The Great Gatsby: Character Analysis of Jay Gatsby

Posted by | December 08, 2012 | Third Year | No Comments
This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series The Great Gatsby

Origins: Jimmy Gatz

Long before Gatsby was “great,” he was a small town kid with big dreams. We learn Gatsby’s real back story fairly late in the game, but when we finally do, it adds infinitely to the real human tragedy of his life and death. It turns out that the pre-West Egg Gatsby wasn’t in fact the “young rajah” he pretended to be; instead, he was just a boy from North Dakota without connections, money, or education. We might see the original James Gatz and his alter-ego as opposite sides of a kind of magic mirror – on one side, we have Gatz, the everyday real person, and on the other, Gatsby, a fabulously embellished, impossibly perfect reflection of a poor boy’s dreams and fantasies.

So who was the real James Gatz (Jimmy to his dad), and how did he become Jay Gatsby? Apparently, even before he had the means, Jimmy Gatz had a plan – his desire to escape his circumstances and make a name for himself. This early motivation demonstrated the same determination and passion we see in his later incarnation, Gatsby. His father’s pride in young Jimmy’s motivation, even years later, is heartbreaking and telling; from a young age, Jimmy knew that he was capable of great things, perhaps even destined for them. As far as we can tell, he spent his whole youth training for his big break, and when it drifted into the harbor in the form of Dan Cody’s yacht, he was ready for it.

The Man: Jay Gatsby

Jimmy Gatz died the moment he rowed up to Cody’s boat, and a new man was born – Jay Gatsby. This self-invented character is too much to believe, and, 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. The tale of an adventurous boyhood and wartime heroics that he himself tells is simply too ridiculous to be true, but he backs it up with enough evidence to please Nick, so we kind of believe him, too. The self-propagated myth of Gatsby is enticingly thrilling – we want to believe that someone as incredible as Jay Gatsby can exist in the world, even if we’re sure he can’t.

Glamorous Jay Gatsby seems like he couldn’t be further from the young country boy he once was, but the similarities between Gatsby and his younger self emerge throughout the novel. By the end of the book, once all the puzzle pieces scattered through time are reassembled, we have a full portrait of one man, spread over two images. The complete Gatsby shows a spectacular kind of determination and singleness of purpose that’s really quite mind-boggling – whether his goal is getting out of North Dakota or reclaiming Daisy, Gatsby accomplishes them with amazing tenacity. We get the feeling that he never forgets anything, and that his vision of the past is perhaps even more clear than his vision of the present (and certainly of the future).

This ties into his incredible sense of loyalty unequalled by anyone else we meet in the dishonest, tricky world of Fitzgerald’s novel; Gatsby is unfailingly loyal to everyone he loves, from his father to Dan Cody to Daisy. The problem is, he doesn’t always get the same measure of loyalty in return. Even though Gatsby seems to be a worldly, perhaps unsavory, somewhat corrupt bootlegger, on the inside, he’s incredibly innocent – and it’s this trace of innocence that makes him so compelling, and ultimately, so tragic.

The Legend: The Great Gatsby

So here’s the 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 glad to partake of his riches, but they’re all sure that there’s something not quite right about him. This sense of mystery is a large part of the public persona of the Great Gatsby; people are intrigued by him, but very few actually find out what’s at the core of this enigma.

Nick is one of these 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 his true personality; Nick slowly realizes that Gatsby, in his heart of hearts, 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, and at the end of the day, 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” through distasteful, sometimes dishonest means, we still emerge from this story profoundly sympathetic to him; he may have been a fool at times, but he’s a fool for love. Even though he’s a self-created image built out of nothing, Gatsby’s emotional honesty, eternal optimism, and simplicity of heart ironically single him out as the only real person in a crowd of fakes – as Nick says, Gatsby is “better than the whole damn bunch put together.”

Series Navigation<< The Great Gatsby: Character Analysis of Nick CarrawayThe Great Gatsby: Character Analysis of Daisy Buchanan >>
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About Ahmed Muhammed

English Literature Student, Award-winning pop culture maven. General Internet geek. Travel guru. I work for Bloomberg as a web designer. I enjoy helping people on everything Techie and geeky.

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