What role do automobiles play in The Great Gatsby?
For many of Fitzgerald’s characters, the automobile represents American progress. Fitzgerald, however, remains unconvinced. Despite its superficial role as an emblem of man’s ingenuity, Fitzgerald suggests that the automobile is actually a tool of destruction. Several other symbols of American progress—wealth, scientific research, the metropolis—turn out to be corrupting forces in The Great Gatsby. By adding automobiles to this large set of false emblems, Fitzgerald reinforces his idea that the Jazz Age represents a tragic perversion of the American dream.
Several of Gatsby’s key players regard automobiles as signs of brilliance and power. Nick marvels at the shiny Rolls Royce that conveys guests to Gatsby’s opulent Saturday night parties. Wilson covets Tom’s car because it would give him the opportunity to expand his business and improve his social position. Speeding over the Queensborough Bridge in Gatsby’s vehicle, Nick feels like an explorer setting eyes on New York for the first time. Again and again, automobiles give Fitzgerald’s characters a sense of excitement and possibility.
But Fitzgerald repeatedly shows that these awe-inspiring cars are dangerous, misleading, and destructive. Soon after his wedding, Tom endangers his life by getting into a heavily publicized car accident. (By noting that there is a young female hotel employee in the passenger seat, Fitzgerald suggests that the accident also endangers Tom’s marriage.) Leaving Gatsby’s party, a drunken buffoon crashes his car and loses a wheel: The man’s status symbol exposes him as a weak fool. Though beautiful, Gatsby’s leather seats heat up and burn him toward the end of the novel. A speeding car is responsible for Myrtle’s death, and Jordan Baker describes her ruined love affair in terms of physical injuries and “bad drivers.” The exhilarating joy ride that takes Nick and Gatsby over the Queensborough Bridge ends when a police officer points out that the men are out of control. Fancy cars lead people astray in almost every chapter.
Like the automobile, many other symbols of American prowess prove deceptive in The Great Gatsby. Gatsby’s parties—celebrated in the papers as pageants of American wealth, style, and genius—turn out to be primitive bacchanals where the guests ignore their host, inebriated men gorge themselves on two dinners, and husbands bicker senselessly with their wives. The scientific report that Tom, the Yale graduate and supposed member of America’s intellectual vanguard, brandishes in front of Nick, Daisy, and Jordan turns out to be a barbarous, fictional screed against the global population of non-whites. Nick’s move from the Midwest to New York—supposedly an act of bravery and forward thinking—ends in bitterness and disillusionment, not to mention a decision to return to the heartland. Gatsby’s self-made wealth comes from racketeering and other shadowy criminal activities. Each emblem of progress and American ingenuity becomes tarnished in this dark novel.
By including the automobile in his array of false status symbols, Fitzgerald calls into question the idea of a wholesome, attainable American dream. The men and women of Gatsby set out to spend their wealth in ways that enhance their sense of joy and possibility. Instead, they waste their money on destructive toys, such as powerful cars and huge buffet tables. Fitzgerald’s mythic automobile rarely sets his characters on a safe, pleasant path; instead, it injures and kills them.