Read a character sketch of Jay Gatsby
The novel’s title has the look of the early 20th Century posters that advertise shows by performers who appear to work miracles – acts of daring, or magic. They are traditionally advertised as “The Great….” Charles Blondin, the man who walked across the Niagara Falls on a tightrope, was advertised as “The Great Blondin,” the illusionist Harry Houdini, “The Great Houdini,” and so on.
Jay Gatsby is advertised by his author as “The Great Gatsby”– like a performer of impossible feats, an illusionist. And that’s what Jay Gatsby is. He does not live in the kind of world that most of us would regard as the “real world.” Like Houdini, he also performs a great feat – in his case making himself fabulously rich. He does that in the pursuit of an unrealistic dream – a goal that turns out to be nothing more than a bubble.
Gatsby is two people. He is the teenager, James Gatz, and the man, Jay Gatsby. They are both obsessional. The young Jimmy Gatz, before even meeting Daisy, the object of his adult obsession, devoted himself to a relentless, single-minded programme of self-improvement. After Gatsby’s death, his father appears and shows Nick a schedule written by the young Jimmy.
6.00 AM Rise from bed
6-15 – 6-30 Dumbell exercise and wall-scaling
7.15 – 8.15 Study electricity, etc.
8.30 – 4.30 PM Work
4.30 – 500 Baseball and sports
5.00 – 6.00 Practice elocution, poise and how to achieve it
7.00 – 9.00 Study needed inventions
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)
That was not a simple programme of self discipline – it was the beginning of a complete renewal, the making of a new person. And his day-to-day approach went side by side with that. Mr Gatz tells Nick that Jimmy once told him he ate like a hog, and adds that he beat the boy for it. It was from that background that Jay Gatsby emerged. As Nick Carraway puts it:
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.
What he means is that Jimmy Gatz created Gatsby out of his imagination, imagining what it might be like to be a wealthy man. Certainly, his mansion contains everything a teenager may imagine that the mansion of a rich man would have. We see, though, that Gatsby cares nothing about the trimmings of wealth and the luxury that surrounds him. He values his wealth only for the prospect it provides of fulfilling his dream of uniting with Daisy.
On his return from service in the war, discovering that Daisy has married Tom, Gatsby’s life has been an unwavering drive to make himself rich so that he can put himself on her social level, using every method at his disposal, even the immersion in organised crime.
What we are seeing in this novel is a protagonist who loses himself in the obsessional pursuit of a woman. Every single thing he does, from staging large parties, to the personal items he buys, like his shirts, is part of his plan to bring Daisy back into his life. It is romantic, and it is endearing, but it is an illusion, and indicates a personality that has lost everything apart from its obsession, as he descends deeper and deeper into his fantasy world.
Not being able to let go of his dream leads him ever further into that illusion and it ends in his death. Until the end, even in the face of strong evidence that he will never have Daisy, standing guard at her house when it’s clear that she has fled into the arms of her husband, he regards his action as noble and honourable. At this point the reader pities him – it is a purposeless act and quite futile. And to the very end he clings to his idea of love for Daisy, who has demonstrated her shallowness and her unworthiness of his love. He is in love with his idea of Daisy and not with the woman herself.
Jimmy Gatz always wanted to be rich, even as a youth, but his love affair with the young Daisy brought a new urgency to that and in spite of his decency the newly emerged Jay Gatsby took advantage of the opportunity presented by the Prohibition to enter the world of organised crime, which made him fabulously rich. What he did not understand, however, was the difference between ‘the old rich’ and ‘the new rich,’ which was to have a great effect on Daisy’s attitude to him in spite of her strong attraction to him. No matter how rich the poor Jimmy Gatz became he would never be able to transcend his class. Daisy’s statement “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys” is as much about class as money.
The reader is well into the novel before she begins to get any real information about Gatsby. It is only in Chapter 3 that we first hear Gatsby’s voice. The first two chapters are used to build up a complex picture of him. We first hear about him as the distant, aloof, reclusive, host of the most sumptuous parties on Long Island, which he holds every weekend. His guests are the powerful and famous men and the most beautiful women of New York. By the time we first see him he is an enigmatic legend invented through gossip. We hear something of his history and get confirmation of his criminality in the next few chapters and we get to know him, along with the narrator, Nick Carraway, in the latter part of the novel, where he emerges as the naive young man smitten by an adolescent love bug.
Apart from that main characteristic– his obsessional personality – Gatsby is a man of talent, able to create his own character, symbolised by his changing his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby. Unlike most people, Gatsby has the ability to transform his dream, even the dream of making himself fabulously rich, into reality. Our first impressions of him are just as he wants them to be – of how he wants to appear to the world. Jay Gatsby has been invented by James Gatz and that ability makes him comparable to the ‘greats’ on the vaudeville posters – ‘The Great Gatsby,’ the great magician.
Finally, towards the end of this story, Nick Carraway becomes acutely aware of Gatsby’s authenticity in this world of fake people and as he walks away from him after a traumatic night, filled with emotion and feeling almost love for this poor deluded young man, he turns and calls to him: ‘You’re better than the whole bunch put together!’
That’s our Jay Gatsby character analysis. Make sense? Any questions? Let us know in the comments section below!