Nick Carraway and the American Search for Meaning

1920s imageI want to explore the way in which Nick Carraway’s mental fog in The Great Gatsby parallels American attitudes and search for meaning and purpose post-World War I. One passage, in particular, inspired this idea:

Through all [Gatsby] said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something – an elusive rythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago… and what I had almost remembered was incommunicable forever. (111)

The phrase ‘appalling sentimentality’ struck me in reading this passage, because although it literally refers to Gatsby’s romantic, idyllic memory of Daisy, it also suggests a romanticism of the past. After the first world war, as industry soared and commercialism was king, some Americans began to question life’s meaning and purpose. They were no longer fighting and so could not become heroes. They were spending money and learning to love possessions as much as – or more than – people. Their power was fabricated, baseless; it came from pieces of paper and metal, not from strength of character, military victories, or moral triumph. The old way of life had already become a memory, and as they struggled to grasp it, authors struggled to put it into words and to recapture its meaning.

Fitzgerald was one of these authors and his struggle is reflected in Nick. Nick cannot form a concrete image of the past, now romanticized, and thus cannot find words or meaning in the present. His memory is lost to feelings of hopelessness and disillusionment, and he fails to recapture it.

The fog in which Nick is caught is the same one which obscured America during the 1920s. There is a failure to recover memory and recreate the good that once was as well as a sense that this failure imbues the present with an inherent futility and lack of purpose.

– Brittney K.

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