Pondering about the title of the iconic novel The Great Gatsby, a staple in American literature, the question that comes up is, “What attributes does Gatsby possess that qualify the adjective great to be synonymous with his name?” Furthermore, “Why in fact does Gatsby have to be great?” Gatsby wears the label of a Homeric hero on his lapel and embodies those qualities because he is an overly romanticized hero whose secular goal is the affection of his past sweetheart, Daisy Buchanan. He recreates himself in such a manner that he believes that he has achieved platonic perfection, but in reality he has only merely achieved an imitation of it. Nevertheless he is constantly attempting to fuse the platonic conception and the actual incarnation as one; only through jarring enlightenment does Gatsby realize the shattering of his illusion. Thusly, the greatness of Gatsby is only possible because of the power of dreams and more specifically so the power of fiction which requires public endorsement, but Gatsby’s prolonged romantic notions lead him to his downfall.
James Gatz was born into an impoverished family, so he left home and went to pursue the American Dream, which he does so by first creating a new name for himself, Jay Gatsby. He crossed paths with Cody, a copper tycoon, who mentored him and showed him the ways of the wealthy. After Cody passed away, Gatsby entered into the army which was where he first encountered Daisy, who was the spitting image of a Southern Belle, and he became deeply enamored with her. Though he left her to fight in the war, where he rose in ranks and was honored for his valor, he received startling news alongside the conclusion of the war. Daisy had become betrothed to Tom Buchanan, a wealthy East Coast man who is a foil to Gatsby, a poor man from the West Coast. Their marriage was the impetus for him to raise his stature and to become a man worthy of Daisy’s affection. So he entered the realm of gangsters and bootleggers and became a part of the nouveau riche, new money. To become the man he believes Daisy desires he creates an intricate illusion, an identity that is based solely on belief and dreams rather than truth. His illusion successfully perpetuates into the minds of the public, a belief that he is Jay Gatsby rather than James Gatz, but his pursuit of Daisy and his lofty ideals and fantasies of who she is leads him to his inevitable demise because “the identity that he had constructed for himself out of dreams and illusions, banal images and sentimental clichés, is so fragile that it disintegrates at a touch” (Way 163).
To elaborate the persona of Jay Gatsby, Gatsby steps into the shoes of a Homeric hero through the illusions he creates whilst utilizing the influences of language and the power of belief. He has or rather he instills the characteristics of such a hero within himself. He strives to be highly regarded by his peers because how they react to him affects his self-esteem, he associates with beautiful women because that is the image dominant men invoke, he purposely obscures his past and leaves the public to speculate what is and what is not truth, but ultimately his goal is to achieve the greatest glory, which in Gatsby’s case, is attaining the affection of Daisy. In regards to these attributes, Gatsby not only creates the illusion, but makes it his reality. “The con man, like the artist, replaces the given world with a construct of his own, but it can rival reality only if he invests it with life, with his life” (Weinstein 146). He lives in the splendor that only money can provide in that behemoth of a home he resides in, he hosts outrageous bashes that last all night long, he has the mystery behind his origins and the source of his income is dubious to all, and most importantly he is in constant pursuit of his past beau, his Daisy. But because he is living a superficial life, it is deemed only ephemeral for it can last only as long as the illusion can be sustained and as Gatsby reunites with Daisy the threads of the story that is Jay Gatsby begin to unravel until only what is at the core, the truth, is left.
“But the dreamer has to awake, and no fiction can permanently ignore the inescapable constraints of reality. Moreover, the object of the dream cannot be protected against time, nor can its beauty ever match that of the dream” (Weinstein 144). Time has passed by and Gatsby no longer loves Daisy the way he first loved her five years ago, when their relationship was a passionate summer love. Rather so, he loves the idea of her. Over the span of those years he has built up his image of her to the point that she cannot live up to his expectations and not because she has deteriorated in beauty or anything of that sort, but because he had let his imagination run rampant and he has ended up coloring her too finely, dressing up his memories too nicely, and adding details that didn’t exist before just because he could.
For all this to be possible, Fitzgerald weaves a world that is in a constant state of confusion and disorder because Gatsby desires a two directional dream. He wishes to either obtain a certain future or to recapture a certain past. But alongside these crossroads of intentions lies his hubris that he can fix time and reinstate the past. This is the illusion that Gatsby convinces himself of (Stallman 133). “Can’t fix the past? Why of course you can! I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before. She’ll see.” Gatsby says incredulously (Fitzgerald 110). Gatsby continues to live in this fantasy world where he has the confidence that he can do as he pleases to reach his goal because of his newly acquired wealth. Money is the currency of desire which resembles the seductive quality of Daisy’s voice. Her voice is compared to money, potent like the source of dreams. Because he is living in a dream world that he built he continues to refuse to see the truth of the matter that Daisy is married, unhappily so, but nevertheless living a life plump with luxury and comfort and for her that is substantial enough to survive in in her artificial world. She cannot be bothered by harsh realities like the murder of Myrtle or the pursuit of her own dreams whatever they may be. She isn’t like Gatsby who must chase after his dreams wholeheartedly with his whole being or he will cease to exist. And even if she does not live up to his dreams, he still cannot see her for her true colors. Brilliantly golden and green, she continually grays over the span of the story which further demonstrates the deterioration of the dream that she represents and the corruption of the color green which symbolizes the future, material success, and money. Gatsby cannot see beyond her beauty and charm to realize that she is a just a trivial, cowardly, dishonest, and selfish woman. His belief in her is so strong that it blinds him from realizing how her inadequacies and personal weaknesses further aggravate the self-destructive tendencies of his romanticism (Way 161).
This belief is only possible due to Socrates Ladder of Love. The idea that Socrates described was that people in pursuit of love will go through different levels of love. Beginning with the physical which is a beautiful body, the most obvious form of love and progressing more abstractly to all beautiful bodies because all bodies shares the same beauty that a singular figure has as well. Moving onwards are beautiful souls because love cannot be satisfied by just a single love or from a plethora of lovers, so love is meted out depending on each and every lover. Then there is the beauty of laws and institutions which is responsible for the existence of those beautiful souls for they maintain a harmonious social order for them to reside in. Next is the beauty of knowledge for what creates that social order, and finally the pure form of beauty itself. Beauty becomes an abstract concept for it is just an essence. It is absolute and something that all things partake in. And this is why Gatsby is so helplessly blinded by Daisy; he is blinded by the absolute beauty of Daisy. She is considered absolute to his, thus she cannot change in his eyes (although in reality she is not absolute) because Gatsby detests all variations. He detests anything that may represent alteration, thus he abhors autumn which is the season of change and of the receding sun and this is also why he refuses to drain his pool. He wishes to preserve it because it embodies the idea of time unspent, of years unlived with Daisy.
There are homologies between Gatsby’s illusions that are constructed on conviction and the Great Wizard of Oz. The wizard is just a normal man from America, but in the Land of Oz he is living under the guise of an all-powerful wizard, thus he is feared and revered. But the illusion is all just smoke and mirrors and he is discovered by Dorothy and the rest of her entourage that behind the curtain lays the truth: his actual identity is a normal man from Nebraska who worked as a magician for a circus and that he has no real magical powers for it was all a sham. Similarly to Gatsby, the Wizard had left behind his past and recreated himself, but in contrast the Wizard yearns to return home to the circus in Nebraska, while Gatsby most certainly does not wish to return to his previous self. He wishes to preserve the illusion for as long as possible, if not permanently. But for the wizard the illusion is over when the public becomes aware of his deception. Another homology is the dollar bill. Essentially paper money has no intrinsic value, since it is not backed by anything of worth like gold or silver. But we use it as currency because the government has established in the minds of the people the idea that there is a value to these pieces of printed paper. Money is a belief system, if people do not believe in it, it cannot exist. So we keep on believing for the continual existence of the system. Very much like Gatsby’s illusion, he will cease to exist once the people stop believing in him. He is hiding behind his own set of smoke and mirrors hoping no one will discover that the booming voice is coming from the little man behind the curtain.
Money is just a material item, but its importance echoes throughout the story because materialism rules this era in American history, the Jazz Age. There is rampant excess exuded throughout the novel, seen in the gaudy materialism of the Flapper age, Gatsby’s over the top extravaganzas, his overabundance of shirts that he carelessly throws around for show, his ostentatious possessions, his home in West Egg, and the excess of capitalism and of the American dream as well. Gatsby has been greatly deluded into thinking that money equates happiness just because it is what surrounds the upper classes and Daisy.
On the map of America Tom represents the financial and physical power and intolerance of the East Coast. “Tom’s style of physical dominance, his capacity for exerting leverage, is not expressions merely of his individual strength but of the power of a class” (Way 156). What Tom has in physical dominance he lacks in mental capabilities. He has no comprehension of what Daisy or Gatsby stands for. He is self-absorbed and he cannot see from the perspectives of others. Nick Carraway was like this as well in the beginning, but he is the only character who evolves over the course of the novel. He, unlike Tom, can step into the shoes of other characters and see from their viewpoints. He has gained the ability to move away from synedochic thinking towards more complicated modes of thought.
Furthermore, Tom is a hypocrite. He calls Daisy out on her affair with Gatsby and gets extremely upset about it by going to the lengths of investigating Gatsby’s background, but he on the other hand flagrantly flaunts his affair with Myrtle out in the open with not a care on what it may do to their reputations and not with a shred of guilt about Daisy’s or Wilson’s feelings. Tom’s brutality is seen when he has no qualms in breaking the nose of Myrtle, his paramour, in a single force just because he was irritated by her or when he sadistically sets the frenetic Wilson onto Gatsby knowingly condemning Gatsby to a death sentence. Even before the physical destruction of Gatsby, Tom tears him mentally, emotionally, and spiritually apart, so that all that Wilson destroys is the shell that was left of Jay Gatsby.
All that Gatsby stands for is destroyed almost immediately by Tom Buchanan. Tom shatters the illusion when he informs Jay how Daisy does not love him and the latter fervently denies it until Daisy agrees with her husband, leaving him crushed. Tom forces Jay to see himself through a distorting mirror that is unfamiliar, yet horribly real simultaneously. “Tom forces him to realize that he does not necessarily appear to others in the forms which he assumes in his own magnificent conception of himself” (Way 162). In the eyes of high society, even to Daisy he believes they see him as nothing more than a swindler, a bootlegger, and a gangster. Tom is able to hit him where he knows Gatsby is most vulnerable, since positive public opinion is crucial to his self-esteem. He is dazed and thrown completely off guard by Tom’s attacks for they are direct attacks on the self, the complete dismantling of the smoke and mirrors that Gatsby had elaborately set up. The entire world can now see what is behind the curtain and there lays James Gatz in his most vulnerable state. There lies the death of a dream, a shattering of an illusion, and the end of a romantic endeavor.
Subsequently since Gatsby faces illumination of his situation he is forced to see with both eyes wide open and face reality straight on. In Plato’s Allegory of the cave there are a number of prisoners chained to the inside of a cave facing the wall. They are only able to see their shadows due to the light coming from a fire coming from outside the cave and for them that is reality. If a prisoner was released from the cave he would be so dazzled by the brightness of the light and all that the world offers that he would forget about everything that he considered being reality. He would then look back into the cave with its shadows, the reflections, and the objects themselves and then compare it to the Sun, which he will assume is in charge of everything and controls the entire world. “The platonic concern with the sun as the object finally to be looked on for truth is mirrored in many details and incidents in Gatsby” (Raleigh). In relation to the Allegory, enlightenment for Gatsby has the opposite effect; it does not lead to progress which leads to reality rather Gatsby regresses and is reduced to a state where he sees common objects as grotesque. He sees the grotesqueness of a rose, something that was admired before has become untrue and unfamiliar. The rose was grotesque at first due to the fact that it represented Gatsby’s world view of how romance is the only way to live life. Now it is grotesque in his eyes because he can no longer see life in the same manner and such a world view has become foreign concept to him.
Gatsby’s pursuit of the abstraction of the dream that Daisy represents leads to a fruitless end for he had placed her on a pedestal so high that she herself could never imagine reaching in reality. Furthermore, he had created a substantial illusion, but his inability to see all that was wrong with his world view, his overly romanticized notions, brought him to a crashing realization courtesy of Tom Buchanan. He sees that he is not all that he set himself up to be and that those he had held in high regard do not extend the same civility to him. Nevertheless Gatsby is still considered great by Nick Carraway due to his endless pursuit of his aspirations even if they were trivial in content. As Hugh Kenner concluded “it is important, in short, that Gatsby shall be Great. It is important because the central myth of the Book has to do with Appearance made Real by sheer will: the oldest American theme of all” (Weinstein 133).
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York City: Scribner, 2004. Print.
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Raleigh, John Henry. “Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby: Legendary Bases and Allegorical Significances.” Time, Place, and Idea: Essays on the Novel. N.p.: Southern Illinois UP, 1968. 56-74. Print.
Rea, Kevin. “The colour of meaning in The Great Gatsby.” The English Review 10.4 (2000): 28. Literature Resource Center. Web. 27 Oct. 2012.
Stallman, R. W. “Gatsby and the Hole in Time.” The Houses That James Built and Other Literary Studies. N.p.: Michigan State UP, 1961. 131-50. Print.
Way, Brian. “Fitzgerald and the Art of Social Fiction: The Great Gatsby.” American Fiction: New Readings. Ed. Richard Gray. London: Vision, 1983. 150-64. Print.
Weinstein, Arnold L. “Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby: Fiction as Greatness.” Nobody’s Home: Speech, Self, and Place in American Fiction from Hawthorne to DeLillo. New York City: Oxford UP, 1993. 131-47. Print.