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On The Great Gatsby

by Dan McCall, Cornell Professor 1966-2005

"Her voice is full of money... That was it. I'd never understood it before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it..." (p. 120) Before The Great Gatsby was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s, “I think my novel is about the best American novel ever written.” His enthusiasm would be confirmed seventy-five years later: in 1999, in an end-of-the-millennium list compiled by the Modern Library, a committee of editors, writers, and scholars voted The Great Gatsby the best American novel of the Twentieth Century. It has become a common-knowledge masterpiece. And in 2002 Book magazine’s panel of literary experts picked Jay Gatsby himself as the best fictional character since 1900.

The title of the novel has a special ironic distinction: it says two things at once. First, Gatsby is truly “great,” a legitimate hero. Second, he is a figure in a sideshow, a freak, a carnival oddity, “The Great Gatsby.” At one point the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, sees Gatsby as “a turbaned ‘character’ leaking sawdust at every pore.” And the more we get to know the man, the more clearly the two meanings of the title are right—he is indeed exemplary, and he’s a grease-paint Wonder of the Western World striding majestically around on a platform. Cornell Professor Arthur Mizener, the first and still the best of Fitzgerald’s many biographers, sums it up admirably:

In so far as Gatsby represents the simplicity of heart Fitzgerald associated with the Middle West, he is really a great man; in so far as he achieves the kind of notoriety the East accords success of his kind he is about as great as Barnum was. Out of Gatsby’s ignorance of his real greatness and his misunderstanding of his notoriety, Fitzgerald gets most of the book’s direct irony.

The novel is a kind of anatomy of love—various characters in it love themselves, love things, love each other. But they behave so badly that we agree with Nick when near the end he shouts to Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd . . . You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Nick tells us that he and Gatsby had all along “been in ecstatic cahoots.” We as readers are in on those ecstatic cahoots when we realize the truth in what Fitzgerald wrote to a friend about Gatsby, “I never at any one time saw him clearly . . . he started out as a man I knew and then changed into myself”—or, as he wrote to another friend, Gatsby was “my imaginary elder brother”—which we see in Nick’s attitude of an adoring kid brother.

Finally, Fitzgerald writes, “The whole burden of Gatsby is the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false so long as they partake of the magical glory.” Look at that striking phrase, “the loss of those illusions.” Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby are for Fitzgerald a way to make meaning out of the central energies in his own imagination. Nick is the spectator, the intelligent and clear-headed man, determined to be responsible. Gatsby is possessed by the American Dream of wealth and true love. It is accurate to say that Fitzgerald was, most deeply, those two men.

Explore selected web sites and Cornell University Library resources to discover more about The Great Gatsby.

Dan McCall
Dan McCall

Dan McCall is Professor Emeritus of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the author of seven novels, including Jack the Bear and Triphammer as well as critical studies of Richard Wright, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James. He has been teaching Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for many years.