F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby is considered to be one of the best written novels of all time. However, unlike the novel itself, its protagonist Jay Gatsby is not even half as adored among the milieu presented to us in the novel and yet, the title reads “The Great Gatsby”. Why? I’ve attempted to answer this exact question in this paper: What is it about Gatsby’s character that justifies the epithet “great” written before his name. I posit that there are two distinct reasons which can be attributed to this association: (1) Gatsby’s own vivid imagination, and the quality which makes him an attractive receptacle for other people’s imagination; (2) the social rise of the non-Anglo-Saxon Jay Gatsby in 1920’s America when nativism was the accepted policy.
The epithet associated with Gatsby can be read as a manifestation of the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway’s perception of the protagonist. Nick first met Gatsby at a party in the latter’s house. I posit that his house is a manifestation of Gatsby’s imagination and dreams in reality, and in the novel served as a space for other people’s imagination to run free. It is here where Daisy displaces her fantasies of a different reality where she is both loved and socially and fiscally secure onto Gatsby’s “beautiful shirts” (Fitzgerald 99) and sobs at the wide distance between her imagination and reality. The house’s vivid resemblance to a French chateau, its towering staircases, grand libraries, free-flowing drinks, large variety of conversations and open invitation appealed to the imagination of both English and American party-goers. The Nordic aristocracy from East Egg found in Gatsby’s house a space which reminded them of home while simultaneously satisfied their desire to look down upon the immigrants; while the latter found in Gatsby’s house a space where they could let loose and indulge in the obscene drinks and conversations in the presence of the socially superior nobles.
The conversations at Gatsby’s parties often centred around the elusive host himself. People had all kinds of theories about him ranging from him being a spy in the war to having killed a man. I argue that the mere fact that there was such “romantic speculation” (Fitzgerald 48) about him speaks to the vivid way in which he captured the people’s imagination, and the reason he captured people’s imagination so thoroughly was his elusiveness. Author Barbara Will writes in her paper “”The Great Gatsby” and the Obscene Word” that “while Gatsby is a “mystery” for those who attend his parties, he is even more, as Nick Carraway notes, “an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words” (Fitzgerald 1999, 87). With his “unutterable visions” that lead to “unutterable depression” and ultimately “incoherent failure,” Gatsby is constantly vanishing on the horizon of significance” (Will 128). This “vanishing” of Gatsby in his unfinished sentences juxtaposes the “coming” of Gatsby through his static stories (e.g.: having gone to Oxford, spent his time like a rajah in different luxurious cities, etc.) which contributed to the aura of mystery surrounding him, and this in turn inspired people’s imagination to fill in the blanks themselves.
I assert that Nick started finding Gatsby to be “great” when he first heard his and Daisy’s story from Jordan. Being a rational, fiscally inclined man himself, Nick found in Gatsby something he had unconsciously yearned for all his life: a vivid imagination; and when he heard his tale of love, Gatsby “came alive to me [him], delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor” (Fitzgerald 85). At this moment in the novel’s time, Nick’s imagination also became invested in Gatsby.
Gatsby asked Nick “what was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do’” (Fitzgerald 160)? I assert that this rhetorical question starkly underlines the impetus which was driving Gatsby to manifest his imagination into reality. Gatsby could have lived a satisfactory life as a common man if he had had Daisy; but he knew that the dreams he was weaving for both Daisy and himself were impossible at the time of their conception and consequently, he spent almost five years dreaming his way into Daisy’s reality because of which Gatsby’s entire image was a lie. From his house to his origin story, everything about Gatsby was “real” only as long as Daisy’s absence casted a shadow on it; and through her absence he could justify his lies as a ceaseless yearning to grasp the green light across the bay. Even the way Gatsby first met Daisy at Nick’s house is a scheduled and fake encounter—he acted like he simply stumbled through Nick’s door when Daisy just happened to be visiting; as if it was fate and stars themselves colluding to set up their reunion. Yet, Gatsby is still the most authentic character in the novel, for he loves with honesty. It is equally possible for Gatsby’s feelings for Daisy to have been either a fervent obsession or passionate love; however, what made Gatsby so real was his eagerness for the entire world to know of his love and how precious Daisy was to him. His enthusiasm became even more apparent when placed in contrast with Daisy’s husband Tom who, according to Myrtle’s sister Catherine couldn’t “stand the person they’re [he’s] married to” (Fitzgerald 37). It is of course extremely plausible that she had this impression because of a perspective biased towards her sister’s happiness; however, the mere notion of such a thought implies that Tom must have said or done something for this idea to have even existed. We do learn in the immediate few passages in the novel that Tom had deliberately placed the blame of the impossibility of marrying Myrtle onto Daisy’s Catholic faith, and this can be read as his unwillingness to part with Daisy; and yet, to me, Tom’s deliberate unfaithfulness highlights a greater obscenity than Gatsby’s alleged unsavoury past; for while the latter could have easily been a consequence of hereditary station, the fiscal demands and traditions of the period, and a desire to rise above societal class inequalities; Tom’s infidelity was an intentional and avoidable choice. Following this, Daisy’s bizarre refusal to marry Gatsby, a man who wholeheartedly loves her, for a man who had cheated on her and consciously hurt her speaks to her very firm handle on her id and a propensity to gravitate towards safety and zero frustration situations, which acutely explains how she managed to refuse her imagination and stuck with her reality. And yet here, Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope, [and] a romantic readiness” (Fitzgerald 4) becomes even more highlighted and provides his character with a depth that makes him even more humane and endears him to both Nick and the readers’s imagination and consequently, makes him “great;” for what is life without dreams and a willingness to hope?
And this is what fascinates me the most about Gatsby: his willingness to jump into his passions with both feet. He loved Daisy, and consequently, he gave her everything he had: his wealth and his heart. Unlike Tom and Daisy, he did not displace his emotions onto attainable objectives to avoid frustration; he fully invested his imagination (and consequently, his emotions) onto what he really wanted. In the end, it did leave him hollow; but at least he tried, and for that, he attained a brief period of satisfaction which was far more brilliant than anything Tom and Daisy had experienced in their entire lives.
I argue that the narrator also found Gatsby to be “great” because of his social rise in 1920’s America — a period when nativism was the widely propounded policy — as a man who “does not feature any overtly immigrant or even particularly ethnic American characters” (Railton). Nick viewed Gatsby’s house on West Egg as “a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy” (Fitzgerald 7). This intimates me to the idea that even the house was a pretentious object which had been built to serve Gatsby’s image. Plus, the presence of a house which resembles the French chateaus of old on West Egg is especially fascinating to me, because Fitzgerald establishes the distinction between Old and New Money clearly in the very first chapter itself when he describes the West and East Egg as a “pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay” (Fitzgerald 7). Gatsby lived on West Egg, “the less fashionable of the two” (Fitzgerald 7), while the Buchanans — the prototype of Old Money in the novel — lived on East Egg. Here, Gatsby’s belief in “the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing” (Fitzgerald 106) inspired him to recreate his past in his imagination, manifest it firmly into reality, and successfully cross the “courtesy bay” (Fitzgerald 7) into the top echelons of American society; and that is exactly why the “contemporary legends” (Fitzgerald 104) surrounding him “were a source of satisfaction to James Gatz of North Dakota” (Fitzgerald 104) because for a story to be a legend, it needs to shed off the ever evolving fragile skin of history and human memory, and if James Gatz ceased to exist in human memory, Jay Gatsby could successfully secure his place in American legend.
The night after Daisy left with Nick, Gatsby waited and waited for Daisy’s message. But it never came. I posit that if Gatsby would have lived through the day, his story would have never transcended history and became legend. Daisy’s loss would have created “a new world, material without being real” (Fitzgerald 172) for the imagination driving his reality would have died a slow, pitiful death. His lies would have unraveled and his house of glass would have collapsed. But, instead of his imagination, he himself died and “an endless drill of police and photographers and newspaper men” (Fitzgerald 174) went in and out of his door and immortalised him through ink and paper. No one from his human life showed up at the funeral except for his father, his neighbour and the owl-eyed spectacled man who had occasionally attended his parties. In the last few pages of the novel, some boy scrawls an obscene word on the white steps of Gatsby’s house and Nick erases it. I read the erasure of the obscene from the utter white as the death of ‘Gatsby the human’ in memory and the endorsed survival of the ‘great Gatsby’s legend’. Here, Nick’s erasure can be read as the author’s erasure of the obscene parts of Gatsby’s history and a rewriting of his past as the story of a brilliant man who “believed in the green light, the orgastic future” (Fitzgerald 193) and ran straight towards it; and in his never-ending yearning in the face of “something commensurate to his capacity for wonder” (Fitzgerald 193) retold the story of the American Dream. Fitzgerald’s transition from “he” to “us” in the last page of the novel testifies to the presence of the metaphor of the the Great American Dream in the novel; and Gatsby becomes the Great Gatsby because he successfully grasps that dream.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Planet eBook.
Railton, Ben. “Considering History: The Great Gatsby, Multicultural New York, and America in 1925.” The Saturday Evening Post. www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2018/04/considering-history-great-gatsby-multicultural-new-york-america-1925/. Accessed on 27 July 2020.
Will, Barbara. “”The Great Gatsby” and the Obscene Word.” College Literature, The Johns Hopkins University, Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 125-144, 2005. www.jstor.com/stable/25115310. Accessed on 27 July 2020.