The Vapidity of the American Dream:
Characterization in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
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 the character descriptions. For the most, they 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 sugar coat 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 specific emphasis on descriptive phrases, the corruption of money, and valueless relationships, this essay traces Fitzgerald’s use of characterization to achieve this aim.
Fitzgerald makes excellent use of descriptive phrases and subtle character elements 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 cry "Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!’ – Thomas Parke D’Invilliers. “ (Fitzgerald, Epigraph) 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 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 hat 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 advise 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 he 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.
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 vapidity of the characters’ lifestyle. Fitzgerald’s 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...
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