Tragedy, Realism, Modernism, Social Satire
The Great Gatsby can be considered a tragedy in that it revolves around a larger-than-life hero whose pursuit of an impossible goal blinds him to reality and leads to his violent death. According to the classical definition of tragedy, the hero possesses a tragic flaw that compels him to reach for something or attempt something that precipitates a disastrous result. Writers employ the conventions of tragedy to explore characters’ relationship to fate and free will, and provide a catharsis, or emotional release, in audiences. Gatsby’s tragic flaw is his inability to wake up from his dream of the past and accept reality. His obsession with recapturing his past relationship with Daisy compels him to a life of crime and deceit. He becomes a bootlegger, does business with a gangster, and creates a false identity. He is rumored to have killed a man. He briefly attains his goal of being reunited with the object of his obsession, but willfully blinds himself to the reality of the situation: that Daisy is no longer the young woman he fell in love with in Louisville. Rather, she is a married mother with no real intention of leaving her husband. While Gatsby’s criminal behavior is self-destructive, his tragic refusal to see reality ultimately leads to his death.
Despite telling the story of Gatsby’s downfall, Nick does not present him as a particularly dark character, instead expressing admiration for Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” and “romantic readiness.” But Gatsby’s romantic hopefulness functions as a flaw, rather than a virtue. It leads him to crime, violence, and ultimately a form of suicide, when he takes the blame for Myrtle’s death. One could argue that the rigidity of the American class system means Gatsby is fated to fail to achieve his dream, an example of tragedy being determined by fate. Another interpretation is that Gatsby willfully chooses his dream over reality, a counter example of tragedy being impelled by free will. Nick suggests this interpretation when he says, about Gatsby’s last moments, “he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.” Either way, Gatsby’s inherent flaw leads to his ruin and the death of several characters, as in the classic definition of tragedy.
The Great Gatsby is an example of literary realism because it depicts the world as it really is. Realist novels employ geographically precise settings and locations, factual historic events, and accurate descriptions of social systems to reflect and implicitly critique contemporary society. Realist writers strive to reflect a world the reader recognizes, and provide insight into how human nature functions in this reality. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s characters move through Manhattan landmarks such as the Plaza Hotel, Pennsylvania Station, and Central Park. East and West Egg are recognizable as fictionalized versions of the real towns of East and West Hampton. References to the First World War and Prohibition situate the novel in a specific time and place. The great economic disparity of the early 1920s, presented in the contrast between Gatsby’s extravagant parties and the destitute families living in the valley of ashes, also realistically portray the social order of the novel’s time. Fitzgerald’s frank acknowledgement of sex, adultery, and divorce further ground the plot in reality.
The Great Gatsby is also an example of modernism, a literary and artistic movement that reacted against the romantic, often sentimental novels and art of the Victorian period, and reached its height during and after World War I. Modernist writers were concerned with the individual’s experience in a rapidly industrializing society, and rallied to modernist poet Ezra Pound’s declaration “Make it new!” Fitzgerald, who was part of the same group as Pound, said his goal for The Great Gatsby was to write “something new.” In the novel, the encroachment of modernity is seen in the descriptions of the valley of ashes, as well as the “red-belted ocean-going ships,” trains, and most of all, automobiles. The sardonic descriptions of the latest innovations, such as “a machine which could extract the juice…of two hundred oranges…if a little button was pressed two hundred times,” implies a certain amount of anxiety about the increasing automation of everyday life. Fitzgerald portrays both the exhilaration of urban landscapes – “the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye” – and the lonely anonymity of workers in the “white chasms” of the city. But in other aspects Fitzgerald deviates from modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Their novels Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses both follow one or two characters over the course of a single day, and are narrated in a stream of consciousness style of interior monologue, while Gatsby has a more traditional plot and narrative style.
Fitzgerald’s use of irony, exaggeration, and ridicule to mock hypocritical social types also qualifies The Great Gatsby as a social satire. Characters in social satires are frequently unsympathetic, functioning as emblems of social problems in order to highlight inequality and injustice. In Gatsby, many of the minor characters serve as symbols of the mindless excess and superficiality of the Jazz Age. Fitzgerald catalogues the many guests at Gatsby’s parties with humorous disdain: the three Mr. Mumbles, the man in the library who is shocked to discover the books on the shelves are real, the group who “flipped their noses up like goats at whosoever came near,” the girls whose last names were “either the melodious names of flowers… or the sterner ones of the great American capitalists.” Fitzgerald satirizes capitalism in general with the figure of the man selling puppies outside the train station who bears “an absurd resemblance to John D. Rockefeller.” By comparing a powerful tycoon to a street vendor, Fitzgerald satirizes the self-importance of the American ruling class.
But while some social satire retains a superficial tone throughout, The Great Gatsby goes deeper into human fallibility. The tragedy at the book’s end, in which Myrtle Wilson, Gatsby, and George Wilson all die in quick succession, is treated without humor. This chain of events illustrates the heartlessness of the characters involved, but also reveals Gatsby’s humanity, and treats him as a character worthy of the reader’s sympathy after Daisy abandons him. Nick’s comment that Gatsby is “better than the whole damn bunch put together,” and his loyalty after Gatsby is killed suggests that Gatsby’s death has true consequence. This solemn tone contrasts with the lighter, more satiric tone of the book’s beginning. Satire is often limited in its ability to engage emotions of sadness, sympathy, and melancholy, and Fitzgerald uses a more serious tone to communicate these emotions. He expands his main characters, especially Nick and Gatsby, beyond caricature into fully realized, believable individuals.