Gatsby and the Great American Dream – An Essay on Fate vs. Choice

The American Dream, sought humbly, with a head down and a workman’s heart shines true, but if fought for too hastily, too viciously, it will only lead to misfortune. Akin to opening your mouth wide to a golden, jewel-encrusted goblet overflowing with the finest, most delicious wine only to choke on it and die in your ravenous thirst. On his deathbed Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was a shriveled, desperate man – penniless, his marriage in ruins, with his wife Zelda wasting away in a sanatorium. His great American novel, his magnum opus, The Great Gatsby, was not being printed because it was not being bought. And then, 44 years old, his alcoholism and despair caught up to him at last. Irony would see his novel entering the American literary canon just a few years after his death, and even now we toil away at Fitzgerald’s words – digging deep, and greedily at his use of oxymora and metaphor. Many hail The Great Gatsby as the “Great American Novel”. It is in The Great Gatsby, then, that Fitzgerald outlines the dangers of the American dream, and of wanton excess. Through his avatar and narrator, Nick Carraway, however, we come to understand that though it is a dangerous pursuit, it is a noble one indeed. Fitzgerald writes how Jay Gatsby’s (the title character) death is clearly brought upon by circumstances he, himself, had set in motion, alas it is always inserted in the reader’s mind that it is the work of others that had caused his untimely demise.

The most pathetic thing about Jay Gatsby is that he believes without a shadow of a doubt that his ill-gotten wealth will result in Daisy Fay’s hand. He is so blinded, so incredibly enraptured by the idea of his American myth, that he completely ignores and forgets the fact that Daisy and he were a couple before he ventured off into World War I, and it was his leaving and the time he spent overseas in Europe that resulted in Daisy marrying the boorish Tom Buchanan. Peter L. Hays writes “What constrains Gatsby is his extreme romanticism, his belief in the American myth that one, through hard work, can achieve anything…” (2011). Gatsby’s idea of marrying Daisy, ascending to the throne of societal hierarchy with her by his side and being more than just a farmer boy, more than just, as he tells Nick “… some nobody” (The Great Gatsby. p71.), and ”some kind of cheap sharper” (The Great Gatsby. p145.) are painfully naïve and romantic. He takes no consideration the feelings of Daisy herself, her marriage with Tom and the fact that they have a daughter together. In this Gatsby displays a selfish ignorance. He idolises Daisy, but more so he objectifies her as a means to an end. She is his goal, his shining emerald light across the water, not a person. And if Fitzgerald was a lesser novelist, we would despise Jay Gatsby for this. Luckily for us, he was not. The nuance lies in that Gatsby’s actions resound within all of us, because they are ostensibly human. When Nick and Gatsby share their last words the moment is bitter sweet. Nick shouts across the lawn, “They’re a rotten crowd”, and that (Gatsby’s) “worth the whole damn bunch put together” (The Great Gatsby. p162.). This is the only compliment Nick pays Gatsby, the only compliment he pays anyone. While Nick seems misanthropic, especially towards the rich and successful of Long Island, it is Gatsby – his idealism and his pure heart that wins him over in the end. Nick says: “Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him”. Through this action, Fitzgerald is speaking through Nick. From the first lines of the novel, you know Gatsby is different. Almost like a man out of time. Nick reiterates this point by pointing out Gatsby was beneath the “shortwinded elations of men”. While his contemporaries mull about, living their droll, meaningless lives. Gatsby toils. Gatsby looks forward. He has no inheritance to his name but he had vision. Fitzgerald places Gatsby, and the “ambitious, hungry person” over the Toms and Daisys, the “lazy and contented person”. Perhaps in the progressive waves and changes of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald could see that no matter their objective, the Gatsbys of the world would always be lauded as heroes for making themselves up from the clay. “Gatsby turned out all right in the end.”

Jay Gatsby is the true protagonist. He journeys for an item, this being a marriage to Daisy and the consequences of such. In contrast the true antagonist is Tom Buchanan, who denies Gatsby’s yearning. (Littlehale, K. N/a.) Tom, a pseudo-intellectual and all around swine – a white supremacist and a man who had never worked a day in his life, is jealous of the nouveau riche, the new roaring class of wealthy young entrepreneurs and business people who had laid down the foundations to their wealth through opportunity and work. His closest and most evident example of these nouveau riche is Gatsby and Tom mistrusts Gatsby direly, thinking him a fraud and a liar. This bubbles up until Tom finally assaults Gatsby physically at the Plaza Hotel, “only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away” (The Great Gatsby. p142.).  It is Tom, at all corners and turns that seeks to destroy Jay Gatsby. The most final and evident is when he lies to George Wilson that it was Gatsby who killed his wife. It can be argued then, that Tom kills Gatsby as much as Wilson did. Tom, who continuously ground Wilson into a babbling mess and imposed upon him his own power. George “so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive” Wilson was a tool in the hands of Buchanan.

It is Gatsby’s own search for the light at the other end of the water, the rotating emerald glow sparkling from the lighthouse, which brings upon him the consequences of his death. In a ripple effect, the smallest gestures built upon themselves until it was too late and Myrtle Wilson burst upon his yellow car. If Gatsby washed his hands of Daisy, then Tom would not have conceded to have him killed. If Gatsby had not accepted the “trade” of his car for Daisy from Tom, then perhaps Tom would have taken his own car to visit the Wilsons in the city. Perhaps Myrtle would not have ran before Daisy and Gatsby’s lights believing it was Tom who was driving. Perhaps she would have lived, and in return so would Gatsby. If Jay Gatsby was a less honourable man, a less good-hearted and idealistic man – then his murder by Tom Buchanan via proxy of George Wilson would have painted Tom less like a jealous fiend, and more like an ultra-protective husband. A man pained desperately by Daisy’s signs of affection towards Gatsby. The Great Gatsby is a simple, yet deeply complex novel – an oxymoron in itself of which Fitzgerald was fond of, especially in his attempts to describe post-WWI America. A time of vast contrasts and abyssal irony. It is ironic that Gatsby’s vigour and sharp, bristling life was snuffed out by the ashen, revenant-like Wilson.

It is indeed through Gatsby’s own actions and his undying search for the American dream, his yearning for Daisy, and his goal of reaching the highest societal level that set the events in motion that will result in his own death. However, without the interference of Tom Buchanan, his jealousy and anger towards Gatsby and his desperate need to cling on to his way of life and his ignorant and vapid beliefs, George Wilson would not have ventured to Gatsby’s sprawling Gothic mansion, leaping across the yard. Shoot Gatsby down before taking his own life. Though Tom’s own actions in the resulting deaths is not erasable and his guilt is true. It can be argued that if Gatsby had simply let Daisy go, he would not have been shot and killed. If Jay Gatsby is the architect to his own demise, then Tom Buchanan is the construction foreman. Not one event is possible without the other, for it is ignorant to argue that if Gatsby had the free will and choice to decide to not cease hunting for Daisy’s love, then Tom would likewise be unable to choose to not let his failing marriage finally break apart. He would have been unable to decide to tell Wilson about the car that killed his wife, he would have been unable to believe his own theories of economic and racial superiority. The actions of Gatsby and Buchanan both result in the deaths of three people. Like Icarus, fluttering towards the Sun – Gatsby reached too close into Daisy’s heart and was burned by Tom and his jealousy. Falling, wingless – trailing feathers – dead into his luxurious swimming pool.

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