“THE GREAT GATSBY” AS FITZGERALD’S LIFE MIRROR: A THESIS BY JOURNALIST, NOVELIST, HOLLYWOOD SCREENWRITER ANDREW OYE
In honor of the 2013 major motion picture release of “The Great Gatsby” film* (starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, and directed by Baz Luhrmann for Warner Bros. Studios), journalist, novelist and Hollywood screenwriter Andrew Oye presents a thesis crafted during graduate study at Stanford University about F Scott Fitzgerald’s acclaimed novel on which the film is based.
A mirror of sorts, art is often a reflection of how an artist sees life or wishes to see life. Regarded as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most notable work of literary art, The Great Gatsby whispers with echoes of the author’s personal experiences. In the introduction to The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Mizener notes, “[Fitzgerald] always…wrote about himself or about people and things with which he was intimate. As a consequence his life is inextricably bound up in his works” (xviii). In The Great Gatsby, aspects of Fitzgerald’s life are reflected in the construction of the conflicted narrator, the depiction of the complex title character, and the lavish portrayal of upper-class life in 1920s America.
In The Great Gatsby, the background of the narrator, Nick Carraway, parallels the real-life biography of the book’s author, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, in many ways. Carraway and Fitzgerald were Minnesota-bred sons of well-to-do families, Ivy League-educated Midwesterners who ventured east after World War I for opportunities in the bond business and writing, respectively.
In his literary study titled The Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sergio Perosa writes, “Nick Carraway is defined as the perfect narrator. He has learned from his father to suspend judgment (which is an essential element for ‘objectivity’),” making him a sympathetic, understanding, good listener full of decency (62). Carraway opens his narration of The Great Gatsby with the advice his father had imparted to him: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone…just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had” (Fitzgerald 5). Likewise, Fitzgerald was reared with the notions of honor and humility. In his biography of the author, Mizener explains that Fitzgerald’s father taught him the code of the Southern gentleman, the belief in good manners and right instincts. Mizener recounts anecdotes of Fitzgerald’s sympathetic nature toward his friends and colleagues. “[Fitzgerald] always saw what others were feeling and sympathized with them, especially if he himself had imposed on them…” (Mizener xix).
Even though Carraway is positioned as an objective observer with a vision of “precious detachment,” he also “becomes a participant in the story, a kind of fictional ‘go-between,’ who can be at the same time ‘within and without’” (Perosa 62). The story is seen through the eyes of Carraway, who views the newly rich inhabitants of West Egg and the old money residents of East Egg with awe, intrigue, pity and disgust. Thinking but not expressing his views allows him to be an insider looking in, living amongst and socializing with people he might otherwise disassociate himself with, because as his father snobbishly suggests, “a sense of fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth” (Fitzgerald 6). Regarding Jay Gatsby’s grandiose parties, Carraway notes, “I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited” (Fitzgerald 45). Even amidst guests who concoct gossip about the ambiguous life story of their host— a German spy killer or the devil’s second cousin— Carraway concedes, “I could see nothing sinister about [Gatsby]” (54). Of Jordan Baker, the woman with whom he would strike up a love affair, Carraway readily admits, “she was incurably dishonest,” but “it made no difference to me. Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply…” (63).
In much the same way, Fitzgerald never knew whom he would encounter in his social circle of movers and shakers and was reluctant to judge them. The world of Ivy Leaguers and self-made businessmen and the vestiges of money and culture were sometimes populated by people with shady pasts who built their newfound wealth in less than upright ways. “This was the world Fitzgerald grew up in, desiring with all the intensity of his nature to succeed according to its standards and always conscious of hovering socially on the edge of it, alternating between assertion and uncertainty because of his acute awareness that his foothold was unsure” (Mizener 13). Subsequently, Fitzgerald, whose collegiate career was marked by exclusion from certain sports and clubs, felt simultaneously a part of, as well as apart from, distinguished society. “This power of understanding and of sympathy, with the feeling of intimacy it bred, that Fitzgerald at his best brought to his personal relations carries over into his best stories and gives these stories an effect unique in twentieth-century fiction” (Mizener xx).
Thus, Fitzgerald’s personal experience with duality affects his literary technique. “His use of a narrator allowed Fitzgerald to keep clearly separated…the two sides of his nature, the middle-western Trimalchio and the spoiled priest who disapproved of but grudgingly admired him. Fitzgerald shuffled back and forth between their attitudes…” (Mizener 185). Fitzgerald was a part of two worlds, the Middle West represented by Carraway’s efforts to hold fast to its simple virtues, and the East exemplified by Gatsby’s corruption by its urban sophistication and culture. Like Fitzgerald, Carraway lived internally, reflecting deeply on life as he lived it and fighting to resolve his inner conflict with his surroundings. Both were watchers of life who, at once, aspired to reach great heights but also were hesitant to take the falls of the morally dishonest examples that they witnessed.
As the conflicted narrator, Carraway states his dual advantage and dilemma. “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known” (Fitzgerald 64). Eventually, Carraway’s point-of-view bestows heroism upon Gatsby’s pitiable life. “They’re a rotten crowd,” Carraway tells Gatsby, a romantic fool whose simple, Midwestern belief in love is corrupted by the Eastern obsession with vacuous wealth into which the likes of Tom and Daisy Buchanan escape responsibility. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Ever torn in his assessments, Carraway claims, “I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave [Gatsby], because I disapproved of him from beginning to end” (Fitzgerald 162).
While Mizener’s biography of Fitzgerald describes how the famed author attempted to resolve his inner turmoil by drinking or committing suicide, in his novel, Fitzgerald creates for Carraway a more noble resolution to his disillusions with the reality of what money can and cannot buy. In the end, instead of giving in to the East’s pressures, Carraway returns to the West’s innocence, to what is comfortable and familiar, the simple life. “Nick [Carraway] having learned just how much brutal stupidity and carelessness exist beneath the charm and even the pathos of [the East’s corrupt wealthy], goes back to the West, to the country he remembers from…his boyhood…” (Mizener 190).
In The Great Gatsby, the tragic account of the title character, Jay Gatsby, also reflects the personal experiences of author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gatsby and Fitzgerald were romantics who embarked on love affairs during military service, made new money early in life and hosted wild parties to impress the women they loved. Gatsby and Fitzgerald succumbed to the decadent lifestyle, eventually losing themselves in the affection they had for their lovers, Daisy Buchanan and Zelda Sayre, respectively.
In the novel, the poor North Dakota farm boy, who was born James Gatz, fabricated the greatness of the great Gatsby. “The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself,” Fitzgerald writes about his enigmatic title character. “He invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end” (104). Similarly, Fitzgerald also gave into egocentrism and extravagance. In The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Mizener describes how Fitzgerald utilized a “dramatic power on which he depended to charm and entertain people. He did not expect people to believe most of what he said; part of the fun was that it was not true” (130).
In contrast to Nick Carraway, Gatsby lived externally, struggling to draw joy from things outside himself, such as the physical representations of his materialism and the people who are drawn to him for his riches. Gatsby’s home symbolizes his dream-come-true and his sense of self as a member of high society. Showing it off for the first time to the woman who passed him over to marry a rich man five years earlier, “[Gatsby] revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from [Daisy’s] well-loved eyes” (Fitzgerald 96-97). In response to Daisy’s inability to comprehend how Gatsby lived alone in his mansion, Gatsby boasts, “I keep it always full of interesting people, night and day. People who do interesting things. Celebrated people” (Fitzgerald 96). Yet, the detachment, loneliness and mystery surrounding Gatsby is perpetuated by the vicious gossip of “those who accepted Gatsby’s hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him” (Fitzgerald 65).
Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald believed a man was judged by the company he kept and felt the need to fit into elite circles via association. During his collegiate years, Fitzgerald’s stature made him unsuitable for the socially revered football team. “There were besides football other, though less powerful, means of a becoming a Big Man,” including the Triangle Club of which Fitzgerald was a member (Mizener 33). Such clubs provided a social grading system. “Not to make a club constitutes failure; and a man’s success is measured by the prestige of the club to which he is elected” (Mizener 34). Fitzgerald’s need to impress extended to matters of the heart. “As with every important act of his life, [Fitzgerald] made out of falling in love with [Zelda] an act of identification and dedication. Like Gatsby, ‘he took [her] one still…night…[and] found that he had committed himself…He felt married to her, that was all’” (82). Yet, like the fictional Daisy, Zelda did not commit as easily. During their courtship, Fitzgerald complained that Zelda’s desire for “luxury and largeness beyond anything her world provided” made her “question whether he was ever going to make enough money for them to marry and live as she wished to” (Mizener 83-85).
The desperate need to amass a fortune to win the affections of a woman made both Gatsby and Fitzgerald hunt down success like hungry animals. Fitzgerald peddled his writing to advertising and magazine projects, while Gatsby profited by dabbling in organized crime. They have unequal success in winning over the loves of their lives. In The Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sergio Perosa proposes that the sentimental intentions of the “dubious gangster…in part redeem his coarse manners and his shady background” (64). Perosa writes, “Gatsby reveals more and more of his contrasting aspects of modesty, ambiguous power, and questionable respectability…[Gatsby] has made his fortune for [Daisy], and for her he has bought his house in West Egg and given his parties (in the hope of meeting her by chance)” (64). While Gatsby and Fitzgerald share a love for leisure, schmoozing and socializing, Gatsby is “far from participating in the drunken sprees of his guests” (Perosa 64). On the other hand, Fitzgerald actually wins his woman and they bond in their untamed social escapades. During wild days on the party circuit, “[Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald] played their parts as the prince and princess of the confident and eager kingdom of youth…” (Mizener 137). Recounting stories of Fitzgerald’s drunken displays of mischief and near-misses with the law, Mizener adds “…there were a great many parties in New York; Fitzgerald as usual provided a good deal of the fun and some of the serious trouble” (83).
The sad lesson of the lives of the author and the character he created is that the need to dream dies when overindulgence overtakes a person and he receives everything he desires. Life was not perfect for Fitzgerald after he had achieved his dream of a newly successful career and marriage. “For a moment the delights of anticipation remained a part of the achievement. At the same time Fitzgerald knew that fulfillment destroys the dream” (Mizener 129). This sentiment is expressed in The Great Gatsby when the title character’s self-centeredness makes him cry out incredulously, “Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!” (Fitzgerald 116). Gatsby wants the past that he and Daisy shared, but the new Daisy cannot give it to him. “A long-cherished, sentimental illusion can be shattered by a mere brush with reality…Gatsby’s enormous dream is bound to suffer from any contact with reality…[Gatsby] has ‘paid a high price for living too long with a single dream’…He wanted to repeat the past, and the present fails him. He wanted to make up for his loss, and a greater loss awaits him” (Perosa 64-68). Despite his perceived self-absorption, Gatsby is willing to take the blame for the car accident in which Daisy kills her husband’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson; ultimately, this most selfless act leads to Gatsby’s death at the hands of Myrtle’s enraged husband, George Wilson.
Ironically, Gatsby and Fitzgerald both led farfetched lives that ended in tragic deaths. When Fitzgerald’s writing career began to flourish, he began showing off his money in seemingly tasteless ways. Eventually, “[Fitzgerald] saw his own rise from poverty to affluence as an illustration of the terrible, meaningless power of money” (Mizener 103). Fitzgerald had his own longings for the past. Focussed on their happier days together, Fitzgerald struggled with the hope that Zelda would recover from her mental illness, “trying as always to preserve that past, with all its enormous investment of feelings, that he would never know again” (Mizener 259). After battling with bad press, drinking spells and deteriorating health, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in Hollywood. “He was buried with a flurry of ironies even thicker than he had himself dared to devise for Gatsby” (Mizener 336). His body was laid out in an undertaker’s parlor “on the other side of the tracks” relative to Beverly Hills. “He was not placed in the chapel but in a back room,” and, like Gatsby’s funeral in the novel, “almost no one came to see him” (Mizener 336). Fitzgerald’s body was shipped to Maryland, but his wish to be buried alongside his father’s family was denied because “his books were proscribed and he had not died a good Catholic” (Mizener 336).
In addition to the comparisons that can be drawn between Fitzgerald and the narrator and title character of The Great Gatsby, the depiction of upper-class life in the 1920s is illuminated by the author’s own experiences, as well. In The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Mizener suggests that Fitzgerald’s work “connected him in many people’s minds with ‘the Jazz Age,’ so that he was for them both the historian— ‘the laureate’— of the post-war generation and its exemplar” (xxii).
The Great Gatsby is a novel about ambition and excess, reflecting Fitzgerald’s fascination with the reckless abandon of the Jazz Age. Post-war blues were drowned in the alcohol that Constitutional Prohibition could not stop. Achievement and success fed relaxed morals, earning people the money they needed to set aside their stuffy standards and buy a rollicking good time. In the preface to The Great Gatsby, the University of South Carolina’s Mathew J. Bruccoli notes, “The novel is appropriately set in the get-rich-quick decade that brought about the organization of crime as a concomitant of Prohibition,” hence, Gatsby’s involvement in bootlegging and stolen securities (x). According to the story of the great Gatsby, underhanded deeds could buy the extravagant lifestyle of the fashionable East Egg for those who lived in the less fashionable West Egg—a notion that did not sit well with those who came from a long line of wealth.
The narrator describes Gatsby’s showy attempts to live like the rich by hosting ribald parties where a Rolls-Royce brings endless streams of guests from the city to his mansion to enjoy a catered buffet, cocktail bar and big orchestra. “There was music from [Gatsby’s] house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars…they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks” (Fitzgerald 43-45). Subsequently, the social codes of the 1920s condoned exclusion and looking down on others. Daisy, the one woman Gatsby wants to impress with these parties, “was appalled by West Egg…appalled by its raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short cut from nothing to nothing” (Fitzgerald 114). Daisy goes on to complain, “Lots of people come who haven’t been invited…They simply force their way in and [Gatsby’s] too polite to object” (Fitzgerald 115). Guests raise a ruckus as Gatsby’s parties come to a close, lamenting the fact that all good things—including the celebratory era itself— must come to an end. When the revelry ends, life seems to end with it. “A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell” (Fitzgerald 60).
Life mirroring fiction, Fitzgerald and his wife lived like the characters in his stories who “had set out to fulfill their vision of the good life, a life essentially passive and dependent on outside stimuli, a confused and pathetic vision of beautiful, ‘civilized’ places, ‘interesting,’ well-to-do people…They ended in emotional bankruptcy” (Mizener 238). Depression strikes when the money runs out, and the friends with it. Financial difficulties led Fitzgerald “to think of vitality as if it were a fixed sum, like money in the bank. Against this account you drew until, piece by piece, the sum was spent and you found yourself emotionally bankrupt” (Mizener 273). In many of his works, Fitzgerald linked money to vitality. “Somewhere very deep in his imagination that complicated tangle of feelings he had about the rich interlocked with his feelings about the delight of vitality and the horror of its exhaustion” (Mizener 275). Though he wrote about the lives of the rich, it was a life Fitzgerald could not live, and financial straits led his wife Zelda to a sanitarium and led Fitzgerald to drink. This process of deterioration coincides with the deterioration of the overindulgence that marked the Jazz Age of the 1920s into the destitution of the Depression Era of the 1930s.
Winning haunted Fitzgerald’s mind constantly, but the sins and social pressures of the Jazz Age would make him suffer great losses, as did the great character in one of his best-known books. Gatsby never won his prize—Daisy—and lost his life for her. In The Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sergio Perosa writes, “Too many forces, besides his sentimental weakness, are at work against [Gatsby] for him to escape his doom. He is doomed for having lived too long with a single, impossible dream, defeated by social opposition, trampled down by a world of moral corruption and carelessness” (70). Tragically, the people who flocked to Gatsby’s parties avoided his funeral, prompting one character to announce a major lesson: “Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead” (Fitzgerald 180). Acknowledgment in all forms— socially, romantically, financially— is better appreciated when a person is here to receive it. “Like Gatsby…Fitzgerald loved reputation, the public acknowledgment of genuine achievement…He lived, finally, to give that chaos in his head shape in his books and to see the knowledge that he had done so reflected back to him from the world. He died believing he had failed” (Mizener 338).
In conclusion, “[F. Scott Fitzgerald] lived a colorful life and, in the end, a disastrous one, which is no less moving because much of the disaster was of his own making” (Mizener xvii). The life of F. Scott Fitzgerald was “a life at once representative and dramatic, at moments a charmed and beautiful success…and at moments disastrous beyond the invention of the most macabre imagination” (Mizener 1). Fitzgerald injected these complex experiences into his work. The Great Gatsby “vibrates with the intensely personal participation of the author, who infuses into his characters the warmth and depth of his own feeling” (Perosa 74). In The Great Gatsby, the characters of Carraway and Gatsby are flip sides of the same coin, two sides of the same man. Fitzgerald uses his classic novel as a mirror, forcing these two sides to face each other and, thus, bring to light the hypocrisy of the Jazz Age’s high life. “All his life [Fitzgerald] had depended on his belief that he could hold the part of himself that responded to experiences without restraint and the morally responsible part of himself, the spoiled priest, in reasonable balance” (Mizener 304). By reflecting his personal experiences in the fabric of the priestly Carraway and the unrestrained Gatsby, Fitzgerald imparts the novel’s cardinal lesson: The spoils of the good life can spoil a good man if he allows it.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1925.
Mizener, Arthur. The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
Perosa, Sergio. The Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1965.
*The 2013 film adaptation follows a 1974 film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” (starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern, Sam Waterston, Karen Black, and directed by Jack Clayton for Paramount Pictures Studios from a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola).
Andrew Oye is a Hollywood screenwriter, producer, director, playwright and novelist. A media-sports-entertainment company CEO, the Vanderbilt University graduate earned a Masters in Communications-Journalism from Stanford University.