Fitzgerald agonized over the title of his third novel. Among the candidates he rejected, and then lighted on again, and then re-rejected, in a series of letters and telegrams to his editor Max Perkins, were Trimalchio, Trimalchio’s Banquet, Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, The High-Bouncing Lover, The Great Gatsby, Gold-Hatted Gatsby, Gatsby, On the Road to West Egg, Incident at West Egg, Trimalchio in West Egg and several others. Perkins steered him gently towards The Great Gatsby, despite Fitzgerald’s doubts.
By the time The Great Gatsby was at the printers, Fitzgerald had changed his mind once again, asking Perkins for the book to be re-titled Under the Red, White and Blue — a reference to the American Dream so horribly mutilated in the book — and continued to swing back and forth, later writing to Perkins: ‘I feel Trimalchio might have been best after all’, but by then it was in the bookshops. The Great Gatsby it had to stay.
Why Gatsby? It is not a common name, and Fitzgerald was careful with names. One must recall that in the book Jay Gatsby is the hero’s assumed name, not his real name. His real name is James Gatz. (His father, Henry Gatz, makes an appearance in the book’s last few pages.) It seems likely that the significance of Gatsby and Gatz is in ‘gat’ — the gun which ends Gatsby’s life. Violent death lingers around Gatsby. As the book opens he is just back from the war in Europe, which he is reputed to have quite enjoyed. And if ‘Gatsby’ is significant, so is ‘Great’. In early drafts Fitzgerald had Gatsby refer to himself as ‘great’:
‘Jay Gatsby!’ he cried in a ringing voice, ‘There goes the great Jay Gatsby! That’s what people are going to say — wait and see.’
But despite his legendary parties Gatsby is not ‘great’. He is rootless, friendless, loveless and ultimately lifeless. Only three people come to his funeral. ‘Great’ is irony. Gatsby is a rich nobody.
Perhaps there is another echo in the ‘great’ of The Great Gatsby: that of ‘the Great American Novel’. This was an artefact Fitzgerald was consciously trying to construct, after the pattern of Melville or James, and to which he paid homage in one of his final choices of title, Under the Red, White and Blue. Fitzgerald thought of The Great Gatsby as his greatest work; many of his readers have agreed.
The Great Gatsby, then, can be seen as Fitzgerald’s attempt to represent his country in the medium of the novel. If this is so, it is a representation in which the dreams of greatness, wealth and success that form the nation’s myth are brutally dispelled. In an atmosphere of high-class squalor Gatsby is meaninglessly shot down. In calling his book The Great Gatsby it seems that Fitzgerald was gunning for America.