Jay Gatsby is the great and mysterious driving force behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel, The Great Gatsby. That’s a lot of “greats” for one guy. What really makes Gatsby so great? And is his greatness real or is it just a euphemism for the American dream gone wrong?
At first glance Gatsby would seem to have it all in this 1920s jazz age novel of American society. He has the big house, the great car, glittering parties, and even a plane, but we quickly learn that Gatsby is pining for his long lost love, Daisy Buchanan. A man desperately in love as so many critics have claimed . I don’t buy it. It is simply the motivation for Gatsby’s greatness, which really makes him seem a little less great as his stimulus revolves around the very basic and primal need for, er, sex. Strike one against Gatsby.
Really though, no matter Gatsby’s motivation for attaining his title of “Great,” he did end up achieving what seems to be the classic American Dream of “money, wealth, and popularity” . So can we honestly fault him for his love/lust-inspired motivation? Perhaps not, but we can certainly take the great-o-meter down a notch by inspecting the means to his end.
Meyer Wolfshiem, “the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919” . Though never conclusively stated in the novel, we get the sense that Gatsby attained his fortune by questionable business practices instituted by a questionable businessman. Why, you ask, is this any reason to make the great-o-meter waver? Super PACs anyone? Well, it’s a question of moral character in the creation of the American Dream. It seems to me that Gatsby really lost himself as he made his life synonymous with the American dream. Strike two against Gatsby.
But when all is said and done, perhaps Gatsby’s biggest crime against his title of “The Great,” is his willingness to lie and deceive, not only to the world, but to himself also, for the sake of covering up the truth about the love of his life and his reason for obtaining greatness in the first place. Daisy Buchanan is a prime candidate for involuntary (we think) vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of an atrocious act of human indecency! The real question is whether Gatsby ignored this small incident of murder in order to continue to perpetuate the lie of perfection he created around his beloved Daisy Buchanan. Perhaps this is the part where Gatsby begins to question his own motivations and ideals…a little…maybe…not so much. It was a nice thought while it lasted. But unfortunately, strike three for Gatsby.
Normally I would go with the whole three strikes and you’re out metaphor, but Gatsby lives up to his plummeting great-o-meter and does us one better. He gets himself murdered protecting the law-abiding, anti-murdering character of his dear Daisy who has fled Long Island in search of a better life (with no murders to her name) in the great Midwest where nobody knows her. It’s one of the great things about being wealthy that Gatsby didn’t really grasp. One never has to be responsible for one’s own actions. He paid for that misstep with his life. Not so great now Gatsby.
In the end, while Gatsby was granted the title of “The Great,” it seems that the novel may well better had been dubbed “The Not-So-Great Gatsby.” But then, that might just be way too obvious for a great American novel about the great American Dream.
 Fitzgerald, F. Scott The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1925).