Critical Overview of "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Discussing the plot, main character, and theme of an American classic

The Great Gatsby critical studies book


The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald's greatest novel—a book that offers damning and insightful views of the American nouveau riche in the 1920s. The Great Gatsby is an American classic and a wonderfully evocative work.

Like much of Fitzgerald's prose, it is neat and well-crafted. Fitzgerald has a brilliant understanding of lives that are corrupted by greed and turn out incredibly sad and unfulfilled. He was able to translate this understanding into one of the finest pieces of literature of the 1920s. The novel is a product of its generation—with one of American literature's most powerful characters in the figure of Jay Gatsby, who is urbane and world-weary. Gatsby is really nothing more than a man desperate for love.

The Great Gatsby Overview

The novel's events are filtered through the consciousness of its narrator, Nick Carraway, a young Yale graduate, who is both a part of and separate from the world he describes. Upon moving to New York, he rents a house next door to the mansion of an eccentric millionaire (Jay Gatsby). Every Saturday, Gatsby throws a party at his mansion and all the great and the good of the young fashionable world come to marvel at his extravagance (as well as swap gossipy stories about their host who—it is suggested—has a murky past).

Despite his high-living, Gatsby is dissatisfied and Nick finds out why. Long ago, Gatsby fell in love with a young girl, Daisy. Although she has always loved Gatsby, she is currently married to Tom Buchanan. Gatsby asks Nick to help him meet Daisy once more, and Nick finally agrees—arranging tea for Daisy at his house.

The two ex-lovers meet and soon rekindle their affair. Soon, Tom begins to suspect and challenges the two of them—also revealing something that the reader had already begun to suspect: that Gatsby's fortune was made through illegal gambling and bootlegging. Gatsby and Daisy drive back to New York. In the wake of the emotional confrontation, Daisy hits and kills a woman. Gatsby feels that his life would be nothing without Daisy, so he takes the blame.

George Wilson—who discovers that the car that killed his wife belongs to Gatsby—comes to Gatsby's house and shoots him. Nick arranges a funeral for his friend and then decides to leave New York—saddened by the fatal events and disgusted by the way lived their lives.

Gatsby's Character and Societal Values

The power of Gatsby as a character is inextricably linked to his wealth. From the very beginning of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald sets up his eponymous hero as an enigma: the playboy millionaire with the shady past who can enjoy the frivolity and ephemera that he creates around him. However, the reality of the situation is that Gatsby is a man in love. Nothing more. He concentrated all of his life on winning Daisy back.

It is the way that he attempts to do this, however, that is central to Fitzgerald's world-view. Gatsby creates himself—both his mystique and his personality—around rotten values. They are the values of the American dream—that money, wealth, and popularity are all there is to achieve in this world. He gives everything he has—emotionally and physically—to win, and it is this unrestrained desire that contributes to his eventual downfall.

Social Commentary About Decadence

In the closing pages of The Great Gatsby, Nick considers Gatsby in a wider context. Nick links Gatsby with the class of people with whom he has become so inextricably associated. They are the society persons so prominent during the 1920s and 1930s. Like his novel The Beautiful and the Damned, Fitzgerald attacks the shallow social climbing and emotional manipulation—which only causes pain. With a decadent cynicism, the party-goers in The Great Gatsby cannot see anything beyond their own enjoyment. Gatsby's love is frustrated by the social situation and his death symbolizes the dangers of his chosen path.

F. Scott Fitzgerald paints a picture of a lifestyle and a decade that is both fascinating and horrific. In so doing, he captures a society and a set of young people; and he writes them into legend. Fitzgerald was a part of that high-living lifestyle, but he was also a victim of it. He was one of the beautiful but he was also forever damned. In all its excitement—pulsating with life and tragedy—The Great Gatsby brilliantly captures the American dream in a time when it had descended into decadence.

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Topham, James. "Critical Overview of "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Topham, James. (2020, August 25). Critical Overview of "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Retrieved from Topham, James. "Critical Overview of "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).