Jay Gatsby, the title character of The Great Gatsby, was born Jimmy Gatz, a poor boy from an undistinguished family. Dazzled by Daisy Fay at a party when he was a young soldier on his way overseas, he is determined to win her love by accumulating enormous wealth and by developing a personal style of such glowing force that she will be unable to resist his courtship. Gatsby’s efforts in a way dramatize the myth, popularized in Horatio Alger’s stories of the late nineteenth century, of self-improvement through hard work and fortunate circumstances. But Gatsby overcomes the limits of his origins only to eventually succumb to greater limits. A natural leader of men, he is extremely poised, physically gifted, understated about his accomplishments but riveting in terms of his presence. At the age of thirty-two, having accumulated his wealth through shady enterprises connected with major-league criminality, he is a bizarre combination of an elegant, gallant man and a love-struck youth. At the heart of his character is the conviction that his love can rescue Daisy from a bad marriage and redeem his own life, which has been sliding further into corruption. His willingness to commit himself totally to his vision of a bright future makes his death tragic.
Part of the tragic essence of Gatsby’s life is that the object of his quest is not entirely worthy of his commitment. Daisy is extremely attractive, her allure projected by her voice, which Fitzgerald describes as “the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” She has a radiance that Nick sees as “a wild tonic in the rain,” and she communicates her sense of love with extraordinary intensity. But she sees everything from the perspective of her own happiness and well-being, and without being cruel or evil, she is a little bit too careless. In fact, her carelessness leads to the death of Myrtle Wilson, the woman her husband has been seeing. Daisy’s faults are minor, though, in comparison with those of her husband, Tom Buchanan. Very rich and privileged, he is also physically imposing, a star athlete used to having his way. He is a thug and a bully, full of self-importance and unjustified self-regard. But inside the “cruel body” he remains a coward with no moral courage, a quitter with no sense of perseverance, a man of average intelligence that he has never developed, and a man concerned with appearances who, as Nick observes, has no real reason for doing anything. He competes with Gatsby through deception and treachery. It is a mark of Fitzgerald’s achievement that one actually feels sorry for him at times.
Jordan Baker, a golf champion Nick almost falls in love with, is lively and attractive in a kind of brittle, ultramodern way. Her apparent spontaneity masks a careful and calculating nature. She fascinates Nick because she seems so much the exciting woman of the city, but he describes her as “incurably dishonest” and unable to “endure being at a disadvantage.” Her controlled aloofness convinces many people of her “breeding,” but Nick sees past her charming availability.
Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is a version of Fitzgerald’s ideal self-image. A thirty-year-old Yale graduate, his integrity intact, Nick rightly wins the admiration of everyone he meets because of the obviously substantial nature of his character. Low-key but caring, introspective, an idealist with few illusions, he can look into the abyss without plunging to his doom. As Fitzgerald describes him, he is “simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” Unafraid to commit himself to what he believes in, he becomes Gatsby’s only friend in a world where friendship is rare. He admits without displeasure that he is “on Gatsby’s side and alone.”
Fitzgerald’s ambitions as a writer paralleled those of his spiritual ancestors of the nineteenth century-Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau-who rendered in imaginative literature the emergence of America as a nation. Like them, he believed in the capacity of the American people to perpetually rediscover the promise of their country. Like them, he recognized a continuous clash between the reality of life in the United States and a mythic vision of what it might be. But unlike his forebears, he felt that he was living in the twilight of a golden era. Still, he believed that he could share their vocation; that he, too, could serve as a witness to the struggle, an artistic conscience reminding Americans of near-forgotten dreams. He considered the artist’s role primarily one of inspiration, and felt an obligation to help people recover their vision and continue the quest.
Fitzgerald was also a thoroughly romantic artist in the most traditional sense, and for him, women like Daisy represented the deepest seductive power of the American dream as well as its greatest dangers. Even if pursuing the dream-or the woman-doomed a man, the undertaking was worth the risk; indeed, the pursuit was essential for the exceptional man who wished to fully realize his character. Thus, Gatsby’s (and possibly America’s) greatness lay in the ability to put aside the lessons of bitter experience. As Gatsby says when Nick tells him he cannot recapture the past, “Of course you can, old sport.” Gatsby’s full participation and heedless pursuit make him the quintessential American hero. His death, in a sense, serves as a warning, but it also ennobles him. Fitzgerald hoped that there would always be men such as Gatsby whose nature it was to “beat on, boats against the current,” to make the gorgeous gesture that animates existence.
Nick, the observer and artistic conscience, serves as a necessary counterweight to Gatsby’s wild extravagance. His support of Gatsby, his participation to some extent in Gatsby’s heart-driven surge toward romantic beauty, and his ability to judge other people’s actions with compassion exemplify fundamental decency carried beyond complacency. As Gatsby reanimates the dream, Nick conserves it. His appreciation of beauty is as vital to its existence as is Gatsby’s immediate celebration. “Reserving judgment,” he says, “is a matter of infinite hope.” That is what The Great Gatsby is ultimately about.