If F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby had been written as a raise-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-story, starting off with a young boy hell-bent on moving on up in the world, we would have a story that read more like Charles Dickson’s Great Expectations.
Of course, both are great classic novels that brilliantly explore themes of class, ambition, wealth and good old love—the unrequited, wrong-side-of-the-tracks love, the best kind, really. And of course, Gatsby and Pip do share some similarities. Both come from poor, humble beginnings and have an eager drive to rise up in the social world, an ambition mostly motivated by the love for a girl from a higher class. Now, isn’t that always the way with these boy-meets-girl stories?
However, Gatsby is no Pip, and The Great Gatsby is certainly no Great Expectations Spoiler alert: By the time we meet Gatsby in the novel, he has already been dead for a while. No, it is not The Sixth Sense sort of thing. Instead, narrator Nick Carraway’s purpose in telling this story is to admonish high society for its cold cruelty and to ponder the downsides of the mythical American Dream—all told through a post-mortem of the final weeks leading up to Gatsby’s death. More importantly, Gatsby and his demise is held up as a counterpoint to the American Dream. Sure, one can achieve higher social aspirations through some intense elbow grease, but not likely without some illegal conduct or some hefty consequences.
Social and class mobility, the novel implies, comes at a cost. You can take the man out of the poverty but you can never take the poverty out of the man—not even with lavish parties or a closet full of Italian-made silk shirts in every color. Yep, even pink. Gatsby was definitely GQ material.
Gatsby’s—or should we say Gatz’s?—cost was his life. He did achieve the rags-to-riches story (albeit illegally), the social clout, and a shiny new identity to boot. Yet, he did not get the girl and ended up isolated and alone with hardly anyone at his funeral. He was a victim of a still extremely stratified society, Carraway tells us. Gatsby still could not escape his lower socio-economic past, even if he covered it up with an entire new one that included a fabricated Cambridge education.
Another spoiler alert: the fact he was murdered by a lowly automechanic, after taking the fall for his true love Daisy who was behind the wheel during a fatal hit-and-run that killed the automechanic’s wife (and coincidently Daisy’s husband’s mistress), is symbolic enough that the past catches up with you. Daytime TV soap operas have nothing on this novel. Yet, we digress. The point is that social mobility is not a full-proof possibility, even if you sever your proverbial roots and cover your tracks.
What makes this “Roaring Twenties” novel the quintessential allegorical tale of excess and downfall that has come to epitomize the American 1920s is something that happened four years after the book 1925 publication: the stock market crash of ’29. If Fitzgerald had been an economist rather than a novelist, perhaps The Great Depression may have never happened. He seemed to know what kind of ruin that the extravagance typified by Gatsby heading to. Gatsby, with his unbridled affluence and social ascension, has come to be our tragic hero of 1920s decadence and boom. That is something Charles Dickens did not do, giving Pip not one, but two tidy endings that each serve him justice over Estella, the woman who had snubbed him. Both Fitzgerald and Dickens have similar thematic fascinations, but the timing changes everything.