We often use the term ‘the great American novel’ but we don’t do that for novels by writers from other countries. We don’t talk about ‘the great English novel’ or ‘the great Russian novel.’
The reason is that the United States is a new country, a new nation trying to make its way as a sophisticated, modern, successful democracy on a planet crowded with failed new countries and tired old countries with a variety of political systems and with very long literary traditions. It is easier, therefore, to pinpoint the major themes in America’s development: many of the events related to them occurred within and almost within living memory.
A novelist cannot help living in his or her own time and that provides the context of their novel, written at a particular time in history. That helps us understand the novel and when we read it decades or centuries after it was written we are able to see how it throws light onto the times in which it was written. A novel can therefore be an explanation of, and a contemporary comment on, a major theme of its time.
They are all very different novels, ranging over more than a century. But they have one thing in common: they all address a major American theme of their authors’ time. Themes like race, poverty, wealth, and other American experiences of the past still reverberate strongly in American life.
There are several claimants to the appellation “Great American Novel.” The most common on the list are:
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby,
Herman Melville, Moby Dick,
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird,
Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon,
Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho,
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.
This series gives an account of each of those novels.
Number Two: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby is not only a memorable depiction of its age – called the roaring twenties, the jazz age, and sometimes the lost generation – but it’s presented by arguably the best prose writer among American writers.
The idea of the American Dream originated in frontier life with the impulse to explore and move more deeply into the interior and the west, Americans always looking and hoping for something better and expecting to find it.
In the second half of the nineteenth century immigrants began arriving from Europe. They arrived with a dream of being free of the things that drove them from their homes – war, persecution, poverty and social suppression. America was a land of liberty where they could be free to seek happiness and make honest livings in a peaceful environment. When the Californian gold rush showed that instant wealth was possible the Dream began to be connected with money.
Immigrants arrived in great numbers in the early Twentieth century. Here, again, they came to escape the bonds that held them in Europe, and dreamt of a better, more fulfilling life in a country where everyone, according to his or her ability, taking advantage of the opportunities provided, could reach the highest levels. There was no limit to social advancement in America, where the son of even the poorest immigrant could become president. Money was also part of the equation and by the twenties it was one of the main goals in the American Dream. However, social advancement was still the central principle in the American Dream.
The Great Gatsby exposes the American Dream as a failure. Jimmy Gatz, a boy from a low status, poor rural family dreams of great wealth and social advancement. He changes his name to Jay Gatsby. As an army officer, while waiting to be deployed to Europe, he falls in love with a rich girl from a wealthy family, who promises to wait for him. She does not, however. She marries Tom Buchanan, a young man from a socially similar family.
Gatsby returns after the war, determined to make himself worthy of Daisy, even though she has betrayed him. He applies himself obsessively to making himself rich with that purpose in mind. He takes advantage of the prohibition and makes a lot of money as a bootlegger. He buys a huge mansion opposite the bay from Daisy’s house and looks for an opportunity to get her attention by hosting sumptuous parties every Saturday night, hoping that one night she will come, but she never does. With the help of his neighbour, the narrator, Nick Carraway, who is related to Daisy, he is united with her again and they embark on an affair.
When he forces the issue, demanding that she tell her husband that she never loved him and that she loves him, Jay Gatsby, she doesn’t do that, on the basis that even though Gatsby is very rich he is not her social equal. In spite of not losing any of the luxury she is used to going with him would be a loss for her. On their way back from New York where the confrontation has occurred she drives Gatsby’s car. Tom Buchanan’s mistress, Muriel, believing that Tom is in the car rushes out when it passes her home and Daisy drives into her and she is killed She then allows Gatsby to take the blame.
As a drama played out with characters, Daisy is shallow, disloyal and careless. Leaving Gatsby to face the consequences of killing Muriel she turns her back on him and retreats into her secure world of class privilege, preferring to put up with her bullying philandering husband to losing her social advantage. She tacitly agrees with Tom’s expression of contempt for Gatsby, that he is ‘the nobody from nowhere,’
The novel exposes the American Dream as hollow. Gatsby is a classical achiever of the American Dream in his rise from poverty to immense wealth but America can’t offer him what he really needs – acceptance as a person who is the social equal of the top people in society. No matter how high he jumps and how hard he works, he cannot penetrate the ceiling that the American class system has fixed over his head. In America, no matter how rich he is he will always be the poor boy, the nobody from nowhere. Daisy’s behaviour makes that clear. The American Dream has failed him. For him it doesn’t exist. It has taken no more than a fickle, shallow debutante to demonstrate that. That is the critique Fitzgerald makes of the American Dream – that it only goes so far before it hits an impenetrable obstacle.
Such a remarkable exposure of the American Dream in a most beautiful novel with a great story, immortal characters, and wonderful prose, puts The Great Gatsby in keen contention for the title ‘the great American novel.’
What’s your take – do you think The Great Gatsby is truly the great American novel? Or is there another novel more worthy of this moniker? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.