‘The Great Gatsby’, told through the narrative voice of Nick, portrays a segment of Long Island high society in 1920’s America, at the height of the economic boom and also during the prohibition era. Daisy, Nick’s cousin, and her husband Tom Buchanan represent well-established wealth, whilst the main character Jay Gatsby (main as in the focus of most attention rather than the most active) is seen as an upstart. An old flame of Daisy’s, his mode of ascent to such fabulous wealth remains mysterious until well into the novel. Wilson and Myrtle (Tom’s mistress) provide a grim reminder that the boom period did not benefit everybody, and their symbolic importance grows as the novel reaches its conclusion.
The United States of America make up a nation whose origins and history have glorified the concept of hope in the form of the American Dream. Gatsby encapsulates these ideals: he seems to be quite literally living the dream. However, Gatsby’s army of servants, lavish parties and extraordinary wealth do not bring him happiness. His capacity for dreams is his defining and most attractive characteristic; it is what makes him “great”. We are led by Nick and the nature of the story line itself to sympathise with Gatsby, and to perceive him, alongside more minor characters such as Wilson, as a victim of society.
The idea that Gatsby symbolises hope is a recurrent theme in the novel, and is shown most poignantly in the green light by which he can trace Daisy’s whereabouts.
Fitzgerald, through Nick, identifies in Gatsby a sort of naivety and simplicity. It is clear where the author’s sympathies lie. The device of the novel enables Fitzgerald to impose his opinions by way of the contrast between romanticism and realism. The style and language used imply that society is to blame for the misfortunes of the characters, thus reducing individual culpability. Showing his contempt for modern capitalist values in characters such as Wolfsheim, together with his portrayal of the selfish, reckless behaviour of the ‘old money’, the author presents a compelling, if overly idealistic argument. That is, a society based on materialism does not and can not bring happiness, and therefore, being at fault, it is an appropriate object of resentment.