On the surface, 'The Great Gatsby' is a story of the thwarted love between a man and a woman. The true themes of the novel, however, are much more complex and include the American Dream, loss of moral values, and appearances versus reality.
The action of the novel takes place in a geographically small part of the Northeast – specifically the area in and around New York City. But the novel is about America as a whole – particularly the America of the early 20th century. The overarching themes of the novel could be said to be those of the American Dream and the Jazz Age, and more specifically about the clash of these two ideas in America in the 1920s.
The American Dream
There is no single definition of what this term means, but arguably one of the most noteworthy utterances of the sentiment came from James Truslow Adams in 'The American Epic'. He described the USA as:
that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement
But the root of the idea could said to be found in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 which stated:
all men… are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights... [including] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
The Jazz Age
The name is derived from the increasing popularity of jazz music in the 1920s, but is taken to refer to a period of time in which there were:
great advancements in technology
significant economic growth
This combination led to:
increased consumerism - there were more things to buy and more money to buy them with
a noticeable relaxing of the old social mores
'modern' developments in the arts.
These ideas, the American Dream and the Jazz Age, come into conflict.
How the American Dream failed
Through his depiction of the Jazz Age in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald demonstrates how the American Dream failed in various ways:
Jazz Age characters such as the Buchanans are the inheritors of the Dream in its material sense – they have enormous wealth but they lack any purpose or vision in their lives. In the aftermath of the First World War, with so many young men dying in the war, old religious certainties were questioned. This led some survivors to adopt a 'live for the day' attitude.
Jay Gatsby (or James Gatz, to give him his real name) could be said to represent the pure, or original, form of the American Dream. We see his sense of aspiration in his boyhood schedule for self improvement. As a teenager, he was further inspired by the figure of Dan Cody – a man who fulfilled the American Dream in its traditional form prospecting in the Nevada silver fields and the Yukon.
The evolution of James Gatz to Jay Gatsby that concludes in the 1920s represents a corrupted version of the American Dream. Gatsby owns a palatial home full of expensive things and throws lavish parties. In the material sense, he has achieved the American Dream. But just beneath the surface we discover this dream is built on a foundation of lies and corruption. Gatsby's personality and personal history are invented, while his money comes from criminal activities. He justifies all this to himself as a means to an end - his reunion with Daisy.
What differentiates Gatsby from other characters is that he still has a dream, "an extraordinary gift of hope". It is this that sets him apart from the others and which makes Nick admire him: "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together." Ironically, though, the object of his dream is a woman who isn't worth it, and the objective of his dream – "to wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath" - is impossible to achieve.
At the end of the book, the idea of Gatsby's dream is specifically merged with the birth of the American Dream – the arrival of the Dutch sailors and their wonder at the "fresh, green breast of the New World." The "transitory enchanted moment [when] man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent" is equated with "Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock." Fitzgerald leaves the reader with the thought that, while both these dreams may have failed, people could continue to strive for the unattainable and "stretch out our arms further".