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The Tragedy Of Jay Gatsby

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Jay Gatsby is a tragic figure.  His singular flaw is his abiding and overwhelming adoration of Daisy, a woman who in the end proves pathetically undeserving of his devotion.

            Jay Gatsby is a contradictory character.  On the one hand, he describes his past to Nick Carroway in terms that Carroway dismisses as a series of pathetically threadbare cliches. (65-66)1 Then he produces evidence that much of it is true, including his medal for extraordinary valor from Montenegro, and his picture of himself and his classmates at Oxford. (66-67)  Among the guests who frequent his parties and delight themselves on his liquor, the mystery of his background is a topic of continual speculation (49-51), and yet his charm is unassailable. (48) ) From a mansion in West Egg, New York, a magnificent copy of a French hotel de ville (5), he pursues a rushed career as a modern Tremalchio (113), opening his house frequently for ostentatious parties open to anyone caring to wander in. (39-56).  Yet for all of the apparent dissipation of these parties, Gatsby has a loving focus and purpose far more acute than any of his guests could imagine.

            This was his flaw, that he adored Daisy Buchanan.  Years earlier, as a young lieutenant stationed at a camp outside Louisville, he had met and fallen in love with Daisy Fay, a socialite who was seeing several young officers each day. (148-50)  He was shipped off to Europe for the Great War, then lost in some hopeless bureaucratic muddle which prevented him from returning in time to claim here.  In the mean time, she met and married Tom Buchanan, a man of amazing wealth and a determination to have her. (6)  After a pathetic return from the war, learning that Daisy and her husband reside on a sweeping estate in East Egg, Gatsby has settled in West Egg, trying to reconnect with her. (80)  He now has the wealth that he lacked before, and even if the recapturing of this dream would be only a philistine success (Fussell 34), he yearns for it with his whole being.

            Part of what Gatsby seeks is a wistful longing for a dream that may never have been real. (182)  Gatsby has about him a remarkable naive idealism, the “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” (2; Gross & Gross 164)  that Gatsby inspires in the narrator Nick Carroway.   At the same time, while Carroway tells Gatsby, “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” (154),  he carefully points out that this is the only compliment he ever paid to the man, whom he still disliked profoundly. (154)  “Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” (2)

            Gatsby stands as a marvel of contradictions.  On the one hand, he pursues Daisy with the faith of the true believer.  He values and revalues things through her eyes, bestowing on her a romantic’s adoration of an ideal that is not quite real, and indeed, as it becomes real, it loses its significance. (92, 94)  At the same time, he is willing to use whatever means are necessary to gain the means with which to court Daisy, dealing with Meyer Wolfshiem, the man who fixed the World Series (69-74, 114, 134) bootlegging (109, 134)   and trading in illicit bonds. (95, 167)

            From the outset, Gatsby’s dream is doomed because he fails to realize that in the end, Daisy Buchanan will be so fundamentally careless.  As the narrator says, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” (180-81) Gatsby accurately sums her up: “‘Her voice is full of money,’  he said suddenly.//That was it.  I’d never understood before.  It was full of money — that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it. . . . high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl. . .” (120)

But Gatsby fails to realize that money, and critically the comprehensive security that it represents are essentially all that drive Daisy.  While she will gladly come over to spend her free afternoons with Gatsby 114), and while she will curse Tom Buchanan for the thoughtless trysts he has with any convenient hotel chambermaid (78), in the end, she will cling to him rather than risk going away with Gatsby.  Eventually, she drives Gatsby’s great yellow car into Myrtle Wilson, races away into the night (144-45),  and then assumes a stony silence when everyone assumes that it was Gatsby who was driving the car.  When George Wilson, wild with rage and grief, comes to her house, she allows her husband to point him to Gatsby’s house (180), where Wilson kills first Gatsby and then himself, completing the holocaust. (162-63)

            Gatsby believes, with an unalterable faith, that by showing Daisy the towering wealth he has accumulated, if by questionable and never quite clarified means (Fitzgerald’s letter to Maxwell Perkins), he can take her back to the world as it was when they first met.  He has a hard time grasping such basic matters as that Daisy has had a child by Tom (117), and cannot understand that in the end, she will stay with this incredibly wealthy if insensitive brute, because of the stability he offers.

            In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby is contrasted with other characters notably Tom Buchanan, Jordan Baker, and Daisy.

            Tom Buchanan, rich, arrogant in his own sense of superiority, possesses Daisy, although it is questionable whether he loves her, whether he loves anyone other than himself.

            Jordan Baker illustrates the attitude of this group:  she is “incurably dishonest” (58),  taking advantage of others without caring for anyone but herself. (58-59)

            Daisy unthinkingly accepts the affections of both Tom and Gatsby.  She lounges in a love affair with Gatsby, spending afternoons with him, but seems completely surprised when she is forced to make a choice between the two. (129-36)  In her upset and carelessness, she drives Gatsby’s car into Myrtle Wilson. (144-46)  In one stunning blow, she eliminates her husband’s mistress, but puts herself in a position of needing his protection.  In accepting it, she desserts Gatsby, leaving East Egg for someone undisclosed under circumstances that contribute to his death. (165)

            There are two special settings in The Great Gatsby:  the luxurious homes of Gatsby and the Buchanans, and the valley of the ashes.  Nick Carroway dines at the Buchanan’s vast estate at the beginning of the novel and many key scenes are set in Gatsby’s sweeping mansion, a symbol of ostentation.

            In the valley of ashes, overlooked by the billboard of Dr. T. J. Eckelburg, lives George Wilson, the pathetic counterpart to the power and wealth of Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby.  (23-25)  Here also lives Myrtle Wilson, Buchanan’s mistress. (24, 25-26)  It is also here that the great yellow car racing from New York smashes into Myrtle Wilson. (138)

            Fitzgerald use of language advances the tragedy of the novel.  One of the most telling instances of this is the list of those who attend Gatsby’s parties:  the Leeches, Webster Civet, the Hornbeams, the Willie Voltaires, a clan named Blackbuck, Edgar Beaver, the Cheadles, the O.R.P. Schrades, the Fishguards, the Ripley Snells. S. B. Whitebait, they Hammerheads, and Beluga.  The Catlips, the Bembergs, James B. (“Rot Gut”) Ferret, George Duckweed, and Francis Bull.  (61-63)  These are names, but the clear tone is of vulgarity.

            Vulgarity is a key part of “what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams.” (2)  He could not free himself of that foul dust, and in the end, he died along with his dream.

            In the end, the great tragedy of Jay Gatsby is that he believed so fervently that if he could establish himself with the wealth that he had lacked when he first met Daisy as a young army lieutenant, his passion for her would be enough to draw her away from anyone who lacked his passion and purity of purpose.  In the end, his dream was shattered on the hardness of Tom Buchanan, and the callousness of the woman he so loved.


Fitzgerald, F. Scott, Letter to Maxwell Perkins (Dec. 20, 1924) The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (New York, New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), pp. 172-73, ), reprinted in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Harold Bloom, ed. (Broomail, Pennsylvania:  Chelsea House Publishers, 1996).

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. (New York, New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925).

Fussell, Edwin S.  “Fitzgerald’s Brave New World.”  ELH. 19:296-97 (Dec. 1952), reprinted in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Harold Bloom, ed. (Broomail, Pennsylvania:  Chelsea House Publishers, 1996).

Gross, Dalton and MaryJean Gross.  Understanding the Great Gatsby.  (Westport, Connecticut:  Greenwood Press, 1998).

Shakespeare, William.  Hamlet.  (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1918).

            1In keeping with the conventions for review articles, and to avoid needless cluttering of the text, references to The Great Gatsby will give only the page numbers.

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