What makes Gatsby great?

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I would argue that Gatsby is great because he epitomizes the promise of the American Dream. Basically a regular guy from a humble Midwestern background, Gatsby has come so far in his relatively short life. He's set himself a number of very ambitious goals in life, and by and large he's achieved them (although Daisy remains tantalizingly out of reach). One might certainly express disapproval at the way in which Gatsby became so phenomenally rich, but he's no hardened criminal. Despite his ill-advised involvement with bootlegging, he's still a fundamentally decent man: he's generous, companionable, and emotionally honest.

Gatsby's also great in that he's quite a character. Whatever else you might say about him, Gatsby's certainly someone you're not likely to forget in a hurry. That he's able to be such a memorable character without imposing himself on those around him—unlike, say, Tom Buchanan—makes him all the more remarkable.

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Gatsby is great because he, simply put, retains an optimism and ability to dream that the vast majority of other characters in the book do not.  When Nick returns from the war, he feels a discontent that is very common among Americans in the 1920s; even Daisy feels disillusioned.  The world no longer seems like the same place that it did before the war.  However, Gatsby returned from the war with the same fire he's always felt to do better, be more, reach higher.  He believes that he can absolutely return to the past, when he and Daisy were sweetly in love; he thinks that it is possible to possess that kind of innocence again, despite her new status as a wife and a mother.  Regardless of these changes or any other obstacles, he "believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us."  Even though his dreams seem to get further and further away, Gatsby keeps his optimistic belief in their possibility, their probability, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  This hopefulness makes him great.

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