The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald

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Time is one of the most pervasive themes in The Great Gatsby, weaving between characters and situations, slowing and speeding the action until the entire novel seems almost dreamlike. Fitzgerald not only manipulates time in the novel, he refers to time repeatedly to reinforce the idea that time is a driving force not only for the 1920s, a period of great change, but for America itself. We will see Fitzgerald also turns a critical eye to the American concept of time, in effect warning us all to avoid becoming trapped in time.

The Past

Fitzgerald strongly connects time in the novel with location, as if time were an entire setting in itself. Fitzgerald tips his hand early; after Nick provides a description of himself and what we assume are his motives in coming to New York, he makes an immediately important time reference:

Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water, and the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans. (10)

Nick wants to relate the “history” of the summer, not its events, its characters, or “just” a story. This is to be a history, events frozen in time and examined and re-examined. Nick sets the stage for the novel’s treatment of time – despite the often frivolous characters and situations, this story bears more than a superficial reading. The Eggs gain enough historical importance to rival New York City itself. Fitzgerald shrinks his focus to a geographical area while simultaneously expanding its meaning in time.

The past plays a major role, perhaps the most major role, in the concept of time presented in Gatsby. Tom was a “Big Man on Campus” in the past, while Gatsby was both a poor farm boy and Daisy’s lover; Daisy was a flighty socialite with no family to tie her down; all of them were naïve Midwesterners whose lives, they now believe, were far better in a past they can’t help but romanticize. It is precisely this romanticizing of the past that enables Fitzgerald to write such a powerful novel – in allowing his characters to wallow around in their pasts, he reminds later generations of readers that neither the 20s nor his books should be romanticized. They should be taken for what they are, and made relative to the present day. The (possibly unintentional) consequence of this attitude is an audience that extends beyond the 20th Century.
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