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  • Ambivalence, Nostalgia, and the Injustice of the American Dream in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
  • Shirley Fung Yuet Fai (bio)

My first time reading The Great Gatsby three years ago was when it became my favourite novel, because I had the impression that the language of the book was intriguingly lyrical, at times it perfectly described some inexplicable human emotions. The novel has an ambivalent mood which conveys the complexity of human life since in reality, nothing is eternally definite, and there is a pervasive sense of extravagant hope mixed with grotesque reality. Perhaps it is precisely because of this emotional ambivalence and Gatsby's futile longing that so many people still resonate with this novel. It is set in the dreamlike Roaring Twenties and yet it is terrifyingly realistic, with the wild parties of inebriating happiness masking the internal struggles of the cynical mind in that era. Fitzgerald himself was an active participant of such parties, but he was also a hard-working writer who wrote tirelessly during his lifetime. It remains a shame that while this book did not garner the popularity he had hoped for, it finally achieved the fame it deserved after his death, and it continues to be critically acclaimed and relevant to us today. Under this sentiment, I want to first discuss the book's artistic and literary merits, then its resonance and at last its significance in relation to its historical context and the contemporary society, in the midst of the chaos of a global pandemic.

After the success of This Side of Paradise, he experienced sporadic periods of inebriation and dejection, the latter of which was due to his belief that he was no longer capable of "ever writing anything again worth putting in print."1 The failure of his play The Vegetable, as well as the constant pressure to write short stories for publication to fulfil his financial responsibility towards Zelda, put immense pressure on his literary devotion to writing serious novels.2 Nonetheless, in the same period of time, Fitzgerald regained belief and confidence in himself as an artist after being inspired by Joseph Conrad's works—as indicated by his praise of Nostromo as "the great novel of the past fifty years"—to continue writing what would become The Great Gatsby.3 According to Conrad's preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, an artist should appeal [End Page 70] to readers' "less obvious capacities," the relatively vulnerable part of our nature that is not dependent on wisdom.4 He/she speaks to:

our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity.5

From this quote, one begins to feel the essence of literary impressionism. Conrad goes on to say that fiction should appeal from one temperament to another—"an impression conveyed through the senses […] to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions."6 An author, he adds, should aim to achieve "the perfect blending of form and substance," to apply exceptional, relentless care for "the shape and ring of sentences," so that a magically evanescent instant may appear on the surface of ordinary and overused words of language.7 Above all, a writer's task is to employ the power of written words "to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see" everything, even glimpses of truth.8 Indeed, in many of Fitzgerald's works, be it fiction or autobiography, one can see his heightened sensibility towards life, communicated through the use of symbols, paradoxes, oxymorons and more to unveil the complexity and intricacy of modern life, resulting in a writing style that aligns with Conrad's vision of literary impressionism. Fitzgerald fulfils his responsibility as a writer to appeal to our vast and intricate sentiment through...


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pp. 70-77
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