The text analyzed here is the book and not the movie. A free e-book of which can be found here.
In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald gave birth to an age, he “evoked a haunting mood of a glamorous, wild time that seemingly will never come again” (Lehan 1990, p. 2). He romanticised the seductive nature of our dreams and questioned the corruptive power of wealth. He showed us the limits of human wonder and the rebirth of a nation in the wake of a world ending war. And in the centre of this tale he placed Jay Gatsby “a man whose intensity of dream partook of a state of mind that embodied America itself” (Lehan 1990, p. 12). “The last of the romantic heroes” (Lehan 1990, p. 12) Gatsby is trapped in his own delusion, between a sense of personal destiny and earthly reality, forever incapable of accepting the passage of time – the constant destroyer.
And in the path of Gatsby’s pilgrimage for romance Fitzgerald places the thick, muscular figure of Tom Buchanan. While Nick imagined Gatsby as the son of God, Tom was a God or as much as any one man could be. The enormity of his wealth allowed him freedoms mere mortals could only imagine. He is able to transport a “string of polo ponies” (p. 6) across the country at a whim or hire “a whole floor of the Mulbach Hotel” (p. 58) for his wedding guests without concern. And as Nick describes the lawn on Tom’s estate it is clear that his wealth is even able to tame the most powerful force on Earth – mother nature:
The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens – finally when it reached the house drifting up the side bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), p. 7.
Like a pet it runs and jumps and climbs at the whim of its master. Of course, Gatsby has amassed a fortune himself but his wealth is fluid, in that it is dependent on other factors somewhat like a salary, and so impermanent as the tap can be shut off at any time (if, say, the 18th amendment were repealed). But Tom’s wealth is solid, it takes the form of possessions, power and social standing, and is earned the only respectable way wealth should be earned – it is inherited. This was also the primary difference between the inhabitants of East and West Egg – between new and old money – it was in their blood.
Daisy, of course, was no different. Her blood, too, contained the essence of wealth. She was the “king’s daughter, the golden girl” (91) and that was her charm for Gatsby. She “gleam[ed] like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor” (114), the very same struggles he had endured and hated. She represented the glamour and ease of life that wealth afforded but also embodied the carelessness of her class. It was his inability to sync his vision with the corporeal truth of her existence that eventually destroyed him.
Therefore, this was not a story of unrequited love but of a futile search for a transcendent vision that in the end turned out to be “nothing more than the ever-allusive images of the [dreamer’s] own desire” (Davis & Womack 2002, p. 101).
Thus, this paper will argue that what Gatsby seeks in Daisy cannot be fulfilled by her, or by any other woman, but also that Daisy is only the key to his ultimate goal and not the goal itself.
Gatsby had taken the first step towards his goal at the age of 17 when, in an attempt to give his life meaning as Nietzsche would suggest (Young 2003, p. 94), he created the character he wanted to be and so James Gatz became Jay Gatsby. However, it was not until he met Daisy Fay that he created a narrative for himself, one complete with an imaginary history and an improbable future. Daisy was the symbol of the peak of social hierarchy and the physical incarnation of its mysterious power (Cowley 1953, p. xiv). “His contact with her let him imagine what it would feel like to be a member of her world” (Tyson 1994, p. 52). And when he kissed her “one autumn night…forever wed[ding] his unutterable visions to her perishable breath” (p. 84) she became his “idealized concept of beauty” (Lehan 1990, p. 72).
Fitzgerald shared many traits and experiences with the young Gatsby. And once said “the whole idea of Gatsby is the unfairness of a poor young man not being able to marry a girl with money. This theme comes up again and again because I lived it” (Lehan 1990, p. 72). And, indeed, he did. Born in 1896 to an upper middle class family in decline Fitzgerald attended private schools, and eventually Princeton, by the grace of well-off relatives (Mangum 2013). This allowed him to live on the periphery of the wealthy stratum, just close enough to view their charmed lives; their “differences in manners, taste, speech, and whether one projected confidence or not” (Mangum 2013, p. 3). It was during his foray into their world that he met, fell in love with and lost Ginevra King, an Illinois socialite. It was this experience that had a profound effect on Fitzgerald’s writing.
…near the end of their relationship, Fitzgerald overheard this comment that he recorded in his Ledger: “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls” (FSFL 170). Highly sensitive to rejection and class distinctions, Fitzgerald would always remember the role Ginevra’s wealth seemed to play in the breakup, and the corrupting power of money over love in American life became one of the great themes in his fiction (ed. Mangum 2013, p. 6).
So, Ginevra became the basis for Isabelle in “Babe in the Woods”, Helen in “The Debutante”, Rosalind in This Side of Paradise and Daisy Fay in The Great Gatsby (making Daisy a “king’s daughter” in more than one respect). While Fitzgerald loved his wife Zelda it was his yearning for Ginevra that fuelled his writing and preserved within him “a romantic state of mind where the imagination and the will [were] arrested – in a state of suspension – by an idealized concept of beauty” (Lehan 1990, p. 72). It is this very sense of yearning that keeps Gatsby’s “world beautifully alive” (ibid.).
And as the world of his imagination spills over into reality in gaudy fashion Tom’s question to Nick becomes even more poignant, “who is this Gatsby anyhow?” (p. 82). A bootlegger and bond forger, Gatsby was nothing more than a charming gangster. And yet we are willing to forgive, even forget, these minor trespasses because we, like Nick Carraway, are complicit in his transcendent vision, his grand dream to turn back time and win back the hand of the only woman he’s ever loved. We are taken aback by the sheer “colossal vitality” (p. 73) of it all. For we, too, have loved and lost and in that losing felt the sheer weight of the world crash upon us, forever shattering us into pieces. Gatsby picked up those pieces and forged it into a singular dream and we applaud him for it despite the fact that the object of his foolish desire is clearly unworthy of such affection. Hence, we cast him as the tragic hero cut-down just as his dream is seemingly within reach regardless of the fact that his dealings with the underworld would have eventually led to the same end.
Fitzgerald counters Gatsby’s less than moral present with his heroic past thus allowing us the luxury of not battling with the moral conundrum of admiring an unscrupulous gangster willing to break up the sanctity of marriage. He made Gatsby a soldier who did “extraordinarily well in the war” (p. 114) fighting in the Third Division. Having missed out on the war himself Fitzgerald romanticised it and saw those who fought in it as larger than life much like in the way Nick viewed Gatsby. Also, the fact that Fitzgerald has Gatsby fighting in the battle of Argonne is important because as Lehan notes (1990, p. 4) it “involved [the] bloodiest fighting” in the war and took the lives of 26,277 Americans and left a further 95,786 wounded. Gatsby had seen the cruel and senseless loss of youth. The brightest and bravest of a generation wiped from existence at the will of old men miles away for the simple rearranging of lines on a map. “Rational arguments could make no sense of tragedy” (Armstrong 2000, p. xv) and so he turned to the only thing that made sense to him, Daisy. To him she lived in a happier time, far away from the travesties of war, in a world “redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras” (p. 115). She is “the dream he keeps pure and untouched by time or circumstance” (Tyson 1994, p. 47) and from that dream he created a mythos for himself allowing him to “bear an enchanted life” (50). Finally, that dream had “gone beyond her, beyond everything” (p. 73) and cut whatever fragile string had previously tethered it to reality. “He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way” (p. 73). “She embodie[d] all the wonder and mystery that lies inherent in romantic possibility…[and his] desire for [her] energize[d] his world” (Lehan 1990, p. 73). Having already been in love with her before the war his love would have intensified during it giving his life significance, without which he would have surely fallen into despair (Armstrong 2000, p. xiii). And so, whether intentionally or not, Fitzgerald had given context to Gatsby’s delusion.
Therefore, in Daisy Gatsby sought to recapture “[s]ome idea of himself…that had gone into loving” her (p. 84) and in doing so return to a simpler, happier time. The self that he was before the war, pristine with hope and love. One that believed in his fictitious history. And by possessing Daisy he also wishes to erase his past. The past of the last five years and the past of his childhood, forever becoming Jay Gatsby. As Tyson notes:
If he could cancel his identity, replace his historical past with a fictional past, then he could eliminate the existential pain that accompanies an awareness of lack, loss, or limitation. He could be insulated, as he believes Daisy is insulated, in that magical world of fresh romances and shining motorcars and flowers that never wither, that fictional world Gatsby created five years ago and “store[d] up in his ghostly heart” (97; ch 5) (1994, p. 43).
Thus his ultimate goal was not simply the possession of Daisy for her own sake – she is only a means to an end. “What Gatsby really wants is to acquire the sign that he belongs to the same bright, spotless, airy, carefree world of the very rich that Daisy embodied for him when they first met” (Tyson 1994, p. 51). However, he doesn’t understand that his new found wealth does not make him Tom’s equal and that Daisy, although the epitome of her class, cannot launder his ill-begotten millions and make it old money or confer onto him a prestigious lineage. And even if he were to possess Daisy he would still only ever be a tourist in her world forever unaware of how a shared decorum and privileged knowledge of manners keeps her highly structured world functioning. In this respect Gatsby would be no better than Myrtle Wilson trying to be the regal hostess in her New York City apartment (Mangum 2013, p. 218). While a “simplicity of heart” (32) may have been enough to belong to Gatsby’s world the only way he could ever be a part of Daisy’s was if he were born into it.
Gatsby had made the fatal mistake of believing that he could buy his dream. That the material worldly possessions he amassed would build a ladder to his transcendent vision and he would simply climb it “and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder” (p. 84). However, his dream, from the very moment it was conceived, could never have been fulfilled by anyone – least of all Daisy.
Armstrong, K 2000, “The Battle for God”, Alfred A Knopf, New York.
Bloom, H (ed) 2010, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Infobase Publishing, New York, New York.
Cowley, M 1953, “The Romance of Money”, Three Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.
Davis, T F & Womack, K 2002, “Travelling through the Valley of Ashes: Symbolic unity in F. Scott Fitzgerlad’s The Great Gatsby”, Formalist Criticism and Reader-response Theory.
Lehan, R 1990, The Great Gatsby: The Limits of Wonder, Twayne Publishers, Boston, Massachusetts.
Long, R E 1979, The Achieving of the Great Gatsby, Associated University Press, London, England.
Fitzgerald, F S 1953, The Great Gatsby, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.
Mangum, B (ed) 2013, Fitzgerald in Context, “Biography”, Cambridge University Press, New York, New York.
Tyson, L 1994, “The Romance of the Commodity: The Cancellation of Identity in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby”, Ohio State Press, viewed 14 April, https://ohiostatepress.org/Books/Complete%20PDFs/Tyson%20Psychological/Tyson%20Psychological%2004.pdf
Young, J 2003, The Death of God and the Meaning of Life, Routledge, London.