Saturday, March 31, 2012

The American dream

Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publisher: Scribner (1995, PB, 216 pages)
Price: (Please check for prices of different editions)

The traditional dream of American authors has been to write the Great American Novel, to reconcile within one work the sprawling energies, contradictions and aspirations of a nation that, to take a phrase from Walt Whitman, contains multitudes.  Not a few authors have managed to present an artistic vision of America with lasting aesthetic power; one of the best examples is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Gatsby has arguably the strongest claim to be the definitive “Great American Novel” because it takes as its subject the American dream – an idea that, more than any other, lies at the heart of what it means to be American.

The novel’s characters and themes are drawn from fundamental notions of American identity.  The eponymous Jay Gatsby is a wealthy but mysterious figure in a fictionalized Long Island, New York community.  Gatsby, both less and more than what he appears to be, is that quintessentially New World creature -- the self-made man.  He embodies the economic and social mobility at the core of the American identity, rising from humble circumstances to success through desire and intelligence and hard work.

As Gatsby is gradually revealed to us, we learn he’s driven by the romanticized ideal of Daisy Buchanan, a woman he loved and lost years ago.  Having intermingled memories of Daisy with notions of success and happiness, Gatsby devotes himself to material success as a means of winning her back.  Gatsby tells the story of the climax and tragic results of these efforts.

Fitzgerald’s presentation of the American dream is laced with ironies.  Gatsby’s fortune is derived from crime; his dreams are romantic illusions that end in tragedy; his pathetic funeral suggests the ultimate futility of his life.  Yet to Gatsby it did not seem so.  One of the novel’s most affecting passages finds him staring across the distance at a green light on Daisy’s dock, which represents not only her but the American dream. Striving to reach it gives Gatsby’s life meaning by providing an outlet for his energy and offering hope, a fantasy that in the end proves more satisfying than its realization.

Fitzgerald famously claimed that “there are no second acts in American lives.”  Given that most of his adult life was spent in decline, this view is perhaps unsurprising.  But it may be wrong.  No one in America who is born poor, or who fails, needs feel that his condition is permanent.  The idea of the America dream is rooted in possibility, endless invention and re-invention.  This quality, this freedom from history and the burdens of the old world, has for generations inspired countless millions to seek their own second act, or third act, or fourth.  Fitzgerald is not wrong to suggest the darkness that lurks around the edges of  the American dream – doing so gives the novel integrity and power – but the shading is best seen as an accent, serving to set off the essential brilliance of the dream itself rather than giving it a sinister cast.

Fitzgerald’s prose is simple and direct, but with moments of lyricism.  I particularly commend to readers the last few paragraphs of the book for their beautiful summation of its ideas.

A copy of The Great Gatsby is also available for loan at the Lincoln Corner at KL Library, on 1 Jalan Raja. The Lincoln Corner collection is constantly refurbished, please send any recommendations for new acquisition (fiction or non-fiction) to

Guest reviewer
Adam Zerbinopoulos.