Not too long ago my nephew, Josemaria, read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and loved it. He loved it so much that he decided to write his thoughts about it in an essay.
With the movie being released this week we were talking about the book and he told me about his essay. I asked him to let me read it. I liked his essay so much that I decided to share it with you all, of course with his permission.
Have you read The Great Gatsby? Do you agree with Josemaria’s thoughts?
Warning: it contains spoilers from The Great Gatsby.
Hope and Fear in The Great Gatsby
“Fear cannot be without hope, nor can hope be without fear”-Benedict De Spinoza.
James Gatz is a man who fears his own inadequacy, but being a true American his hope for a more desirable future leads him down a path which ends in the death of Jay Gatsby. In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby a “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (p.130) becomes a somebody. Gatsby had the “foul dust” (p.2) of fear haunting his dreams; “his parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people” (p.98) that the world would quickly forget about, and he was loath to follow the same dismal path as them. From the day that James Gatz became Jay Gatsby, a life spent running from his identity was changed to a life spent running towards the promise that tomorrow would bring a better, more meaningful day. As Mary Jo Tate says, Gatsby finds Daisy desirable both for herself and for her inaccessibility. He feels that if he could only get this woman then he would have accomplished this great feat from which his life would derive greater significance. Gatsby died before the reality of his quests futility could take its toll on him.
The Universal human quest is to find meaning in one’s existence; James Gatz felt that his life’s purpose was to release the Jay Gatsby that was trapped within him. When Cody’s yacht docked, the chains were broken and Gatsby was set free. Through Cody he saw the meaning and beauty of life and money. As Gatsby he felt that the money, parties and trips would bring greater substance to his life, make it more meaningful, more worthy of existence; he thought it would make him less afraid of his own inadequacy. Because of his time with Cody “the vague contour of Jay Gatsby had filled out to the substantiality of a man” (p.101), in order to feed the idea that is Gatsby he had to life his life in the fast paced extravagant way that he did, or else the illusion might have collapsed.
For five year Gatsby coveted Daisy like a hungry man covets bread, then when the reality of their situation presented itself he felt “far away from her” (p.109) he felt the hope of a future together began to trickle away and be replaced with the fear that it would only ever be a dream. Like John Lennon says “there are those two basic motivating forces: fear and love.” Jay Gatsby is experiencing both here, he is terrified that the sole reason for the last five years of his life will be rendered worthless but yet he still craves the love of Daisy so much that he presses on. Like two sides of a coin, hope and fear go together in The Great Gatsby. Jay is hopeful that his love for Daisy will be great enough to overcome her marriage with Tom, while Daisy, scared from Tom’s infidelity thinks that “some authentically radiant young girl who with one fresh glance at Gatsby, one moment of magical encounter, would blot out those five years of unwavering devotion” (p.109) will suddenly appear in his life. No matter how hard Gatsby might have tried to win Daisy, all his efforts were to no avail since she was damaged goods. Not knowing this, Gatsby is as Harold Bloom says it, neither pathetic nor tragic, because as a quester he meets his appropriate fate, which is to die still lacking in the knowledge that would destroy the spell of his enchantment.
As his world crumbled around him, the most merciful gift that Fitzgerald gave Gatsby, was death. For his entire adult life Gatsby lived a lie. Jay Gatsby did not exist, and he was the only person that knew that. He was afraid that someone else might peer to closely and figure that it was all a façade, so he hid behind extravagant parties, a fancy house and a custom car. He lived in constant fear of being found out, of people that that he wasn’t enough that he allowed a million different Jay Gatsbys to flow through the air, in order to hid the original fake. The only thing that maintained his existence was his hope for a future with Daisy, but he was too scared to pursue his dream, lest it prove a pale shadow compared with his fantasy. It wasn’t until Nick entered his story that he gained the courage to go after his prize. Then as his trophy slipped from his hands, his health, his happiness and his hope slipped away with it.
“He must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real” (p.161)
By the end of the novel Gatsby had lost that which made him Jay Gatsby, and so he had to die.
Having lived his life in the pursuit of greater meaning Gatsby held on to his final gem, Daisy. When his worst fears were began to be realized and his fantasy was not matched by his reality, he retreated to a vain hope in god like powers. “’I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ I ventured. ‘You can’t repeat the past.’ ‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’” (p.110) His final defense mechanism was to believe that he was a god, almighty. Gatsby had to hide behind this, for if he hadn’t he would have realized that all of his money, his parties, and his “friends” were worthless, they had no meaning, they would simply fade away into the folds of time and he would have been obliterated beneath the weight of his own hopelessness and fear; if he would have accepted the truth of this he would have suffered the same fate as Ivan Llyich*.
Ivan Ilyich is a character in a Leo Tolstoy short story who at the end dies realizing that his life was worthless.
Tate, Mary Jo. "The Great Gatsby." Critical Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, Critical Companion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc.
Bloom, Harold. "Bloom on The Great Gatsby." In F. Scott Fitzgerald, Updated Edition, Bloom's Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 2006. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc.
Will, Barbara. "The Great Gatsby and The Obscene Word." College Literature 32, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 125-44. Quoted as "The Great Gatsby and The Obscene Word" in The Great Gatsby, New Edition, Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations. Bloom, Harold, ed. New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 2010. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc.
F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The Great Gatsby”.