Fitzgerald’s seminal work, The Great Gatsby, offers insights into the use of literary devices in combination with brilliant narrative development. A good deal of the novel’s true genius rests in character development. For the most, the characters are not pleasant or sympathetic. Indeed, Wilson stated, “The only bad of it is that the characters are mostly so unpleasant in themselves that the story becomes rather bitter before one has finished with it” (Wilson 149). But Fitzgerald did not want to sugarcoat his characters so that everyone would love and empathize with them. To convey the vapidity of the American Dream, Fitzgerald presents them as the type of people likely to use others and put wealth and superficial qualities above all else. With a specific emphasis on descriptive phrases, the corruption of money, and valueless relationships, this essay traces Fitzgerald’s use of characterization throughout the Great Gatsby.
Fitzgerald makes excellent use of descriptive phrases to demonstrate the underlining vapidity of the characters’ existences. Haupt indicates descriptive phrases used to convey this superficial lifestyle. “Bootlegged gin, cigarettes placed into mouths following the clicking shut of their golden cases, gowns, suits, chauffeurs. Games, double meanings, illicit affairs, fortunes made in mysterious ways, drinking to drown an awkward moment or the quiet disappointment of your life” (para. 1). Even from the novel’s beginning epitaph, the reader understands that money and its importance is always on Gatsby’s mind:
Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, Till she cries “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!’ – Thomas Parke D’Invilliers.
That “gold hat” includes Gatsby’s decision to change his name, Jimmy Gatz, to one that will assure him success in life. He doesn’t like his real name as a representative of the old Jimmy and believes he must sacrifice truth [his name] in order to create a more positive image, one that exudes success and “self-assurance” (Bloom 75). It is a superficial adjustment, since a name is only that and it is what a person does that matters, or should matter to anyone who meets him, whether in business or socially.
The name change, in another sense, represents part of the gold that he must wear to achieve success and Daisy’s love. The use of the words [gold hat] in the epigraph clearly indicates that someone [Gatsby] is telling himself to use the glitter of material deception in order to win a girl despite advice from Nick later in the story that “You can’t repeat the past” (Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 116). “This is precisely what Gatsby does – he wears a “gold hat” (not literally, but figuratively) to win Daisy” (What’s Up With…para.2-3). If the crowns himself in the golden hat she will notice him — a superficial enticement but one bound to win over a lover equally superficial when it comes to her reasons for choosing men.
Corruption of Money
From Nick Carraway’s meditations on the green light at the conclusion to less obvious reminders such as his reference to the man who sells Daisy a dog as looking like John D. Rockefeller (Gross 149), money — what it can buy — take center stage as an element that characterizes the characters’ lifestyles. Fitzgerald utilizes color as a device to achieve this characterization in chapter four. When stopped for speeding, Gatsby flashes the “white card” [a symbol throughout the novel of the beautiful people who because of their wealth and power are beyond even legal responsibilities] and the policeman apologizes for bothering him. This indicates superficial acquiescence even on the part of law enforcement.
Money even pervades and corrupts the core of the characters’ moral life. “Jay Gatsby…sees no difference between his success as a criminal and legitimate forms of achievement. Fitzgerald emphasizes this theme by alluding to corruption in professional sports and to underworld figures for whom many Americans were coming to have a misplaced admiration” (Gross et al 35). This is an interesting choice. The admiration for famous people who do not necessarily deserve our admiration is prevalent even today. It is an ill-founded admiration without substance. Sports figures are social icons and role models for the younger generation, who admire and covet the glitter that appears to accompany their notoriety. People follow the minutest details of the lives of stars more closely than their own. Jay emulates the lifestyle of the wealthy of which he so desperately wants to be a part. He equates success and fame to money. He doesn’t care how he makes his money (he does so illegally); all that matters is the power and admiration he believes will eventually win over Daisy.
Gatsby’s love of Daisy also has little basis in anything substantial, further contributing to Fitzgerald’s characterization of him. He admires her glamour, “which he associates with her money” (Gross 149). To impress both Daisy and her wealthy group he throws a ridiculously ostentatious party where everyone eats, drinks, and parties to excess. At one point Nick and Jordon go looking for Gatsby. In their search, they come upon his library, filled with books that neither Nick nor Tom believe he has ever read. They are there to impress. Here Fitzgerald uses the symbol of the “owl-eyed man” — a guest with apparently poor eyesight and thick glasses who sits reading. He uses the symbol to reinforce the superficiality of the other guests with good eyesight who would not be interested in reading.
As for Daisy, the world in which she lives, East Egg harbor, is populated by old wealth and vacuous people. We know practically from the outset that her husband, Tom, has affairs and that Daisy finds comfort in her money, her big house, and social status. Tom is arrogant and shallow; Daisy pretends not to care about his indiscretions and even says she hopes her daughter will be, if not very bright, beautiful—a shockingly empty wish for one’s child. Beauty, it seems, is of the utmost importance, and she instills this value in her daughter. She [Daisy] asks her daughter, “How do you like mother’s friends…Do you think they’re pretty” (123)? When the little child tells her mother that she dressed before lunch, Daisy responds coldly, “That’s because your mother wanted to show you off” (Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 123). In this world, Fitzgerald leaves no room for even childish idealism.
Throughout the novel, there is the running theme of the society in which the characters live in a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah, a lifestyle with few values and substantial relationships. In great part, this functions as a commentary on the characters’ deep-rooted ideals. This valueless lifestyle also writes Broth and Walther, eventually leads to disaster:
Fitzgerald’s view of the 1920s consistently reveals the destructive side of Babylon. In an increasingly mechanized and dehumanized society, where the meaning of personal experience is more and more slipping away from the control of the individual, the pervasive potential for disaster is all too apparent (110).
Indeed, these destructive social elements are evident in the quality of Gatsby’s relationship [friendship] with Nick. Although he seems to desperately seek Nick’s approval, he also has no compunctions about using him, buying him off, as it were, to achieve personal goals. He comes off as a superficial person whose friendships are also superficial. He’s in it for himself, whether to convince even friends of his worth through his flashy lifestyle or to use them to get what he wants. A good example of Gatsby’s superficial relationships appears in chapter five, as Nick finding Gatsby irritated and out of sorts realizes he wants desperately for Nick to agree with his plan to have Daisy over for tea. Nick agrees and Gatsby responds in a typical way anyone without a true sense of what friendship means would respond: he says he will have someone cut Nick’s grass. Despite Nick’s protestations, “At eleven o’clock a man in a raincoat, dragging a heavy lawnmower tapped at my front door and said Mr. Gatsby had sent him” (Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 88). Gatsby also mentions including Nick in a new business deal sure to make him a lot of money. Nick responds “Because the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered, I had no choice but to cut him off there” (Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 88). This indicates Nick’s distrust of Gatsby. Nick, in contrast, is a character with ideals for which friendship has true significance. He is offended by all this, as well as that Gatsby thinks he has to pay him in kind for arranging the meeting with Daisy. Gatsby’s sense of his friendship with Nick is highly superficial and, as it appears, opportunistic. Nick on the other hand values Gatsby’s friendship, despite every negative quality he sees. Here Fitzgerald gives the reader the comparison to highlight the difference in value perception between the two, and, if anything, to reinforce Gatsby as a fairly supercilious individual without much in the line of character at all. After the incident when Daisy, driving Gatsby’s car back from a tumultuous visit to the city with Tom and Jordon, hits Myrtle and drives off, Gatsby asks Nick to go to the house and see how she is. He is worried that Tom, who has found out that she “loves” Gatsby, will harm her. Nick finds the two sitting on the patio, eating cold chicken [a symbol of their cold and detached attitudes] as if nothing at all has happened. As Gross reminds us, “she finds her life boring” (109). Nothing, not even the fact that she has struck and probably killed someone can make a dent in her sensibility. It’s simply of no consequence; other more important matters occupy her emotionally; her unfaithful but status-conscious husband will surely protect her from prosecution. They care nothing about the victim, only protecting their status.
Gatsby’s funeral reinforces Fitzgerald’s characterization of the deleterious consequences of the valueless relationships. They are living a life of façade with little meaning and less loyalty to anyone or anything. Nick tries to hold a large funeral for him but all of Gatsby’s former “friends” and acquaintances have either disappeared. Tom and Daisy move away leaving no forwarding address. Some refuse to come not wishing to be tainted by Gatsby’s inauspicious end. Meyer Wolfshiem and Klipspringerm, Gatsby’s criminal element business partners, make excuses. The only people to attend the funeral are Nick, Owl Eyes, a few servants, and Gatsby’s father, Henry C. Gatz, who has come all the way from Minnesota. Perhaps the most realistic conclusion one might come to regarding Fitzgerald’s characterization that constantly emphasizes the superficiality of the characters comes in Klipspringerm’s suggestion that a social engagement keeps him from Gatsby’s funeral and might Nick please send him his tennis shoes’ “You see there my tennis shoes and I’m sort of helpless without them” (Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 177). Indeed, this is perfectly symbolic of the novel.
The wealthy in this novel, most of the characters, turn out to be empty, and even the reader finds it hard to admit it: worthless people. While this novel was written early in the 20th century, he could be similarly commenting on society today. The most positive thing coming out of the novel comes as Nick observes how these attitudes destroy Gatsby and resolve never to be like the characters. He is saved. But after spending this intimate time with his friend [some say it is Fitzgerald himself] he finds he has nothing to replace the life with. (Gross 149). Ultimately it’s clear that in these characterizations Fitzgerald is commenting on American attitudes toward success – the American Dream.
- Bloom, H. Gatsby. New York: Chelsea House, 1991
- Broer, L.R. and Walther, J.D. Dancing Fools and Weary Blues: The Great Escape of the Twenties. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990.
- Fitzgerald, F.S. The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Website: Public Bookshelf Corporation, 2010. http://www.publicbookshelf.com/fiction/great-gatsby/younger-vulnerable-3
- Gross, D. and Gross M. Understanding the Great Gatsby: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
- Haupt, J. “The Great Gatsby.” The Celebrity Café.Com, Reviews, Aug. 19, 2005. http://thecelebritycafe.com/books/full_review/491.html.
- Shmoop (Website). “The Great Gatsby: What’s Up With the Epigraph?” 2010. http://www.shmoop.com/great-gatsby/epigraph.html
- Wilson, E. Letters on Literature and Politics: 1912-1972. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, (1977). Rpt. In 20th Century Literary Criticisms, Vol 14, Dennis Paupard (ed.), Detroit: Gale, 1988. 147-149. http://www.123helpme.com/view.asp?id=67980