In which we shall discuss such burning questions as whether or not Gatsby was truly great, and what made him “all right” in the end.
In this post, I will continue my analysis of Jay Gatsby, protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Disclaimer: This post will obviously contain spoilers. If you haven’t done so, read the book (it’s super short, it won’t take you long), then return and we shall discuss.
Page numbers are taken from the 2004 Scribner paperback edition.
In part 1, we followed Gatsby right up to the point where Daisy comes to Nick’s house to tea, and Gatsby is literally (Nick’s usage of the word, not mine) glowing. Gatsby is on the brink of achieving the dream he has pursued for so long. But will it be enough?
“My house looks well, doesn’t it?”
Gatsby announces that he’d like to show Daisy his house, and he insists that Nick come along, too. (Which is convenient, because without our narrator being present, we wouldn’t get to see what happens.)
While Daisy washes the tears from her face in Nick’s bathroom, Gatsby and Nick gaze at his house, and he makes a couple more slip-ups about his past, followed by his usual smooth recoveries.
As he begins to show Daisy and Nick around, we are reminded of the entire purpose of this house and everything Gatsby has created for himself.
He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes. (91)
None of this really means anything to Gatsby on its own—he doesn’t care about any of these objects as objects. Gatsby is truly single-minded in his approach to life. From a certain point onward, everything he has done has been done with the goal of bringing him closer to Daisy Buchanan.
Meanwhile, a curious development is happening.
He had passed visibly through two states and was entering upon a third. After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he was consumed with wonder at her presence. He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity. Now, in the reaction, he was running down like an overwound clock. (91, 92)
There is a fundamental problem with Gatsby’s dream, and that is the sheer intensity of it. There comes a point when expectation exceeds what reality is capable of delivering.
When Gatsby mentions to Daisy the green light at the end of her dock, we get a foreboding sense of this impending disappointment.
Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one. (93)
It’s interesting that this reflection is immediately preceded by Daisy putting her arm through his. It is when Daisy is making actual physical contact with him that the green light ceases to mean anything. Before, the green light was his only connection with Daisy. That light was the closest physical object to Daisy that he could see from his house. But now, with Daisy beside him, linking arms with him, the meaning is no longer there.
I think of an enchanted object as being an object to which meaning is assigned not inherently present within the object itself. In fact, one could easily argue that for Gatsby, Daisy herself is something of an enchanted object. In which case, the outcome doesn’t look so good from here.
That last sentence, “His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one,” is notable because it conveys the feeling of something being lost. The magic is wearing off.
When the evening is finally over, we hear, again, a hint of the death knell sounding on Gatsby’s dream.
As I went over to say good-by 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, 96)
That’s beautiful, now let’s break it down. Even that afternoon, as happy as Gatsby was—remember, he was glowing earlier—he’s bewildered, he’s doubting, he’s disappointed. Why? Because, quite simply, Daisy isn’t worth the five years of trouble he’s gone to. And as much as most of us enjoy disliking Daisy, the fact is, no one would have been worthy of that. Idols inevitably disappoint those who adore them when beheld up close. Because, although the image we hold in our head may be perfect, people are not.
Anyone who has poured their heart into a project will understand Gatsby’s disappointment. We slave over every detail, we bring our passion to it, and we imagine how great it will be. We can’t wait to be done, to behold the finished result. But inevitably, when we finish, we find that we’re not as elated as we’d thought. It’s the process that’s fun. It’s the love we put into it. But in the end, we’re never going to be completely satisfied with the end result.
Accomplishing something isn’t the rewarding part, it’s the working towards it. And after five years of working toward something, no end result could live up to the expectation.
Nick talks some more now about Gatsby’s notoriety and the rumours that spread concerning him.
Just why these inventions were a source of satisfaction to James Gatz of North Dakota isn’t easy to say. (97, 98)
Wait—to who now?!
James Gatz—that was really, or at least legally, his name.
And thus, we get the real story behind Gatsby. Juxtaposed right at the brink of the downward spiral of his dream, we learn the truth about him. This is out of chronological order, because Nick didn’t learn the truth at this point. Nick explains why he chooses to fill us in now:
He told me all this very much later, but I’ve put it down here with the idea of exploding those first wild rumors about his antecedents, which weren’t faintly true. Moreover he told it to me in a time of confusion, when I had reached the point of believing everything and nothing about him. So I take advantage of this short halt, while Gatsby, so to speak, caught his breath, to clear this set of misconceptions away. (101)
So we learn that Gatsby was born to “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people” and that “his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents.” He evidently came up with his alter ego early on, which explains the grand, larger-than-life quality of his facade.
So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to his conception he was faithful to the end. (98)
He eventually ended up on Dan Cody’s yacht. He inherited money from Cody, but Cody’s mistress used a legal device against him and it went to her instead. Still, he didn’t come away empty-handed from this experience.
He was left with his singularly appropriate education; the vague contour of Jay Gatsby had filled out to the substantiality of a man. (101)
His Unutterable Visions, Her Perishable Breath
Daisy attends one of Gatsby’s parties (accompanied by a grumpy and arrogant and very suspicious Tom). When the party is over, Gatsby is tired and unhappy, insisting that Daisy didn’t like it.
And we learn exactly what Gatsby wants from Daisy.
He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: “I never loved you.” After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house—just as if it were five years ago. (109)
Gatsby is never going to be content with Daisy Buchanan. He wants Daisy Fay. He wants the Daisy who never loved or married Tom in the first place. But that’s no longer possible—the ridiculousness of the expectation is emphasised by the phrase “obliterated four years with that sentence.” You cannot erase four years with a sentence. Even were it true that Daisy had never loved Tom, those four years still happened. Nothing will ever change that. (And, hello! She has a child!)
Clearly, his dream is doomed to failure. And this sad fact is creating more distance between himself and Daisy than the bay ever did.
“I feel far away from her,” he said. “It’s hard to make her understand.”
“And she doesn’t understand,” he said. “She used to be able to understand. We’d sit for hours—-“
The Daisy that Gatsby is looking for no longer exists. And Nick tries to warn him of this, telling him not to ask too much of her. Telling him that he cannot repeat the past.
It is at this point that Gatsby utters what is perhaps his most famous line:
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why, of course you can!” (110)
He is determined to “fix everything just the way it was before.” Nick has an idea as to why this is.
He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…
Gatsby’s existence, from a certain point onward, has been inextricably entwined with his love for Daisy. He cannot move forward because he is completely tangled up in something that remains in the past.
Then, we get a glimpse of the first time Gatsby kissed Daisy.
He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.
A couple of things here—besides the breathtaking beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose. Gatsby is wedding all of his dreams to something perishable. Daisy is perishable, and especially the Daisy that existed in this particular moment of time. Her relatively short existence appears and fades just as breath does. For him to completely entwine his own existence with that basically dooms him.
And in that moment, he is no longer free. Gatsby could have been anything—he had already reinvented himself completely. He had a talent for it. He had charm, and intelligence, and drive. But now he is tethered down to this one specific idea, this one single-minded dream, based on a perishable moment in time.
From the moment Gatsby kisses Daisy, all of his possibilities are erased. Now, everything he does will be in pursuit of his dream.
Looks like this will actually be a three-parter. There is just so much to say, and that’s with leaving quite a bit out to focus on the main points.
Gatsby is just a really fascinating character in that he is in some ways completely simple and straightforward, and in others, very deep and complicated. So it’s going to take three posts for me to get through all of that.