Critical Insights: The Great Gatsby

Critical Insights Series

The series focuses on an individual author's entire body of work, a single work of literature, or a literary theme.

At a Glance
  • 1 Volume; 300 Pages
  • 10-14 essays offering Current Critical Analysis by Top Literary Scholars
  • Introductory Essay by the Editor
  • Chronology of Author's Life
  • Complete List of Author's Works
  • Publication Dates of Works
  • Detailed Bio of the Editor
  • General Bibliography
  • General Subject Index
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Edited by Don Noble

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Editor: Morris Dickstein,
Professor of English at the Graduate Center
of the City University of New York
September 2009 · 1 volume · 304 pages · 6"x9"

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ISBN: 978-1-58765-608-8
# of Pages: 304
# of Volumes: 1
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Critical Insights:
The Great Gatsby
In-depth critical discussions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel - Plus complimentary, unlimited online access to the full content of this great literary reference.

Representing a variety of critical approaches and edited by one of the leading critics on 20th Century American literature, this collection focuses on one of the most widely taught works of American literature. The critical viewpoints presented in the volume cover a wide array of topics from issues of race in the novel to individual character studies. The Editor's Introduction explores the deceptive simplicity of the plot and the complex underpinnings of what makes the novel a true masterpiece.

This volume of criticism begins simply enough with essays that provide the reader with cultural, historical, comparative, and critical contexts for understanding Gatsby. Several essays consider the cultural and historical contexts of Fitzgerald's work while critical comparisons link the novel to the poetry of Keats and the novels Daisy Miller and Passing. The section of contextual readings is followed by a selection of critical overviews, including Robert Roulston and Helen H. Roulston's consideration of Gatsby as a type of culmination of Fitzgerald's writings and Ruth Prigozy's comprehensive introduction to the Oxford World Classic edition of Gatsby. The critical overviews are followed by a series of critical readings that focus on narrative style, color symbolism, and character analysis among other topics.

Spanning nearly 40 years of critical study, the selection of essays contained in this volume provide the ideal introduction for any one seeking an introduction to this American classic.

Each essay is 5,000 words in length, and all essays conclude with a list of "Works Cited," along with endnotes. Finally, the volume's appendixes offer a section of useful reference resources:

A chronology of the author's life
A complete list of the author's works and their original dates of publication
A general bibliography
A detailed paragraph on the volume's editor
Notes on the individual chapter authors
A subject index

From "About This Volume"
Trafficking in mystery and obscurity as part of its subject, oblique in its narrative technique, often lyrical in its style, The Great Gatsby is one of a small group of inexhaustible American novels that seem perpetually open to fresh interpretation. This volume brings together a host of approaches that critics have taken without unduly intersecting or stepping on each others' toes. It begins with a fresh contemporary take by Jascha Hoffman, then reaches back to provide a number of contexts for understanding this much-analyzed novel. Jennifer Banach Palladino explores the mixture of social, historical, and autobiographical details that point to its background in the 1920s, the aftermath of World War I: a new mobility, galloping technology, ostentatious wealth, a leisure class on a binge, and more relaxed moral standards. Amy Green focuses on the reception of the book, which was welcomed by Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot but encountered mixed reviews from critics who found the novel slight, its characters unlikeable, their relationships decadent and offensive.

It was only in the Fitzgerald revival after 1945 that the book achieved its classic status. Dan McCall, Neil Heims, and Charles Lewis offer comparative literary contexts, with McCall emphasizing the influence of Keats on the novel, Heims comparing it with one of Henry James's few popular successes, the brisk novella Daisy Miller, and Lewis bringing in a contemporary work, Nella Larsen's Harlem Renaissance novel Passing. McCall shows how the dreamy excess of Keats's "Eve of St. Agnes" surfaces in something as mundane as Gatsby's collection of shirts but also in his lush romantic fantasies about Daisy. Gatsby, he says, aspires not to money but to "wealth chastened by a notion of romance, possibilities of great life beyond the rim of the actual." But McCall also notes how, in Keats as in Fitzgerald, dreams fade into disappointment and disillusionment. Heims sees a link between James and Fitzgerald in the two Daisys but also in the way both stories are told from the viewpoint of a partly detached, halfjudgmental narrator. But in the end he shows that the true parallel is between Daisy Miller and Gatsby himself, "two emblems of innocence and brashness," both peculiarly American, both troublesome figures to the more conventional people around them, and both finally doomed, in part because they do not fit in. Lewis, in treating Gatsby as a character trying to "pass," draws unusual attention to the role of race in the novel, explicit in Tom Buchanan's white supremacist racial views but also, obliquely, in Gatsby's position as a scorned intruder, selfinvented, a "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere," as Tom calls him. He sees racism as the book's often unspoken subtext.

Ambitious critical overviews by longtime Fitzgerald scholars include Robert and Helen H. Roulston's study of the novel as a culmination of the author's early development, Kenneth Eble's close examination of Fitzgerald's careful revisions, which improved the novel even when it was already in proof, and Ruth Prigozy's comprehensive introduction to a 1998 edition. Eble's study illuminates the author's creative process and shows how Fitzgerald adds details that "give Gatsby substance without destroying his necessary insubstantiality." In other words, "Gatsby is revised, not so much into a real person as into a mythical one; what he is is not allowed to distract the reader from what he stands for," just as Daisy, too, "moves away from actuality into an idea existing in Gatsby's mind." The Roulstons show how the novel is grounded in Fitzgerald's commercial magazine fiction yet moves beyond it, into a region of ambiguity highlighted by Nick Carraway's role as narrator; by certain paradoxical features of Fitzgerald's prose, such as his fondness for oxymorons ("ferocious delicacy," "meretricious beauty"); and by the balance between vernacular and literary language. Such ambivalence, rooted in Keats's half-ironic conception of romance and in the literary influence of an even more ironic writer, the Victorian novelist Thackeray, is best expressed in Nick. He "both is and is not a spokesman for his creator. He does and does not resemble Fitzgerald himself. The events do and do not support Nick's conclusions." Prigozy approaches the novel both historically and formally.

She highlights the changes in American society from the Civil War through the 1920s, including the new wealth, the influx of immigrants, theWilsonian rhetoric of idealism that turned hollow after the war, and the postwar economic boom, including the powerful impetus to crime offered by Prohibition. But she also stresses the novel's structural originality, with its story filtered through the prism of the narrator and marked by mysteries, fragments, and omissions that contribute to its meaning. Through Nick's quest, she says, "the novel becomes a search for moral order."

Prigozy's observations about Fitzgerald's narrative method are taken up in greater detail in critical readings by Matthew J. Bolton and Dan Coleman. Where the Roulstons call attention to Fitzgerald's oxymorons, Coleman shows the effect of Fitzgerald's "extended metaphors," which "threaten at times to take over the novel's reality altogether." These include the so-called Valley of Ashes, the forlorn dump where important action unfolds, and the ghostly eyes of T. J. Eckleburg as they brood over a fantastic, almost animated landscape. For Coleman the novel's technique, along with Fitzgerald's own outlook, oscillates between "the concrete realism of Myrtle's story and the indefinite fantasy of Gatsby's." Both characters wish to escape their origins, and both die trying, but Myrtle lacks Gatsby's "theatrical ability to make something spectacular of himself and his world." Nick, on the other hand, provides balance and distance by serving as the detached observer of this spectacle. Bolton complements this narrative analysis by analyzing not only the elliptical character of Fitzgerald's tale but its actual reliance on ellipses as punctuation, representing the story's crucial gaps, fissures, and silences, its layered, collage-like method. To Bolton this deliberate vagueness points to what is ineffable in Gatsby's vision. This is epitomized by an incommunicable phrase that Nick tries to recall-" an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words"-that he almost remembers but which will remain "uncommunicable forever." Barbara Will's deconstructionist reading takes this even further. Bringing in the work of Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva, she sees Gatsby not simply as elusive but as an "absence" in the novel, a "vanishing" figure whose "indeterminacy" points to what cannot be represented. Yet like Lewis she also recasts him as the racial Other, though Fitzgerald himself emphasizes class rather than race and mercilessly mocks TomBuchanan's racist paranoia.

More specific critical studies in this volume include Lawrence J. Dessner's investigation of the neglected role of photography in the novel, which he relates to Gatsby's desire to freeze time and rerun the past; Daniel J. Schneider's close examination of Fitzgerald's symbolic use of color-motifs, an attention to internal correspondences that typifies a New Critical approach to Fitzgerald's carefully structured novel; and Leland S. Person's sympathetic defense of Daisy Buchanan, a character treated harshly by many critics. They have seen her not simply as a confused and shallow young woman, a product of her time and class, but as amoral, vulgar, and inhuman, a "monster of bitchery." Person portrays her instead as the victim of Gatsby's idealization, which she partly calls up and somehow meets halfway, though it ultimately obliterates her. Person's essay is yet another attempt to see the world of The Great Gatsby not strictly through the narrator's judgmental eyes.