Last Updated on September 13, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767
Extended Character Analysis
Jay Gatsby embodies the American Dream, ascending from poverty to a station of immense wealth. He is born James Gatz and grows up on his family’s farm in the midwest. He attends college in Minnesota, working as a janitor to pay his tuition, until he meets Dan Cody, a wealthy gold miner. Cody takes Gatsby under his wing, mentoring him and introducing him to the lure of wealth and materialism. Gatsby remains Cody’s protege until Cody’s death, at which point Gatsby joins the army.
While stationed in Alabama, Gatsby meets Daisy Fay and immediately falls in love with her. Meeting Daisy only serves to enhance his fixation on wealth. After leaving to serve in the war and returning to build a bootlegging and drug-smuggling empire, he remains fixated on Daisy, who has since married Tom Buchanan. Gatsby ultimately comes to believe that only reclaiming Daisy’s love will fill the emptiness in his life. Rather than viewing Daisy as an independent person with a life and goals of her own, Gatsby instead treats her as a possession that was stolen away from him by life’s circumstances. He is unable to comprehend—or rather, unwilling to admit—that Daisy could be capable of loving another man.
Gatsby displays an intense desire to be the sole recipient of Daisy’s love. Not only does he ask Daisy to leave Tom, he also insists that she admits to never having loved him at all. In a broader sense, life’s complexities and nuances are largely lost on Gatsby, whose single-minded fixation on his material and romantic goals is the product of a life otherwise devoid of meaning and connection. At his core, Gatsby leads an empty existence, reliant on external factors for his happiness and fulfilment. For him, satisfaction is not gleaned from the acquisition of his goals, but rather from the endless pursuit of them. He is a dreamer first and foremost, forever driven to strive for more whenever a new benchmark is reached.
Gatsby represents the American Dream itself, flashy and alluring, but ultimately made of empty promises. No matter how hard Gatsby works, he will never truly obtain inner fulfilment because the American Dream has externalized happiness, framing it as something that can be bought. Gatsby is disconnected from the reality that the rest of the characters live in, one which is defined by the limitations of gender and class.
However, for all the ways Gatsby is disconnected from reality, his insulation is also what draws people like Daisy and Nick to him. Jay Gatsby ignores others’ notions of limitation. Instead, he continues to dream and strives to make his dreams into reality. For Daisy, with her abusive husband and cynical attitude about her place in the world, Gatsby is a fantasy she can escape into. He is the hopelessly devoted romantic who fought his way to the top just for her. For Nick, who craves authenticity in a world that seems to lack it, there is an earnestness in Gatsby’s motivations that transcends the superficiality of his actions. However, for both Daisy and Nick, Gatsby’s dream is a form of escapism, not something they genuinely believe in. Ultimately, Gatsby’s ideals are shattered, and he is left alone, disillusioned and unable to come to terms with the fact that his dreams were built on lies.
Time also plays a significant role in Gatsby’s characterization, specifically his inability to live in the present. As a child, he continuously strode towards an indeterminate future where he could escape poverty. His youth was spent chasing after money and status, desperately rejecting his humble upbringings in favor of rewriting his history to align with the future he sought. However, upon achieving his goals, he is left dissatisfied. So, rather than attempting to find happiness in the present, Gatsby turns back to the past, hoping that rekindling his relationship with Daisy will fulfill him. This proves to be a fool’s errand. Whereas the future is always moving closer, the past is always moving further away. No matter how hard Gatsby tries to recreate the past, true happiness does not dwell there and, indeed, never did. Unwilling to embrace the present, increasingly disillusioned with the future, and desperately chasing after the unobtainable past, Gatsby is left to stagnate, shot dead in the unmoving currents of a swimming pool. Gatsby remains a figurehead for human aspiration, an American Icarus in whose life one finds both the lofty heights of dreams and the inevitable tragedy of their fall.
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