Gatsby’s greatness is inescapably remarkable, because it is so far detached from typical perceptions of greatness: he has no outstanding skill or talent (discounting his propensity to dream and hope in the face of insurmountable opposition, and his ability to – somehow – fulfil these desires), he has no heritage of worth, and he is utterly imperfect. His greatness is amplified when juxtaposed with his surroundings: Scott Fitzgerald said that when writing about Gatsby he was writing “about the soul of man in a society bent on dissolution”. Greatness is often attributed to those who can exude an aura which is impeccable, immaculate.
Gatsby can make no claim to this, which makes his greatness ever more peculiar. He is undeniably great, and this greatness is in spite of his myriad flaws and failings. It is more difficult to identify this greatness when Gatsby is deconstructed – when his constituent elements are separated and inspected individually, when his persona is reduced to something perceptible: this is when the cracks in his character are most apparent. Gatsby must be treated as a whole, because otherwise it is far too easy to dismiss him. For example, Gatsby’s style is artificially cultivated – and this notion is ineffaceable.
Nick tells how he’d “got a strong impression that he [Gatsby] was picking his words with care”. This demonstrates how Gatsby presents himself in a manner that is contrived – his repetition of the phrase “old sport” further exemplifies Gatsby’s crude attempts at forging style. Gatsby is desperate for acceptance: “Look here, old sport, what’s your opinion of me anyhow? ” He is very concerned with the way in which he is perceived, and this trait is probably one that has been created by a society that very much places style over substance – it is imperative that you are distinguished as possessing class; how you have achieved this is less vital.
Gatsby is shown to be an empty vessel: “I had talked with him perhaps half a dozen times in the past month and found, to my disappointment, that he had little to say. ” However, Gatsby manages to transcend all of this; he is teeming with indefinable wonder, and this is contagious: he manages to induce this sense of wonderment in all who come into contact with him. Part of this emanates from his radiant smile: “it was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. ” This encapsulates the essence of Gatsby to a certain extent: he was exceptional.
Gatsby defied formal human constraints, and ignored convention. He felt he could fly, and this was translated into those surrounding him: he offered “irresistible prejudice in your favour. ” It is testament to him that there was a profusion of the “romantic speculation Gatsby inspired”. The word “romantic” is key. It is impossible to detach Gatsby from romance, because it is such a pivotal part of his personality: he is an ideal of a person, with an almost fantastical quality; someone with an unbridled capacity to dream – and his dream endures.
It is true that – to a large extent – Gatsby’s success was sculpted from the malleable stone of luck: he had a chance meeting with Dan Cody where he managed to impress the wealthy man; he achieved position as an officer (probably through his contrived style); he met Wolfsheim after the war, at a time when Gatsby was without tangible direction or hope. Much of this dissolves into irrelevance when placed next to Gatsby as an ideal: his greatness is not derived from his achievements or tactile measurements of his success and wealth. His capacity to dream is the central facet of Gatsby’s greatness.
Gatsby’s dream is one of not being as much as it is one of being. He says to Nick “I didn’t want you to think I was just some nobody”. He was desperate to avoid the anonymity and apparent mediocrity into which he was born: “his parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. ” T Tanner elaborated: “in the frontier tradition of self-reliance lies the genesis of what impels Gatsby” The imagination of Gatsby is a crucial aspect of him: it is dynamic and tireless, and its potential facilitated his self-invention.
Gatsby has entirely invented his own character, the name-change from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby representing his absolute metamorphosis. Tragically, Gatsby attaches his dream to another person: Daisy. Human fallibility is not acknowledged by Gatsby, and his dreams are inevitably unworthy of her. Gatsby invests Daisy with an idealistic perfection that she cannot possibly attain, and he pursues her with such passionate zeal that he is blinded to her limitations – her human limitations.
When Gatsby is transported out of his self-enclosed world of parties and dreams, he has terrible difficulty in adjusting – a difficulty which he ultimately cannot overcome. When first encountering Daisy’s daughter – a substantive and solid relic of Daisy’s shared love with Tom – Gatsby is bemused: “I don’t think he ever really believed in its existence before. ” Gatsby had the capability to blot out whatever was unattractive to him; and this is mirrored in his desire to “blot out the past”.
His ultimate desire is to destroy the years that lay between his leaving for the war and Daisy’s return to him; the “obliteration of four years with a sentence”. With this period of time removed, Gatsby and Daisy would be free to repeat them in whatever manner they choose. The senselessness of this idea is not at all apparent to Gatsby: “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can! ” Gatsby (described as “excessive, foolish and foredoomed by T Tanner”) takes the romantic mindset and distends it until it is sufficient to support the density of his dreams; he carries the philosophy through to its absolute conclusions.
As he spends dollars and years attempting to unite himself with Daisy, the flame of his dream remains inextinguishable; the glow of the green light burns consistently brightly. It is only when Gatsby actually achieves his goal that his “incorruptible dream” begins to fragment and disintegrate. Gatsby encounters a moment of “faint doubt”, something unknown to his imagination: “no amount of fire and freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart”, and Gatsby’s heart is one capable of storing such vivid and intense hopes – hopes that are impossible for a single other human to sustain.
When Gatsby finally has no more searching to do he finds that “his mind would never romp again like the mind of God”, and as well as showing the way in which Daisy defines Gatsby, we are also made aware of the faintly melancholy truth that Gatsby no longer has the same drive or devotion; much of Gatsby’s motivation evaporates when he finally receives Daisy into his arms again, and an element of the romantic mystique about him also vanishes.
It would be cruel, though, to begrudge Gatsby his success. In the same way that he managed to generate an entire life and legacy – replete with the requisite wealth and status – he was also able to transform his dreams of love into reality. The mysterious green light mutated into something even more tangible, a genuine contour of Daisy’s body that he could touch and hold.
This is undoubtedly the truly great in Gatsby: most dreamers will idle their lives away with wishful and wistful thoughts of possibilities, but Gatsby has the determination to actually realise his dreams. M Hindus said of Scott Fitzgerald that “when it came to his art he was a master; when it came to the conduct of his life, he was a failure”, and this is just as indisputably resonant when it comes to Gatsby and his art of dreaming.
And – as with all romantic greats – there is an inevitable tragedy about him, a tragedy propagated by his success. Gatsby faces up to the disappointment – the disappointment of Daisy not being able to support the intense burden he put on her, the disappointment of most humans failing to recognise his idiosyncratic and undeniably romantic logic, the disappointment of his dream – with remarkable resolve: his hopes endure. ‘How long are you going to stand there? ‘ ‘All night, if necessary'”. Gatsby could have – should have – given up. He could have been emasculated, reduced to an emaciated, cynical man who had been let down. He could have allowed himself to be reduced to the merely human. Gatsby – tragically, poignantly, beautifully – persisted, still “clutching at some last hope”.