Throughout Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby is presented as one of the only characters with hope. As in all great hero’s, that one tragic flaw becomes their ultimate downfall; in Gatsby’s case, the tragic flaw is hope coupled with love. American’s are obsessed with their heroes possessing the character traits of endurance, perseverance, and love. Gatsby at once becomes a hero because he loves this manifestation of Daisy and despite signs of ill welcome he roses over his situation by allowing himself to believe that Daisy will be his. He is a hero because he is good-natured and the innocent American lad who never quite understands the meaning of the words failing with dignity.
The character of Jay Gatsby is one of the most fascinating of those in American literature. His persona is one of a self-created socialite – his money came from criminal exploits, and his motivation was the love of a single woman. Gatsby is shown throughout the novel as, though dedicated to a seemingly noble pursuit, a man who would stop at no ends to achieve his goal. Yet, his character is seen as sympathetic by the reader. Through his illegal exploits, his dealings with organized crime, and his profiting from the sale of stolen securities, the reader sees Gatsby as a hero – partly because of the narrator, Nick Calloway.
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Though Gatsby has failings as a moral human, he has dedicated himself, throughout the novel, to a noble pursuit – the love of Daisy Buchanan. Though his relationship with Daisy is based on a lie – that he was well-born, rather than poor – Gatsby immediately is granted a literary reprieve as he leaves to fight in World War I. During his time at war, Daisy marries Tom Buchanan, a terribly unsympathetic character. It is through his struggle to regain the heart of Daisy Buchanan that Gatsby is found by the Nick Calloway, the narrator.
The persona of Gatsby is surrounded by myth throughout the early parts of the novel. The tales of his past are riddled with instances of impropriety. In Gatsby’s youth, he is described as being “a young ruffian, bumming about the south shore of Lake Superior, where by chance he had met Dan Cody, a millionaire” – from which Gatsby’s rise in wealth began. (Tanner 468) The fact is revealed that the majority of Gatsby’s wealth came from the bootlegging and sale of alcohol during prohibition. This also led to Gatsby’s ties to organized crime. These attributes would, under different circumstances, paint the picture of a man to be loathed, rather than heralded.
His estate is the setting of grandiose displays of wealth, however, as large parties and extravagant spending is evident from the beginning. This setting creates a sense of “hedonism [which] is reflected in his house, wild parties, clothing, roadster, and particularly in his blatant wooing of another man’s wife”. (Pearson 642)
However, as the story progresses, Gatsby overcomes the literary accusations of impropriety. Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan is revealed to be adulterous and cruel. Tom is also painted to racist, sexist and unapologetically amoral. This combination of personal attributes lends to Gatsby’s textual vindication. Because Daisy’s husband is so utterly unlikable, the fact that Gatsby is attempting to steal away his wife seems more of mercy and vindication than an affront against the institution of marriage.
The persona of Gatsby is further improved upon after the introduction of Myrtle Wilson – the lover of Tom Buchanan. The area in which she resides is described as barren and lifeless. The ground is scorched and bleak. Myrtle’s existence within the novel serves to set the reader so strongly against Tom Buchanan, that all of the improprieties committed by Gatsby are forgiven – in fact, they seem to become romantic.
The reasoning behind Gatsby’s ascent into the world of wealth and social status is done for love. Because of this, his pursuit of wealth is seen as a necessary evil, rather than an evil pursuit. The redemption of Gatsby is complete, at the end of the novel, as Tom Buchanan has him killed. The struggle for the heart of his dear love is then unfulfilled, and made even more tragic – cementing, in the mind of the reader, that Jay Gatsby is a martyr to love, rather than a common criminal.
Gatsby commits the crime of handing himself wholly to a woman who is perceived to care only about the gods of avarice (as is the green American dream), and having a splendid time drinking down her life. She gives little consolation to Gatsby, she allows herself to think she may have a type of dichotomy with her husband and Gatsby. In this situation, Gatsby becomes more real to the reader through his easily deceived notions of the rich world (believing heartily that only money matters with the elite, even if it’s ‘new money’). He overstays his welcome at parties, doesn’t catch onto the nuisances of the game as Miss Bart would have in The House of Mirth, and he finally dies that tragic, complicated death.
The one item, which prevails Gatsby’s claim to heroism, is his hope. That trait of saintly endeavor which Gatsby latches onto with Daisy. Is it not in the American hero to dream of one day becoming rich? Of owning a beautiful, big house? Of marrying a childhood sweetheart? And Gatsby, throughout his struggles with class adherence, and fitting in, does succeed in almost obtaining all of these. He gets the money, the house, and with these material possessions finds a path through Daisy’s green eyes to her vacuous heart. Little else can be said of her. She was single-minded with one level and wanted everything at once. She is a rather ambivalent character. She wants Tom because he once epitomized the American sports hero, and she wants Gatsby because of his money. But she is not “poor” Daisy. At the end, she has become an ant-hero simply because she knew what she wanted too late in the novel and she still would not have acted on that want, whatever it was: be it Gatsby, Tom, or least of all independence.
Gatsby presents the reader with a dilemma, however. Even if he is classified as an American hero he becomes a developed character only through his mishaps and hard times. He ‘pulled himself up by his bootstraps’. He went from poor youth to the rich guy but never learned the lesson of money until it was sad, too late. One passage which is the apex of describing Gatsby’s heroism in terms of an almost nihilistic society is expressed through Nick’s reflections: ” . . . 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 . . . and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.” (P169).
Throughout the whole The Great Gatsby there can be seen the struggle of one man against the 1920s ideal of wealth, leisure and social standing as the pretense towards the American dream. Jay Gatsby had dedicated his life, and all facets of it, to the creation of the necessary persona needed to win the heart of his one true love. However, this goal is not obtained, as he is tragically murdered before he can convince Daisy to leave Tom Buchanan. These events and motivations alter the natural view of his actions – his criminal activity, attempted adultery and thievery – and instead make his entire life’s work, from 1919 to the present, an elaborate plan to win true love.
- Tanner, Bernard. “The Gospel of Gatsby”. The English Journal. Vol. 54, No. 6. Sept. 1965. p. 467-474.
- Pearson, Roger L. “Gatsby: False Prophet of the American Dream”. The English Journal. Vol. 59, No. 5. May 1970. p. 638- 642+645.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. (1999). The Great Gatsby. Scribner Press. New York.