10 Books of Summer: The Great Gatsby- The Mystery of Jay Gatsby
“One time he killed a man who found out that he was nephew to Von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil.”
Jay Gatsby. The man who came from nowhere. The man who stands alone in his own parties full of people who drink his free, illegal booze and swap theories about his identity. Even Nick Carraway doesn’t understand how a young man suddenly emerged that rich, with a house that size and no (true) history. If even the characters in the book can’t quite suss Gatsby out, then how must we feel? And yet his story is so popular and maybe that mystery isn’t holding us back from knowing Gatsby, it’s part of him.
Questions to think about today:
– Did you like Gatsby as a person? How about as a character? What were his best, and worst, attributes?
-Why do you think he was so successful? What qualities does he have that account for his wealth? Why do you think he went into business with Wolfshiem?
-What about his feelings towards Daisy? What do you make of them?
(I’m going to talk about things like illusion and reality and isolation later on in the week so they’ve been deliberately omitted today. I realise they’re important to Gatsby as a whole, but I don’t want to be covering the same ground!)
The first time we see Mr Gatsby, he is “regarding the silver pepper of stars.” Stars seem to hold a lot of sway for Gatsby throughout the novel. What is amazing to me, looking back at this first meeting after having read the book through, is how fervently Gatsby believes in the power of the green light. He is trembling, reaching out to it. It is, perhaps, the most honest part of the novel- because it is something that Gatsby does when he believes he is totally unseen, unobserved. Because of Nick’s narration, very rarely do we truly see characters when they are alone. Gatsby standing at the end of his dock, reaching out to the light may have seem affected, false, if anyone had been with him.
Ambition & Imagination
James Gatz hated his life. He hated poverty, he didn’t want to live the life his parents led- in fact, “his imagination had never really accepted him as his parents at all.” The poor North Dakota boy saw himself as “a son of God”. He was determined to make something of himself, no matter what the cause. It’s really impressive drive. And when he sees Dan Cody’s boat struggling, it isn’t compassion that causes Gatsby to help him, it’s ambition. It’s the idea that maybe Cody can help Gatsby get where he’s going.
Already by the time he meets Cody, he’s changed his name. He has imagined himself as someone entirely new. Jay Gatsby, wealthy and suave- “a universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out of his brain”.
Sometimes I know that I, for one, thought that everything that Gatsby did was for Daisy, somewhat foolishly. But it wasn’t. Long before Gatsby met Daisy, he had imagined himself as rich, successful, happy and living in luxury.
Then, when he meets Daisy in Louisville, he tells himself not to fall for her, because he’s worried that she’s going to change his plans. And she does. Suddenly, accidentally, he finds himself “committed to the following of a grail.” And while his plans don’t change, Daisy becomes a major focal point. The green light that Gatsby stares at at night, his house just across the bay. He imagines a life for the two of them- a life where she never loved her husband, a life where they will be together in that big house and everything will be the way it was.
The Facade and Charm
“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
Gatz was cheated out of the inheritance that Dan Cody left him, and for many people that might have been the end of his rise. But instead, he found that Cody had still left him something important- the ability to act rich and to be the Jay Gatsby, with all the gaps filled in to his original idea of his future self.
He has abilities that get him to where he is. His smile is a particular one that Nick dwells on. Gatsby makes people feel comfortable and that’s why Wolfshiem wanted him in the business.
But nearly everything Gatsby does is a lie. (I said I wouldn’t dwell on this but hey). The way he says “old sport.” The pink suit, the car, the parties full of debauchery in which he takes no part. For a while, the book was going to be called “Trimalchio of West Egg” and Gatsby even gets referred to as Trimalchio once in the novel. But what on earth does this mean? Trimalchio is a classical figure who threw extravagant parties, and indulged just as much as any of the guests. But Gatsby doesn’t. Gatsby stands back and observes- he and Nick have that in common in many ways.
The sad thing about this, that we as readers notice but Gatsby himself never really does, is that the reason that none of this impresses Daisy is because it isn’t her world. Gatsby thought that money would bring him into her world, but snobbery is much harder to obtain than riches it seems.
“Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!”
Another thing that I found about Gatsby was his optimism. It’s funny compared to Daisy’s pessimism (remember that key garden scene when she tells Nick she’s had a ‘pretty bad time of it’.) Gatsby’s wild imagination has never imagined that Daisy wouldn’t love him, that Daisy ever loved Tom. He doesn’t ever seem worried that things are going to fall apart or even that the upward trajectory of his life is going to stop. It’s both very foolish of him and yet, I found, somewhat endearing. That such a grown man, with so much in his life and so much reason to be any number of things: cynical and bitter, arrogant and lazy, chooses to be optimistic. It’s because his vision of himself is not complete. Sure, that vision of himself as rich is nearly there, but not without Daisy in it. Never once, it seems, does Gatsby entertain the thought that she won’t come back to him. Until the very end, he is sure she’s going to call him, sure she’s going to leave Tom and come to Gatsby. He dies with that thought.
This last trait is something I want to dwell on. Why do you think Gatsby never considered what the other possibilities might be? He was determined, yes, but most people, when a woman marries someone else, might decide that it wasn’t true love after all and go off hunting elsewhere. Yet Gatsby instead creates this palace across the bay, throws extravagant parties and builds a life for Daisy- he lives in that big house, all alone, waiting for her. He doesn’t ever, in those five years, waver in his conviction that they’re meant to be together.
Gatsby also has an obsession with time, with returning to the past, with the malleability of the years. That there is a particular future waiting, that five years can disappear with a click of his fingers. When he meets Daisy at Nick’s and is clumsy and nervous, it’s no accident that the object he breaks is a clock. And that’s why the last line of the book is so perfect: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
So what did you think of Gatsby as a character, as a person? Was he a good focal point for the book? Let me know below!