The Great Gatsby is considered F. Scott Fitzgerald’s finest novel. It contains a bevy of colorful characters, not the least of which is the title character, the fantastically wealthy Jay Gatsby. When our narrator, Nick Carraway, moves in next door, he finds his neighbor strange and a bit odd.
“…[Gatsby] stretched out his arms toward the water in a curious way, and, as far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward-and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away…when I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone in the unquiet darkness.” (Fitzgerald 20)
Parties rage at all hours of the day, particularly at night. Alcohol (this was Prohibition America) flows freely. Guests practically live there. And yet, none of this fazes Gatsby. He befriends Nick, and it soon becomes clear that Gatsby is using Nick to meet Daisy Buchanan (Nick’s cousin and Gatsby’s former flame). Gradually, we learn their backstory: Daisy and Gatsby were an item five years ago, and Gatsby was infatuated with her. But while he was at war, Daisy left him for her current husband, Tom Buchanan. Gatsby’s wealth, his power, his wacky parties-all those are simply tools in his quest to get Daisy back. Obviously, someone who would go through all that and devote his life to chasing a (married) girl is a dreamer through and through, and perhaps a tad unstable. But the point is, Jay Gatsby is one of literature’s best-known foolish dreamers.
We first see this mentality at play in Gatsby’s own parties: “…the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors, and hair shorn in strange new ways…the bar is in full swing…the opera of voices pitches a key higher.” (40) You might think that Gatsby has at least an interest in these parties. But no; he doesn’t really care to interact with his guests. He hangs around at the periphery, but never jumps into the fray. Gatsby uses his wealth to throw amazing parties only because he hopes to attract Daisy. He knows none of the people who frequent his house. He lets them wander in and out at will. A few of them practically live there. He doesn’t care about anything else, frankly, than Daisy-not the quality of his friends, not where his money goes. It is this careless and obsessive mindset that will eventually lead to his downfall.
As we, and Nick, soon discover, there is a darker side to Gatsby than what most people see: the smiling, quiet host of lavish carousals. In a visit to the city, Nick and Gatsby visit a bar with an old friend of Gatsby’s, Meyer Wolfsheim.
‘[Wolfsheim’s] nostrils turned toward me in an interested way. “I understand you’re looking for a business gonnegtion.”
…Gatsby answered for me:
“Oh no,” he exclaimed. “This isn’t the man.”
“No?” Mr. Wolfsheim seemed disappointed.
“This is just a friend. I told you we’d talk about that some other time.” ‘ (70)
This seemingly innocuous incident is our first hint that Gatsby deals with unsavory characters. Another hint is that that Meyer Wolfsheim was one of the men who fixed the 1919 World Series. But the worst evidence comes during the novel’s climax, when Tom reveals to Jordan, Nick, and Daisy what he’s found out about Gatsby: “He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That’s one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn’t far wrong.” (133) Gatsby is willing to do anything to get Daisy back, including illegal things. He blatantly disregards his own safety, fortune, and reputation in pursuit of his girl.
The final and perhaps most damning evidence of Gatsby as foolish dreamer can be seen not in a specific action, but the philosophy that drives all actions. He and Nick are speaking in the garden of his house (in the aftermath of the first party of his Daisy ever attended). Gatsby expresses displeasure at Daisy’s unwillingness to fly into his arms straightaway. Nick tells him not to expect too much of Daisy, because one can’t repeat the past. Gatsby looks up and cries: “Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!” (110) This single statement blows open wide the doors into Gatsby’s psyche. He is a man caught up in his visions of the past, a man relentlessly pursuing a fantasy. He wants to relive the summer of five years ago, when he first met Daisy and fell in love with not her, but the idea of her-plain and simple.
By the end of the novel, Jay Gatsby is dead. What was Fitzgerald trying to say here? That foolish dreamers are just that-foolish? Fitzgerald shows us how Gatsby’s obsessive love for Daisy has come to an end, but his influence lives on, particularly in the now-melancholy Nick. Perhaps what he was trying to say was that there is a little of Gatsby in all of us. We are all foolish dreamers in one way or another; we all want to rule the world, or win the lottery, or a million other impractical and nearly unobtainable things. We are all, as Gatsby was, captivated by our fantasies, working toward an ideal life, starry-eyed and “borne on ceaselessly into the past.” (180)