What is revealed about Gatsby in the flashback about "James Gatz" in Chapters 5 and 6 of The Great Gatsby?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Several elements are revealed about Gatsby in the detailing of his former life.  The most pressing of which is that Gatsby is an embodiment of the American ideal of being able to create one's own impression and definition of self.  Unlike other cultures where who one is is staunchly defined by individual background and family name, Gatsby is able to create his own self through his own will.  In contrast to his own meager and humble beginnings, Gatsby is created through a confluence of a desire to reach an ideal form of social perfection and an embrace of materialism as the means to achieve such a set of ends.  Through this section, we learn that Gatsby's embrace of illegal and dangerous ends are not done out of malice, but out of a sense of creation and desire for matching this ideal of perfection.  When we see Gatsby not align himself with his parents, we see the rootless component of American identity.  While freedom is present, roots and connection seem to be the cost of such endeavors.  This results in one of two conditions.  Either freedom allows a sense of definition and autonomy that allows Americans to be what they wish to be.  Gatz wishes to be and becomes Gatsby.  Or the opposite side of this is that the embrace and construction of a life founded on pure freedom creates a setting where there is little connection or attachment.  The creation of identities is about as casual as attending different parties each night and interacting with different people for little amounts of time and moving on to the next interaction.  Contingency is seen as something that can be both liberating and sad.

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