Gatsby Opinion QuestionSome critics see at least two sides to Gatsby’s character.  His unsavory and shadowy activities cannot be ignored, of course.  In the minds of certain critics, they are...

Gatsby Opinion Question

Some critics see at least two sides to Gatsby’s character.  His unsavory and shadowy activities cannot be ignored, of course.  In the minds of certain critics, they are offset because Gatsby is a representation of the American dream.  Says Robert Ornstein, for example, “Gatsby is great, because his dream, however naïve, gaudy, and unattainable, is one of the grand illusions of the race which keep men from becoming too old or too wise or too cynical of their human limitations.”

In a strikingly different interpretation, Gary J. Scrimgeour sees Gatsby “without Caraway’s intervening intelligence…Gatsby is a boor, a roughneck, a fraud, a criminal.  His taste is vulgar, his behavior ostentatious, his love adolescent, his business dealings ruthless and dishonest.  He is interested in people—most notably in Caraway himself—only when he wants to use them.  His nice gestures stem from the fact that, as one character comments, ‘He doesn’t want any trouble with anybody.’  What lifts him above ordinary viciousness is the magnitude of his ambition and the glamour of his illusion…Grand this defiance of reality may seem; silly it is nonetheless.”

Which portrait of Gatsby is more accurate—that of a vulgar wheeler-dealer whose dream is “silly” or that of a tragic victim of the American dream whose death can inspire the reader to become less cynical?  Use specific examples from the novel to illustrate your point.

Asked on by sarahcd

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amarang9's profile pic

amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Gatsby's love is adolescent and he is involved in shady business, but I disagree with everything else in the Scrimgeour quote. He's not ostentatious. In fact, in his own kind of insularity at these parties (his mind and eyes are usually drawn to the rustic romanticism of the green light), he pretty much treats the guests as a host at a restaurant would. He may be using them to sustain his new identity, but they use him as well for parties and social standing. Gatsby is not put in a different light via Nick's intervening intelligence. There are times with Nick where we see the real Gatz: particularly when he is first about to meet up with Daisy at Nick's place. Gatsby reveals this adolescent infatuation and this is one of the endearing qualities that balance or cancel out his dishonesty with respect to his fake identity. In the end, I'd say he's a bit of both. He does some wheeling-dealing and he is dishonest, but I think his naive romanticism and tragic death are what make him more Great than dishonest. I attribute a lot of the tragedy (Myrtle's death, and subsequently Mr. Wilson and Gatsby himself) to Tom's behavior, not so much Gatsby's.

dstuva's profile pic

Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I suggest that the answer depends on how much emphasis one puts on the love story aspect of the tale.  The question is whether or not love trumps all else.  If it does, then Gatsby is the victim in a tragic love story.  If it doesn't, then Gatsby is a heel who got what he deserves.

Also at issue is how judgemental you want to be.  Sophisticated readers usually read to understand, rather than condemn or judge.  Let me use an example from your passage above.

Gatsby does, indeed, have little use for anyone who doesn't have some connection to Daisy, for anyone that cannot lead him to recapturing the relationship he thinks he had.  But this can be interpreted in different ways:

  • With condemnation:  Gatsby is a creep who is only interested in people when he can use them.
  • With understanding:  Gatsby is naturally shy and reticent, and talking to people does not come easily.  He is also obsessed with Daisy and his love is all-encompassing.  His only interest is in recapturing the lost relationship.  And is that so bad?

Ultimately, you have to answer this for yourself.  I've just outlined some of the issues involved.  I hope this helps.


mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

While the motif of the American Dream is inverted in the early chapters of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby as the reader perceives the decadence and corruption of the Jazz Age, the character of Gatsby is not merely that of a vulgar and ostentatious criminal.  For, Gatsby does not have parties simply to display his wealth.  Often, instead, he watches "the silver pepper of the stars" and "stretches out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way" toward a single green light, far away at the end of a dock.  Clearly, Gatsby is a romantic. 

Even after Daisy has failed him in the tense confrontation in Chapter 7 when Gatsby asks her to tell Tom that she does not love him and she retracts her statements, Gatsby, dressed in his pink suit of innocent faith, keeps vigil all night outside her window after the fatal accident on the return trip--even while she and her husband conspire against him. And, it is Gatsby who does not contradict the idea that he was the driver of the "death car."  So, while he is satirized as Trimalchio and his car no longer has its mythological characteristics, the "young rough-neck whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd" is not ungenuine as Owl-Eyes discovers in the "high Gothic library" where the leather bound books actually contain printed pages.

It is this genuineness that causes Nick to react to Gatsby, "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together."  And, as Gatsby heads for his pool, Nick comments in Chapter 8,

I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it [the end] 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 thesunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.  A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about...

Truly, Jay Gatsby is a tragic figure who put all his faith into an illusive dream.

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