Is greatness defined by achievements, or intentions? Is it an ideal that one can only approach and never reach? As Jay Gatsby’s past is gradually revealed in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it is unveiled to the reader that he “is arguably neither ‘great’ nor, indeed, ‘Gatsby’” (Stocks). James Gatz is an unremarkable man from a poor family of farmers in North Dakota, but enthralled by the American Dream of the self-made man and the promise of greatness, he fabricates an identity for himself: Jay Gatsby. Unlike Gatz, Gatsby is the epitome of success, a worldly, Oxford educated man who inherited his wealth from a family in San Francisco. Most importantly, unlike his less impressive counterpart, Gatsby fulfills the social expectations needed in order to be with Daisy: the woman he loves, a woman who is part of the pre-established social elite in America. He conjures up a dream of who he wants to be and attempts to make it a reality. Literary critic Claire Stocks explains,“The vague contour of Jay Gatsby had filled out to the substantiality of a man” (Fitzgerald 101). But he takes too long in fabricating this facade, and Daisy marries another man. Determined to achieve his vision through any means possible, Gatsby accumulates wealth and infamy in order to win Daisy over. He buys a house right across the bay from Daisy. However, the bay represents an invisible barrier he can never cross, for Daisy’s side of it is where the ‘old money’ lives. It’s true, Gatz fell short of Gatsby and fell short of the American Dream, but that doesn’t mean that the greatness of this ideal is diminished. Although James Gatz acquires his wealth through less than admirable means, the differentiation between James Gatz the man and Jay Gatsby the ideal elucidates the intrinsic greatness in his dream.
Those who denounce Gatsby’s greatness often define Gatsby solely by his more reprehensible qualities and the less than reputable means through which he gains his affluence. He’s a bootlegger, involved in sketchy dealings with gamblers, and shrouded by rumors such as “he killed a man” (Fitzgerald 44). Gatsby’s justifications for the deplorable way he got wealthy are rather noble. His intentions are not based solely in greed, but also in his love for Daisy. Nonetheless, some readers believe his motivations do not vindicate his actions. However, there is something that will render his criminal actions inconsequential across the board. For even if his criminal activities cannot be exonerated, even if he should only be defined by his faults, even if, however ridiculous it may seem, greatness needs to be synonymous with perfection, all of that becomes irrelevant when the distinction is made between Gatz and Gatsby. Gatz carefully crafts the character of Gatsby, filling him with everything he would like to be: an incarnation of the American Dream.“The truth was that Jay Gatsby… sprang from his platonic conception of himself” (Fitzgerald 98). Gatz is like an actor playing the part of somebody much more successful than himself. “There is certainly something of a showman about Gatsby…His house, too, seems to be a kind of stage or set that is arranged so perfectly” (Stocks). Indeed, much effort went into fabricating the setting. His house is large and impressive. Location wise, it is as close as he can get it to where the “old money” lives, to where Daisy lives. Obsessed with making his facade as real as possible, Gatz fills his library with an expansive collection of impressive looking books. An awestruck guest who assumes the books must be fakes, remarks, “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too- didn’t cut the pages” (Fitzgerald 45-46). The veneer is intricately imagined, crafted diligently, assiduously. It would almost appear that his facade embodies greatness more than he ever has. But his facade is Gatsby. James Gatz is imperfect, even criminal, but Gatsby is just an idea, an incarnation of the American Dream contained within a flawed vessel. Everything Gatz achieves belongs to his character; it’s Gatsby’s house, Gatsby’s wealth, Gatsby’s success, and Gatsby’s glory. And because the illusion is a work of fiction, there’s no limit to how perfect it can be. Gatz’s flaws don’t need to be ignored or discarded in order to acknowledge Gatsby’s greatness. According to literary critic Barbara Will, “As critics have often noted, the text stakes its ending on the inevitability of our forgetting everything about Gatsby that has proved troublesome about his character up to this point. What critics have generally overlooked, however, is the fact that the text also self-consciously describes this process of forgetting” (Will). The reader can forget about Gatz’s flaws because they’re irrelevant. Even if Gatz never lives up to the ideal he envisions, it’s the ideal that embodies greatness. Gatz may or may not have gone about achieving it in the wrong way, but the allure and the promise of the dream endure. The dream is not invalidated by the flaws of the dreamer.
Even after coming to accept the difference between the dream and the man behind it, some critics still question the greatness of the dream itself. Gatsby himself is disillusioned with success; he finds that the facade doesn’t satiate him. He enjoys the promise of the dream more, enjoys having infinite possibilities at his fingertips more than he enjoys living out one of those possibilities, saying “What was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling [Daisy] what I was going to do?” (Fitzgerald 150). In his mind, he fantasises about how much better his life will be once he succeeds, but even Daisy cannot live up to his extraordinary expectations. “There must have been moments…when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams- not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion” (Fitzgerald 95-96). It’s ultimately Gatsby’s ambition that destroys him, making it appear that Fitzgerald himself remains disapproving of the American Dream. However, if Fitzgerald is truly trying to undermine the pervasive awe of the dream, why would he pick Nick to be the narrator, someone who sees the greatness in Gatsby more than anyone else? Watching the story unfold through Nick’s eyes provides the reader with the most compelling case in favor of Gatsby’s greatness. Nick’s reliability as a narrator may be questionable, but his devotion towards and reverence for Gatsby certainly aren’t. Even though Nick makes statements about Gatsby such as, “I disapproved from him from beginning to end” (Fitzgerald 154), actions speak louder than words. Nick’s actions not only serve to disprove his apparent ambivalence, but also serve as further testament to the allure of Gatsby’s character. Nick never acts on feelings of disapproval, but instead, adamantly stays by Gatsby’s side throughout the entirety of the novel. Before the reader is even introduced to Gatsby, Nick plants the expectation for a truly enthralling character, saying “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him… it was an extraordinary gift for hope” (Fitzgerald 2). The hope that he provides is one of the things that makes Gatsby great in Nick’s eyes. Gatsby proves the attainability of the American Dream, and regardless of the tribulation and ostracization he endures as a result, he stands as a promise that greatness is possible, that it is possible to become more than who one was born as. “Gatsby is not so much his identity with an American tradition of hard work and ‘luck and pluck’ but rather his dreaminess” (Will). This is an integral component of the indescribable quality that distinguishes Gatsby from the others in the crowd he runs with. Nick acknowledges this to Gatsby, even after witnessing Gatsby’s fall from grace in front of Daisy, when Gatsby’s criminal background is revealed, saying “They’re a rotten crowd…You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” (Fitzgerald 154). If these character’s ideals of grandeur seem hollow, it’s because greatness is shallow; humans value shallow things. The 1920s American Dream was based on wealth and renown; that was greatness at the time and Gatsby lived up to it. Even setting that construct aside, Gatz exhibits characteristics of greatness in his integrity, unwavering as he strove for what he wanted, insatiable as he built himself up from nothing. It would seem the only time that Gatz exhibits greatness is through Gatsby. The ideals need to be filled out by someone; they’re nothing without a man or woman behind them, but it doesn’t matter who that vessel is. There’s something indisputably hopeful in that and it continues to resonate with readers and dreamers alike.
Greatness is perhaps a subjective ambition, but it isn’t as fleeting and volatile as some believe. It is not just 15 minutes of fame or a one hit wonder, but something more perdurable, something that endures the test of time, slowly becoming an intrinsic part of society. James Gatz may have died, flawed and in bad company, but the idea behind him, Jay Gatsby, has transcended the man and lived on into the modern era. The meaning of the American Dream has transformed as the people behind it have evolved. As Nick discovers when reflecting on the events of that summer, even when it embodied something materialistic and intangible, the dream’s capacity for possibilities, “commensurate to [man’s] capacity for wonder” (Fitzgerald 180) continued to captivate the human imagination and cultivate the human spirit. Whether reaching for the dream means humanity is barreling forward into an alien future or “borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Fitzgerald 180), the continued strive for greatness remains inseparable from the American identity that Gatsby embodied.
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