The Great Gatsby and the Lost Generation

Consumerism, Idealism, and Façade

Robert Redford & Mia Farrow In 'The Great Gatsby'

Paramount Pictures/Getty Images 

Nick Carraway, the tale’s “honest” narrator, is a small-town, Midwest American boy who once spent some time in New York with the greatest man he has ever known, Jay Gatsby. To Nick, Gatsby is the embodiment of the American Dream: rich, powerful, attractive, and elusive. Gatsby is surrounded by an aura of mystery and illusion, not unlike L. Frank Baum’s Great and Powerful Oz. And, like the Wizard of Oz, Gatsby and all that he stands for turn out to be nothing more than carefully crafted, delicate constructs. 

Gatsby is the dream of a man who does not exist, living in a world where he does not belong. Although Nick understands that Gatsby is far from being who he pretends to be, it does not take long for Nick to be charmed by the dream and to believe wholeheartedly in the ideals that Gatsby represents. Ultimately, Nick falls in love with Gatsby, or at least with the fantasy world that Gatsby champions.

Nick Carraway is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel. He is simultaneously the one person who seems to see through Gatsby’s façade, but also the person who most adores Gatsby and who cherishes the dream that this man represents. Carraway must continually lie to and deceive himself while attempting to reassure the reader of his honest nature and unbiased intentions. Gatsby, or James Gatz, is fascinating in that he represents all aspects of the American Dream, from the tireless pursuit of it to the actual embodiment of it, and also, tragically, the realization that it does not really exist.

The other characters, Daisy & Tom Buchanan, Mr. Gatz (Gatsby’s father), Jordan Baker, and others are all interesting and important in their relationship to Gatsby. We see Daisy as the typical Jazz Age “flapper” interested in beauty and riches; she returns Gatsby’s interest only because he is so materially advantaged. Tom is the representative of “Old Money” and its condescension to but vehement dislike of the nouveau-riche. He is racist, sexist, and wholly unconcerned for anyone but himself. Jordan Baker, the artists, and others represent the various unspoken but ever-present notions of sexual exploration, individualism, and self-gratification that are indicative of the period. 

What typically draws readers to this book, whether or not they come away with the traditional understanding of the novel (a love story, a censure on the American Dream, etc.), is its strikingly beautiful prose. There are moments of description in this narrative which nearly take one’s breath away, particularly as they often come unexpectedly. Fitzgerald’s brilliance lies in his ability to undercut his every thought, showing both the positive and negative arguments of a situation within the very same paragraph (or sentence, even). 

This is perhaps best demonstrated in the final page of the novel, where the beauty of the dream that is Gatsby is contrasted with the disillusionment of those pursuing the dream. Fitzgerald explores the power of the American Dream, the heart-pounding, soul-shaking evocation of those early American immigrants who looked upon the new shores with such hope and longing, with such pride and eager determination, only to be crushed by the never-ending struggle to achieve the unattainable; to be trapped in a timeless, ageless, persistent dream that never amounts to anything but the dream.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is quite possibly the most widely-read piece of American Literature. For many, The Great Gatsby is a love story, and Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan are the 1920s American Romeo & Juliet, two star-crossed lovers whose destinies are intertwined and whose fates are tragically sealed from the beginning; however, the love story is a façade. Does Gatsby love Daisy? Not as much as he loves the idea of Daisy. Does Daisy love Gatsby? She loves the possibilities he represents. 

Other readers find the novel to be a depressing critique of the so-called American Dream, one which, perhaps, can never truly be reached. Similar to Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, this story predicts a bleak fate for America. No matter how hard one works or how much one achieves, the American Dreamer will always want more. This reading brings us closer to the true nature and purpose of The Great Gatsby, but not quite all. 

This is not a love story, nor is it strictly about one man’s striving for the American Dream. Instead, it is a story about a restless nation. It is a story about wealth and the disparity between “Old Money” and “New Money.” Fitzgerald, through his narrator Nick Carraway, has created a dreamy, illusory vision of a society of dreamers; shallow, unfilled people who are rising too fast and consuming too much. Their children are neglected, their relationships disrespected, and their spirits crushed beneath the weight of soulless riches.

This is the story of The Lost Generation and the lies they must tell in order to continue living every day when they are so sad, lonely, and disillusioned.

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Burgess, Adam. "The Great Gatsby and the Lost Generation." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Burgess, Adam. (2020, August 28). The Great Gatsby and the Lost Generation. Retrieved from Burgess, Adam. "The Great Gatsby and the Lost Generation." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).