The Great Gatsby is a very popular novel, and today nearly all critics agree that it is a great one. But what makes it great? What elements set it apart? Many novels are so poorly written that they are never even published, and most that are published do not sell especially well. Of those that have good sales, good reviews, or both, most are soon forgotten. But a few become a permanent part of our literature.
In the beginning of this novel, Nick caraway, a young man from Minnesota, moves to New York in the summer of 1922 to learn about the bond business. He rents a house in the West Egg district of Long Island, a wealthy but not fashionable area populated by rich people. Nick is unlike all the other people in West Egg, he was educated at Yale and has social connections in East Egg. Nick’s next door neighbor in West Egg is a strange man named Jay Gatsby, who lives in a huge Gothic mansion and throws parties every Saturday night.
Great things that make a book great are subtle and complicated. Perhaps some of them are indefinable. But we can at least touch on some of the basic elements that make the Great Gatsby what it is and on some of his meanings it has for perceptive readers. One can read the Great Gatsby easily and enjoyably without careful analysis. His essential story seems simple enough.
Yet readers who stop to ask themselves exactly why they enjoyed the novel, what makes it work, will find themselves looking at a very complex book that means much more than it seems to at first glance. The novel has nearly perfect unity of effect. Every image, every character, every symbol, every turn of the plot contributes to the theme and to the feeling one carries away from reading it, even though one may not always be consciously aware of their influence. The theme is the dangerously misguided nature of Gatsby’s worship of the monied world of Daisy Buchanan. As we come to see how Fitzgerald develops this theme, we will also come to see how much depth and richness it actually has. Taken by itself, the plot is simple and bears out what has just been said about the theme of the novel in a flat, anecdotal way. Gatsby, a poor young man, falls in love with a rich girl while he is serving as an officer in army during World War I. She loves him but marries someone else when she has given up on his coming back to her. She does not realize that he is poor. He becomes rich through bootlegging and other crimes, finds her, and tries to persuade her to leave her husband for him. She nearly does, but instead stays with her husband. She kills her husband’s mistress in an automobile accident, and the dead woman’s husband, deceived into thinking that Gatsby’s is responsible, kills Gatsby and then himself. The reader is left uncertain as to what extent Gatsby’s former love is involved in the...