Self-Idealization and Reality: Why did Gatsby’s Vision Fail?

The iridiscent character of Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella has been a cultural fascination for almost a century since it was first published in 1925. There are various reasons for that. The first one is certainly the rags-to-riches-story of a young man’s transformation from poor circumstances into a flamboyant, wealthy dandy. The second, and certainly most prominant one, is the romance of this self-made millionaire with a beautiful woman from higher descent. And the third reason is the tragic ending of the romance, apparently with the virtuous, loving hero being crucified by the hands of a materialistic, superficial society. But is this really the whole story? Is Gatsby really the paragon of the virtuous lover and a victim? Or is there something else that escapes our gaze?

When I first read The Great Gatsby in my early twenties, what captivated me was mainly the story of a young man becoming successful through his own vision of himself. For a young ambitious man with great visions Gatsby can be an inspiring role model to nurture the belief that success is possible despite coming from modest beginnings. Let’s not forget that we’re talking about an era in which the internet with its modern motivational and entrepreneurial content was not available yet. Literature like The Great Gatsby were all you had if nobody had introduced you to you personal development literature like Think and Grow Rich and its countless successors, which have today grown to an expansive market. Anyway, back in 2012 when it was announced that Baz Luhrmann was going to bring Fitzgerald’s novella to the big screen, in particular with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as Gatsby, I was more than psyched – and the result did not disappoint.

In the book like in the movie, the story is narrated from Nick Carraway’s (Tobey Maguire) perspective. He is Daisy’s cousin and happens to move to New York to become an investment banker at Wall Street. Since he moves into a house next door to Gatsby’s mansion, one day Gatsby invites him to one of his renowned parties and later basically hoovers him into something resembling a friendship. Both the book as well as the movie do a great job at depicting the mysterious aura surrounding the young, extravagant millionaire. We’re following Nick interacting with new, casual acquaintances on Gatsby’s party, who gossip about rumours and speculations on the host’s origins. They say he is “third cousin to the Kaiser and second cousin to the Devil”, which hints at a noble origin as well as something devious in his nature.

His mysterious identity, together with his immense wealth and his eccentric demeanour, are reminiscent of Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte-Christo – at least superficially. There is a tiny, but very significant difference between the two characters. Edmond Dantés, the Count of Monte-Christo, makes his flamboyant entry in Paris’s high society with the aim to take revenge on those who caused him to falsely be imprisoned for 14 years. Gatsby’s goal is to win back the woman he could not marry 5 years ago, Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), because he was poor. Furthermore, he was drafted for WWI and had to leave the country for many years. When he came back, Daisy was married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) from wealthy origins, who had not been drafted to fight in the war.

The great mystery surrounding Gatsby is his identity. The whole dramaturgy of the first act circles around it. At first we don’t know anything about him, except that he is “The single most hopeful person I’ve ever met,” as Nick claims. Then we hear the rumors. Eventually he makes his surprising entrance when we first see his face. And then we have Gatsby telling Nick “God’s truth” about himself in the car scene. There, he tells Nick to be from wealthy origins and the last descendant of his family, whom he claims has traditionally been educated in Oxford.

Whenever a story is presented by a personal narrator, be it in a book or a movie, we need to bear in mind that everything we hear is filtered through the narrator’s lense. There is no such thing as a perfectly reliable personal narrator. We will later take a closer look at Nick’s reliability.

Yet, for now we want to take a look at Nick’s immediate reactions to Gatsby. When he first makes his acquaintance, Nick describes him: “His smile was one of those rare smiles you may come across 4 or 5 times in life. It seemed to understand you, and believe in you, just as you would like to be understood and believed in.” These words are describing an empath. Nick sees in Gatsby a profound receptivity for what other people truly are on the inside. Identifying Gatsby as an empath is the key to understanding his relationship with Daisy.

The next impression we gain from Nick comes during the car scene, where Gatsby tells him “God’s truth” about himself. Nick’s immediate reaction is: “The way he spoke! No wonder people thought he was lying.” And as we find out much later, Gatsby’s story about his wealthy family and him living like a prince in the capitals of Europe is not so much “God’s truth” as an invented story. In other words, Gatsby’s story is a lie.

Gatsby is a charming and likeable character due to his empathic nature, his hopefulness and his scintillant adoration and love for Daisy. These are the traits that make him “great” in the title, and this is how Gatsby has been idealized by the public. And they truly are noble character traits. What is there more noble than being relentlessly hopeful, what is there more beautiful than loving from the depth of one’s own heart – was is there more healthy than being able to feel another person’s truth in one’s own soul? It is with good reason that the character of Jay Gatsby has been idealized by many readers of the book and viewers of Baz Luhrmann’s movie. Men identify with him, especially ambituous, romantic and heartbroken men. And women wish they had a Gatsby who would adore them the way he adores Daisy. As Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) tells Nick: “He looked at her the way all women want to be looked at by a man.”

But we have already unveiled a first chink in Gatsby’s shining armor. And we’re sad to say that it’s not the only one we’ve found.

These chinks are, for the most part, very subtle. Their subtleness is owed to our own forgiveness due to our great liking of Gatsby’s nobler traits. But we are forgiving the little displays of “something’s wrong” also because Nick fails to put these details into the right context. Yet, if we truly want to understand Gatsby fully, we need to be willing to see the full picture and resist the urge to omit unpleasant facts.

As we discover at his first party, Gatsby is bound to take regular calls from “Philadelphia” or “Chicago”, which require him to leave a conversation he’s currently in. These mysterious calls often show him railing in suppressed anger. There is something boiling beneath the surface. There is disturbance and irritation under his overly gentle and poised demeanour.

When Gatsby invites him to the speakeasy, Nick discovers a different side of his new friend. Talking about Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan), Gatsby calls him a “gambler” – because he “fixed” the 1919 World Series. Of course, calling Wolfsheim a gambler is euphemistic. What Gatsby is really saying is that his friend is a racketeer, making money through corruption. And when it later becomes clear that Gatsby’s enterprise with “Philadelphia” and “Chicago” is being led by Wolfsheim, we understand that Gatsby’s millions came from illegal business. We see that something’s broiling under the surface when Mr. Slagle becomes “quite emotional” on one of Gatsby’s party, and later gets beat up by his men.

In summa: As much as we appreciate his noble traits of being relentlessly loving, hopeful and understanding, we have been willfully blind for the other parts of his character. Despite his obvious redeeming qualities, hidden under the surface, Gatsby is a liar, a criminal, and an adulterer.

Yes, let us be honest here. Having an affair with a married woman is no peccadillo. Adultery is morally questionable, and traditionally a cardinal sin. A person of integrity will not get into an affair with a married person. With all his millions, his good looks and his charming manner, Gatsby could have had any kind of unmarried woman. Why bother interfering with a married couple? Because Daisy was “the one”? Was she? Really? Then why didn’t she choose on her own accord to divorce Tom and marry Gatsby? Love is a matter of reciprocity. Daisy reciprocated – attraction, attention and probably affection to a certain degree. But as we’ve seen, in the end she neither married him nor even bothered to appear to his funeral. Hence we need to ask, what made Gatsby hold on to a woman who didn’t reciprocate his own intentions?

We see that Gatsby and Daisy were deeply in love 5 years ago. After he had to leave her for the war, he was unable to separate the vision he had for himself from her. She was part of it. For him, she was the only woman he could imagine his life with. She, on the other hand, managed to move on and become engaged. It was only when she was about to get married and received Gatsby’s letter that she again mourned the past relationship with him. But by then it was already too late.

While Gatsby was now a millionaire, he still came from humble beginnings. His high self-idealization was a compensation tool for his internal shame about his low origin. There is no shame in that. There can be no doubt that nurturing a high vision of oneself can ennoble us. We are goal-aiming creatures. And the bigger the goals, the more they possess the “magic to stir men’s blood”. Pursuing a high goal ennobles us. It brings forth in us the will to give our best, and thus become the best person we can be, in order to be able to achieve the high goal. This is what Jay Gatsby stands for.

But the high, idealistic vision of oneself ennobles us only if we truly act in such a way that we become more noble beings within. Gatsby had achieved the outcome of being wealthy. And he thought that his financial wealth was all it took to win Daisy over. But as we’ve worked out, his wealth was built on shaky ground. He had to hide the way he had made his money. His shady millions were not something he could go proud of. And we can see this unrest if we are willing to look at the hidden outbursts during his calls, if we are willing to look at the punishment of the “quite emotional” Mr. Slagle – and, most of all, if we are willing to look at Gatsby’s fit of rage when Tom provokes him.

This outburst is the one event that revealed his inner fragility to everybody. And it is that which made Daisy doubt him. Even one minute ago she had admired his strength of character because he was “always so cool”. But now she saw that underneath his cool facade he was weak.

One of the most significant discoveries of 20th century’s psychology is the concept of the self-image. A self-image is a mental picture we have of ourselves. One of the pioneers of self-image psychology is Maxwell Maltz, the author of the classic book Psycho-Cybernetics. Maltz used to be a plastic surgeon before he became a psychologist. During his practice as a plastic surgeon he encountered numerous patients who had developed negative personality traits due to facial scars or perceived flaws like unproportionate or misshaped noses or ears. But what surprised him was that many of these patients would lose their negative attitudes with the aesthetic adjustment of the perceived disfigurement.

Some patients, however, would not lose their psychological issues even after surgery, because their negative self-image persisted despite the adjustment. This is how Maltz turned from fixing external appearances as a plastic surgeon to fixing the inner self-images of people as a psychologist.

Real change requires real change. You cannot fake it. If you want to have a better life, you have to become a better person. Like Gatsby, we can give ourselves the appearance of being an improved person by creating an illusion, a facade. But the facade will not stand the test of time and eventually crumble when challenged. The only way to really change our lives is to become that type of person who is truly capable of carrying the weight of this better life.

Gatsby might have “believed in the green light,” but he pursued it only on surface level. He was focused on the outcome: the money and the woman. But he chose the quick path, the easy way. The alternative would have been to choose a forthright path, which would have required him to grow as a person – not just to adopt fancy manners. Setting out to honestly become successful would have required him to individuate more and to truly transform into a stronger person, thereby getting rid of his weakness. This process of individuation would also have allowed him to separate from the shared fantasy bubble with Daisy. It would have enabled him to move on. And by moving on, whe would likely have found out that he can be happy with an unmarried woman, who is solely devoted to him and would not pick somebody else. Just like the Count of Monte-Christo.

Thank you for taking the time and reading this essay about The Great Gatsby. How did you like it? Let me invite you to share your thoughts and impressions about the book, the movie and the essay – I cannot wait to read your comments.

2 thoughts on “Self-Idealization and Reality: Why did Gatsby’s Vision Fail?

  1. Wow, this is so interesting. I imagine this must be one of your favorite books to have put so much thought and understanding into it. Really enjoyed your thoughts on the Edmond Dantes-Gatsby similarities.

    1. The Count of Monte-Christo is indeed one of my favourites, but the similarities stroke me in the process of writing, because their polarities are so opposed. While Edmond is out for justice and leaves the unfaithful Mercedes to herself, Gatsby is anima-possessed and has no real scope beyond her. Gatsby is essentially co-dependent and not individuated enough, meaning he has never been properly aligned with God – or with his higher self – like Edmond is.
      What do you think? Glad to meet someone who knows both books, appreciate your comment and thanks for reading the essay!

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