One of the main themes in The Great Gatsby is the embellishment of the American Imperative. The novel is set in the 1920’s Jazz Age, and is flowered with an extremely colourful palette that seems to represent the endless possibilities of New York (and America as a whole). The visual description of the events, characters, and settings in The Great Gatsby adds to the bumpy liveliness of the novel, and highlights the glamour of American industrialization and materialistic wealth.
The narrator of the novel is Nick Carraway, a budding bonds salesman who travels to New York, fleeing from the “ragged edge” (pg 3) of the Midwest after the war. Almost immediately, the audience catches a glimpse of the razzle-dazzle world that Nick would later go on to fetishize as we learn that he lives in close proximity to many millionaires, the most prominent one being Gatsby and his elaborate hotel de ville. Nick then visits the Buchanans, and is immediately amazed by what he sees before him. There is a hue of moonlight-and-magnolia that drapes the Buchanan household from Nick’s perspective, a glow of wealth and prosperity.
When he enters the house, he describes walking into a “bright rosy-coloured space” whose windows were “ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside” (pg 8), and whose curtains billowed to and fro. There is a fantastical aura that permeates the scene, and Nick’s fascination with the extraordinary riches of East Egg manifests itself through the magical sheen that galvanizes his perception of the scene. Nick’s neighbour is Jay Gatsby, who frequently hosted many exuberant parties that attracted visitors from both East and West Egg. In these parties, he rubs shoulders with the creme de la creme of New York, and “was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (pg 35).
He decorated his descriptions of Gatsby’s parties with polished admiration, from talking about the picturesque mansion to the inspirational “Queensboro bridge… in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world” (pg 68). To Nick Carraway, New York was a place where one could rise above their current standings and taste “their share of the local heavens”(pg 20), a place so populated with luxury and treasure that even a person as extraordinary as Gatsby “could happen, without any particular wonder” (pg 69).
Thus, he recounts his caricature of the events that took place with a very glazed and romanticized tone, as he was a man who was excited by the “profound human change”(pg 95) that buzzed around him. This colourful palette is sharply contrasted with the monochrome tone of the Valley of Ashes. The two settings analogise the juxtaposition of the fabled American Dream; the marvellous riches versus the poverty and despair that burdens the unsuccessful investors and unprivileged masses. In the valley, there is a prominent billboard of Dr T J Eckelburg, a bland and faceless caricature who “broods over the solemn dumping ground” (pg 24).
The billboard represents the despondency and darkness of failed endeavours, and it overlooks a land of unsuccessful trades, failed business corporations, and wasted opportunities. It is the manifestation of the American dream gone sour, and is a stark reminder of the potential downfall of this illustrious illusion.
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