For the New Critic a work of great literature is “an independent entity with [an objective] stable meaning of its own” (Tyson 148). The literary work needs to be examined by itself, without regard to authorial intent, reader response, or cultural and historical considerations. The measure of great literature is in its organic unity- its ability to bring together the formal elements of the text and universal meaning, and together the writing becomes “like a complex living organism whose parts cannot be separated from the whole” (138). Lois Tyson argues the universal theme in The Great Gatsby is unfulfilled longing (150). She defends her claim brilliantly that the novel uses lyric imagery to create unfulfilled longing in “(1) as nostalgia for the lost past; (2) as dreams of future fulfillment; and (3) as vague, undefined longing that has no specific goal” (152). But isn’t “unfulfilled longing” really just a romantic way of saying “wants”?
Don’t we all want, at some level, what we used to have in the past? Don’t we all have hopes and wants for our future? It seems there is always a sense of something missing in the present; we are never truly satisfied, always torn between memories and future hopes. Tyson says “No matter who we are or what we have, we cannot be long content” (161). It’s really the unfulfilled present, our never ending human wants, that is the universal theme of The Great Gatsby. And for a novel to have lasting importance it must have a universal theme and mirror the complexity and order of the human experience, which the novel does elegantly.
Regardless of the material possessions, luxuriant lifestyle, or romantic connection Tom has with Daisy he’s still not satisfied, always wanting more- more wealth, more power, more possessions, and more love. Okay, sure, it can be argued that cheating on Daisy with Myrtle and other women isn’t love, but, isn’t it? Shallow at best, but love or emotional and physical gratification at some level nonetheless. And at face value who can blame him or the other characters in the novel for wanting nice things; people, whether right or wrong, envy opulence and power.
Being less than satisfied with the present and wanting what you used to have or hope to have is universal. In this way the theme of The Great Gatsby and its use of “images, symbols, metaphors, rhyme, meter, point of view, setting, characterization, [and] plot” shares a connection to the human experience, and therefore, achieves greatness.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Originally published at www.happinessfootprint.com on April 12, 2012.