Can true love be attained? Is there any purity or virtue left in the modern world? Can hope and idealism survive the cynical realities of life? F. Scott Fitzgerald's tragic The Great Gatsby examines these uncomfortable questions amid an upper-class milieu of corruption and dashed hopes. Like many other classic works of literature, Fitzgerald's novel produces in the reader a "healthy confusion of pleasure and disquietude." Despite Gatsby's stirring quest for love, he seems doomed by the "extraordinary gift for hope" (page 2) that first seems a blessing to Nick Carraway, the story's narrator. The Great Gatsby questions our most closely held beliefs about the powers of love and honor, of the virtues of success, the certainty of perception, and life itself.
Simply, The Great Gatsby is a story about the search for true love. Unlike other stories of the same nature, however, Fitzgerald's doesn't present an idealized or romantic view of such a venture. Gatsby is a member of the nouveaux riches, The object of Gatsby's love is Daisy Buchanan, an upper-class debutante whom he met in Louisville five years earlier. Daisy's rich status entices Gatsby, but like so many characters in love stories, he knows that his low-class standing can never be compatible with hers. Despite this obstacle, the facetious "sense of security" he gives her in "[letting] her believe that he was a person... from the same social status as herself" (pg. 149) allows the relationship to continue. Gatsby does not at first see their relationship as 'true love-' "he had intended, probably to take what he could and go." (pg. 149) Perhaps ensnared by fate or true love, perhaps just seduced by her wealth, Gatsby finds that he has "committed himself to the following of a grail." (pg. 149) Gatsby's love takes on an aspect of archaic Romanticism, an artifact from some forgotten Arthurian time of chivalry and honor. This honor is tainted from the start, however. It is the "mystery of wealth" and "the freshness of new clothes" (pg. 150) that attracts Gatsby, not purer concepts of beauty, chastity, or virtue. It is his love for Daisy- impure love or impossible- that damns him: "He knew that when he kissed [Daisy], and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God." (pg. 112) He abandons a possibly glorious future, a chance to climb a "ladder" that, "if he climbed alone," would allow him to "suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder." (p. 112) This is a reversal of classic themes-love is no longer the greatest virtue; it has been superceded by something more solitary.
After Gatsby is forced to abandon Daisy for the war, she grows distant, "nervous" and "despairing." (pg. 151) Daisy turns to something more immediate- Tom Buchanan, a rich and eligible young man- financially stable, though domineering, unfaithful, sometimes cruel, and possibly abusive. Upon his return from Europe, Gatsby sets out to rewin Daisy. Here he unknowingly begins an even further corruption of his love for Daisy. Wealth seems to be the key, so Gatsby sets out to procure his own fortune. Thinking only of the past and planning only for the future, he enters the tutelage of Meyer Wolfsheim, a Jewish gambler and con-man. Like Faust, he 'sells his soul' in pursuit of a virtuous goal-like Faust's desire for infinite knowledge, Gatsby desires an impossible 'true love' that faded years ago. Also, like Faust, he meets a tragic end and is abandoned by his mentor.
Eventually, through bootlegging, fraud, and other shady dealings, Gatsby amasses a fortune, purchasing a mansion directly across the bay from Daisy and Tom's New York home. He throws lavish parties, hoping to attract Daisy like she once attracted him. When this fails, he turns to Nick Carraway, his accidental neighbor-and cousin to Daisy. Gatsby encourages Nick to set him up with Daisy, hoping that she will remember her love for him. Unfortunately, Gatsby ignores the moral failings that continue to pollute his love, planning to seduce Daisy and to destroy Tom and Daisy's marriage. Though the reader may sympathize with his plan-after all, Tom is unfaithful-it seems that a perfect love cannot be accomplished at the pain of others. Nick warns Gatsby of the dangers of his actions- "I wouldn't ask too much of her," he says, "You can't repeat the past." Gatsby, not comprehending the futility of his yearning search, replies incredulously, "Can't repeat the past? ...Of course you can!" (pg. 111) His inability to accept such a fundamental truth emphasizes his inability to cope with loss and modern life- he is a relic from a Romantic age, unsuited to reality. Gatsby triumphantly confronts Tom: "Your wife doesn't love you... She's never loved you. She loves me." Despite Gatsby's momentary victory, Daisy wavers and ultimately betrays him. "I did love him once," she says, "-but I loved you too." (pg. 133) Tom regains control, and Gatsby's fate is sealed. Tom allows Gatsby to drive Daisy home, "toward death." (pg. 137) A distraught Daisy pilots Gatsby's car, driving recklessly and killing Tom's mistress Myrtle, who believes that Tom is in Gatsby's car. Gatsby becomes a martyr, refusing to tell anyone that Daisy was driving at the time of the hit-and-run accident. Myrtle's devastated husband Wilson, thinking Tom responsible for her death, goes to Tom's home, where Tom tells him who really owned the car that killed Myrtle. Wilson kills Gatsby and then himself. Gatsby simultaneously loses his love, his hope, and his life, doomed by idealism. Faithfulness to these virtues has paradoxically led to Gatsby's downfall. The reader is made to wonder whether any of these can survive in the corrupt modern world.
The uncertainty of morality that is explored in Gatsby's search for love is coupled with explorations of other philosophical uncertainties. Fitzgerald's writing, oddly enough, seems to reveal a premonition of the existentialist movement in philosophy, which did not fully emerge for another sixteen years. After his rejection by Daisy, Gatsby's life is devoid of meaning- he has "paid a high price for living a single dream." (pg. 162) The existential movement has roots in the concept of a meaningless and absurd existence, one that creates a feeling of 'nausea' and 'existential angst' in human beings. "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," (pg. 162) writes Fitzgerald, foreshadowing existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre's first novel, Nausea. Nausea explores the altered perceptions of a young Frenchman who similarly recognizes the meaninglessness of life. This perception of a meaningless and arbitrary world is frightening to the observer- yet everyone can sympathize with the feeling of listlessness that accompanies a great loss.
The symbolic character of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg in Gatsby explores additional frightening territory. Eckleburg is an advertisement for an ophthalmologist, whose retinas "one yard high" (pg. 23) survey the wasted landscape separating the homes of Gatsby and the Buchanans from New York City. Eckleburg, presiding over "the valley of ashes," seems to symbolize God himself, watching over the sin-poisoned Earth. Wilson seems to recognize this in his agony, seeing the eyes of Eckleburg as he questions his wife about her affair. "You can't fool God!" he says, "God sees everything." Yet God, however omniscient, seems powerless over the world. Amazingly, the corrupted Gatsby himself is compared to God or a messiah, both independently and through the character of Eckleburg. "You resemble the advertisement of the man," says Daisy, "You know the advertisement of the man-" (pg. 119) possibly alluding to Eckleburg. "He was a son of God," muses Carraway, "and he must be about his Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty." (pg. 99) That God can be manifested through a corrupt human- not a sinless one like Jesus- that He is powerless, and that His creation can be described with a term like meretricious: denoting a prostitute, or something tawdrily attractive, is an intensely frightening concept. Gatsby's spiritual dimension is enhanced by his martyr-like assumption of responsibility for Tom and Daisy's "vast carelessness." (pg. 180)
In addition to its sometimes disturbing philosophical and spiritual insights, The Great Gatsby presents a harsh social commentary. Jay Gatsby seems, at first, the epitome of success and the triumph of the 'American Dream-' a poor mid-western farm-boy who went to war, came back to the city, and made good. In this he seems to embody the spirit of the 'roaring twenties-' prosperity, plenty, and partying. Gatsby's life has been driven by a constant striving for perfection. Born Jay Gatz, son of "shiftless and unsuccessful farm people," his current identity is an invention. "Jay Gatsby... sprang from his Platonic conception of himself." (pg. 99) Gatsby's infinite hope that he might attain a perfection that is of its essence unreal and unattainable leads to his doom. The 'American Dream' is a similar quest for perfection that does not lead to fulfilling lives- only to hollow, phony existences like those of the upper-class people in the novel.
The novel's very narration comments on reality, emphasizing its subjectivity. Nick Carraway, although a seemingly superior narrator because he is "inclined to reserve all judgements" (pg. 1) and is a natural confidante, cannot be omniscient or completely unbiased. Rumors fly in the company of the upper-class, and many characters deliberately lie to serve their own purposes. Nick, and thus the reader, never knows the depth of Gatsby's illegal and immoral activities- Tom hints at "something [Gatsby has] on now that [Tom's informant] was afraid to tell [him] about." (pg. 135) Even Gatsby's death is surrounded by mysterious circumstances. His servants are in the employ of Wolfsheim, and they initially ignore the shots that take Gatsby's life. Gatsby constantly receives cryptic phone calls, one of which Nick intercepts. Gatsby is involved in something shady- is his death connected to this? The reader never really knows. Ambiguity pervades the narration, since Nick does not know the motivations of the other characters. At the novel's close, he comments that "after Gatsby's death the East was... distorted beyond my eyes' power of correction." Reality is influenced by perception, which is a subjective and individually relative process. This realization further damages the idea that perfection or absolutes- true love, the Platonic ideal, honor, virtue- exist.
Gatsby's life and death resonate within the reader, while serving as a reminder of mortality and other concepts that threaten to remove the anchors of denial and inattention that sometimes seem to make life possible. His futile striving for perfection is universal. Like Gatsby, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (pg. 182) Gatsby's tragic death, unachieved aspirations, and unattended funeral reveal that human life itself can be a tragic process.