Essay on Great Gatsby

Submitted By emercee
Words: 4191
Pages: 17

The Great Gatsby has become such a classic of American fiction that its avowed literary merits easily obscure those qualities that also made it (and continue to make it) a cult favorite. In a way, the early history of the book is a counterpoint to the history of J. D. Salinger the Catcher in the Rye, with both books ending up as perennial favorites. The difference is that Catcher was a cult favorite first and then a critical success, whereas The Great Gatsby was praised by the critics long before it acquired a cult following.

Therefore, although Gatsby fits chronologically into an earlier time frame, one closer to Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe than to Salinger, it somehow caught the attention of a post-WW II audience and acquired a cult following that peaked in the early fifties but has by no means abated. In this respect it is like Hermann Hesse Steppenwolf, Demian, and Siddhartha, books that originally appeared a generation before they gained the cult status that has made their titles household words since the 1960s.

Although critical reception of the novel has been kind, most critics have been quick to dismiss its thin plot and shallow characters as less important than Fitzgerald's brilliant depiction of the jazz age and his indictment of its shabby values. Cult readers take a different view, praising the book precisely because its plot is thin and its characters are shallow. To them this is Fitzgerald's point that the age itself could do no better than to produce shallow people living superficial lives. Academic critics speculated about the probable causes of this phenomenon, attributing it to the disillusionment brought on by the First World War and the extreme measures taken to escape it. Cult readers concentrated on the effects and saw a culture wallowing in hedonism, high on jazz and bathtub gin, living life as if it were one long party and there was no tomorrow. But more particularly, they concentrated on one person, the sympathetic figure of Nick Carraway, the outside observer, a character straight out of Joseph Conrad or Henry James whose function it is to observe and report.

However, whereas Conrad's Marlow ( Heart of Darkness) never becomes much more than a convenient narrative device, certainly not a character a reader can really identify with, Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway becomes very much a part of what he perceives, the sensitive young man that a host of sensitive young men have come to identify with. It is to him, then, that one must look to find the basic attraction of this novel as a cult book. To begin with, Nick has the sort of blessed innocence and shining ambition we associate with the mono mythical hero. Although he is more a Telemachus than a Ulysses, there is freshness about him, a basic goodness that appeals to that part of human nature that envies or craves or is irresistibly attracted to innocence. This is the quality one finds in well-mannered, unprepossessing heroes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) to William Golding's Ralph (Lord of the Flies).

Beyond that, however, is the fact that, in the tradition of the hero, Nick goes forth into the world to encounter corruption and disillusionment and to come to terms with reality. He alone is able to see the essential worth of Jay Gatsby beneath the deceptive exterior.

It is Nick's idealization of Gatsby that ennobles him in the minds of cult readers. Gatsby on his own is not an easy character for cult readers to sympathize with without the special insight of the young and sympathetic Nick. If Nick can see the good in Gatsby, then the reader can dismiss the corrupt side as Gatsby's victimization by the system and dwell on the charming side, that side made all the more intriguing by the mystery surrounding this handsome, rich, and devastatingly detached personality. As Nick says of Gatsby

“His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was…