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East vs. West: The Great Debate

Review courtesy of my Lit Crit class

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel, The Great Gatsby, takes typical ideas of old and new, east and west, past and present, and applies them to the landscape of Fitzgerald’s United States. Fitzgerald plays with dualism and doubling to interpret the common understanding of the American Dream in the story of Jay Gatsby and Nick Carroway. The West becomes a representation of the new and the present, leaving the East to symbolize what is old and what has passed. The discord between the two locational concepts comes to life in the interactions between the characters, especially between Gatsby and Tom.

Tom Buchanan is old money. He comes from a family so wealthy that “even in college his freedom with money was a matter for reproach” (Fitzgerald 6). Though his family is from Chicago, Tom attends Yale in Connecticut. Tom establishes himself and his family fortune in the East by becoming a part of the Yale community, then later in life by moving to Long Island with his wife Daisy. Tom is arrogant, and his voice had “a touch of paternal contempt in it, even toward people he liked” (7). His philandering is nearly public knowledge, and he does not put much effort into hiding his affair with Myrtle. Because Tom comes from old money, none of the socialites that Nick encounters dare to gossip about him.

Gatsby, however, is the constant target of rumors. His mysterious fortune is self-made, and no one knows the full story of how he came to it. Gatsby is a local mystery, and the fashionable people who attend his parties enjoy guessing at his secrets and occupation. He was a German spy in the war. He fought for America in the war. He’s a bootlegger. He killed a man. He went to Oxford. He inherited money. He made his own fortune. Nick, at his first Gatsby party, remarks that “it was testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him from those who had found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world” (44). One thing is true about Gatsby: he is a man from the West.

Much of Gatsby’s persona is developed through his elaborate parties, the same parties that he stops hosting when Daisy comes back into his life. The parties represent the present and life in the moment. When Nick recalls his first party at Gatsby’s manner, he switches from past tense narration into present tense. This shift in verb usage signals that the events at Gatsby’s party are the present, are currently happening. The idea of Gatsby is a companion to the action of Gatsby’s parties, and by using the present tense to narrate the first party, Gatsby becomes associated with the present.

The past, however, is systematically romanticized throughout the novel. From the description of Gatsby’s house as “a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy” (5) to Gatsby’s inability to acknowledge the changes in Daisy’s life after he left her, Gatsby and the others exagerate and adore the past. Gatsby, for Daisy, is in the past, so when they meet again, she is able to forsake her love for Tom because Gatsby holds a greater romantic appeal. Similarly, Gatsby has idolized Daisy from afar for so long that his love for her is more like the worship of her past. Gatsby shows that he is unable to move Daisy from the past into the present when he tries to force her to denounce ever having loved Tom. In her exasperation, Daisy exclaims, “I love you now—isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past” (132). She throws Gatsby’s conflicting present nature into relief with his romanticized vision of Daisy in the past.

It is not a coincidence that Gatsby moved East to find Daisy and then became wrapped up in a past version of her. The East is a center for old money, blue blood families, and an idolization of the past. Tom is a member of the East, even though he is originally from Chicago. The adopted Easterner rests on his old fortune and is able to live and survive in New York. His old money and Yale degree give him a place within the Eastern society. Gatsby, on the other hand, does not integrate into New York. He is a man of the West, and his new money and Californian origins have no influence in the upper-upper class. By idolizing his memory of Daisy, Gatsby is attempting to integrate into the veneration of the past. However, Gatsby is ultimately the embodiment of the West. His life is a life of progress and earning, of working through the present. Gatsby does not survive because he is unable to conform to Eastern practices.

Despite the differences between the old and the new, the East and the West, there is still a commonality between them in that they are American. Further back in history, New York was still new, still present, still the West. Each of the main characters that pass through Nick’s life on Long Island come originally from the West and have since moved Eastward. Although the events of The Great Gatsby take place in New York, it is a displaced story of the West. Because of the history of Westward expansion and the displacing of Western characters in New York, Fitzgerald begs the question, are the East and West different after all?

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