Set in 1920s America, Fitzgerald's novel portrayed the cynicism that surrounded many people's philosophies following WWI. Part of this cynicism had to do with the precarious position of the "American Dream." Despite the fact that the end of the war resulted in increased national wealth and heightened materialism, the American Dream, as a concept, became more and more warped during this period, in large part due to the immense wealth disparities that were so prevalent. While this dream was originally about the pursuit of happiness and individualism, the America shown in the novel, and indeed depicted in Luhrmann's film, is one in which a very few people get ahead, and others struggle to keep up. In showing the almost-universal preoccupation with materialism and instant gratification, the film shows the ways that the American Dream, in the 1920s, was governed by decadent appetites, not by the pursuit of personal freedom.
Furthermore, the futility of the American Dream is further represented in Gatsby's struggle to be with Daisy and to become a man of influence. He tells Tom that he is just as respectable as him, alleging, "Now I've just as much as you. That means we're equal." In this moment, Gatsby outlines the promise of the "American Dream" and American capitalism, by suggesting that because he has as much money as Tom, the two men are equals. Tom Buchanan, a man of "noble" birth—which, in the American context, simply means being born into money rather than having earned it—quickly laughs off Gatsby's naivety, and assures Gatsby that their difference lies in their respective "blood." To an old-money, privileged man like Buchanan, the American Dream is only available to those with the proper breeding and inheritance. While Gatsby had dreamed that he could ascend into the upper classes if he had enough money, this is simply not the case. Thus, the film shows the fragility of the American Dream.
Material Wealth and Ethics
A major theme throughout the film of The Great Gatsbyis how being successful—in this case, being in the upper class—allows people to detach from consequences and behave in unethical ways. Daisy and Tom are the main examples of this, as they blatantly show no regard for anyone but themselves. As Nick states at the end of the film, "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy. They smashed up things and people, and then retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness." Money acts as a shield against accountability, allowing characters to act as recklessly and inhumanely as they desire. Daisy and Tom are so used to disregarding the lives of others that, following Myrtle's and Gatsby's deaths, they simply move on with their lives, run away from the problem, and don't give it a second thought. They remove themselves from the situation both physically and mentally, because their money gives them the privilege to do so.
The past is a major theme in The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is under the impression that his relationship with Daisy can return to the way it was before they were separated. Even when he sees that Daisy has married someone else and had a child, he is determined to return to the past. Even when Nick assures him that he cannot repeat the past, Gatsby insists that he can. Gatsby's belief that he can conjure up the past is one of his tragic flaws. While Gatsby romanticizes and idealizes the past, everyone around him is far more realistic. Gatsby believes so firmly that Daisy feels the same way she felt about him before the war that he asks her to tell Tom she never loved him. Daisy is unable to, because that would mean throwing away the life she built in Gatsby's absence. This inability to accept that Daisy has moved on leads to his death.
The character trait of Gatsby's that allows him to so fully immerse himself in the past and in the belief that it is repeatable is his vivid imagination. Gatsby's mind is filled with heightened machinations, delusions of grandeur, and charming fictions. When Daisy dances with Gatsby at his party, she looks around her at the splendor of the party and asks, "Was all of this made entirely from your own imagination?" Daisy is in love with Gatsby in large part because of his more over-the-top qualities, his desire to impress her, to give her everything. It is Gatsby's imagination which endows him with such hope that he will be able to live the life with Daisy that he always wanted. His imagination makes him both charming and impractical, special but delusional. Not only does Gatsby convince others that he comes from a different background, but it seems that his imagination allows him to believe this narrative himself.
A central driving force in the film is the romance between Daisy and Gatsby. Their love is depicted as passionate, impractical, and uninhibited. The love story between them is depicted as pure and authentic, in contrast with the obligational, flawed, and untrusting marital relationship between Daisy and Tom. While Daisy also holds love for Tom, the film portrays her love with Gatsby as far more fulfilling. Gatsby eventually asks for "too much," when he asks Daisy to tell Tom that she never loved him, which ends up being more than she can give to him, but their love is the central force driving the conflict of the film.
Leisure and Parties
When the film starts, Nick narrates a little about the historical context of the film, and shares that the 1920s were a time of great wealth, materialism, and heightened frivolity (in spite of the nationwide prohibition of alcohol). The setting and time period in which the film takes place sets the stage for some epic parties. The theme of party-going is perfectly suited to director Baz Luhrmann and art director Catherine Martin's strengths. Throughout the film, we see parties pushed to their limits. In Myrtle's apartment, champagne sprays throughout the whole raucous party, people dance around in various states of undress, and as Nick narrates, "That night, in the hidden flat that Tom kept for Myrtle, we were buoyed by a sort of chemical madness, a willingness of the heart that burst thunderously upon us all." This "willingness," the desire to push towards festive limits pervades much of the beginning of the film. Gatsby's parties are a manic spectacle, as we see the entire mansion packed to the gills with people. People dance and jump in the pool, guests mill throughout the gigantic mansion, and take in flamboyant performances. The lavishness of these parties represents the inordinate wealth that Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby posesses, as well as the general spirit of debauchery and recklessness of the 1920s.
Writing and Observation
From the start, Nick Carraway is positioned as an observer. When he sees Tom Buchanan, Tom thinks of him as a writer, calling him "Shakespeare" and asking him how his novel is going. Nick, who has taken a job on Wall Street, resists the label of writer, yet maintains a writerly perspective throughout the film. At the party in Myrtle's apartment, he talks about having the experience of feeling at once "within and without," and we see him looking at a projection of himself out on the street. His feeling of being both a part of and apart from the events in his life, positions him as a writerly, observant presence in the film. Furthermore, in the scenes in the sanatarium, Nick's doctor urges him to write down what has happened. Writing becomes the only way for Nick to heal from the events of the past. His condition improves as he writes the story of Gatsby, and by the end of the film he has written a whole manuscript.
The Great Gatsby (2013 Film) Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Great Gatsby (2013 Film) is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The Great Gatsby (2013 Film) essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of The Great Gatsby (2013 Film), directed by Baz Luhrmann.