I went back to the Bay Area a few weeks ago for my spring break. I met up with some of my friends from college and visited North Beach with some of my dearest friends. Of course, after a having a few, the discussion/debate began. Why is Gatsby considered “great”? We went back and forth about the reasoning behind the word “great” and how people would think that the character, or idea, of Gatsby is considered and referred to as “great”.
When I returned home, I posted the question on FaceBook as my status. I received some immediate responses from my fellow classmates and some others simply “Liked” the post. One of those people was my sophomore year English teacher from high school. She was the teacher that opened my eyes to the world of literature and how awesome it can be. I sent her a message and asked her why she thought Gastby is “great”. The following is our brief conversation.
MEGAN: Molly! He’s a genuine romantic and a dreamer, he doesn’t let anyone taint his vision of Daisy, who he sees as a vision of perfection. Besides this, he’s a war hero and enjoys watching people enjoy themselves at his expense. He’s perfect.
MOLLY: I do like Gatsby and I love reading his story, although it is rather tragic, but I cannot say that I agree with you in the points that you made above. Yes, he is honorable because he reached the rank of Major. Yes, he does throw extravagant parties for his “neighbors” and appears to enjoy them. Underneath it all, is it really what he wants? By his achievements in the war and his numerous festivities, does that really make him “perfect”? I can see where you are coming from in regards to that he is a dreamer and that he is not letting anyone taint his vision of Daisy, but the interesting thing to point out would be why. Why does he not let anyone taint his vision?
He is a dreamer because he is still stuck in the past. Gatsby cannot accept the fact, or comes to terms with, that he is never going to have Daisy as his own. That opportunity has come and gone. Gatsby is desperate to stop time (the clock in Nick’s cottage) and just relive the moments that he had with Daisy before Tom Buchanan came into the picture. I think that he has slowly begun to realize that his “perfect” vision of Daisy is just as, to use your word, “tainted” as he is.
That leads into my second point.
How is Gatsby perfect? Yes, he has the means to throw all of these lavish parties and a function for his, for lack of a better word, friends, but that doesn’t make him perfect. He is throwing the parties to distract his guests from questioning who he is. Do the guests honestly care about who Gatsby is? I think that they would rather prefer the mystery of Gatsby rather than knowing the truth. That is similar to Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship; he doesn’t want to know or acknowledge the truth about what could have been and what will never be.
Something that is very telling about Jay Gatsby is his name, or alias, rather. Instead of using his given name James “Jimmy” Gatz, he lives under an alias which is a sign that he somewhat ashamed of what or who he was before the money. If he were, as you said, “perfect”, wouldn’t he want to keep and own his name? Everyone hits a rough patch in their life at some point, but that doesn’t mean that we go out and change our names. “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!” By Gatsby going by another name, it is another way that he shows that he is denial and that he is trying to run away, trying to escape.
MEGAN: It’s his imperfections that make him great. Like Gatsby, there’s no changing my mind. I’ll love him for who I think he is, not for what the world judges him to be. I think we could all learn something from his character. If we quit tearing people down for their imperfections and insecurities, we can remember that someone for the person they once were and the someone we once loved. That’s about as close to perfection as you can get.
And that was the end of the debate. I wanted to respond, but I do not think that she would have appreciated reading a paper from a former student going completely against almost everything she stated in her last message. Since I did not respond to her comments, I simply thanked her for entertaining a recent college graduate who has been in desperate need of discussion about literature and I went about my business, in other words, I blogged about it.
If I had responded to her about her last statement, in brief, it would have sounded something like this:
Alright, let’s not get dramatic here. His imperfections definitely add to his character and his story, but no character is “perfect”.
Let us not forget that he [Gatsby] is a character, black ink on a white page. He does not actually exist. No character in that book or other works of fiction actually exist. The downfall of most readers, and of most aspiring English majors, is that they tend to treat the characters as if they are real, physical, three-dimensional people capable of emotions. They are not real. They are merely a creation birthed by an author or poet used to personify an idea or a concept. The reader cannot interact with the character. The reader cannot hold the character. There is no physical connection. Of course, if the writer has done what he or she wanted to accomplish, make the reader feel something for the character, then that is fine. But that characters are not there to merely stay on the page and make the reader wish he or she was with the character. Characters are meant to be disected.
Leaving the characters on the pages is one of the biggest insults in literature. Being an English major and deeply enjoying the disection of any text that comes my way (one of my English classes in college we discussed why the wheelbarrow was red for an hour), I feel the need to rip into the characters and read between the lines. To tear the characters down from their pedistals. Why are the parties being thrown? Why does he change his name? What does the time period have to do with Gatsby and his actions? That way of thinking may come off as aggressive to some, but that is what literature and discussion of literature is about. The reader is not supposed to speak about the characters as if they grew up next door to each other, the reader must think about why the character is doing what he or she is doing. That is the beauty of it all.
So, that is what my response might have sounded like. I could on and on and rant about how readers tend to get too caught up in the characters’ “emotions” and how that taints the true meaning behind the characters, but I digress. The beauty of literature is that everyone has his or her own interpretation of the text. No one reading is the same. Books have been out for hundreds of years and people are still discussing the texts and make connections with modern day events. I thoroughly enjoy a good debate and I look forward to ruffling someone else’s feathers in the near future.