Philip Nel > Courses > American Studies 201: Introduction to American Studies (Spring 1998) > Questions on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

Questions on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

One of the fun things about trying to place a fictional work in its socio-political context is that, on the one hand, we can draw connections between the world of the text and the world outside, and, on the other, exact correspondences elude us. That is, we can look at The Great Gatsby's analysis of social and economic class structures (for example) and examine how these ideas play out in the novel. But it's much harder to arrive at a definitive answer to the big questions -- like "What does the novel mean?" for example.
That said, I'd like you to take up that very question right now: "What does the novel mean?" As you take it up, remember that, while there may not be a single, definitive answer, there are better and worse answers. You can evaluate the veracity of your conclusions by thinking about some of the criteria we raised in the last class. To whom and/or what is the novel sympathetic? How do you know? And what might these people and things represent? How do you know? The key will be context: the best answers will take into account -- as fully as possible -- the larger context of the novel. And in using the word "context" I refer to both the text of the novel and the world in which it was written. In devising an answer, don't forget to collect evidence to support your claims.
Each group should appoint a note-taker and be ready to report your findings when we reconvene.


After learning that Tom told Wilson that Gatsby was the driver of the yellow car (which wasn't true, though Tom does not seem to have known that) -- an action that resulted in the deaths of both Gatsby and Wilson -- Nick remarks, "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made" (187-88). And, at novel's end, three people -- one of uncertain social class, two of low economic (and social) class -- have died violent deaths. The tone of the statement quoted above feels critical towards the leisure class's luxury in being careless, and Tom offers many other criticisms. Yet, at the novel's end, the prominent poor characters are dead and the prominent wealthy characters remain powerful. So, then, does the novel ultimately endorse this class structure? Or does it criticize it? Or both? How effective is its endorsement and/or critique? Ultimately, what are its politics regarding class?


The very last words of the novel are as follows:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning --

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

What do these words mean? I ask because they seem to contain some of the contradictory impulses of the novel itself. They describe striving forward ("we beat on, boats against the current") and drifting backward ("borne back ceaselessly"); they contrast hope ("Gatsby believed in the […] future") with despair (the "future that […] recedes before us"). How, ultimately, does the novel envision America's future? In your answer, you'll want to look at this concluding page, and at Gatsby himself. He, too, seems to embody contrary - even paradoxical - strains in the novel. Where does the novel leave us? Does it resolve these tensions? Or does it emphasize one side of these apparent oppositions?


Near the novel's end, Nick describes the story he's just told as "a story of the West" (184). The American West has been a space in which America imagines itself. Although both it (like the rest of the American continent) did have a history before it became America, the West in the American popular imagination has come to stand for "manifest destiny," the last unspoiled "virgin land," the frontier, the future of the nation, and the idea of history as progressive (always getting better and better). How does The Great Gatsby interact with this idea of the West? In answering this question, you might start with images of the West in the novel: Nick mentions that "Tom and Gatsby, Daisy, and Jordan, and I, were all Westerners" (184), George Wilson speaks of plans to go west (130), Gatsby and Nick live in West Egg, and Fitzgerald himself was from St. Paul, etc.

Return to Phil Nel's syllabus for American Studies 201, Spring 1998.