Despite the obvious differences between Jay Gatsby's extravagant life and Myrtle Wilson's shabby existence, the parallels Fitzgerald draws between the two characters are numerous and not coincidental. Through the similarities, two themes in the novel are underscored.
Gatsby and Myrtle are driven by the same psychological force: They reject who they are and despise the lives handed to them without their consent. Before his transformation, Jimmy Gatz was restless and discontent, on fire with the desire to rise above his social station and possess wealth and all the glittering things it can buy. He longed for beauty and romance and believed in his heart that he did not belong in his dull, impoverished life on a farm in North Dakota with “shiftless” parents and a father who ate “like a hog.” Unable to endure his life, he ran away from home at seventeen to reinvent himself as Jay Gatsby.
Like Jimmy, who felt trapped in a life not his own, Myrtle Wilson is trapped in a nightmare she did not imagine when she married George Wilson. Fitzgerald doesn’t give readers the details of Myrtle’s youth, but she married George believing he was a “gentleman” who could provide the life she wanted. Myrtle was appalled when she discovered George had to borrow the suit he wore at their wedding. Just as Jimmy Gatz felt disdain for his family, Myrtle holds George Wilson in contempt, believing, as she tells her sister Catherine, that he “wasn’t fit to lick my shoe.” Psychologically, Myrtle runs away from home, too, by throwing herself into an affair with Tom Buchanan, who she believes will fulfill her dreams by buying her a glamorous new life; moments before her death, she runs away physically, as well, in pursuit of Tom.
Gatsby and Myrtle want more than wealth; they want to climb the social ladder, leaving their former identities behind. By the time Gatsby is settled in his West Egg mansion, a house he pays for in cash, he believes he has succeeded in obliterating Jimmy Gatz; lying about his past and concealing his criminal activities make him a mysterious figure, and he cultivates the persona. Like Gatsby, Myrtle also struggles to forge a new identity, first as Tom’s mistress and then as his wife. Not content to remain his mistress, she dreams of marrying Tom and assuming Daisy Buchanan’s role in society. Myrtle’s taunting Tom by repeating Daisy’s name during a violent, drunken argument shows Myrtle’s persistence in refusing to settle for anything less.
Gatsby and Myrtle are both naïve to believe they can create new identities and join the upper class. Uneducated and unrefined, they are interlopers among the Eastern elite. Myrtle’s coarse language and behavior, in contrast to Daisy’s cool confidence and superficial charm, set Myrtle apart from Tom and Daisy’s society in ways that money can’t erase. Gatsby mimics the manners and what he erroneously believes to be the language of the upper class, but Tom Buchanan recognizes him at once as an imposter, despite Gatsby’s wealth. In different ways, Gatsby and Myrtle are both vulgar in contrast to those of the staid, conservative society of East Egg. Gatsby spends his money in tasteless displays of conspicuous consumption and wears a pink suit; Myrtle conspicuously displays her voluptuous body in clothes that Daisy Buchanan would never consider wearing.
Compelled to seize all that life would deny them, Gatsby and Myrtle believe what they must to carry on. Myrtle accepts the “elaborateness” of Tom’s lie regarding Daisy’s being a Catholic who doesn't believe in divorce, and Gatsby dies waiting for Daisy’s call, still clinging to the belief that having money will make marrying Daisy possible. Gatsby and Myrtle, by necessity, are blind in regard to the Buchanans, unable to see them for who they are, “careless people” without conscience, united by the ingrained, snobbish sense of superiority conferred upon them by inherited wealth.
In rejecting their own identities and attempting to reinvent themselves and their lives, Gatsby and Myrtle are destroyed; each suffers a violent death directly related to having associated with the Buchanans. The parallels between Gatsby and Myrtle develop the old money-new money theme in the novel. Through Jimmy, Jay, and Myrtle, another theme emerges, as well—that reinventing oneself in the pursuit of a new life is part of the American Dream, but how one chooses to do it is of no minor consequence.