Modernist literature emerged during the end of the 19th century (1890-1950) and was perceived as a reaction to an increasingly industrialized and globalized world. It was mostly brought on by the damaging effects of WWI, WWII, and the Great Depression. People lived in an ever changing environment where most were struggling to survive. Modernist literature acknowledged that the political system in America was not working. Thus many writers of this movement expressed their opposition or gave an opinion on a social concept or traditional thoughts. There was a purposeful shift away from the traditional styles of writing with an emphasis on fragmented forms, discontinuous narrative and subjectivity. Novels that were written during the modernist period were often characterized by a “stream of consciousness” which is a literary technique which seeks to reveal an individual’s point of view by inserting the character’s thought processes and emotions into the narrative. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a novel that captures this time period and the everyday struggle to accept the social and economic change in America.
Three examples from the novel that illustrate this central concept to modernist literature is how all of Fitzgerald’s characters are representative of the 20th century, how Jay Gatsby is the epitome of a modernist hero and the symbolism behind Dr. T.J. Eckleberg eyes and what they represent. Fitzgerald’s characters exemplify everything that is wrong with the 20th century: wealth, social class, industry, and organized crime. Tom Buchanan is a white supremacist that openly expresses his racism. In the first chapter he says “Civilization is going to pieces. If we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged”(13) and “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things”(15). In this quote Tom is referring to a novel he read called “The Rise of the Coloured Empire” by Goddard. He is saying that if society doesn’t “look out” on behalf of the white race, blacks and other races will take over and “utterly submerge” the white race.
Racism and injustice is a major theme of the modernist movement. Through Tom Buchanan, Fitzgerald portrays the ruthless mindset of the rich and powerful of the 20th century and how the world is a hostile place where everyone else struggles to live. Daisy Buchanan is in love with money, ease, and material luxury. She gives off the illusion of innocence but in reality is the symbol of the “American Dream” that has become corrupt and unattainable.
In Chapter 1, she says “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool (18).” In this quote Daisy is describing to Nick and Jordan her hopes for her infant daughter. Daisy’s remark reveals a glimpse into her character. She is the product of a social environment that does not value intelligence in women and represents the social standards of women in the 1920’s. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”(146). In this quote Fitzgerald captures the mentality of the bureaucrats of his generation. The use of the word “smashed” implies that their destruction is widespread. It could be compared to the destructions of WWI and how those responsible “retreated” and didn’t want to get their hands dirty and had left “a mess to clean up”.
Modernist literature often had characters that were on a quest to understand or recreate themselves. They were trying to live in a meaningless world that has lost its morality, rationality and values. Jay Gatsby, the novel’s protagonist, is a man who refuses to accept the life into which he was born. Throughout the novel, he tries to reinvent himself into something completely different. Gatsby, born into a poor farmer’s family, rises to become the wealthiest man in West Egg. He has romantic illusions about the power of money to buy respectability and the love of Daisy. Gatsby tragically never realizes that the world of wealth he wants to enter is a corrupt world full of cruel and selfish people. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”(192).
The green light signifies the dreams of the future that Gatsby was trying to attain but in the end proved not to be able to move beyond the past. This metaphor characterizes both Gatsby’s struggle and the American Dream. Jay Gatsby has not achieved his money through hard work, but rather through dishonesty and crime. He surrounded himself with excessive and materialist things and a social circle that he wasn’t even a part of. Therefore the American Dream is just a facade and people like Gatsby who try to move up through the social class becomes corrupt in the progress. Lastly, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg symbolize the loss of values in America and are perceived to be the eyes of God watching over the destruction of society. “… above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Dr. T.J.
Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose … But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.(27 – 28)”. These eyes watch over the events and characters of the novel like the eyes of God. The actions of the characters and the events that take place completely disregard that there is something watching over them and judging them. This directly relates to the modernist idea that there is a loss of meaning in human existence, that there is no God, no universal plan, and no real rules for living an upright or successful life.