The Loss Of Innocence 'The Great Gatsby' is perhaps the greatest novel ever written. The language and prose utilized and the relevance Fitzgerald's themes continue to hold in our culture, even after 75 years. Among the many themes of 'The Great Gatsby' one remains prevalent: the loss of innocence. At the beginning of the novel Nick and Gatsby are men of morality and conscience in a time and place where neither is valued. At the end, one is dead and the other is embittered towards the corrupted world around him. A comparison can be made between the initial interaction between Nick and Gatsby and what transpires during the lunch when Gatsby challenged Daisy's feelings for Tom and the portion of the book after Gatsby's death. It becomes clear which events are responsible for the unfortunate changes in character we see in Gatsby and Nick.
The first event is when Nick leaves the mid-west after he returns from the war, understandably restless and at odds with the traditional, conservative values that, from his account, have not changed in spite of the tumult of the war.
It is this insularity from a changed world no longer structured by traditional values that had sent young men to war, that inspires him to go east to New York, where he endeavors to learn about the bond market. Nick settles in West Egg as a young, impressionable man hoping to rise with the times. Speaking as the narrator, he establishes himself as a hardworking American with 'advantages' with a strong family history and a belief in good moral values. It quickly becomes evident that the 'American values' that Nick was raised with do not run parallel to the American dream desired by so many, yet attained by so few. Nick's beliefs are demonstrated at the first of Gatsby's parties that he attended. 'I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby's house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited - they went there. 'As soon as I arrived I made an attempt to find my host but the two or three people of whom I asked his whereabouts stared at me in such an amazed way and denied so vehemently any knowledge of his movements that I slunk off in the direction of the cocktail table'. As the desire to be accepted is universal, Nick realizes that he should act as careless as those who saw it fit to come uninvited to another person's home and disregard the host.
When Gatsby's character is initially introduced, he is perceived as an innocent, good man doing what had to be done. After realizing that the acquisition of Daisy's affection was unrealistic if he is inferior to her in wealth and class, Gatsby sets out to acquire a fortune vast enough to impress her need for a life of luxury. He turns to the illegal bootlegging business, brought on by prohibition and the great demand for alcohol in the 1920's. While some may have seen this as dishonest, Gatsby sees it only as one step in the quest for love. Throughout his acquisition of fortune, Gatsby remains optimistic and uncorrupted, although he is undoubtedly surrounded by individuals of colourful morals. In his eyes, almost anything done in the name of love can be excused.
Tension between the characters leads to a confrontation between Gatsby, Tom and Daisy. The affair between Daisy and Gatsby had been brought into the open, and Gatsby is confident enough in Daisy's feelings for him that he brings the situation to a head: 'Just tell him the truth - that you never loved him - and it's all wiped out forever.' Daisy then responds that 'Even alone I can't say I never loved Tom. It wouldn't be true.' This moment in time is the beginning of the end for Gatsby; his dream has died. The same innocence that led him to believe that with the proper wealth, Daisy would return his love now causes him to become bitter, realizing that in her careless world of money and luxury, love is never more than purse deep. Although the implications of her statement are not lost, Gatsby remains rooted in denial, going so far as to take the blame for Myrtle's death. When asked 'Was Daisy driving? He responds 'Yes, but of course I'll say that I was.' Nick, a witness to this exchange, also had believed that the love Gatsby had felt for Daisy was reciprocal. He instantly lost much of his faith in humanity, feeling that things were changing for the worse.
Gatsby's sudden and tragic death shortly after this exchange is somewhat inconsequential given what has transpired. For all intents and purposes, Gatsby died when he realized that Daisy held no feelings higher than standard affection for him, not moments after George Wilson pulled the trigger of that gun. The dream of winning Daisy's love was an almost palpable desire for Jay, and when he felt that he had somehow failed or fallen short of that dream, his spirit and spark died along with it. A part of Nick also died along with Gatsby that summer: his values and innocence. Gatsby's funeral sets the stage for Nick's final realization about the corrupted world around him and he chooses to return to where life made more sense to him.
Nick's departure reveals several aspects of his character. It is reasonable that he would be adversely affected by the events of that summer: the death of a woman he met briefly and indirectly, who was having an affair with his cousin's husband and whose death leads to the death of his next-door neighbor and best friend. His decision to return home to the place that he had so recently condemned for its insularity could cause one to wonder exactly how disturbed he was by the events of that summer. If the extent and the pointlessness of death and destruction during the war left him feeling he had outgrown the comfort and security of events, why would he choose to return home? Perhaps he felt more secure with the principles people held themselves to in the west, rather than the east. Nick may have felt that a battle had occurred that summer, and that he should bow out before becoming a casualty himself.
One may be disappointed that Nick runs away from his experience in the east in much the same way that he has run away from that 'tangle back home' to whom he writes letters and signs 'with love', but clearly doesn't genuinely offer anything of the sort. Even if we do comprehend this emotion, a clearly different person is leaving New York than had moved there a few short months before. No longer a fresh - faced, optimistic boy but a bitter and changed Nick fled to the security of the west, where houses were referred to by the names of the families who had inhabited them for generations, the east now representing the grotesque stuff of his nightmares. Gatsby did not have the option of leaving - his life was suddenly and violently ripped from him in a frenzy of jealousy. In every way that mattered, the great Jay Gatsby had ceased to live prior to his being shot. Along with the death of this man died the universal innocence which is appreciated so little but valued so dear by so many.