Idealism and disillusionment

Gatsby’s desire for self-definition

Gatsby is the ultimate idealist, falling in love with Daisy and then pursuing her after her initial rejection of him, in an attempt to be reunited with her and reclaim her love. However, there are aspects of this to which Nick draws attention, suggesting that this focus on Daisy was somehow in lieu of something else:

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…

Idealism undermined

Idealism is constantly undermined by conflicting versions of reality in the novel: Tom challenges Gatsby’s claim that Daisy never loved him with a powerful account of:

things between Daisy and me that you’ll never know, things that neither of us can ever forget

and Gatsby is deeply shocked by Daisy’s admission that, ‘I did love him once – but I loved you too.’ Even in their most joyous scene, at Gatsby’s house in Chapter 5, Nick sounds a note of doubt:

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 the 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.

The frailty of idealism is highlighted by Nick’s comment that Gatsby pays a ‘high price for living too long with a single dream’. It is not clear from Nick’s language whether Gatsby himself recognises this, since Nick uses conditional phrases such as ‘perhaps’ and ‘if’ along with the modal auxiliary verb ‘must’:

I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe [the phone call] would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true, he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.

In many ways, Gatsby has been exceptionally loyal to his ideal and has retained hope that Daisy will choose him, even to the morning of his death. Nick recognises the quality of his ‘wonder’ as a rare and valuable asset. Nevertheless, Jordan, by contrast, is praised by Nick for being ‘too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age’. Nick is extremely ambivalent about his attitude towards idealism, saying that:

it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
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