Does The Great Gatsby have villains and heroes?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As a sophisticated work of fiction, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby does not have clearly delineated villains and heroes; for the characters are not stereotypes, but fully developed personages. Still, there is one stock character in this novel who can be classified as a villain: Meyer Wolfschiem, the underworld criminal and swindler who partook in the scandal of "fixing" of the outcome of the World Series of 1919.

While Tom Buchanan is often villainous, receiving phone calls at his home from his mistress, cruelly breaking Myrtle Wilson's nose, lashing out vehemently at Gatsby, accusing him of being a fraud and criminal, and encouraging Daisy to let Gatsby take the blame for the death of Mrytle; he does, however, display other characteristics which indicate some redeeming qualities. For instance, when he fears that Daisy will, indeed, leave him for Gatsby, he displays genuine feeling in his anger that Gatsby has the effrontery to break up his marriage, an institution he holds sacred. Further, when Gatsby has Daisy tell her husband that she has never loved him, Tom reminds her of certain places and days with "a husky tenderness in his tone," and Daisy submits, telling Gatsby, " I did love him once--but I loved you too."

Jay Gatsby, too, is more complex than type hero or villain. Although  involved in illegal activities, Gatsby somehow retains his wholesomeness. Perhaps, this goodness that Gatsby possesses is the reason why none of the female guests of his parties are ever seen with him, as Nick notes in one chapter. The "great Gatsby," a fantasized version of Jay Gatz, is a mythical-type hero, a Trimalchio of resplendent parties on his "blue lawn." Heroic in his pursuit of an ideal, his "holy grail" of repeating the past and reclaiming Daisy, he is  yet tarnished by the falsity of this dream. And, so, realizing how "grotesque a rose is,"--how maudlin and insubstantial is the character of Daisy Buchanan--Jay Gatsby becomes a tragic hero because he sacrifices himself for his "blue illusions" (The color blue does not exist in nature). 

Back in Chapter One as Nick Carraway introduces his narrative, he remarks that Gatsby retained the idealism that has made him heroic,

"No-Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dream."

According to Nick, it was the "foul dust" of "the careless people" that "floated in the wake of [Gatsby's] dream" which destroyed Jay Gatsby. Perhaps, then, the real villains of Fitzgerald's novel are the amoral social conditions and behaviors of the Jazz Age and the members of East Egg's socially elite--like the Sloane's of Chapter Six who only pretend to invite Gatsby to ride with them--snobbish, selfish people, who ruin things and human beings in their wakes.

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The Great Gatsby

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