One of the most famous pieces of modern literature, The Great Gatsby stands the test of time to remain a poignant and shockingly relevant novel almost a century after its original publication. While many scholars have debated whether or not Jay Gatsby is a tragic figure, I argue that F. Scott Fitzgerald never intended his third novel to be a tragedy: it was written as a warning against unrealistic hope. Specifically, Gatsby’s character was used as a demonstration for the perverse side of hope, and the depths of immorality in which people will stoop to achieve the unattainable dream. The novel, which demonstrates some of Fitzgerald’s most dazzling and complex prose, uses subtle clues throughout to show the reader how Daisy Buchanan’s love, the great catalyst of Gatsby’s hope, is unconquerable due to the level of his obsession, and in his constant quest –and confidence– to secure it, Gatsby loses himself and eventually his life. In this paper, I will analyze how Fitzgerald intended to use Jay Gatsby as a warning to the reader against the dangers of hope, hiding clues throughout the text of the futility of Daisy’s love and the steep cost Gatsby paid as a result of his romantic tenacity.
In the first chapter of the novel, long before the reader has a chance to understand the history between Daisy and Gatsby, Fitzgerald begins to plant the seeds of doubt regarding Daisy’s character, integrity, and her need to fulfill the role expected of her in 1920s society. When Nick Carraway joins his cousin for lunch in her home, Daisy’s words and behavior continuously suggest she’s playing a part, lacking authenticity, that even Carraway can’t help but notice:
‘I love to see you at my table, Nick. You remind me of a— of a rose, an absolute rose. Doesn’t he?’ She turned to Miss Baker for confirmation. ‘An absolute rose?’
This was untrue. I am not even faintly like a rose. She was only extemporizing but a stirring warmth flowed from her as if her heart was trying to come out to you concealed in one of those breathless, thrilling words (14).
Fitzgerald used Carraway’s narrative in this section to help the reader begin to see Daisy as a contradiction, someone whose dialog cannot be wholly trusted. In the same scene, following the interruption of their family dinner by a call from Tom Buchanan’s mistress, Fitzgerald again reveals Daisy’s artificiality through Carraway’s lens, pointing out her “tense gayety” and her remarks about the “romantic outdoors” with the singing nightingale following Buchanan’s return to dinner (Fitzgerald 15). Though Carraway sympathizes with Daisy’s pain, he’s confused by her choice to continue to play the part and not leave her adulterous husband:
Nevertheless, I was confused and a little disgusted as I drove away. It seemed to me that the thing for Daisy to do was to rush out of the house, child in arms—but apparently there were no such intentions in her head (20).
Carraway questions Daisy’s motive for staying with Tom Buchanan long before Gatsby’s love enters the equation.
In the second chapter, the audience is finally introduced to the mysterious Gatsby, first through the rumors shared about him and finally through his interaction with the narrator. It is in this scene that we first get a glance of Gatsby’s perverse hope –though not yet attached to Daisy’s love– and see the fragility of his character as a result:
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on YOU with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care (48).
In this one paragraph, Fitzgerald reveals unimaginable depth about Gatsby’s character: his charisma, his extreme focus, his precision of words –all indicative of a man with a mission, a driving purpose, which we soon learn is Daisy Buchanan. This hope, which had driven Gatsby for half a decade, consumed him, and is inevitably the reason he had created the false alias under which he lived. While the reader never truly learns what Gatsby’s profession is, through constant rumors and suggestions, it’s apparent that Gatsby’s career was likely not an ethical or legal one, and the means by which he acquired his wealth were probably criminal in nature. Even his education, which Gatsby claimed was at Oxford, was left in doubt when he shared his story with Nick Carraway on their drive to lunch:
He looked at me sideways—and I knew why Jordan Baker had believed he was lying. He hurried the phrase ‘educated at Oxford,’ or swallowed it or choked on it as though it had bothered him before. And with this doubt his whole statement fell to pieces and I wondered if there wasn’t something a little sinister about him after all (65).
Gatsby had nothing to gain through dishonesty with Carraway, and it’s this moment that the reader realizes Gatsby was uncomfortable with his lies, but continued with them in the hope that they would please Daisy; it’s as if he was willing the story he told to become the truth, to undo the past and replace the former version of him –the man Daisy was unable to wait for– with the man who would have lived up to her expectations –the man he had become. Once Carraway learned of Gatsby’s affection for Daisy through Jordan Baker, we see just how far Gatsby had gone to get her back: “He had waited five years and bought a mansion where he dispensed star-light to casual moths so that he could ‘come over’ some afternoon to a stranger’s garden” (Fitzgerald 78). Gatsby had not only dedicated his life to the dream of Daisy, but all of his resources, as well, in the hope it would be enough to win her love permanently this time.
Once Gatsby and Daisy were reunited at Carraway’s home, Fitzgerald’s hints become less subtle. While Gatsby “literally glowed” with his happiness and couldn’t take his eyes off of Daisy as he toured her around his home, her emotion was more of a rollercoaster as she processed the return of her lost love. Daisy broke down in tears when Gatsy shared his wardrobe with her in a storm of fabric strewn about:
Suddenly with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before’ (92).
Again, we realize Daisy’s dialog cannot be trusted, and there is an alternative meaning behind her emotions. While Gatsby’s hope likely led him to believe she was just overwhelmed with how much he had amassed and how perfectly he now fulfilled the vision of what she expected a husband to be, it is more likely that she already sensed the impossibility of their relationship. Nick Carraway, on leaving Gatsby with Daisy in his home, sensed the fragility of Gatsby’s home and shared a foreboding thought in the narrative:
As I went over to say goodbye I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. 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. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart (95).
In yearning to be reunited for Daisy for so long, Gatsby’s hope had vitiated, had turned on him, and had created a person and a life that was not achievable, even if Daisy was willing to leave her husband and daughter. Gatsby was so fixated on the Daisy he had fallen in love with, the eighteen-year-old girl in Louisville, that he couldn’t accept the woman and mother she had become in her 20s:
[Nick]‘I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ I ventured. ‘You can’t repeat the past.’
‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
‘I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,’ he said, nodding determinedly. ‘She’ll see.’
Gatsby’s hope wasn’t to win Daisy back from Tom, but rather to undo time, to erase the past, and to return to the years before the war. His hope was futile, and Fitzgerald used Gatsby as a warning to his readers: you cannot go home.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald successfully portrays multiple themes: the continued restlessness of the Lost Generation found in most modern works, but also the timeless pain of regret, of loss, and of paralyzing hope. Though Gatsby’s death was tragic, his life served as a warning that we cannot live in the past, and no amount of hope or effort extended can change the impact and consequences of time passing. While World War I separated Gatsby from Daisy and her love at eighteen was sincere, no amount of money or material goods could undo her marriage to Tom Buchanan, her daughter, or the life she had built in Gatsby’s absence. Gatsby’s perversion of hope ultimately led to the fall of his morality and the loss of his life, as he cared so much for the dream of what his life could be versus accepting the life that was before him. Daisy loved Gatsby and wanted to be with him, but his unrealistic demands –asking her to swear she never loved Tom and, consequently, her daughter– were too much for her to bear. The Great Gatsby continues to be an American classic not because of the tragic loss of a man desperately in love with a woman, but rather the timelessness and relatability of someone trapped so deeply in their past that they forget to see what’s right in front of them.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.