English, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in 2001 in the Wordsworth Edition of The Great>Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Copyright 2001 Guy Reynolds.


The 'constant flicker' of the American scene

Why is The Great Gatsby such a quintessential twentieth-century novel? After mixed reviews and a slow start in sales, Fitzgerald's 1925 novel has moved to the centre of literary history, to the extent that to many readers this is the modern American novel. Gatsby is widely loved, and has achieved the unusual status of appealing to both that mythical creature the 'Common Reader' and an academic audience. The novel's stature has increased exponentially with age, and it is probably regarded with more fondness and read with greater critical sophistication today than in the seventy-five years since its publication. One reason for the growing status of the novel might be that it was in many ways prescient. Prescient, first of all, in the narrow sense that Fitzgerald's portrayal of dizzying, narcissistic wealth and its sudden corruption eerily prefigured the US stock-market's 1929 'Great Crash' and the subsequent Depression. But the novel was also astute in its mapping of a contemporary urban world: a technological, consumerist, leisure society seen here in one of its first fictional representations. Even on the very first page of the text, Nick Carraway's narrative introduces us to a world of insistent modernity and technological innovation. He compares Gatsby's 'heightened sensitivity to the promises of life' to that of a seismograph, 'one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away' (p. 3). Gatsby's character is understood through comparison with a piece of recondite, advanced machinery. The impress of such technological modernity is felt throughout the text. Even comic touches often depend on such notation: 'There was a machine in the kitchen whch could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler's thumb’ (p . 26).