Fitzgerald bandied around several titles (Under the Red, White, and Blue) before his editor/publisher encouraged him to go with The Great Gatsby. So, he obviously wanted to write not only a great American novel, but a critique on America's moral wasteland. He's writing about two Americas.
According to Cornell Professor Don McCall (who cites another Cornell professor below):
The title of the novel has a special ironic distinction: it says two things at once. First, Gatsby is truly “great,” a legitimate hero. Second, he is a figure in a sideshow, a freak, a carnival oddity, “The Great Gatsby.” At one point the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, sees Gatsby as “a turbaned ‘character’ leaking sawdust at every pore.” And the more we get to know the man, the more clearly the two meanings of the title are right—he is indeed exemplary, and he’s a grease-paint Wonder of the Western World striding majestically around on a platform. Cornell Professor Arthur Mizener, the first and still the best of Fitzgerald’s many biographers, sums it up admirably:
In so far as Gatsby represents the simplicity of heart Fitzgerald associated with the Middle West, he is really a great man; in so far as he achieves the kind of notoriety the East accords success of his kind he is about as great as Barnum was. Out of Gatsby’s ignorance of his real greatness and his misunderstanding of his notoriety, Fitzgerald gets most of the book’s direct irony.
Also, the novel is told from Nick's point of view: he's the only one who thinks he's great. He's the only one who attends his funeral. Gatsby is the epitome of focused desire and idealism. So, there's bias involved here.
Ahh...that's a good question! Another part of that question is "why did Fitzgerald choose to name the book "The Great Gatsby?" There are a couple of things we need to look at before we can decide whether Gatsby deserved the title of "great."
First, let's define our terms: great=remarkable or out of the ordinary. There are other definitions but we will work from this one. So the question becomes, was Gatsby "remarkable or out of the ordinary?"
Well, I hate to put it back on you, but that is something each reader has to decide for him/herself. Arguments could be made to go either way.
Reasons to be PRO "great":
- Gatsby started out dirt poor and became very, very rich,
- Gatsby was able to learn the ways of the upper class,
- Gatsby created an entire new personality for himself compared to how he was growing up,
- Gatsby was able to advance his way through the army in World War II,
- Gatsby was able to find and re-seduce the love of his life,
- Gatsby's life was the topic of much speculation among the socialites of the time, who created for him the reputation of a life "larger than life."
- Gatsby was handsome, suave, and confident.
Reasons to be CON "great":
- Gatsby essentially abandoned his family and went against them by even changing his name.
- Gatsby learned the ways of the upper-class, but the upper-class seemed able to tell that he was "new money" regardless,
- Gatsby's invented personality was really a lie
- Gatsby did find and seduce the love of his life, a married woman, but toward the end of the book it seems like she is leaning toward staying with Tom,
- The speculation about Gatsby's life was just that...a lot of speculation. He did not "kill a man" (outside of the war) and he was not related to German royalty.
- Gatsby was handsome and suave, but around Daisy (at least at first) he was clumsy, scared, and tongue-tied.
- Gatsby's great fortune was mostly made through illegal means.
So really the choice is yours. Was he a great, larger than life character who pulled himself from a "nothing" beginning to become rich and powerful, or was he a big fraud pretending to be something he wasn't? The cool thing about a title like that is that it lets each reader have his or her own opinion.