This essay discusses the ideas of idealism and failure as presented in The Great Gatsby.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is more strongly associated with the 1920s than any other writer. He is generally considered the voice of his generation, but his insight into human behaviour means that he is never out of print, for his flawed heroes and heroines speak to all of us.
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Perhaps no one is more fully drawn than Jay Gatsby: a self-made millionaire who retains his idealism, and in so doing, is destroyed by it.
Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby’s Idealism
Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby’s best friend, narrates The Great Gatsby to us. Of course, there is a literary device known as an “unreliable narrator,” someone who tells us the story but deliberately lies for some purpose of his or her own, but that isn’t the case here. Nick, though obviously biased in Gatsby’s favour as any friend would be, still gives us a straightforward account of the events. He passes harsh judgment on the Buchanans, but there is no reason to believe that his description of what actually happened is faulty.
Jay Gatsby is an idealist, someone who believes in his vision of things as they ought to be, not as they really are. It’s important to note that Gatsby is not unblemished: there is a strong indication, though it is never actually proven, that he made his money bootlegging. Still, Gatsby has not been corrupted by his wealth, and in that he differs radically from the Buchanans, arguably the villains of the piece.
Gatsby loved Daisy, lost track of her, and found her again, now married to Tom Buchanan. He realizes he has never stopped loving her, and sets out to win her back. In so doing, he acts upon his beliefs, rather than the facts; an example of his idealism. Nick tells us in the first pages of the novel that he doesn’t want to hear any more “revelations” about the human heart; that he is sick of confidences and learning other people’s business. The only person he exempts from this is Gatsby; Gatsby, who “represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” (Fitzgerald, p. 2). But Gatsby, despite the money that ordinarily would have driven Carraway away, is precious to him. And this is because of his idealism, which is what Nick is describing when he talks about Gatsby’s personality:
“…it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it was what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams … that … closed out my interest in … men.” (Fitzgerald, p. 2).
Nick’s word choice is significant: “what,” “preyed,” and “foul” all suggest a monstrous inhuman agency; “what” instead of “who”; “preyed on ” instead of “talked with”; “foul dust” instead of “disappointment.” Nick is already telling us that what happened to Gatsby was the result of his own romanticism, but that it was active, malevolent, and deliberate, not an accident.
There is another important point to remember here, and that is the difference between “new money” and “old money.” Gatsby is very wealthy, true—he’s a millionaire, but Tom Buchanan is even richer, many times richer. And Tom has inherited his wealth, not made it himself. Although we might think that working for one’s money and succeeding handsomely indicates a success story (and it does), there is a social position that comes with “old money” that does not exist for self-made and newer millionaires. The society in which these people move is rarified, exclusive and privileged, and it is a society that will not admit the nouveau riche like Jay Gatsby. He badly misreads Daisy when he thinks she would be willing to leave Tom and give all that up, despite the fact that Tom is a monster.
Tom Buchanan is having an affair quite openly; he’s a racist, a bigot and a sexist. He humiliates people, buys them off, and generally throws his weight around, both because of his money and because of his physical toughness; Tom is a brute. If Gatsby were not such a dreamer, he would understand that only an essentially shallow and self-centred woman would put up with this for more than a few minutes. But he doesn’t understand that Daisy is every bit as careless and money-grubbing as her husband; he sees her as she was, and as he wants her to be, not as she is. Daisy sums up her philosophy of life when she describes her daughter and says she hopes she’ll be a fool: “… that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” (Fitzgerald, p. 17).
The horrifying climax of the book occurs when Daisy, driving Gatsby’s car with him as a passenger, runs down and kills her husband’s mistress. Gatsby, ever noble, decides that he will tell the police he was driving. But he never gets the chance. Tom Buchanan, who comes on the scene a few minutes later, tells the grieving husband enough so that he (George) realizes it was Gatsby’s car. George tracks Gatsby down, shoots him, and then commits suicide.
Although Gatsby fails in his objective and ultimately loses his life, Nick tells us that Gatsby “turned out all right in the end.” This implies that he isn’t a failure, and so the concept of failure in the book is larger than just one man’s fate.
What Fitzgerald is castigating is the entire society in which the Buchanans move: people whose wealth insulates them from the consequences of their actions. After dropping enough hints to George so that he can find the car, Tom goes about his business. Daisy never comes forward to admit that she was the guilty party, and in fact, no one even bothers to come to Gatsby’s funeral. The only people there are Gatsby’s father and Nick. Failure then is the failure of a decent man to prevail; of caring people to overcome careless people; of kindness to win out over viciousness. Nick spells out the Buchanans for us, despicable wretches that they are:
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” (Fitzgerald, p. 181).
This is the real failure: that these two monstrous, self-absorbed jackasses should be able to destroy a man like Gatsby and get away with it.
The Great Gatsby is a milestone in American literature. It’s affecting and pure in its lyrical recreation of another time and place. But its true triumph is the character of Jay Gatsby himself, who refuses to give up his dream, who never stops believing. Despite his failure to achieve his goal, he is a role model worth emulating.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.
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