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Beautiful Dreamer: The Character of Jay Gatsby

By Edited Sep 26, 2016 5 4

The Great Gatsby

Throughout the narrative of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Jay Gatsby is portrayed as a man imbued with not only a charming personality, but also with an unmatched drive that allows him to turn his dreams into reality. He is possessed by one particular dream: the conquest of the love of his life, Daisy, about whom he has fantasized for many years. Having lost her in his impoverished youth, he has amassed a fortune vast enough to position himself to steal her away from a husband he is convinced she doesn’t love. When Nick first makes Gatsby’s acquaintance, the latter is in the midst of utilizing the power his new wealth affords him, manipulating the people around him so as to prepare the ground for his run at Daisy. In many ways Gatsby excels at this, but in the end, it is his own corruptibility, as well as his interactions with the essentially corrupt people in his life, Dan Cody, Daisy and Tom, that result in his downfall and the demise of his beautiful dream.

Dan Cody, an aged Montana copper mogul, was Gatsby’s mentor, the representation of everything Gatsby desired, and consequently the inspiration behind his rebirth as a man with a thirst for success. During his time as the plutocrat’s personal assistant, Gatsby was in thrall to the luxuries of Cody’s yacht, an experience which would spur his determination to become wealthy himself. Gatsby’s miserable social status makes him acutely aware of his poverty. He has not yet met Daisy, but already he has the enterprising nature necessary to attain financial success. In this period of his life, he recasts his last name, Gatz, adopting the more eloquent Gatsby, and throws off the despised cloak of the janitor he once was. A newly incarnated Jay Gatsby immediately begins the climb towards the aristocratic status he desires so feverishly, a status he later tries to affirm with the golden girl: Daisy.

“...Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God [...] and he must be about [...] the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.” (p.98)

In many ways, Gatsby’s most powerful dream is his vision of himself, which he uses to create the identity the reader first sees. However, Jay Gatsby’s existence is compromised from the outset. He was modeled in the image of Dan Cody, a character whose corruption is beyond question. Gatsby sees alcoholism as Cody’s only flaw, blinding him to the truth that his hero is a paragon of the shallowness that wealth can produce. Cody’s life is devoid of meaning as he drinks it away while sailing the world. This emptiness parallels, and is indeed the defining characteristic of, the empty pleasures of the American 1920s, a social reality represented by the lavish parties Gatsby will subsequently throw in his palatial home. In fact, Cody is the archetype not only for Gatsby but also for Tom Buchanan, his rival for Daisy. Both use their wealth as a tool, but in opposite ways: the first employs it purely, out of a perhaps unrealistic desire to be loved; the second employs it harshly and uncaringly, in order to exploit others for his own pleasure.

Gatsby's House

Tom stands firmly between Gatsby and Daisy, whom he regards not so much as a beloved partner but as the ultimate affirmation of his lofty social status. For Tom, a vast house, elegant cars, fine clothes and an enviable wife all fall into the same category: possessions that distinguish him from the masses. Gatsby is also out to use Daisy as the ultimate demonstration of his high social status, but Tom is much harsher in this realm. He has the golden girl and he’ll be damned if he’ll give her up, especially to Gatsby, a man firmly beneath him, and so he quickly crushes their neonate romantic relationship.   Even though Gatsby has as much money as he does, he lacks the aristocrat’s social nuance and easy manner, the very attributes that render Daisy so graceful in his eyes. As a result, Tom has only contempt for the “new money” Gatsby and can easily take Daisy back from him. Along Long Island Sound, East Egg and West Egg stand toe to toe across the water, with the aristocrats always looking down on the plutocrats.

“‘An Oxford man!’ He was incredulous. ‘Like hell he is!’ [...] ‘Oxford, New Mexico,’ snorted Tom contemptuously, ‘or something like that.’ [...] ‘I suppose the latest thing is to let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife.’ [...] ‘I found out what your ‘drug stores’ were.’ [...] ‘I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn’t far wrong.’” (p.122, 130, 133)

These elements of Tom’s personality strip away the facade of his gentleman status, showing his true colours, tarnished by racism and adultery alike. Tom, a man whose character is first foreshadowed by Nick Carraway’s description of him as possessing a cruel body, despite its athleticism, is corrupted in the same manner as Dan Cody. Though the nonchalance and easy pleasures of wealth seem to no longer satisfy him completely, as is shown by his fresh interest in literature (of the racist variety), he fails to endear himself to the reader. He has a miserable relationship with Daisy, conducting a particularly obvious and brutally public affair with Myrtle, who is herself married. All the while he ignores his wife’s emotional wellbeing, treating her as he perceives her: as an indispensable piece of furniture. To facilitate his access to Myrtle, Tom manipulates her husband, Wilson, by teasing him with the possibility that he will sell him a car. At the end of the story, maddened by the violent death of his mistress, Tom settles his score with Gatsby, telling the vengeful Watson that Gatsby was the one that killed Myrtle with his car.

Gatsby v Buchanan

As with any story that has at its heart the pursuit of a woman, Daisy is the motivation behind the other characters’ actions. It is Gatsby’s obsession with her that drives the narrative, but it is also what ultimately consumes him entirely, drawing the curtain on his unachieved vision of  all encompassing success. In his youth, Gatsby lost Daisy when he went to fight in Europe during the First World War. After his military service, he begins to work his way towards the high status and wealth that Dan Cody taught him to love, believing that this will afford him Daisy. Over five years he builds his fantasy of her, expanding it into a near-psychotic obsession. When he wealthy enough, he buys a house across the Sound from hers and arranges to meet her again. The day he actually does, he rapidly realises that she is not the flawless, perfect being he had allowed himself to create in his mind. Having let his imagination lionize Daisy to humanly unobtainable levels, when he returns to reality upon meeting her again he suffers a strong sense of anticlimax. Gatsby realises that his dream woman is unworthy of the time and energy he has focused on her.

“No –Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams [...] 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.” (p.2, 180)

The Green Light

Gatsby’s real mistake was trying to recreate the past. In reality his chance with Daisy lies somewhere far behind him, somewhere he cannot revisit. In any case, he does not have her for long, as her own corruption quickly ends the affair. When Gatsby confronts Tom, proclaiming that Daisy never loved him, and Tom asks Daisy for her opinion, she betrays Gatsby, first hesitating, then saying that she loved them both at different times in her life. In fact she had always known that she could never choose Gatsby’s plutocracy over Tom’s aristocracy. During the short span of their renewed relationship, Daisy was simply leading Gatsby on so as to experience a brief pleasure she had not known in a long time. In addition, Daisy knows that by engaging in an affair of her own she will draw attention from her adulterer husband, a situation to her long term benefit, as Tom will improve his treatment of her so as to keep the quintessential symbol of his status, his golden girl, by his side. In the end, Daisy also contributes to Gatsby’s death, as she doesn’t tell Tom that she was the one who ran down Myrtle. When the murderous Wilson turns up at their door, Tom tells him as much as he knows, sealing the fate of Gatsby, the upstart he despises.     

These three characters may all have contributed to Gatsby’s downfall, but in the end his own corruption plays a large part in dooming him to failure. The letters that Mr. Gatz presents to Nick show that Gatsby always had the talents that gave him his quality of greatness: a superhuman energy and an ability to turn his dreams into reality. However, Gatsby decided to apply these abilities to follow in the footsteps of a man such as Dan Cody. Gatsby submitted, at the age of seventeen, his individuality and vitality to the amoral pursuit of wealth through illegal means as a bootlegger. Then he sets upon Daisy, the golden girl waiting in the white palace, attracted solely by the jingle of money in her voice, as he was to the opulence of Cody’s lifestyle. His quest for Daisy becomes a subset of his quest to attain the ranks of society’s elite. For years he amasses his fortune and wonders at his memories of Daisy, never realising that these goals were not worthy of the goodness of his heart. Gatsby crafted his own downfall by following the dictates and strictures of his recast identity blindly, staking too much in dreams with no real value.


Gatsby and Daisy

“I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about...” (p. 161)

When he meets Daisy, Gatsby begins to realise that he has deluded himself with his preternaturally gorgeous fantasies, but cannot hope to stop the events he has already set in motion. He has strayed in the path of the Buchanans, whom Nick describes contemptuously as a careless couple who can destroy other people’s lives and then retreat back into their vast wealth unscathed. The rejection by Daisy not only shatters Gatsby’s dream of once again having her, but also destroys his most important and most adopted dream, that of his identity. When he created Jay Gatsby, he made total financial and social success his ultimate objective. To him, Daisy was the ultimate representation of the elevated social status that his vision was designed to achieve. Losing her to an aristocrat like Tom cracks his elegant delusion. Gatsby finally sees realises despite his facade of riches he is not a man level with the pinnacle of the established upper-class; his wealth alone cannot grant him nobility. Though it may seem that it is Gatsby’s connection with Myrtle’s death that kills him, he is already dead without Daisy; his world seemingly coarse and hostile without his beautiful dreams to shield his eyes. All that Wilson accomplishes is quenching the breath of a man abandoned by all the reasons to continue living.

Gatsby's Death

In conclusion, Gatsby grew up an honest boy, great for his impressive energy and his talent for turning dreams into reality, untouched by the decadence of American society in the 20s. Still, everyone is open to temptation. At his most vulnerable, emerging from childhood, Gatsby was first swayed by the opulence of Dan Cody’s yacht and then hopelessly lost in his quest for Daisy. Gatsby fell into the honey pot of wealth, where he would stay trapped until shortly before his death, immersed in the raptures of money. When he at last wakes up from his delusions he realises that they are just that, fantasies not worthy of his attention, he cannot be saved. One of society’s hierarchal agents, the harsh Tom Buchanan, stirs slightly, correcting the ranks of the elite, and Gatsby is reduced to dust, his beautiful dreams extinguished by the corrupt aristocrats around him as well as his susceptibility to their ways. 

The Great Gatsby
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May 15, 2013 7:14am
Well done! A lovely presentation and enjoyable to read. The tea would not have been Rooibos!
May 15, 2013 9:42am
Hahaha, thanks
Jun 19, 2013 12:28am
"Gatsby 19s real mistake was trying to recreate the past.". Exactly. This and to think money was all he needed to get back the woman he loved. Sure it helps, but poor or rich, it is still the woman's choice to choose what to do. If love is strong enough to break away from the wedding, it is also probably strong enough to overcome poverty or at least moderate income. If love is not strong enough and just the attraction to money is, then it is just wrong. You want a woman to love you for who you are, not for your wealth.
Jun 23, 2013 2:26pm
By today's standards you are right, but back then there could be no relationship between a golden girl and a penniless young man, which is not to excuse Daisy's actions but rather to assert that Gatsby was right to win his fortune before going back to her.
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