Modernism In The Great Gatsby

Modernism In The Great Gatsby

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What is real? In a modernist point of view the world shouldn't be called reality. But if the world isn't reality what is it then? What is reality in modernism? Modernism is a rejection of realism, which believed that science will save the world and where notion of science and social determinism is idealized. In modernism, science explains everything, which took away all the power of God, He became useless. In a way, life had lost its mystery, man, not God, could rule the world. Irving Howe, a literary critic, once talked about modernism as an "unyielding rage against the existing order". (Van Dusen, 1998) Nevertheless, modernism is also an era of disappointment; people are preoccupied with the meaning and the purpose of existence. They are in search of new values and in something new. Modernism first took place in the Jazz age and/or the roaring twenties; this period was all about prohibition and intolerance, flappers, gangsters, and crime. In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment made it illegal to manufacture or sell alcohol. This helped to create a network of criminal organization in the trade of illegal alcohol. Moreover, in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment gave the women the right to vote, which is what probably helped alter the traditional moral and social standards dramatically; women began to assert new freedoms such as going out with no chaperon, wearing less constrictive clothing, and smoking in public. During that time, a circle of writers was formed "The lost generation". They moved to more culturally vibrant cities of Europe, especially Paris, after World War I. "These writers, looking for freedom of thought and action, changed the face of modern writing. Realistic and rebellious, they wrote what they wanted and fought censorship for profanity and sexuality. They incorporated Freudian ideas into their characters and styles." (Whitley, 2002) These authors wrote about what they wanted and talk openly about sexuality. They created a type of literature appropriate to what they thought was the modern life, after World War I. They used new techniques and addressed new subjects in reaction to the changes of the early twentieth century.


One of the authors of "The lost generation" was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In modernism, Fitzgerald found a way to define his world. He lived a wild and tragic lifestyle in the course of the Roaring Twenties. His fictitious writings were actually reality-based and reveal some of his own struggles.

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Essay on Modernism In The Great Gatsby

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His most renowned work is The Great Gatsby, which reveals a little bit more than what is on the surface. But how much did Fitzgerald makes modernism transpire in The Great Gatsby? In this short essay, I'll explain how The Great Gatsby is a modernist novel. I will also demonstrate how the Jazz Age is illustrated in the novel The Great Gatsby, through examples and quotations. Finally, I will exert the surrealism in the novel using short definitions, examples and quotations.

First, The Great Gatsby is a truly modernist novel and set the tone for the movement that is renown today. But how exactly modernism is presented in this novel? Like I mentioned earlier in the introduction; modernism is a rejection of tradition and a hostile attitude toward the past. This transpires in the narration of the novel. First of all, it is a first person narrator. "Vision and viewpoint became an essential aspect of the modernist novel as well… The way the story was told became as important as the story itself." (VanSpanckeren, 2003) Moreover, the narrator is not really reliable. He fails to remember some parts of the story, because he was too drunk to remember. "I have been drunk just twice in my life and the second time was that afternoon, so everything that happened has a dim hazy cast over it although until after eight o'clock the apartment was full of cheerful sun" (p.33). At the end of Chapter II he wakes up beside Mr. McKee, who is in his underwear, looking at pictures, and wondering what just happened. His narration isn't complete, because he remembers only parts of that night. Furthermore, because Nick is the narrator of the story, we only know what he lets us know about Gatsby and when he wants to tell us. Because of that, the story is told in fragments, there is not really a chronological order.
What also makes the novel a modernist novel is the iconoclastic symbol of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg eyes and what it represents. It is known that in modernism God is dead and people are looking for something else to replace Him. In the novel, "Dr. T. J. Eckleburg is actually a billboard that represents God. Times were changing and God was not, people's main concern in life anymore."(Orme, 1999) Dr. Eckleburg's billboard is clearly paralleled to God revealing Fitzgerald's belief that America had a lack of morals and faith in God in the 1920s.
The Great Gatsby is also a modernist novel because of its major team; loss of American dream. Modernism was characterised by a loss of everything people believed in. "Fitzgerald work is haunted by loss, a sense that something is lacking in most modern American lives."(Annenberg media 97-05) The original James Gatz fallows his American dream to be an upper-class boy from a wealthy background. He has invented a new him, but also thrived in his self-made success. He was both financially and sociably successful. However, he realises soon that his dream turns into ashes when Daisy picks Tom over him. It is a story of a great loss, loss of a dream, of love, of illusions.


Secondly, Fitzgerald was living during the Jazz Age. He was an avid participant in the stereotypical "Roaring twenties "lifestyle of wild partying and bootleg liquor. One famous incident involved Fitzgerald and his wife splashing in a public fountain after a well liquored night. "Both his stories and his novels record - and partly served to create - the period." (Gladysz, 2001) However, the main characteristic of the Jazz Age is the famous flappers. But what is it exactly? To explain, I will take example of flappers in the novel. I would say that Daisy and Jordan dress the part as flappers in the novel. First, Daisy represents a young, innocent girl and she lets perceive the sexual liberation that flappers were, when she is willing to meet with Gatsby. When Nick decides to invites Daisy over to his house to meet Gatsby, he warns her not to bring Tom. And Daisy replies, "Who is 'Tom'?" (p.88). This shows that she's aware of the potential nature of the meeting. It could be adulterous. Jordan on the other hand his a flapper but more in the way of representing the independent women of the Jazz Age. She represented freedom and power, because of her golf player status. A flapper would wear short skirt that would shock the more conservative citizen, had the guts to cut their hair, and dared to take a job outside the home.
The music is also a great sign of the Jazz Age. The music was criticized because it was said to influence the action and of people and caused people to dance intimately. At Gatsby's parties music was played by a wide range orchestra. And when the music started, people danced freely, "holding each other tortuously, fashionably and keeping in the corners-- and a great number of single girls dancing individualistically..." (p.51). It is mostly in Chapter 3 that we sense the Jazz Age flavours; it is filled with Jazz music, the neglect of Prohibition and the party life that the youngster were living in the twenties. "There was music from my neighbour's house through the summer nights. In this blue garden men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars." (p.41) Finally, I can say that the Jazz Age was own by Fitzgerald, he was the instigator, wasn't he?


Finally, Surrealism as we know it today is closely related to some forms of abstract art. Writers would "wrote whatever words came into their conscious mind and regarded these words as inviolable. They did not alter what they wrote, as that would constitute an interference with the pure act of creation. The authors felt that this free flow of thought would establish a rapport with the subconscious mind of their readers." ( The surrealist movement started in the early twenthies, it was mostly used by French writers. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald used some surrealist description probably by accident. By accident I mean that he was an alcoholic, so I imagine that surreal writing is a form of "under the influence of alcohol writing". The most surreal description in the novel is by far the kiss. "He knew that when he kissed the girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would ever romp again like the mind of God…At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete" (p.106).
Finally, I think that surrealism is felt throughout the description in the novel, but I don't think we can categorize it in the surrealist movement as much as Salvador Dali work for example. As I was looking at Dali's work, I found one of his painting that could actually represent Gatsby; "Gala Comtemplating the Mediterranean". First, if you look at it from far you can see the face of a man, which could be Gatsby's face. But from close you realise that it is different little pictures and squares that form the face of the men. Just like Gatsby is a construction of his self created history. Each square could represent a part of Gatsby history. Moreover, through those squares we can see the figure of a woman who is standing there, in the head of the man. Just like Daisy, was standing in Gatsby's head. He changed all his life history, all those squares he put up, for her.


In conclusion, Fitzgerald is a modernist; he is part of "the lost generation", and a Jazz Age participant. It is because of all of that, that The Great Gatsby is the most renowned modernist novel. Now, I can say that The Great Gatsby is a real modernist novel. Not only because of Fitzgerald style, but because of the historical information we get on the twenties. Doing this essay got me interested in the Jazz Age, I listened to some music of the twenties and I'm now looking at the clothing and other subject that represent the Jazz Age. But what mostly got my curiosity is the surrealism movement; everything that was made in that time, the paintings, or the writing. Probably, my next research paper would be on that movement alone, there is so much to say, and it is so different and strange then other movements. To conclude, The Great Gatsby, presents clearly modernism, the Jazz Age and has some little touches of surrealism, but in the end it's just a great novel. I'm thinking of using it in future project with enriched students in high schools.


F. Scott Fitzgeral, 1925, The Great Gatsby

Peggy Whitley, 2002, American Cultural History 1920 -1929

Van Dusen Wishard, 1998, Between Two Ages: The Meaning of Our Times.

Kathryn VanSpanckeren, 2003, An Outline of American Literature

Melissa Orme, 1999, The Great Gatsby(Chapter 2)

Annenberg Media, 1997-2005, American Passages, A Literary survey (1.1. Modernist Portrait)

Thomas Gladysz, 2001, The Jazz age
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