Topics: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, American literature Pages: 18 (7879 words) Published: September 2, 2013
Critics of Scott Fitzgerald lend to agree that The Great Gatsby is somehow a commentary on that elusive phrase, the American dream. The assumption seems to be that Fitzgerald approved. On the contrary, it can be shown that The Great Gatsby offers some of the severest and closest criticism of the American dream that our literature affords. Read in this way, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece ceases to be a pastoral documentary of the Jazz Age and takes its distinguished place among those great national novels whose profound corrective insights into the nature of American experience arc not separable from the artistic form of the novel itself. That is to say, Fitzgerald—at least in this one book—is in a line with the greatest masters of American prose. The Great Gatsby embodies a criticism of American experience—not of manners, but of a basic historic attitude to life—more radical than anything in James’s own assessment of the deficiencies of his country. The theme of Gatsby is the withering of the American dream. Essentially, this phrase represents the romantic enlargement of the possibilities of life on a level at which the material and the spiritual have become inextricably confused. As such, it led inevitably toward the problem that has always confronted American artists dealing with American experience—the problem of determining the hidden boundary in the American vision of life at which the reality ends and the illusion begins. Historically, the American dream is anti-Calvinistic, and believes in the goodness of nature and man. It is accordingly a product of the frontier and the West rather than of the Puritan Tradition. The simultaneous operation of two such attitudes in American life created a tension out of which much of our greatest art has sprung. Youth of the spirit—perhaps of the body as well—is a requirement of its existence; limit and deprivation are its blackest devils. But it shows an astonishing incapacity to believe in them: I join you… in branding as cowardly the idea that the human mind is incapable of further advances. This is precisely the doctrine which the present despots of the earth are inculcating, and their friends here reechoing; and applying especially to religion and politics; “that it is not probable that anything better will be discovered than what was known to our fathers.” … But thank heaven the American mind is already too much opened to listen to these impostures, and while the art of printing is left to us, science can never be retrograde… To preserve the freedom of the human mind … every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom… But that the enthusiasm which characterizes youth should lift its parricide hands against freedom and science would be such a monstrous phenomenon as I could not place among the possible tilings in this age and country. That is the hard kernel, the seed from which the American dream would grow into unpruned luxuriance. Jefferson’s voice is not remote from many European voices of his time, but it stands in unique relation to the country to whom he spoke. That attitude was bred into the bone of America, and in various, often distorted, ways, it has lasted. Perhaps that is where the trouble begins, for if these virtues of the American imagination have the elements of greatness in them, they call immediately for discriminating and practical correctives. The reality in such an attitude lies in its faith in life; the illusion lies in the undiscriminating multiplication of its material possibilities. The Great Gatsby is an exploration of the American dream as it exists in a corrupt period, and it is an attempt to determine that concealed boundary that divides the reality from the illusions. The illusions seem more real than the reality itself. Embodied in the subordinate characters in the novel, they threaten to invade the whole of the picture. On the other hand, the reality is embodied in Gatsby; and as opposed to the hard, tangible illusions, the reality is a thing...
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