Discerning the ‘reality’ of Gatsby

Gatsby is the most enigmatic character of the novel. The outline of his life emerges during the course of the novel, in fragmentary and overlapping narrative episodes, with several false trails and some contradictions. This has the effect of making Gatsby an extremely elusive character in terms of his origins, which is part of his fascination to those surrounding him. Significantly, we are told that Gatsby himself ‘invented’ Jay Gatsby, and that this creation of a 17-year-old remained intact until his death at 32. 

A chronology of Gatsby’s life

  • Jay Gatsby starts life as James Gatz (known to his father as ‘Jimmy’), the son of poor farm people in North Dakota. He seems to have been born in 1890, making him 32 years old during the main events of the novel in 1922
  • He moves eastward as a young man, shaping his own destiny even to the extent of changing his name as he encounters multi-millionaire Dan Cody on Lake Superior in 1907 (at the age of 17) and becomes his companion
  • Following Cody’s death in 1912, Gatsby eventually joins the American army, meets Daisy in Louisville in 1917 and serves in the First World War
  • He then spends time in Oxford, and returns to America once Daisy has married Tom
  • Gatsby meets Wolfsheim just at this time, in ‘Winebrenner’s poolroom’ in New York, and begins a rapid rise to wealth and notoriety which reaches a peak in the summer of 1922. 

Gatsby’s wealth

The principal image of Gatsby is his wealth, represented by his house, his car, his clothes and his parties. Nick refers to Gatsby’s ‘career as Trimalchio’ (Chapter 7) in relation to his conspicuous consumption and his status as newly-rich. Fitzgerald considered a range of titles for the novel which would make clear reference to this, including Trimalchio and Trimalchio in West Egg. Chapter 3 offers a particularly detailed account of the excessively hedonistic parties, while Chapter 5 presents a close view of the house and its many sumptuously decorated rooms. Gatsby’s bedroom, however, is ‘the simplest room of all’ which suggests that the inner workings of this character are denied by the narrator. 

Chasing an ideal

Gatsby’s motivation, at least superficially, is to gain Daisy, and this has led him to settle in a house opposite hers. Nevertheless, there are hints at a more general pursuit of an ideal, which Daisy embodies but does not ultimately satisfy: Nick notes that she may have ‘tumbled short of his dreams’ and that Gatsby was committed to an ‘illusion’ which no-one could fulfil. Moreover, Nick recounts Gatsby’s observation that being in love with Daisy was ‘way off my ambitions’.

There are two striking episodes where Gatsby’s ‘ambition’ or ‘imagination’ are described, which suggest that he was always in pursuit of something intangible or ‘ineffable’. The first occurs in Chapter 6, introduced by a journalist seeking information about Gatsby. Nick describes Gatsby’s inner state, around the time of meeting Dan Cody, as being in ‘constant, turbulent riot’ and remarks that ‘a universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain’. In this same chapter, we are told that Gatsby is also intent on repeating the past and Nick comments that:

he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy.

This comment blurs into a narrative by Gatsby (relayed via Nick) of an autumn night in 1917, when Gatsby had ‘wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath’. Daisy and wealth appear to be secondary ideals for Gatsby, but the actual goal of his searching and energetic ‘beating’ against the current remains obscured.

Outward appearances

Gatsby’s symbolic colour is pink - he wears a ‘gorgeous pink rag’ of a suit - but he is also often associated with yellow or cream, in which terms his car is described. His expensive shirts are ‘many coloured’ and his parties are associated with gaudy and bright colours. The connotations of pink in the 1920s were not related to gender or sexuality, as they are strongly today, but rather state his wealth and extravagance, much as the bright colours and lights do throughout the novel. 

Aside from his clothing, which functions as a display of wealth, there is very little focus on Gatsby’s physical appearance, although his very personal smile and the idiolect feature of ‘old sport’ are noted by Nick. Before Nick knows his identity, he is seen in silhouette in Chapter 1, and then as just a ‘man of about my age’ in Chapter 3. Once Gatsby reveals his identity to Nick, he is described as an:

elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.

After this introduction, he is defined very much in terms of his absences and aloof position at his own party, using language filled with negatives: 

no one swooned backward on Gatsby and no French bob touched Gatsby’s shoulder and no singing quartets were formed with Gatsby’s head for one link.

Gatsby’s role

Gatsby’s role in the novel is difficult to define. 

The Dream and the dreamer

For some readers, Gatsby’s demise represents the demise of the American Dream. Accordingly, he is seen as an embodiment of the American Dream, particularly as he is driven by his ‘dream’ of Daisy, whose portrayal is closely bound up with ideas about wealth and social status. However, this might be too limited an interpretation of Gatsby as a character. 

Tragic hero?

Gatsby’s role is certainly to fail and lose, having briefly gained his goal. His life gives the novel a tragic narrative pattern, but he is a strange tragic hero:

  • His origins are humble
  • His activities are criminal and immoral
  • His nobility rests in his ‘extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness’ and ‘capacity for wonder’ which enables him to continue idealising Daisy, despite her inability to fulfil his dreams. 

This capacity might be said to be his ‘tragic flaw’ or the root of his ‘tragic mistake’. He dies awaiting Daisy’s call and ‘paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.’ Although Nick surmises that Gatsby might have given up hope, we are never given direct access to Gatsby’s thoughts so he remains elusive and enigmatic.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.