A Great American Character Analysis: Is Gatsby Indeed Great?

With the new Baz Luhrmann movie sweeping the globe, original novel topping bestseller charts, and fandoms exploding over the Internet, I was inspired to share my two cents on the title character's so-called "greatness," inspired by a lecture on The Great Gatsby from my comparative lit class last year. Fitzgerald is infamous for his social criticism of the Roaring Twenties, and even within solely the title of his book -- which I don't think could be any more obviously satirical -- his opinions of the rich and the famous -- the young and the beautiful -- ring perfectly clear.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's characterization of Jay Gatsby demonstrates the extent to which Gatsby transcends his own lowly roots and creates the impression of being "great." Throughout the procession of the 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, readers are exposed to Gatsby's various amazing achievements, including his ascent into excessive wealth and reputation, his long-standing and eventually successful pursuit of Daisy Buchanan, and his tragic, galvanized death. However, as with the Great Houdini, Fitzgerald's "Great" Gatsby emerges from a logical and almost karmic reality through the exposure of his ill-explained fortune and questionable social status, his fleeting and doomed-from-the-start relationship with Daisy, and his unmemorable passing; this is what shatters the glimmering illusion and ultimately conveys that Jay Gatsby, contrary to the book's title, is not great after all.

The diction that describes Gatsby's mannerisms and appearance is, from the beginning of the novel, rich and opulent, paralleling his lavish, garish position in society. His wealth is never cloaked; from the mansion, to the weekly parties, to the countless dress shirts and expensive cars, it is evident that Gatsby is rich as sin and is initially, through his inclusion in the nouveau riche, the epitome of the American dream. He's handsome, he's rich, he's socially reputable... or so readers think. As the plot unravels, Fitzgerald exposes Gatsby's obscure roots, including his partygoers' assumptions that he killed a man or is actually a German spy from the Third Reich, and the fact that he can never get the story regarding how he climbed to prosperity, straight. His rather indeterminate and shady manner of "business" with Meyer Wolfsheim and inability to explicitly explain, even to Nick, what trade he is in, demonstrates that his crisp, rich image is not what he says it is. The haze of the glorification of money hides this suspicious background, which is why Gatsby is so great in the beginning of the book, but falls utterly hard by the end.

From Daisy's point of view, reuniting with Gatsby is miserable not only because of the inextinguished flame between the two past lovers, but also because Gatsby now has in his grasp, the upper-class lifestyle she so needs, yet she is not with him. This is the mindset that prevails when Gatsby first appears in the story. Now that he is rich, he deserves Daisy, the woman he has never stopped pursuing. His love for Daisy runs deeply and unfalteringly, and when he sees her again for the first time in five years, is even rekindled. The notion that after all the time and trouble, he finally gets the girl is stunning to readers because such a long, grueling pursuit being fulfilled is an amazing feat; Gatsby is extraordinary for having defeated insurmountable odds fro the woman he loves. However, as with his money, by the novel's end, his relationship with Daisy, too, fails. In the confrontational scene between Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy (with Jordan and Nick as spectators), Gatsby demands Daisy admit that she never loved Tom; but she cannot. Distraught with emotion, Daisy, exclaims to him, "I did love [Tom] once -- but I loved you too," which does not suffice for Gatsby. Gatsby wants Daisy's whole love, her unadulterated and exclusive love, but is jarred by the startling reality that due to the passage of time, and the cruelty of fate, Daisy loved Tom when she could not love Gatsby. Gatsby's pursuit of her, of the past, is now a void because something has happened that he cannot -- and will never be able to -- control: Daisy and Tom's marriage. Thus, the illusion of Gatsby's successful, extraordinary possession of true love is also broken, and a harsher truth that "even alone [Daisy] can't say [she] never loved Tom," revealed. Gatsby may have seemed great for getting Daisy back, but the clutch was only fleeting, and it certainly wasn't for keeps; this ultimately marks his failure to possess her for good and to surface with romantic success.

Lastly, Gatsby's final proceeding shows his downfall. Dying young, he should be immortalized, or at least revered for dying for love, for dying a tragic, hopeless death. Gatsby's murder should idealize and romanticize the consequences of stubborn love, but it instead has the exact opposite effect: it goes unremembered. Given his social and financial prowess, he should have died a martyr, or at least have been eulogized, but no one -- exactly no one -- even bothers to attend his funeral. Gatsby's unremarkable death is Fitzgerald's last reminder to readers that although Gatsby had his great moments, they eventually led to his demise, and that as a whole, he is far, far from great.

The tragedy of Gatsby having everything, then suddenly nothing, demonstrates his irrefutable distance from greatness. He may have been rich, temporarily romantically successful, and have died young, but simultaneously, the money lacked virtue and acceptable regard, his love was rendered futile by the past, which he could not change nor hold sway over, and his death was disappointingly unremarkable. Like Harry Houdini, Gatsby was a compelling -- and daresay effective -- illusionist, but that is all he amounted to be: an illusionist. His final fate -- his fall from greatness -- reveals everything we wanted to, but could never be.