The Great Gatsby, the Green Light, and the Metanarrative of Progress

Matt Higdon


The last generation of literary criticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is plagued by a general lack of reflection on the myth(s) of Jay Gatsby. The purpose of this paper is to propose that the title character's myth is actually more than just a "myth," that it is, in fact, an entire worldview--one which grows from an American concept of "progress" that continues to this day, and that Mr. Gatsby's worldview thus becomes more immediately relevant to our own progress-centered Western worldview. Only one article, Jeffrey Steinbrink's "'Boats Against the Current': Mortality and the Myth of Renewal in The Great Gatsby," specifically addresses Mr. Gatsby's belief as a myth, namely, that he can remake himself. My paper argues that Gatsby's myth or worldview (not so much about perfecting himself, per Steinbrink's argument, as about acquiring Daisy Buchanan) tells him that he can and will "win" Daisy for himself through the sheer force of his cunning and efforts, and that this worldview reflects a larger societal metanarrative. My thesis is that The Great Gatsby can function as a cautionary tale against the folly of pursuing the metanarrative of progress.

First, I review the American version of the modern Enlightenment movement. I explore the nearly 150-year history of its influence on American society before the 1922 world of booming economic progress in which Jay Gatsby lived and died. Second, I examine Gatsby as a character: his vantage point from one side of the bay, his singular pursuit of Daisy (who lives on the other side), and the methods and tactics he employs to bridge the gap and procure his dream, the goal toward which he thinks he is progressing. I then discuss possible reasons for his failure to achieve this goal. Third, I explore how this whole package--his overly grand vision, his tactics and their fallen outcome--serves as a warning, to Americans of every generation since, against the short-sighted foolishness of pursuing utopian visions of "progress." My paper therefore holds up a new lens through which to clearly see Fitzgerald's cautionary intention and heed its wisdom.


The Great Gatsby; Metanarrative; Progress; Enlightenment

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