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In <i>The Great Gatsby</i>, What Makes Gatsby Great?

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Answer by Cristina Hartmann, Writer

Jay Gatsby is so great, so compelling because he's one of the 20th century's best tragic figures. I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for those.

When we meet Gatsby, we see his luxurious, ostentatious veneer: the grand mansion, lavish parties, and faux Britishness. Nothing we see is real. Every bit of his persona is ill-gotten and fabricated.

Despite Gatsby's profligate lifestyle, he wins us (and Nick) over with his overweening optimism and passion. It's so purely American and innocent that we have to smile.

"Can't repeat the past?" [Gatsby] cried incredulously, "Why of course you can."

- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (p. 116)

All his pretenses aside, Jay Gatsby is a nervous boy in love. It is only when Daisy returns to his arms when his dreams come true. In a strange way, Gatsby isn't evil or greedy, he's just like the rest of us: yearning for love and his perfect lover.

Gatsby's love for Daisy is the only pure and authentic thing about him. And what a thing it is! Gatsby goes all in for his love. He risks everything for her.

Fraudster Gatsby may be, but he was still far more real and authentic than everyone else in the bunch (Nick excepted). It was Tom's and Daisy's lies and misdeeds that led to Gatsby's demise, not his own. It was Daisy who drove the car and Tom who had the affair. Gatsby was an relative innocent.

It is the ultimate irony that Gatsby -- a criminal, a living facade -- was the most real person in that degenerate affair. That terrible irony is what makes Gatsby a great tragic figure. His authentic love led to his death, a love that proved to be illusory.

At the end, just like Nick, we all mourn Gatsby, real name or not.


Answer by Matthew Petrucci,

Fitzgerald is said to have agonized over the title of his novel. Among the contenders, Fitzgerald considered titles such as Gatsby; Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; Trimalchio; Trimalchio in West Egg; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; Gold-Hatted Gatsby and The High-Bouncing Lover.

But what makes Jay Gatsby so great that his name should be lent to the title?

He is 'great' because no other person in his position, in his day in age, loved Daisy in the way he did or felt quite the right hideous contempt of Tom, experienced the dolorous fear of being somebody 'ordinary' or felt the same horrible hollowness amid the drinking and partying.

James Gatz is no mere mortal in the eyes of Fitzgerald, the reader, and the characters within the novel itself. Among other reasons, this is perhaps why Fitzgerald felt that the title should deliberately understate his "alter-ego" Jay Gatsby; perhaps in the hopes that we, as a reader, may feel fascinated by the irony.

Jay Gatsby is, for lack of a more fitting categorization, the Batman of the 1920's; an enormously ill-fated anti-hero, ceaselessly striving for ideals that are painfully out of reach. Yet unlike Batman, no ordinary man can pick up the mask and suit and continue the legacy. Gatsby is no freedom fighter in the traditional sense. There is and can only ever be one Jay Gatsby, a persona born of a "Platonic conception" of the seventeen-year-old man striving for the fulfillment of intensely personal dreams, for fantastical things.

He is considered 'great' in a paradoxical sense. Gatsby is considered 'great' by the measurement of dreams, his wealth, his larger-than-life personality, the festivities and joviality that, to others in the novel, mark him as a man of high stature and almost god-like in personal proportions.

By the same token, in a seemingly contradictory shift, his greatness is marked by our awe of him, as we watch his tireless pursuit for the realization of his obscure values and the ambitions of love and wealth that come so close to fruition, yet remain, painfully, just out of reach.

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