Free Study Guide-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Book Notes

 

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THEMES


Major Theme


Wealth usually corrupts

It leads to a life of materialism and purposeless drifting and ends in the ugliness of the Valley of Ashes, a symbol of wasted life. This theme is clearly developed in the characters of Tom and Daisy Buchanan. In contrast, the pursuit of a dream is a lofty and noble thing that gives meaning to life, as proven by Gatsby’s lifelong pursuit of Daisy. Gatsby is never corrupted by his wealth, for it is amassed for a sole purpose - to prove his worth to Daisy.


Minor Themes


The East

The East is a symbol of shallowness, carelessness, and corruption, as evidenced by characters such as the Buchanans, Jordan Baker, Meyer Wolfsheim, and Dan Cody. In contrast, the Midwest is a symbol of morality, conservatism, and practicality, as evidenced by the narrator, Nick Carraway. He tries to flee from his Midwestern morals by going to New York, but within a matter of months, he is horrified at what he sees and judges the East as corrupt; as a result, he chooses to move back home to the stability of the Midwest.


MOOD

The mood is largely dark, pessimistic, and vapid as set by the purposelessness and carelessness of the wealthy, the ongoing string of meaningless parties, the ugliness of the Valley of Ashes, and the tragic deaths of Gatsby and Myrtle. Only Nick Carraway’s honest and moral view of life breaks the sense of tragedy.


F. Scott Fitzgerald - BIOGRAPHY

Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on September 24, 1896. He was the only son of his middle class Catholic family. His father worked for Proctor and Gamble, but he failed in his career. Although his mother's family was wealthy and well-known in the Midwest, she was rather eccentric. As a youth, F. Scott was taught the traditions of the upper class, but his family did not have the financial means to live that way. Fitzgerald strove, however, to be a good student and a successful athlete; as a result, he was a promising and popular young man. He also had an interest in literature and published fiction in his high school magazine. In 1911, Fitzgerald went to Newman Academy, a Catholic preparatory school in New Jersey. Here he continued to write fiction and also developed an interest in drama and had two of his plays produced by a local company.

In 1913, Fitzgerald was accepted to Princeton, where he continued to write. He also fell in love with Ginerva King, a girl from the upper crust of Chicago Society. Distracted by her and his extracurricular activities, his grades dropped so low in 1915 that he had to leave school for a while. He returned to Princeton in 1916, but was distraught when his love affair with Ginerva was terminated by her. As a result, he decided to quit college and join the army in 1917, wanting to experience the war in Europe. Instead, he was sent to Alabama, where he met the lovely, wild, and undisciplined socialite, Zelda Sayre. She refused to marry him, for he could not support her. As a result, he went to New York in 1919, after being discharged from the army, in hopes of earning a fortune in the literary world so he could win Zelda as his bride. When his first novel was accepted for publication, Fitzgerald had the success and acclaim he had sought.

In 1920, Fitzgerald married the eighteen year-old Zelda, and they moved to New York City. Soon afterwards, they had a daughter, “Scottie.” In spite of their parenthood, Fitzgerald and Zelda played hard and drank excessively, living beyond their means and becoming famous for their partying and outrageous scenes. They also traveled extensively and knew all the expatriate American writers in England and France. Despite their glamorized marriage, it was very tumultuous.

With no real career, F. Scott had time to devote to writing. This Side of Paradise, his first novel, was published in 1920. Encouraged by the attention it drew, Fitzgerald began to devote more time to his literary career. The Beautiful and the Damned, his second novel, and Tales of the Jazz Age, a collection of stories, were both published in 1922 and won Fitzgerald additional praise. In 1923, he produced a play, The Vegetable, which did not do well at all. His next novel, however, became his greatest success; he published The Great Gatsby in 1925, and it quickly brought him praise from the literary community, but it failed to give him the needed financial security he sought. A year later he published, All the Sad Young Men, a collection of short stories.

Increasingly, Fitzgerald’s lifestyle and problems with Zelda negatively affected his writing. During the 1920s, he often tried reordering his life by moving from place to place; but he could not escape from his problems or his reputation. By 1930, Zelda had her first breakdown and went for treatment to a Swiss clinic. Fitzgerald tried to write during this period and finally completed his next novel, Tender is the Night, which was published in 1934. His last novel, The Last Tycoon, was published in 1940 and made into a film.

In 1934, Zelda was hospitalized in the United States for treatment and never came out of an institution again. In response to the loss of Zelda, Fitzgerald totally drowned himself in alcohol, and his later works do not have the polish or control of his earlier ones. In order to support himself and pay Zelda’s hospital bills, he went to Hollywood to try his hand at screen writing. While in California, he met Sheila Graham, a twenty-eight year old British newspaper correspondent. She became his dear friend and helped Fitzgerald fight his alcoholism.

Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940, a time when he was almost forgotten as an author; in fact, by 1939, none of his previous books were even in print. Zelda died eight years after her husband, when her mental hospital residence caught fire. Since their deaths, there has been a great deal of interest in their lifestyle, and a movie was even made about her. There has also been a new interest in Fitzgerald as a writer. He is now remembered as an uneven writer, a troubled man, and a representative of the golden age of American modernism. The Great Gatsby, however, is now accepted as a remarkable piece of literature.


LITERARY/HISTORICAL INFORMATION

The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920’s, a period known in America as the Roaring Twenties. After the end of World War I and before the stock market crash of 1929, there was a spirit of rebellion in the United States. The people attacked the old-time stability and respectability, represented by Nick in the novel. In its place, they drank, partied, and grew liberal, as represented by the Buchanans and the Fitzgeralds themselves.

In the 1920’s, the United States went on a joy ride. Fuelled by the war, the economy was booming. The value of stocks steadily rose, spending was at an all time high, and real estate boomed. The people flocked to the city from the country and purchased Model T’s to gain mobility. They danced to jazz music, drank bootleg liquor, attended sporting events in record numbers, went to the movies, and dressed in new fashions that shocked the more conservative citizens. The women, often known as flappers, wore short skirts, cut their hair, and frequently dared to take a job outside the home. Radios kept everyone abreast of what was going on in this age of excess.

It is not surprising that during this rebellious period, a change was brewing in literature. Writers such as Edith Wharton and Henry James had brought a new realism to literature, and H.L. Mencken was calling for even greater literary freedom. Authors were encouraged to cease using restrained language, to write with realism about the problems of city life, and to incorporate bold new themes, including sex. In his writing, Fitzgerald followed the call of this new realism; so did other writers of the 1920’s, such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, and Sinclair Lewis.

 

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