Study Guide

Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby

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Jay Gatsby

The Great Gatsby Video


If you invented a persona based entirely on reruns of Laguna Beach, you might come up with something a lot like The Great Gatsby's Jay Gatsby: a fabulously embellished, impossibly perfect reflection of a kid's dreams and fantasies. Let's take a look at how he got there.

Origins: Jimmy Gatz

As a rural farm boy growing up in North Dakota without connections, money, or education, Jimmy Gatz had a plan: he was going to escape his circumstances and make a name for himself. And, luckily, his dad has saved his plan. It's long, but it's worth quoting in full:

On the last fly-leaf was printed the word SCHEDULE, and the date September 12, 1906. And underneath:

Rise from bed...........................................................6.00 A.M.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling........................6.15-6.30 "
Study electricity, etc. ...............................................7.15-8.15 "
Work.........................................................................8.30-4.30 P.M.
Baseball and sports..................................................4.30-5.00 "
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it.........5.00-6.00 "
Study needed inventions.........................................7.00-9.00 "


No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable]
No more smoking or chewing
Bath every other day
Read one improving book or magazine per week
Save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week
Be better to parents (9.104)

This isn't like your New Year's Resolution to stop eating cake every night (what, just us?), or to make sure you put your dirty clothes in the hamper. This a full-on, total makeover, personality overhaul. And in case we didn't understand, his dad is here to interpret for us: "Jimmy was bound to get ahead. He always had some resolves like this or something. Do you notice what he's got about improving his mind? He was always great for that. He told me I et like a hog once, and I beat him for it" (9.108)

What this list also tells us is that James Gatz believed in the American Dream. He believed that you really could work your way up through hard work, resolve, and self-control—just like another young, impoverished boy who made schedules: Ben Franklin. Ben Franklin's autobiography contains a suspiciously similar daily agenda. And notice that young James—like Mr. Franklin—was interested in electricity and inventions?

The problem, as Gatsby (no longer Gatz) learns, is that it doesn't actually work that way. The American Dream is just that—a dream. All that hard work and discipline only earned him ill-gotten gains, and it set him on the path to untimely death.

The Man: Jay Gatsby

Jimmy Gatz died the moment he rowed up to Dan Cody's boat. A new man was born – Jay Gatsby. Like Nick, we're skeptical of him at first. When we meet him, Jay Gatsby is a man with a lot of money, a lot of acquaintances, and very few friends; the rumors that circulate around him make him out to be some kind of mysterious superhero or supervillain.

"Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once."

A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly.

"I don't think it's so much that," argued Lucille sceptically; "it's more that he was a German spy during the war."

One of the men nodded in confirmation.

"I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany," he assured us positively.

"Oh, no," said the first girl, "it couldn't be that, because he was in the American army during the war." As our credulity switched back to her she leaned forward with enthusiasm. "You look at him sometimes when he thinks nobody's looking at him. I'll bet he killed a man." (3.30-35)

Presumably, Gatsby did kill a man at some point during the war—but the fact that these partiers are so off-base tells us how private his life is. His fabulous lifestyle seems so far removed from the diligent scheduling of James Gatz that it's hard to believe they're the same man In the end, though, no matter how carefully he's disguised his origins, Gatsby can't escape his past:

The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end. (6.6-7)




What Nick means is that Jay Gatsby is made in the image of James Gatz's imagination. To understand Jay, you have to understand the longings of a seventeen-year-old boy. In other words, today, Jay Gatsby would probably pass himself off as some kind of dot-com billionaire hanging around with exotic models and movie directors: exactly what a kid growing up in suburbia dreams about being.

(Click the character infographic to download.)

The Child is Father to the Man

One quality Gatz and Gatsby have in common is determination, whether to get out of North Dakota or reclaim Daisy. Get up at 6AM for dumbbell practice? Sure. Study needed inventions for two hours every night? Absolutely. Save ill-gotten gains for three years to buy a house across the bay from his married crush? You betcha.

And he's got another childlike quality: restlessness. Nick describes it:

He was balancing himself on the dashboard of his car with that resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American—that comes, I suppose, with the absence of lifting work or rigid sitting in youth and, even more, with the formless grace of our nervous, sporadic games. This quality was continually breaking through his punctilious manner in the shape of restlessness.

He was never quite still; there was always a tapping foot somewhere or the impatient opening and closing of a hand. (4.12-13)

As you can probably tell, there's more to this than a guy who can't sit still. In this paragraph, Gatsby becomes a representation of America itself: restless, resourceful, and active. It's those qualities, along with his determination, that we give our American heroes, like Ben Franklin and George Washington. (Gatz would have known all those stories—and probably Horatio Alger's novels, too, full of boys like Gatz who, through hard work and good moral character, ended up winning riches and fame.)

And, like a child, Gatsby always retains a kind of innocent quality. He might seem to be worldly and dishonest, but in fact he's never cynical or corrupt. When he and Daisy begin their affair, he "was consumed with wonder at her presence" (5.113). He can't believe that she would choose Tom over him; and he actually doesn't understand that Tom wouldn't bother seeking revenge. Gatsby's world is still the simple world of North Dakota, adventure stories, and the belief that people, and the world, work in predictable ways. It's this trace of innocence that (we think) makes his story so tragic.

The Legend: The Great Gatsby

Million-dollar question: what makes the Great Gatsby great? On the surface, Gatsby/Gatz is a guy whose sickening wealth, sketchy business dealings, and questionable background make him both fascinating and repulsive – the people at his parties are happy to squander his riches, but they're all sure that there's something not quite right about him.

Nick is one of the few—perhaps the only—person who really comes to understand Gatsby in the end. What makes Gatsby "great" to Nick is not just the extravagance of his lifestyle and the fascinating enigma of his wealth, but that, in his heart of hearts, he doesn't care about wealth, or social status, or any of the other petty things that plague everyone else in his shallow world. Instead, Gatsby is motivated by the finest and most foolish of emotions—love.

From this point of view, Gatsby's love for Daisy is what drives him to reinvent himself, rather than greed or true ambition. This unsullied, heartfelt goal puts Gatsby ahead of the rest of the madding crowd. Despite the fact that he attempted to fulfill his "incorruptible dream" dishonestly, we can't help feeling sorry for him: he may have been a fool at times, but he's a fool for love.

In the end, even though he's a self-created millionaire built out of nothing but lies, Nick singles him out as the only real person in a crowd of fakes: "better than the whole damn bunch put together" (8.45). Do you agree?

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