from his dream of being part of this society. He tries to compensate through his lavish parties and hydroplanes, yet, barriers, he could not surmount, keep him from his dream. Gatsby’s dream of Daisy is another dream that remains unfulfilled. Through his struggle to the top, Gatsby dreams of marrying Daisy. She initially refuses to marry him because he is not wealthy nor a “somebody” in Daisy’s misconceived society. Yet, Gatsby works for five long years to achieve the status that will be enough for her. His dream of her is pure and perfect, clear as a green light on a June night. But when he finally meets her again after five long years of waiting, Nick states succinctly, “There must have been times that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.” Daisy is stained by wealth. Even when she meets Jay again after so many years, Fitzgerald focuses on the fact that she is still not dressed completely in white; “her brass buttons glinted in the sunlight.” Her beautiful voice is tainted with money. She is not “the grail” nor will Gatsby ever find it. She is simply a fair-weather daisy, cool and content in the spring, yet fallible and weak in the heat of the summer. Fitzgerald uses Daisy and the pompousness of “old money” to show how Gatsby’s dreams could never be fulfilled in this empty society.
Since it seems that notions of a corrupt society were evident everywhere in the nineteen twenties, it is curious that the rest of society can not see the tragedy inherent in the life of Gatsby, the tragedy that is so clear to Nick. It is for this reason, that Fitzgerald emphasizes the aspect of blindness in the novel. He pinpoints the fact that society lives life from day to day to avoid looking towards the future. The concept of blindness is evident in the overall drunkenness of society. Daisy binges on alcohol the night before marrying Tom to try to block out the vision of an unhappy future. The motif of reckless driving is also symbolic of blindness. Jordan, Daisy, Tom and the other “jet-setters” of the twenties drive recklessly; they would rather not know what lies beyond the corner than take precaution. So caught up in the frenzy of having fun, they risk thoughtlessly their own lives and the lives of others. Nick states to Jordan, “You’re a rotten driver. Either you ought to be more careful, or you oughtn’t drive.” Jordan responds, “They’ll keep out of my way. It takes two to make an accident.” Fitzgerald attacks the motif of reckless driving vigorously, since it conveys precisely the vision he had of America. He saw twenties society as recklessly careless; the society was “driving on toward death through the cooling twilight.”
Through out the novel, Fitzgerald foreshadows the downfall of his own generation. At the heart of the most intense conflict in the novel, where Gatsby finds out that he will never live his dream, Nick realizes, “I just remembered it’s my thirtieth birthday,” signifying the end of this corrupt light-hearted lifestyle at the dawn of the thirties. The characters in the book with mobility try to escape the impending doom at the end of the decade by moving West, with hopes that a new location will mean a new world. Tom, Daisy, Nick and the Wilson’s realize that their society is falling apart and hope to escape. The party is over and Fitzgerald tells through the voice of Nick that “. . . They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated away. . . ” without the responsibility to pick up the pieces and clean up the mess. Even Fitzgerald tried to escape to Europe as an expatriate when he realized the direction America was headed toward. Fitzgerald compares the unfulfilled dreams of the twenties with the realized dreams of the first Dutch in America contrasting their progress against social stagnation of the twenties. Years of partying, of destroying dreams and dreamers, of driving recklessly onward without direction or responsibility had destroyed the neatly woven fabric of America. This solemn omen on the lost future of America in the twenties, of the impending destiny that awaited the heedless masses frames F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby.