What is the importance of the past in The Great Gatsby?
In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the characters are often trying to escape their pasts, yet their pasts continue to control them. Let's see how this works.
Jay Gatsby wants to leave his past far behind him, at least to a point. Gatsby grew up on a Minnesota farm, but he longed to pursue the American dream, to be rich and important, and he set out on that adventure before World War I, working for gold miner Dan Cody. Gatsby learned to love wealth, and after a stint in the army, he turned his attention to acquiring wealth. He changed his name (he was born James Gatz) as a symbol of renouncing his past, but his past keeps catching up with him.
While Gatsby was in the army, he met and fell in love with Daisy. Suddenly, his goal shifted. He wanted wealth so that Daisy would love him in return. Yet Daisy wanted more than Gatsby, even when he finally did become wealthy. Gatsby's past didn't suit Daisy. She longed to marry into "old money," so she chose Tom Buchanan.
In the novel's present, Gatsby is a wealthy man with a big mansion. He throws elaborate parties and is used to people fawning over him. Yet part of Gatsby is still that kid from Minnesota who is in love with Daisy and willing to do whatever he must to win her love in return. It never works. Gatsby remains hopeful yet stuck.
Nick, too, is continually haunted by his past. Like Gatsby, he wants to escape a Midwestern upbringing and find wealth and success in the city, yet he learns that such a life is not all it is cracked up to be. Even Daisy and Tom are constrained by their pasts in some ways. Daisy's relationship with Gatsby is constantly a part of her life now that the two have met again, and Tom has to live up to his "old money" upbringing. Indeed, the past never quite goes away for the characters in this novel, no matter how hard they try to escape it.