Identity in Modern American Literature


Though modernity brought about scientific and technological progress, it was revolutionary in the sense that it threw and seeped away the old-established moral values and social relations. The American society at that time was characterized by fragmentation, estrangement and dehumanization.
Among the factors that had a great influence on America’s national identity and the individual’s psychological make-up during the modern times are: the First World War, materialism, the spiritual crisis, individualism, and social discrimination. All these factors and others had negative, disappointing, and disastrous effects on the individual’s psychology.
The twentieth century witnessed the beginning of a new age in the American history. The American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald sums up the main features and changes that occurred at this period as follows: ‘It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire’ (‘Echoes’ 2). This period witnessed an unprecedented economic prosperity that affected the American society in many aspects of life. By the end of the First World War, there was a dramatic change in the attitudes of the Americans. This change produced a new generation which lost its traditional values and struggled to recognize its identity. During this era, a group of American thinkers and writers, known as the Lost Generation, searched for the meaning of life in this new fragmented world. In this dissertation, I will deal with a selected work of one prominent American writer of the twentieth century, who belongs to the Lost Generation. I have chosen to work on Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, which exposes through many ways the issues of identity in the modern American society.
My choice to write about identity in The Great Gatsby aims to find out how modernity affected the American identity during the 1920s, and to what extent the main characters of this novel satisfied their desires in the national context. In addition, my work demonstrates whether or not they have succeeded to shape a full identity through their national and individual experiences; if yes, the work will evince if it is a partial or a whole satisfaction by analyzing how and to which extent they have shaped their national and individual identity. Besides, this work also seeks to explain the motives behind the characters’ own feelings and behaviors. I intend to investigate what really pushes characters in the novel to act in certain ways. In other words, the work demonstrates if their feelings and actions are a result of their own choices, or rather inevitable because of some necessities. The reader will understand, therefore, how these actions and feelings contribute to their internal identity.
Answering the questions above sheds more light on the dramatic shift in the perceptions of national and individual identity of Americans during the modern times. Additionally, this work provides the reader with an interpretation of the characters’ psyches to understand their behaviors and their relationships with others. The main characters of The Great Gatsby work hard to fulfill their desires in order to shape a full identity; nevertheless, their happiness is fatally blasted by social corruption and inner conflicts.
Despite the fact that the United States of America grew very wealthy and prosperous during the1920s, the American generation of this period can be described as desperate. This aimless generation, that lost hope and faith in themselves as well as their country, suffered from a serious identity crisis. People started to think who they are and to where they belong. This struggle for a social and an individual identity in modern America was well-depicted in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The issue of identity is presented through the main characters and the settings of the novel.
This dissertation aspires to have a detailed analysis of more than one type of identity. It makes the reader observe the struggles of the main characters to form a complete social and internal identity. Accordingly, the approach I have used in this dissertation is psychoanalytical criticism, to analyze the interactions of the characters’ personal and interpersonal experience. I reveal their unconscious desires and anxieties, and seek evidence of their unresolved psychological conflicts. This critical analysis is concerned mainly with the emotions and the attitudes of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan.
To deal with the dissertation’s main concern, I relied on very important materials that are written by literary critics, historians, and psychologists. In his book entitled Writing Jazzs, Nicholas M. Evans tries to tackle the issue of identity in the modern era, making a reference to Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. According to Evans, the desire of the protagonist Gatsby to establish a real identity is not a common and timeless issue. Seeking a national and individual identity was a major concern in the twentieth century. This is mainly because of the psychological trauma that appeared after the First World War.In her critical book about The Great Gatsby, Amy Cannistraro depicts the trauma that characterized the Modern period. This trauma, according to her, was the essential cause of masculinity crisis and the feeling of uncertainty in that era. Moreover, in his article ‘Repetition, Race, and Desire in The Great Gatsby’, Adam Meehan interprets the novel from a psychoanalytical perspective, employingSigmund Freud’s idea of repetition compulsion in his literary analysis of the characters’ psyches. These mentioned critical works serve as an opening salvo for my consideration of the problem of identity in Fitzgerald’s novel.
To cover all the points in my work, I have chosen the following structure in which I divided my research work into three chapters. The first chapter is entitled ‘Identity in Modern American Literature’. In this chapter, I tackle two points. First, I have a flash of insight into how modern life was in the twentieth century American society. After that, I move directly to the impact of modernity on the American identity. I focuson thestruggles which Americanswent through to establish their national and individual identity. The second point in this chapter discusses Modernism in America, providing a brief history of its emergence in America, and its major characteristics. Then, my work skims over the theme of identity in the most important Modernist works in American literature.
The second chapter deals directly with Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. This chapter, entitled ‘Social Fluidity in the Great Gatsby: Casting Doubt upon National identity’,has a look at the dual portrait of the American Dream in the novel; more specifically, it deals with the corruption of the American Dream in the novel. In addition to this, itdemonstrates the illusion and the reality of the American Dream in relation to the novel’s protagonist. The chapter, also, discusses the issue of racismand the objection to the white supremacy in the novel. Moreover, it depicts the split of social classes and its effect on the national identity of the characters.
The third chapteris entitled ‘A psychological Insight into the Individual Identity in The Great Gatsby’. This chapter analyzes, from a Freudian perspective, the role of gender in the object choice, which shapes the love between Gatsby and Daisy. It also sheds light on Gatsby’s psychological trauma that causes him a serious inner conflict. Another concern of this chapter is the psychological problems that follow the characters’ feeling of intimacy. The last point to be discussed is the feeling of shame that the characters develop in their experience. This point will demonstrate how the characters behave as a reaction to such feeling and how all their psychological problems lead to a constant feeling of unhappiness in their lives.
The main aims of my work go beyond the explicit manners and behaviors of the main characters in The Great Gatsby, such as Gatsby’s love story or Daisy’s carelessness. They rather include some deep interpretations of the characters’ behaviors, revealing their real inner intentions and motivations to feel and act in such ways. My work ends with a general conclusion that sums up the main findings of my work.

Identity in Modern American Literature
The United States, in the period of the 1920s, witnessed unprecedented changes on both economic and political scales. These new changes had dramatic effects on the social life of Americans. The modern American society, consequently, started to adopt some new values, rejecting those traditional conservative ones. Dealing with these previously mentioned changes, this chapter aims to explain how the American society was influence by the new developments that the modern era brought. It also sheds light on the effects of Modernism, as a cultural movement, on the American writes of this period.
The twenties century marked the beginning of a dynamic age; it was a time of a huge change across the world and more specifically, in the United States. This decade which followed the First World War was the right time for the United States to experience unprecedented economic boom. It witnessed a rapid increase in city population and industrialization, in addition to a profound technological advancement which formed urban cities. Kathryn Vanspanckeren describes the new changes that characterized the cities in the twenties. She states:
The typical urban American home glowed with electric lights and boasted a radio that connected the house with the outside world, and perhaps a telephone, a camera, a typewriter, or a sewing machine. Like the businessman protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922), the average American approved of these machines because they were modern and because most were American inventions and American-made (60).
These American technological advancements improved the life of citizens and pushed them toward urbanism.
Furthermore, the end of First World War brought a lot of changes on the political scale; there were considerable advances especially when it comes to women’s freedoms during this period. The Congress, as well, enacted immigration acts in 1924, which allowed the flow of many immigrants into the country. The political change, in addition to the bloom in industry, the flourish in business, and the rapid urbanization clearly confirmed that a new modern era started to shape the American history.
Americans of the twenties faced a dramatic change in their social life. A new feeling of freedom and carelessness was widely rife during this era. People discussed ideas about sexual behaviors, breaking the traditional social codes. In fact, sexual promiscuity becomes a common phenomenon. Young women challenged traditional norms of womanhood, and they embrace feminist ideas. There was, in fact, a dramatic change of women’s position in the 1920s American society. During the First World War, working class women were obliged to work outside, especially in factories, and after the end of the war, they were joined by other middle class women who started to believe that their job should be more than just looking after their families, and spending time on housework. Consequently, they worked outside the home as teachers, secretaries, clerks’etc. Earning the right to vote with the coming of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, women took a significant step towards their equality and independence. Accordingly, a new sort of young women that was called ‘flappers’ appeared. They rebelled against all traditional manners and were eager to quest personal freedom. Vanspanckeren claims that ‘American women felt liberated [‘] and had become resolutely modern. They cut their hair short (“bobbed”), wore short “flapper” dresses, and gloried in the right to vote […] They boldly spoke their mind and took public roles in society’ (60). Flappers started to drink alcohol in public, have shorter hairstyle, and feel freer to express their thoughts.
Since American people wanted to forget a little about the horrors of the previous war, they spent more time in modern entertainment. New popular types of entertainment had emerged in that period, including movies, radios, sports matches, and the Jazz music. Benjamin Franklin also describes this concern. He writes:
The 1920 census showed that some fifty-four million Americans’more than half of the population’lived and worked in cities, where the forty eight hour workweek became standard. With their greater leisure time Americans played mah-jongg and flocked to sporting events and to the movies that were soon transformed by color and sound. Their heroes became athletes’Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey’and they adored movie stars such as Jean Harlow, Mae West, Clara Bow, and Greta Garbo (14).
Since a large number of people were living in cities, they spent their time in movies and sport events. Wild music and dance modes became national crazes in America.
During this period, a new legislation was imposed by the U.S. Government, after the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution by the U.S. Congress. Being encouraged by conservative activists in the country who considered alcohol as the main cause of people’s problems, this legislation restricted the manufacture and distribution of liquor on a national level. Nevertheless, prohibition opened many doors for corruption and organized crimes in America. New illegal outlets for drinking opened all over the country, while underworld industry, Bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution flourished in many big cities. The American lawyer, Thomas Streissguth claims that big amounts of money were made only by smuggling and selling alcohol; sometimes they were made by those who belong to lower social classes, particularly sons of immigrants (Streissguth xi). Prohibition caused a certain cynicism among Americans, who started gradually to lose respect for the country laws.
After the end of the Second World War, ‘[m]any Americans wanted to be left alone, to cling to the nineteenth century and its values’ (Franklin 3). Although the war contributed to the rise of nationalism ideals in the selves of Americans, it made them distrust the international politics and focus more on domestic affairs. It is true that the war played a major role in the American unity, through directing people to seek the best for their country; nevertheless, this nationalism changed to a ‘civic’ one. In other words, it became much more related to the sense of belonging to the American values, such as democracy and tolerance rather than an inherited ethnic nationality. Gary Gerstle gives us an idea of what American civic nationalism is. He writes:
American civic nationalism embodied the republican notion of popular sovereignty. The people would rule; they would determine the course taken by the governments, local, state, and federal, that had some role in their lives. America’s civic nationalist tradition also promised a society free of discrimination’ethnic, religious, racial, or sexual. It portrayed America as a place where all individuals could pursue opportunity, economic and cultural, and secure their liberty and property. It called on America to open itself to foreigners willing to work hard, obey the law, and pledge allegiance to its democratic institutions (34).
American civic nationalism was based, therefore, on one’s freedom to pursue his national identity including his liberty, property, and faith. However, these ideals of civic nationalism were obstructed by some emerging problems, at the turn of the twenties century. The major problem that emerged during this period was nativism. After the devastating war, the majority of Americans came to realize that the Progressive Era reforms had been useless. The old values of the American society had been terribly challenged due to those modern rapid changes, while constitute a real threat to the Americans. The increased flow of immigrants, coming with foreign radical ideas to big cities, caused a fear to the American society.
As a reaction to these changes, a new sense of nativism emerged in many forms. Protecting the interests of native-born Americans while rejecting other non-American lifestyles, and shutting the doors on immigration were perhaps the famous practices that describe this emerging nativism. Even on trial, an upsurge in nativism was brought to light through the cause of the two Italian born anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti who were arrested and executed for robbery and murder. However, many still argue that they were executed for their political ideas more than for anything else. This trial’s fear increased with the help of the new scientific racist ideas of men like the anthropologist Madison Grant. The latter is the leader of the eugenics movement that reached the United States in the twenties. It was based on ‘a social philosophy which advocates the improvement of human hereditary of traits through various forms of individual breeding’ (Evans 122). Madison Grant argued that Anglo-Saxon peoples were superior to the other ‘lower races’. He claimed that ‘the American racial stock was being diluted by the influx of new immigrants from the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the Polish ghettos’ (qtd. in Pula 64-65). Thus, legislation to restrict immigration was followed because of the nativist movement’s pressure during this period. The U. S. Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which limited the inflow of immigrants coming into the United States. This act was followed by the Immigration Act of 1924 that reduced the number of immigrants to only 2% of the people living in the United States.
Moreover, the emergence of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) once again was also a prominent result of nativism. ‘The Klan’ represents the name of three movements in the United States that have advocated, through violence, white supremacy, white nationalism, and anti-immigration in order to ‘purify’ the American society:
The revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, with its particularly ugly brand of national exclusiveness, was another manifestation of the Anglo-Saxon tradition translated into a self-conscious white Protestant ascendancy. Immigration restriction rather than immigrant amelioration was a consequence of this mood in the period of disillusionment that followed World War I. It is ironic that a generation later, in the aftermath of another world war, the followers of Senator Joseph McCarthy, many of them from ethnic backgrounds that could not meet the test of Americanism in the past, led a nationalist assault on the loyalty of the older elite (‘Nationalism’ para. 3).
In short, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan was another form of national racism that symbolized the decade of the 1920s. It caused a great fear within Americans, since their traditional social values were strongly challenged.
The definition of the American Dream itself has changed dramatically during the modern era. The American Dream can be traced to the early days of settlements in America, and it was marked in the Declaration of Independence by the Founding Fathers, who advocated Americans’ rights of life, liberty, and happiness. The American historian James Truslow Adams defines the American dream as a ‘dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’ (114). At first, the American Dream was simply a promise for a better life in which people have equal opportunities to work hard, relying on their own abilities and efforts to achieve great things. This led Immigrants to run away from the restrictions of their countries to the United States in the hope of gaining freedoms. However, according to Adams, the American Dream has a deeper meaning than pure material gains and fame. He writes:
It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of their birth (114 – 15).
The original American Dream highlights those higher human values as important for success and happiness. Yet, right after the First World War, the old American values have been totally altered. This sudden change in the perspective of Americans started to create make life materialistic and to create a huge consumer society. Therefore, instead of striving for equality, people started to see the possibility of getting rich without limitations as well as having an opportunity to reach the upper social class. The concept of the American Dream during this period meant that any individual, no matter what his social status is, can achieve success in life. This success was mainly associated with materialistic possessions. Roland Marchand tries to provide us with a definition of the typical American individual who is pursing the American Dream during the 1920s. He writes: ‘Not only did he flourish in the fast-paced, modern urban milieu of skyscrapers, taxicabs, and pleasure-seeking crowds, but he proclaimed himself an expert on the latest crazes in fashion, contemporary lingo, and popular pastimes’ (1). From the preceding statement, one can notice how the American Dream in the modern era changed to become related to consumerism and materialism. Snyder also sheds light on the change of the American Dream. He writes:

But by the time the 1920s came around hard work wasn’t as important as the material items and the amount of money you had. Advertising was also changing and becoming more about materialism just as many of the people were. Material items became a huge selling point as well as defining the amount of money you had and as the new model of the American Dream was starting to form, material items defined who you were and the amount of your success (3-4).
Money became the main aspect that characterized the American Dream during the modern era. One’s success was measured by the amount of money that he possesses rather than his commitment to his work. Times have changed, and so do the American ideals and values. Therefore, it is not surprising that the new kind of “American Dream” which was shifted to include the materialistic aspects failed several times and division of classes and corruption have taken root in the American society.
Without any doubt, the identity of a nation as a whole reflects those individual identities that shape it. During the 1920s, the issue of identity for Americans became more important than ever before. Identity was deeply altered by the effect of modernity that was marked at the beginning of the twenties century. People tried to establish identity not on those traditional values of society, but rather on new modern ones. They started to reject mythical, religious, and spiritual methods as a means to seek the truth, and they focused on science and experimentation. Karen Armstrong explains more this idea. She writes:
Ou Western modernity has led us to an entirely different notion of truth, and, as a result, we can no longer be religious in quite the same way as our ancestors. Our scientifically oriented society has lost the sense of the symbolic, which lay at the heart of all pre-modern faith. In the perspectives of tradition, where every earthly reality was a replica of its celestial archetype, the symbol was inseparable from the transcendent reality to which it directed our attention (Oldmeadow74).
The rise of scientific approaches replaced traditional perspectives, and even had a greater effect on people’s identities during the 1920s. Materialism increasingly became the primary standard of living. In addition, the notion of ‘having’ had become the most important principle to define one’s identity within the new secular culture. In other words, quantities become more important than qualities.
Equally important, the rapid spread of the means of communication and transportation also had an important effect on the national identity of Americans. Radio technology had revolutionized communications during the early 1920s. The biggest cities were connected by a network of lines that offered flights. The production of the automobile marked the beginning of a shift from public to private transportation. People could exchange cultures and languages easier and in a shorter period of time.
Generally speaking, Modernism is a revolutionary and innovative movement that concerned art, literature, music, architecture, and other applied arts. It emerged at the first half of the twenties century. Daniel Joseph Singal suggests that ‘Modernism should properly be seen as a culture-a constellation of related ideas, beliefs, values, and modes of perception-that came into existence during the mid to late nineteenth century, and that has had a powerful influence on art and thought on both sides of the Atlantic since roughly 1900’ (7). It is, therefore, a modern philosophy, or a new style of thinking that came to existence at the end of the ninetieth and the beginning of the twentieth. This movement marked a sudden break with the styles of the past, looking instead for new forms of expression to fit the necessities of the modern age.
American Modernism, being a version of Modernism, is also a philosophy that asserts the power of human improvement of his environment through modern modes of expression like science and practical experimentation. Breaking the artistic traditional principles, American Modernism marked the creation of American art as separate and independent from European experience. In the beginning of the 20th century, artists preferred to find their own visions and ways in expressing the American spirit through their productions. Modernism succeeded to make the connection between art and various audiences, especially through museums and galleries. Calling to mind the sense of challenge, these modern arts helped tremendously the self-consciousness of American people. New Modernist paintings, for instance, highlighted both the spiritual and the psychical condition of people, evincing the modern American identity. The French naturalized American painter, Marcel Duchamp, when interviewed in September 1915, promoted the sense of distinction in the American Modernist art. Duchamp says: ‘If only America would realize that the art of Europe is finished – dead – and that America is the country of the art of the future, instead of trying to base everything she does on European traditions!’ (qtd. in Woods 3). Georgia O’Keeffe also has been one of the famous painters who went beyond the fixed principles of arts in her paintings of landscapes, in addition to the famous African American painter Aaron Douglas, who included the African American heritage in his works.
Likewise, photography became one form of fine art, and one of the most significant cultural products in the United States. Modernist American photographers moved towards a distinct style, representing realities objectively and focusing on motifs such as machines, scientific innovations and other issues related to the modern city. Vicki Goldberg and Robert Silberman, describing the American modernist photography, write:

American modernism lagged far behind Europe in painting, but in the middle of the second decade, Paul Strand, taking a cue from avant-garde painting overseas, created a distinctly American modernist photographic style. Less involved in experimentation than Europe was. Strand and others like him in this country directly confronted the geometry of modern forms, the modern city, the lost and alienated modern citizen (1).
American modernist photography had a distinguished style from that of the European photography, since it did not focus on experimentation.
By the same token, throughout this period, a new kind of wild music called ‘Jazz’ had emerged. Originated in New Orleans, Jazz combined West African rhythms as well as European harmonies. It is developed by African Americans and had roots in ragtime. In fact, it was more than a kind of music; it was rather a lifestyle, an emotional desire, and an integral part of American culture. Jazz was definitely modern in terms of sound and mode. According to Lawrence Levine, ‘Jazz was, or at least seemed to be, the new product of a new age; Culture was, or at least seemed to be, traditional-the creation of centuries. Jazz was raucous, discordant’ (7). It reflected, therefore, the culture and the new spirit of the modern age. Louis Armstrong was one of the musicians who became the most influential figures in jazz music, in addition to many others including Jelly Roll Morton and Bessie Smith. Jazz Players were inspired most by street talks in Harlem. The latter turned to be, throughout the modernist time period, the centre of one of the most significant intellectual movements in the African American history. Performing military services during the war, African Americans had been given a sense of freedom so that a large number of them migrated from the South to settle in Harlem. The latter is a neighborhood on the Westside of New York City. This gathering led to what is known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’. Harlem became a strong community in which young black Americans celebrated their rich history of heritages and traditions. One of their traditions that they brought with them was jazz music. Harlem certainly played a major role in bringing Jazz and other artistic works to Americans’ attention. This is mainly because it was a home to activities, musicians, singers, writers and scholars, who sought to cheer the rebirth of African American culture through their own ideas and activities.
As has been noted, the 1920s American society knew ideological discussions that aspire for more diverse and tolerant lifestyles especially by young people, who were unsatisfied and disillusioned with the war and the values of older generation. These youths felt cut off of the old social conventions, and they were much more open to a new secular culture. There was a growing number of them entering high schools and colleges significantly during the early twenties of the century. Accordingly, more social connections were created by this young generation, with a less control over their behaviors. This led to a radical change in the opinions of these young people, especially when it comes to morals and religious beliefs. Fitzgerald depicts this secularization that affected the younger generation. He writes:
Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revelry of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken (This Side 240).
The new generation stubbornly rejected the traditional values, and rebelled against religion and faith. This generation believed only in success. This radical change in beliefs was enhanced with the arrival of some intellectuals who led an influential rebellion against established religious, sexual, and social conventions. They raised, instead, a big question on morality. One might venture to say that intellectuals were the first to show the way for this revolution against the traditional morals in America.
Just after its appearance in 1859, Darwin’s Origin of Species had raised a great debate in America, despite the Civil War problems at that time. In the middle of this debate, evolutionary biology became accepted and widespread through the country, especially in urban regions. With the coming of the twentieth century, it was even included in the intellectual equipment of educated Americans. The belief in evolution logically opposes the belief of biblical literalism; consequently, some American authorities and scientists tried to bring together evolution and the existence of spirit in man, without a real success, since the religious principles of American youth had been destabilized (Braeman332).
American intellectual contributions during this era had also influenced by the theories of the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud who made a revolution in the ideas of the western world about the human behavior and mind. Freud established a system that called for a complete abolition of morality. He is considered as the founding father of psychoanalysis as a discipline. Freud was the first European to develop the concept of the ‘unconscious’ by using some techniques such as dream interpretation and free association. Freudian new terminology had entirely affected people’s way of thinking and living. The influence of his ideas and theories in the twentieth century spread throughout all the Western culture including the American one. Feudalism with its notions of sexuality, identity, and memory could be observed in different sorts of art and literature. In fact, ‘Freudian psychology was a much more titillating subject than Darwinian evolution, and borrowings from it were soon evident in motion pictures and popular literature, as well as in the works of the critically acclaimed writers’ (Braeman 335). Freudian theories reshaped the morals of the young Americans, creating a freer society with less restrictive rules over sexual behaviors. The fact of considering sex as a taboo came to an end, and sexuality turned out to be a subject of free discussion among people.
The emergence of the theories of psychoanalysis enhanced the examination of people’s psychological responses to the terrors that characterized the modern era. The anxieties that were incited by the rise of individualism and selfhood in modern culture put the self in a centre of attention. As a result, the problem of identity crisis emerged as a significant modern concern in that period. The term ‘identity crisis’, which was coined by the American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, refers to the state ‘when the person’s sense of identity is experienced as being at risk through we need to change, leading him or her to question his or her own identity in some fundamental aspect’ (Rusbridger 136). Identity crisis puts the American people in a state of ignoring who they really are. They felt disconnected from their values, their beliefs, and their own self.
Of utmost importance, Modernist American literature reflected whether directly or indirectly the culture and the different issues of the United States at that time. Franklin maintains: ‘For some authors, of course, the direct revelation of the experience of living within their culture is their main purpose for writing’ (4). Literature in general mirrors the personal and social experiences. Accordingly, literary works which were produced in the years between the two World Wars deal with the themes of destruction, fragmentation, loss, isolation, and exile. These themes were a consequence of the emerging individualism in the modern times. Modernist writers invented new forms and styles of writing that would suit the requirements of the modern age. They are seen especially in urbanism and national identity. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury point out that these changes ‘forced the American writer toward the subjects, languages and themes of the Depression and war years’ (318). Pursuing more individualistic forms of writing, writers of the period developed modern techniques in writing, such as nonlinearity of plot, voices, and stream of consciousness. These new techniques came up to emergence as a reaction to the innovative insights brought by newly established disciplines such as psychoanalysis.
In addition, most American writers rejected the old literary forms and got eager to create something completely new; yet, many of them preferred the use of literary tradition, including allusions to canonical works of the past. Silvie Pal”kov” states: ‘The American authors started to experiment with Symbolism, Surrealism and Dadaism, but first and foremost, they were involved in Modernism. Modernist authors are innovative in many ways. They are not afraid of mixing those levels which used to be separate so far’ (17). Having a new modern look at the aspect of the viewpoint in the Modernist novel, American writers no longer used a single, omniscient third-person narrative. It is mainly because authority turned to be a matter of a single perspective, and because the belief of an absolute truth was replaced by a sense of relativity and multiplicity. The importance of the way the story was told turned out to be the same as the story itself. Many American Modernist novelists and poets like T.S. Eliot, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner used multiple narrators in their writings. In Faulkner’s novel, The Sound and the Fury, for instance, the narration is divided into four sections; each of them provides the viewpoint of a particular character, including a mentally retarded boy. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, as well, presents multiple speakers that reflect the variation of truth and the diversities of reality.
In order to analyze poetry and fiction of the modern era, the school of New Criticism came up in the United States. New critics examined a literary work, insisting on its intrinsic significance, and focusing more on ‘the individual work alone as an independent unit of meaning’ (Augustyn 252). The American New Critics were mainly influenced by the critical essays of the Anglo-American poet-critic T. S. Eliot. As an instance, ‘[i]n The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920) [‘] Eliot discusses the work of Algernon Swinburne, William Blake, Dante, Philip Massinger, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare, and defines terms and concepts that have entered into critical discourse’ (Franklin 22). Eliot, in these essays, highlighted the poem’s separation from the poet’s personality. He believes that the work of art should be objective and impersonal.
During that period, a group of American writers gained fame for being known as ‘The Lost Generation’, a term which was coined by Gertrude Stein, and used to describe the people of the 1920’s who rejected Bourgeois values (Jumonville 306). The generation was ‘lost’, in the sense that its traditional values like patriotism, courage, and war were not important anymore. People who witnessed the Modernist period felt fragmented and alienated. This is because of the horrors that the war left in their memories.
The meaning of the ‘Lost Generation’ developed to be applied to American writers, most of whom emigrated to Europe and lived there during the 1920s. They left the United States because of their displeasure, and according to Kate O’Connor ‘[s]ome wished to live cheaply; some sought an audience for their work; some fled what they saw as a prudish and narrow minded nation’ (113). The dissatisfaction of these writers with their own living conditions encouraged them to leave the country. The four most prominent writers among ‘The Lost Generation’ were Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot. Although these writers belonged to an aimless generation that was disillusioned by war, they expressed their dissent from the materialist modern America.
Concerning American literary works, the writers of ‘The Lost Generation’ used specific common themes. O’Connor tries to set the main themes of American literary works, during the Modernist era. One of those major themes is decadence. According to O’Connor, the extravagance of Gatsby’s parties in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or the pointless traveling and parties among the expatriates in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and in A Moveable Feast were deeply related to the dissolutions of ideals after the war. This led, consequently, to the characters’ pleasure-seeking (Para. 6).
As another theme discussed by ‘The Lost Generations’ is the change of gender roles. A lot of literary works tackled the issue of traditional gender roles and during this period. In The Sun Also Rises, for instance, Ernest Hemingway depicts the weakness of the narrator Jake because of a war wound, and instead it is his love Brett who acts the man’s role. Another example of the crisis of masculinity can be found in T. S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in which the main personae Prufrock’s fails to give his lover a romantic declaration of love.
Another third major theme that can be found in the writings of ‘Lost Generation’ is the idealization of the past. Instead of facing the horrors of the war, many writers tried to form a shiny image of the past that never exists in reality. The best example of this theme is Gatsby’s idealization of his past in Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.
Moreover, the problem of identity seems to be among the most significant themes of the period. Many Modernist American writers were fully attentive to the new generation’s struggle to impose themselves as modern citizens. In addition, they noticed this generation’s refusal of the old set of rules and their longing for materialism and commercialization. Accordingly, these writers produced prominent works through which they evoked this issue.
The famous American writer William Faulkner, for instance, exposed in his fiction a terrible sense of man’s failure to achieve any real ideals in life. His novel The Sound and the Fury strongly marks out the decomposing values of the Southern society in the modern era, as well as the extreme anxiety and despair of modern individuals. In this novel, the character Quentin Compson’s obsession with the past is considered to be a failure to form her personality; this logically explains her suicide after that.
In his two well-known novels, The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920), the famous British modernist writer D.H. Lawrence tackled the illusion of modern civilization and the dreadful outcomes of industrialization upon the human self.
Like Lawrence, the poet T. S. Eliot, another famous American member of ‘The Lost Generation’, drew in his masterpiece The Waste Land (1922) which expressed the sickness of modern civilization. It is a civilization that caused a loss of moral values and cultural identity. Moral life conditions, as the poem shows, result in a real existential crisis.
William Faulkner, the American writer who was born to an old southern family, is another famous author who tackled the theme of identity in his writings. He discusses some important issues as gender and racial problems in the American South. Faulkner went further to imply that these problems eventually emerge from the conflicts within the individual’s psyche, and not from his society. This is seen particularly in his novel Light in August, in which the characters seek identity and seem to be isolated and fragmented. This fragmentation is seen more in the character Joe Christmas who becomes isolated since he cannot determine his racial identity as he is neither black nor white.
Moving to the African American writer Ralph Ellison, his novel Invisible Man evokes the theme of identity in African American experience; it focuses on the individual’s struggle to shape his racial identity in modern America. Ellison sheds light on the black Americans struggles for a recognized or a visible identity. Through the Invisible Man, the author stresses blacks’ invisibility, using an unnamed protagonist. He tries, therefore, to convey the idea that seeking a real identity cannot be possible without accepting one’s state of invisibility first, then starting to shape a new definition based on good behaviors and manners.
Last and not least, the American Modernist writer F. Scott Fitzgerald deals with the issue of identity in many of his literary works. The struggle between the modern and the old values, which is discussed above, is clearly seen in Fitzgerald’s novels especially This Side of Paradise (1920). This is mainly through the experience of the protagonist Amory Blaine who makes huge efforts to avoid neglecting his identity and his feelings of purposelessness. The Beautiful and Damned (1922) is another novel of Fitzgerald that evokes the theme of identity. Fitzgerald depicts the psychological alters of the protagonist, Amory Blaine, throughout his life. Accordingly, he describes the fragmented self, which results from the unbalanced feelings and the sexual illusions that Blaine has. Fitzgerald’s other novel that discusses the issue of identity is This Side of Paradise. According to Pelzer, This Side of Paradise is ‘a novel about disillusionment and loss’ (44). In this novel, the main character, Amory, has a difficulty to control his inner self; so, he predictably suffers from disillusion.
The Great Gatsby (1925), which represents the core of this dissertation, is also one of Fitzgerald’s most remarkable novels of the period; it brings to light much about the complexity of such issue. In other words, it stresses the idea of how identity can be affected by materialism and the illusions of wealth. The life of the protagonist Jay Gatsby seems to be full of illusions about his love to Daisy, and his dream of winning her for the second time. Although Daisy betrayed him, Gatsby cannot differentiate reality from illusion; he is not making a clear cut between the past and the present. Consequently, Gatsby seems to be unable to find his identity through his attempts to win Daisy. Jay Gatsby’s love for the careless, stonehearted Daisy Buchanan refers to a psychologically damage in his identity. This damage is not simply caused by a desire to belong to a higher social class, but to regain a woman who is not perfect as he imagines. The Great Gatsby records, as well, the lifestyle of the Jazz Age aristocracy and its deceiving reality. Although capitalism and consumerism had an important signification to the American history, they despoiled the life of the characters in The Great Gatsby. Huskey claims that ‘[n]ot only have their values and desires become strictly material, but morality has become almost nonexistent as it has become overshadowed by material gain and desire’ (17). The Great Gatsby’s main characters suffer from a crisis of identity. This mainly results from a lack of knowledge about their true selves and their true Americanism.
To summarize, the 1920s was the decade of change in the history of the United States. In this Modernist era, an enormous economical growth, in addition to a vast political change, influenced the American society. This influence is manifested in so many ways. The growing urban population and the rise of consumerism were perhaps the major aspects of the American economical change. Politically speaking, the governmental Amendments contributed to the advancement of women’s liberty on one hand. Yet, on the other hand, they raised a ‘cultural civil war’ in the country, giving a rebirth to racial issues. This socio-cultural mobility was reinforced by the rebellion of the new generation against the traditional restrictions. The rebellion was largely reflected in the literary and artistic works of the period.

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