The Great Gatsby, The inexhaustible pursuit of pure love (*)

There are those who choose mentors just to then invent the traits of the character they shall become, passionately modeling and shaping these traits with unlikely tools. In the crime literature, an outstanding character that successfully accomplishes such a transformation is Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s legendary character first introduced in The Talented Mr Ripley  (published in 1955, he would also appear in many of Highsmith’s later novels). Jay Gatsby, the enigmatic protagonist of Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel (published in 1926) is another self-invented character. Unlike Fitzgerald’s two previous novels, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned, in which both male characters (Amory Blaine, a Princeton student and Anthony Patch, a Harvard student), struggle to gain acceptance and recognition from their peers in the intricate social web of the East Coast upper class of their time, the existential struggle that Jay Gatsby wages in the novel, is different. Another trait worth noting regarding Gatsby, when compared to Ripley, is his relationship with the obscure side of morals. Whereas Ripley is an amoral serial killer and criminal, Gatsby achieved redemption (presumably not for serious crimes) through and thanks to his candor and his love for Daisy, the feminine lead character of the novel. 

Although Gatsby seems to have been aware since his childhood that he did not belong to the group of people who enjoy the privileges and benefits that life offers them, he was convinced that he had the skills to become a wealthy man and to earn the social recognition that would allow him to enjoy those same privileges and benefits. Gatsby’s elderly father, who had been a humble farmer, shows Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, shortly before his son’s funeral, a crumpled copy of Hopalong Cassidy, a book his son had read as a boy. On the back cover, Gatsby had jotted down lists of his daily chores and resolutions: don’t waste time, don’t smoke, read one book or magazine a week, be nice to my parents, and so on. His father had proudly kept that book, which he read as a prophecy of what his son could become. Gatsby may have originally intended to walk the road to success as an autodidact. On the one hand, working on a continuous strengthening of  his principles and improvement of his education; on the other, slowly but uninterruptedly earning money, digging for clams and fishing for salmon. However, when he was 17 years old, he met Dan Cody, who was sailing his impressive yacht on Lake Superior. When Cody called him over, young James Gatz, in the twinkling of an eye, changed his mind and decided to change his name. It was then that Jay Gatsby was born. Running into Cody was an opportunity for Gatsby to become the one who he had dreamed of being. Perhaps he believed that changing his name would facilitate the radical transformation that he sought to achieve in himself. Thus, after working alongside Cody for five years as his personal assistant, Gatsby’s mentor died one day, bequeathing him  25,000 Dollars (amount of money that Gatsby was never able to collect). 

When years later, in 1917, Gatsby met Daisy Fay, this meeting was tantamount to being given the opportunity to make a final correction to the script on which he had decided to model his life. It was as if before meeting Daisy, Gatsby’s life had been just a succession of drafts. By falling in love with Daisy he got the missing piece to define his role. From then on, the execution of that act began, and he became determined to carry on in a so perfect and absolute way that not even Daisy, who knew him intimately, would realize that the man she met and came to love was an imposture, just a fake. character who recited his script, a poor player that struts and frets, his hour upon the stage, as Macbeth said[2]. Even though Gatsby was aware that he did not belong to the same class as Daisy, the love that she had aroused in him made him obsessed with winning her heart, since he had fallen in love the day he met her. Perhaps during those early days of his love for Daisy, as if it were a religious ritual, Gatsby renewed his faith in the American Dream, in the hope that it would enable him to achieve his cherished dream. It occurred as a therapeutic act. To give him a faith that would not wear over the long and difficult years that he envisioned. 

Gatsby met Daisy when he was in Camp Taylor. The meeting took place just before going to war, as a lieutenant in the 28 Infantry Regiment of the First Division. At 18, Daisy was the most popular girl in Louisville, Kentucky. Jordan Baker, who was Daisy’s friend, told Nick one day that Daisy loved the white color. She wore white and drove a white convertible. Everyday, when she was at home she was enthusiastically called by officers asking her out; they were aiming at the privilege of monopolizing her for one night. Jordan recalls the day she saw her in the company of a lieutenant: The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at sometime, and because it seemed romantic to me I have remembered the incident ever since. His name was Jay Gatsby. It must have been a few days after that scene that Gatsby realized that he had fallen in love with her. He did it knowing that, to marry her, and live by her side for the rest of her life, he would have to be a wealthy man. And nonetheless, Gatsby may well have convinced himself that Daisy would reciprocate his love with the same persistence and longing for eternity that he did, even when he was not wealthy. An October night of that year, he possessed her: ravenously and unscrupulously. He had intended, probably, to take what he could and go. But now he found he had committed himself to the following of a grail. He knew that Daisy was extraordinary, but he didn´t realize just how extraordinary a “nice” girl could be. It was the intensity of his love that made him believe that love between them would never die and that no one would ever come between them. Along with that epiphany came his decision to create a narrative for the character he had become that was consistent with the class, taste, and knowledge of the world he wished to convey. Even though his metamorphosis had begun more than five years ago (when he met Cody), love offered him a path (the only one he ever came across) to both moral and spiritual redemption. As if it hadn’t mattered the kind of moral or legal transgressions he would have to commit to earn the fortune he was envisioning, at the end, it was his love for Daisy that would redeem him. It was indeed, his persistent and unswerving love for Daisy his path towards atonement. So when Gatsby said goodbye to Daisy, he expected that the faint hope of eternal love between them would smoothly become a reality on his return. However, when the war was over, his single possession was (the memory of) a five-month stay at Oxford, sojourn he was awarded for his extraordinary performance as a soldier. Nonetheless, Oxford,, together with his good manners, his elegance and his behavior and eloquence typical of a gentleman, would not be enough. Gatsby knew he would have to make a huge fortune to win and hold Daisy’s heart.

It was hunger that pointed the way to fortune for Gatsby. After wandering the streets of New York for several days, chance led him to run into Meyer Wolfshiem, who became his mentor in business ever since. Wollfshiem met Gatsby in his senior uniform (he had no other clothes), when he had just returned from the war and his chest was covered with medals. Gatsby hadn’t eaten for two days and asked him for a job. Impressed by his good looks and elegance, Wolfshiem decided to help him start a prosperous career. Gatsby must have had a special talent for the wildly lucrative deals he got him into. Thanks to these businesses, Gatsby was able to buy his house on Long Island, with only three years of work. And yet, as much as Gatsby seemed to perfectly play the part of a gentleman, Tom and so many others like him could not be fooled. They figured he was an impostor. Perhaps because he forgot to incorporate into his character details of behavior, codes or unspoken rules of speech or interpretation that were common to Tom and his group. Or perhaps because no one could convincingly explain the origin of his fortune. And for Tom, the fact that Gatsby could not suppress the doubts and uncertainty that he aroused in everyone, was a reason to condemn him, socially and morally. But the reader can see that Tom’s hypocrisy was worse than any uncertainty or imposture. Not just because he cheated on Daisy with Myrtle, the wife of Wilson, the auto shop owner. But because of its segregationist morality based on a culture built on books like Goddard’s The rise of the Colored Empires (a title that would be a paraphrase of Lothrop Stoddard’s book, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, published in 1920). This book, which identified the threats to white supremacy, would have been a delight for Nazism or American racism.


Gatsby, who would now deny it, was a poet, an artist. At the beginning of the novel Nick describes him with the following words:There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life (…).This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name the ‘creative temperament’. It was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which is not likely I shall ever find again.. Although Nick once believed that Gatsby represented everything he despised, after getting acquainted with him he started to admire him and came to feel great affection for him. Being sensitive and smart obviously helped Nick find what others would perceive of Gatsby at first sight. Very soon Nick realized that Gatsby was above the baseness and pettiness of the stories told about him, particularly one talking of a man Gatsby had murdered working as a spy for the Germans. To a large extent, were stories fueled by Gatsby’s reserved character. But they were also fed by the lies Gatsby himself used to tell about his life, maybe with the aim of encouraging rather than suppressing the uncertainty and mystery revolving around his life. He may have been convinced that wealth must always have a special connection with mystery. That peculiar way of preserving the mystery was interpreted as imposture (and therefore not belonging) by Tom and other hypocritical Gatsby partygoers, who viewed him with callousness, malice and envy. One day, Gatsby came across one of those rumor spreaders. It was a man Nick had met one day in Gatsby’s library, which he had entered out of curiosity during a party. He was a drunken and cheeky guest who sarcastically commented that the books were real and not masonry; and then he pulled the first volume of the Stoddard Lectures off the shelf, showing him that the pages were closed. From that he inferred that Gatsby had not read the book. It is a comment that suggests that the impertinent snooper was an assiduous reader of the racist author (either the real or the fictional alter ego), it also informs us that Gatsby kept in his library books of authors he knew were read by his guests, hoping that they would see them and think that he was similar to them. But he didn’t complete this homework, because he decided not to waste his time reading those books whose content he certainly despised. He just played to look like them, it is obvious that he never seriously attempted being successful doing it. Nick was aware of the kind of game Gatsby had engaged in. He knew that, beyond the lavish and legendary parties he offered, which were a splendid waste of money and luxury (in which Gatsby was never seen enjoying himself but, on the contrary, he was always distant, contemplating from some privileged position, the dynamics of the party, as a social scientist might have), there was a man whose persistent, inexhaustible, indefatigable, and obsessive love for Daisy gave him a cheerful, luminous, and hopeful character that made him radically different from all of them. Gatsby had an originality that he may never have been aware of, and if he hadn’t been surrounded by fearsome people with whom he did illegal or shady business (rumors said he had been a bootlegger, or illegal liquor dealer during Prohibition), one could have said that he had an unconcealed candor. It completes  this opinion the fact that the cream Rolls Royce that he was driving; the airplane he was flying and to which he once invited Nick to fly with him; the orchestras that played pieces at his parties such as the Jazz History of the World, by the famous Vladimir Tostoff (which, as Goddard’s book, is apocryphal); the champagne that he lavishly dispensed; the beautiful shirts, monogrammed in blue thread, that he tossed on his bed for Daisy to admire them, that same day he invited her and Nick to see his bedroom; even the pool he naively floated in when Wilson brutally shot him dead; all those goods and symbols of luxury and opulence were elements that Gatsby needed for his performance, which he could do without at any time, because he did not attach to things, he was only moved by the desire to spend time with Daisy; resume the relationship at the precise moment he had interrupted it, and do whatever it took to hold Daisy for the rest of her life. That Gatsby was lying? That he had even lied to Nick, the day they were out for a ride in his Rolls-Royce, telling him that his parents were rich people from the Midwest, and that he had studied at Oxford, as had several of his ancestors, because it was a family tradition? It is true. But the last night Nick and Gatsby were together talking—that night before Wilson’s sudden appearance at Gatsby’s house to murder him, avenging an act that only Nick knew Gatsby didn’t commit—, he told him his true story, he confessed that his parents were humble farmers, who had been fishermen of clams or salmon, until one day he had met Dan Cody, who employed him and taught him to behave like a great man. From that day on he was called Jay Gatsby.


It wasn’t just the act of realizing how extraordinary Daisy was that led Gatsby to fall in love. It was also her light and beauty. It seems to have been during those days he spent with Daisy before going off to war that he conceived of the idea that wealth enlightens and beautifies those who possess it. This may explain that he believed Daisy was the most attractive, desirable, resplendent and dazzling woman he had ever met; because she belonged to one of the richest families in Louisville, a family that was owner of an impressive house. Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and misery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor. Gatsby believed that wealth is a sort of cage within which youth and mystery can be retained and preserved. In the novel, a metaphor of this wealth-cage, its concrete and specific representation is the house. Fitzgerald develops the plot around three houses, each of which has a different symbolism.

There is Daisy’s bright and sparkly house in Louisville, a daytime house with The largest of the banners and the largest of the lawns. Gatsby intuited that the rooms and corridors, spaces located on the upper level of that beautiful and radiant house, gave off a fragrant freshness from within that spread throughout that house, which never smelled stale or old. He also imagined that those spaces could have housed extraordinary love stories. It was this romanticization of Daisy’s house that stimulated him and fueled his passion for her. Until the end, this house will remain in Gatsby’s memory as a reference and an ideal, as a model of light and a symbol of his love for the pure feelings laying in Daisy’s heart.

There is also the house-mansion that Gatsby bought in the West Egg, where the new rich lived. Like its owner, the house itself is a sham, since it mimics a Normandy Hotel de Ville. This imposture might prevent that house from preserving the youth and mystery (of its dwellers), as Daisy’s house did. At night, Gatsby usually turns on the lights in his house, in an act that seems an attempt to emulate Daisy’s house, evoking the light that illuminated its halls, rooms and corridors. Or it could be that what he was looking for by turning on those lights was to evoke Daisy, who lived right in front of her house, on the opposite shore of the bay. Every day Gatsby contemplates Daisy’s house from his house, in which a green light turns on at the end of the pier when the sun goes down. Perhaps it is his moment of meditation on how close he had come to realizing his dream.

And there’s Tom Buchanan and Daisy’s Georgian house on the bayfront in East Egg, where families of wealth and tradition live. Nick calls this house and the adjoining ones the tasteful white palaces of the East Egg, shimmering along the water. Daisy was a distant relative of Nick. And Tom, Nick had met when he was a student at Yale. That’s when he found out that Tom came from an extremely wealthy family. At 21 he was a national football star, at thirty, when they met again after the war on Long Island, Tom had become a man who, from his stocky complexion, privileged economic position and white supremacist culture, looked to all around him with the same arrogance. Perhaps it seemed to Nick that Tom didn’t deserve Daisy, because she was unfaithful to him and because he didn’t share his ideas about the world. Or perhaps he thought this because he compared the sincerity and purity of Gatsby’s love for Daisy with Nick’s and concluded that Daisy deserved someone like Gatsby, who felt for her a love whose stubbornness and candor left him perplexed to the end. The ultimate proof of what Gatsby felt towards Daisy are the words he says to Nick, when they talked at his house, the morning after the hit-and-run: I don’t think she ever loved him(…) Of course she might have loved him just for a minute, when they were first married-and love me more even then.] It is difficult not to qualify that statement as candor after everything that had happened. Gatsby, who although he had the fortune did not have the credentials (the tradition) and therefore could not have lived in the East Egg. But he wouldn’t have wanted them either. This house is important because of that green light. It reminds Gatsby daily when the lights are turned on: That he had come very close to his dream.

Those three houses define a space of pleasure and enjoyment; of transfer points of emotions and feelings; of places for daydreaming; of cages or chests that preserved memories that were diluted; of hope and expectation of a future that never arrived. And there is also a fourth house. The modest house that Nick rents, adjacent to Gatsby’s. He chose it because it seemed like the right place to spend a few months studying banking, credit, and securities books. And although he doesn’t know it at first, his house became the spatial and moral point the narrator chose as the location to write the story. That house, its privileged spatial position so close to Gatsby’s, allowed Nick to gradually realize who Gatsby actually was. It allowed him to understand the treasure underlying well hidden within Gatsby. It was this intimate knowledge of Gatsby that moved Nick to pronounce that phrase that seems like a sentence on Tom and the rest of the group, including Daisy, when they are about to say goodbye in the morning after Myrtle’s run over: They-re a rotten crowd. (…) You´re worth the whole damn bunch put together. 

Nick’s house plays a key role in the development of the fictional plot, since it is where the first meeting between Gatsby and Daisy takes place, after their separation in Louisville. Even though they may not have realized it immediately, that meeting was framed within the ancient dilemma (posed by Heraclitus) about the mystery of being and becoming: In the same rivers we enter and we do not enter, (because) we are and we are not (the same). They are the same and they are not. Gatsby is now rich. Daisy is now married to Tom and has a son. Neither love can be the same, nor is the relationship likely to evolve as it would have years ago. Nonetheless, Gatsby believed so until the end. The afternoon when they saw each other again after so long, Daisy couldn’t help but let herself be seduced until she was completely enveloped by the intense and passionate illusion of Gatsby, it had surpassed her. “He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way.


In his romantic imagination, it was not the future that Gatsby pursued so eagerly, but the past. He fought ceaselessly to return to that exact moment before his departure to war. That moment in which the two still believed they had a common future. Which brings me to remember those stanzas of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”: What might have been is an abstraction /Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in a world of speculation. /What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present. I think there was never room for speculation in the relationship that they decided not to continue. Actually, because to a large extent the cards were laid. Gastby had to go to war. And even if he hadn’t, if he had acted like a deserter (which wasn’t consistent with his moral makeup) he had no fortune. There were no alternate scenarios. Decisions that would have led them to a love relationship until death separated them. Aware that he had that love to his credit, Gatsby had no choice but to make a fortune as soon as possible and pursue (as a Parsifal searching for the Grail) impossible scenarios with Daisy. The brief love affair he had with Daisy before leaving for the war lasted for a few weeks because of  her ignorance of the true financial position of Gatsby and his family. With the intention of recovering that moment, as soon as he returned from the war, he made a trip to Louisville and spent a week touring the streets and places where he had spent the best moments with Daisy. And he walked past Daisy’s house. During those seven days, he didn’t care that she no longer lived there but on Long Island with Tom and his son. He had come from the war with a hunger for the most intense illusion, and for the sweet melancholy that he enjoyed those days in Louisville, remembering the time spent with Daisy, when they loved each other and there was nobody between them. And it is possible that on that occasion he realized that going back to that past time, when they were together was an impossible. But he forgot this certainty and insisted on pursuing an impossible : He left feeling that if he had searched harder he might have found—that he was leaving her behind. (…)He stretched out his hand desperately, as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever.

The long reflection with which the novel ends is the most moving description of the impossible task that Gatsby had set for himself the day he bought the house across from the Buchanans: He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city. At the end, Nick reminds us readers that all past time is inexorably a lost time. That no matter how hard we try to deny it, we cannot get it back. There are no Proustian epiphanies-not even dipping madeleines in the linden cup-that can change what Gatsby did or did not do. It is not legitimate either to speculate about all the possible courses that events could have taken; none of the typical counterfactual “what might have been” hypotheses worked in this case. The only thing certain is that Gatsby was not a wealthy man, and without wealth he was not going to be able to convincingly persuade Daisy to wait for him to earn it, in order to become the man she wanted him to be. Daisy was a product and a recluse of her upbringing in a similar way to Tom, Jordan, and the rest of her friends. None of whom had the decency to go to Gatsby’s funeral.  It is not that (we should conclude that) Gatsby had built a character with some flaws. It should rather be said that his character was similar to a Russian doll, in that it was a piece of another object, a fantasy: that of his eternal love relationship with Daisy. That object existed as a brief possibility for a few days in Louisville.The rest was the impossible dream of a self-taught romantic, elegant and with few scruples who had the courage to die defending what he believed; convinced to the end that this was a certainty. More than a meditation on the vain and blind dreams that human beings pursue, sacrificing their lives when they deem it necessary, The Great Gatsby is above all a narrative of the resistance of certain spirits to incorruptibility. The education that Gatsby set out to offer himself, that he had begun with the purity and illusion of a child, went awry at some point in his life. Perhaps falling in love with Daisy (instead of taking what she offered and walking away) was a tragic mistake. An event that critically affected that path along which he would have wanted to advance until he became a good man, a person similar to the one his father imagined he would be. Can we really think that love is not always a blessing and not one of the frequent origins of a tragedy? It is rather to speculate that Gatsby’s life lane was crooked before. The moment when he decided to change his name and call himself Jay Gatsby instead of James Gatz, thus denying his parents and his humble origin. Dan Cody taught him the ways of a gentleman, but he forgot to teach him values. Surprisingly, that wood of which Gatz, or Gatsby, was made was so noble that his candor was preserved even as he walked along the crooked lane. That he was impervious to envy, indifference, rejection and contempt of those he (in secret) admired and wanted to emulate, gossip, lack of love, loneliness, oblivion. It was that candor along with his absolute faith in love that made him consistent to the end, preferring to risk dying for Daisy rather than reveal that she was the one who had run over Myrtle. Love may have made it easy for him to go astray, but it was that love for Daisy that redeemed him.

(*) This text is the English version of a previous post published in this blog in Spanish. It could be read together with the the reading of Killing Commendatore as an homage to the novel by Haruki Murakami

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