Critics and readers alike have long tried to single out one work as the Great American Novel, and thus far, most have settled on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896–1940) The Great Gatsby (1925). Indeed, virtually no other work has captured, and criticized, so brilliantly the essence of the American Dream.
The title character, Jay Gatsby, is a mysterious millionaire who owns a mansion in the nouveau riche town of West Egg, Long Island, across the harbor from old-money East Egg. Each weekend, he throws opulent parties that draw hundreds of “casual moths” to his estate. At one of these soirées, Gatsby meets the story’s narrator, his new neighbor Nick Carraway. Nick’s immediate impression is that Gatsby has “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.”
But the more Nick learns, the more cracks appear in Gatsby’s facade of perfection. Gatsby, it turns out, epitomizes the American ideal of the self made man—in all the wrong ways. Born into poverty in the Midwest, he earned millions through dishonest business dealings, aided by organized crime. He changed his name, moved east, bought the mansion at West Egg, and constructed a fake personal history, all with the single goal of winning back his long-lost love, Daisy Buchanan, who has since married another man.
Gatsby is a paradox on nearly every level. He lives and breathes the American spirit of initiative, idealism, and upward mobility, but he does so entirely in pursuit of a woman who does not merit the effort. He sets forth an image of supreme confidence and self-assertion, but he is a lonely and lovesick man to the core. His library is filled with books, but their pages have not been cut, so not one of the books has even been opened. The Great Gatsby is a scant 180 pages long, but Fitzgerald uses this brief space masterfully and meticulously, with scarcely a wasted word. The novel is at once a thriller, romance, mystery, and exposé of the decadence of the Jazz Age. But above all, it is Fitzgerald’s prose—some of the most poetic the English language has ever seen—that makes this quintessentially American tale unforgettable.
- Fitzgerald struggled for months to settle on a title for The Great Gatsby. In March 1925, he sent a frantic final telegram to his publisher requesting that the title be changed to Under the Red, White, and Blue, but it was too late.
- Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were infamous figures in Jazz Age society, their tumultuous life plagued by Zelda’s notorious emotional instability and Fitzgerald’s alcoholism.
- In 1940, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack, leaving behind the unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, about a Hollywood movie mogul.