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F. Scott Fitzgerald was an American short-story writer and novelist famous for his depictions of “The Roaring 20’s” (Britannica, 2018). Through the novel being set in the 1920’s, highlighting a social class where people were considered “rich” in East egg, “less fashionable” in West egg and poor in the Valley of Ashes, Fitzgerald effectively enhances the motif of the past in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald also clearly depicts this theme of the past through his incorporation of Gatsby as an unknown mystery, and the past relationship of Daisy and Gatsby. Lastly, he chooses to compare Gatsby’s fake and real past throughout the novel to advance and reinforce the motif to aid readers into believing the text’s purpose is to relive the past.
A vital way in which Fitzgerald intricately develops the motif of the past is through the setting as it sets the standard of the social class and how it was to live at that time. The novel is set in the 1920’s – a time period in which people called “The Roaring 20s”- the age of dramatic social and political change. The 1920’s was at the end of World War 1, so there were large senses of hysteria, and wildness. It was a carefree period, although it was also during the prohibition era. Due to people’s excessive drinking and the growing problem of alcohol dependence, the government wanted to eradicate the temptation of liquor, thus came the prohibition of alcohol. Though it may have been prohibited, it did not stop people from drinking at the parties that Gatsby threw. The use of the colour yellow aids in enhancing the wealth everyone was obsessed with in the 1920s and show America desecrated, mutilated and violated. Yellow depicted life and the joy of the “gleaming, dazzling parties” that Gatsby threw (p.170). “Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons [would arrive] from a fruiterer in New York” to cater to the guests who came, as well as providing “pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to dark gold” (p.41). Through the explicit use of details, the idea that no one really cared about abiding the government and really just wanted to have fun is clearly depicted.
Fitzgerald utilizes setting as a component to elaborate the theme of the past as he sets the standard of social class of that time. In the novel, the strata of society are depicted in three locations – East Egg, West Egg, and the Valley of Ashes. Nick Carraway “lived at West Egg- the less fashionable of the two” (p 10), while “across the Courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water” (p 11). In the middle of the Eggs was “a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes” (p 26). The way in which East Egg is demonstrated opposes values to West Egg as it depicts the development and leisure whereas the West egg represents ostentation and young ambition through lavish displays of wealth and poor taste. As a land of poverty, The Valley of Ashes illustrated moral and social decay of America in the 1920s. Through the use of setting, readers are enabled to gain a deeper understanding of life in the Roaring 20s and how the appearances and level of wealth covered up realities.
In addition, Fitzgerald effectively describes the concept of the past through Jordan talking about Daisy’s past and how she came to marry Tom, despite still being in love with Gatsby. Therefore, when Gatsby had invited Jordan to talk during the party, she “just heard the most amazing thing… it was… simply amazing” (p 53). During her time with Nick, she exclaims that in “nineteen-seventeen” (p 73), “[Daisy] was sitting…with a lieutenant I had never seen before. They were so engrossed in each other that she didn’t see me until I was five feet away!” (p 73) and how “The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at some time, and because it seemed romantic to me I have remembered the incident ever since. His name was Jay Gatsby” (p 73). Fitzgerald seamlessly creates the text in a way that allows readers believe that Daisy and Gatsby have a longing past together.
Furthermore, the use of dialogue when Gatsby’s unknown past is portrayed assists readers in the characterization of Gatsby; the fact that his past is a mystery. No one really knows about Gatsby’s past besides all the rumours. Gatsby’s life was filled with rumours; “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once” (45), “its more that he was a German spy during the war” (45), “Well, they say he’s a nephew or a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm’s. That’s where all his money comes from” (p 35), “well, he told me once he was an Oxford man” (p 50), “he’s a bootlegger” (p 60). Through all these instances, Fitzgerald attempts to depict Gatsby’s earlier years as obscure and hazy to the point where readers start to believe that Gatsby’s entire present existence – the glittering house, the dazzling parties, the expensive cars – all make it seem like he is living for the moment, but he is actually stuck trying to relive the past.
Moreover, Fitzgerald’s use of Daisy as a character is a symbol of the past in which Gatsby tried to reclaim. Gatsby’s desire of the relationship he shared with Daisy five years ago is basically his whole purpose. The use of the green light depicts how Gatsby wants to relive the past with Daisy just like before he had gone to the war. When Gatsby “first emerged from the shadow” (p25), he “stretched out his arms towards dark water in a curious way” (p25) to “nothing except a single green light” (p25). Through the green light symbol, Gatsby latches onto the green light as if it is going to deliver fulfilment and he places all his hope and dreams into being able catch sight of Daisy again. This green light represents Gatsby’s longing desire for money and Daisy’s acceptance – it was his constant search for a way to reach his goal. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year [receded] before [him]” (p171). The green light proves Gatsby’s inability to move on from the past as everything he does in the text is to recreate the past. In addition, Fitzgerald foreshadows the past when Gatsby wants Daisy to erase her past with Tom, thus obliterating the last trace of her life for the years she had missed with Gatsby. “He wanted nothing less than that she would go to Tom and say: I never loved you” (p 105). Gatsby is reluctant to believe that Daisy ever remotely felt love for Tom, as he wanted him and Daisy “to go back to Louisville and be married from her house – just as if it were five years ago” (p 106). When she tells him: “I love you now – isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past” (p 143) further exemplifies Daisy’s perspective, disregarding the past and facing her reality as it is at that moment.
Contrasting Gatsby’s fake past with the real past throughout the novel also advances the theme of the past. At the beginning when Gatsby and Nick went to go fly a hydroplane, Gatsby explains that he is “the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West – all dead now. [He] was brought up in America but educated at Oxford, because all [his] ancestors have been educated there for many years. It is a family tradition” (p 64), and that he “didn’t want [Nick] to think [he] was just some nobody” (p 66). The more Gatsby continued to tell Nick about the truth, he realized that it wasn’t true as he “hurried the phrase… or swallowed it, or choked on it, as though it had bothered him before.” (p 64) The truth about Gatsby only comes out towards the end of the novel when he truthfully explained his past relationship with Daisy in Louisville – that he had met her before he had gone to war and fell in love with her despite her higher social standing to him being a relatively poor soldier. She had promised to wait for him but had already married Tom when Gatsby returned from war.
In sum, Fitzgerald constructively embellishes the motif of the past to the point where readers gain a deeper understanding of life in the past and the characterization of Gatsby’s life. Through characters, symbols, techniques and setting, he successfully aids in concluding the novel where readers realize how people were during the 1920’s and why they acted so materialistic. When Nick explains that “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (p 149), through the alliteration with the letter b, he elaborates the idea of how the future lies up to our expectations and in fact having expectations of it just binds us to the past. Fitzgerald influentially reinforces the motif of the past in the Great Gatsby through many instances. He was not particularly optimistic about the economic boom of the 1920’s; therefore, he ends the novel with an empty feeling in which readers believe that people want to recapture an idealized past, or a perfect moment or memory, but when this desire for the past turns into an obsession, it ultimately leads to ruin, just as it lead to Gatsby’s demise.
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