The Great Gatsby symbolizes an era. It is both an indictment and a glorification of the 'Jazz Age' (see guide to Tender is the Night for more on the period), and proved the most enduring novel to come out of America in the inter-war period. Jay Gatsby, the hero of the title, represents all that is glorious and tarnished about the 'Roaring Twenties'. It was an age before the Great Depression, when the economy was booming and conspicuous consumption was the order of the day. Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda subscribed to this era of wanton abandon every bit as much as the characters in The Great Gatsby - it was hard to know which was the more celebrated - Fitzgerald or his work. At the same time as reveling in the affluence of the time, Fitzgerald could appreciate its lack of profundity. He was too intelligent to be a mere socialite, and his disenchantment is captured perfectly in The Great Gatsby

This double view of his own existence contributes to the success of The Great Gatsby. We are presented with two characters who seemingly represent the dichotomy Fitzgerald sees in himself - Nick Carraway, the boy from the mid-West who is wide-eyed at the showiness of the materialism he sees around him; and Jay Gatsby, who represents and fully subscribes to this material world. However, as Fitzgerald states in his biographical work The Crack Up, 'the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.' We can see that although the two characters seem entirely in apposition to one another, they actually have a great deal in common, and stand for the extent to which Fitzgerald sees some synthesis rather than complete antithesis in his parallel views of the Jazz Age.

The Great Gatsby epitomizes Fitzgerald's skill in understanding the romantic. The most enduring symbol of the novel is Gatsby gazing out at the light at the end of Daisy's pier. This symbol could stand for the whole of Fitzgerald's life. He is seeking to capture the melancholy and beauty in life - traits which he found in his wife, the troubled Zelda Sayre. Gatsby is a tragic figure, consumed by the lifestyle he has chosen, doomed by trying to be something he is not. This returns us to Fitzgerald's doubleness. The dream of a no one attaining (and maintaining) the heights that Gatsby reaches is just that. It is a romantic (American) dream that Fitzgerald must quash. It is fitting that only four years after the publication of The Great Gatsby was published, the Wall Street crash put an end to the rampant materialism of the Jazz Age, reducing many of those who had lorded on 5th Avenue to financial and social ruin. Jay Gatsby represents an unattainable height of glamour and wealth. Fitzgerald realized that the Jazz Age was built upon uncertain foundations, and that the flimsy house would collapse just like Jay Gatsby.

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