A celebration, an enduring tale of love and excess. Mega rees investigates its status within the modern psyche.
By Megan Rees: Literature Columnist
Celebrating its 96th anniversary on April 10th and having sold almost 30 million copies worldwide as of 2020, why is The Great Gatsby so enduringly popular in Western culture?
Is its sentimental and ultimately tragic narrative something that deeply resonates with us as humans? Perhaps we can all relate to Gatsby’s impossible mission to recover a love that’s already out of reach, like grasping at water as it slides through his fingers.
Despite its popularity, Fitzgerald himself commented that ‘of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about’, while BBC Culture labels it as ‘the world’s most misunderstood novel.’ But is labelling The Great Gatsby a ‘love story’ arguably the greatest misunderstanding of all?
Gatsby is not a tragic hero – in fact, he’s not a hero at all. He and Daisy aren’t ‘star-crossed lovers.’ The narrative is not a great love story, but rather, an anti-love story, an un-happy ending. And it was impossible for it to end in any other way.
Gatsby is essentially doomed to fail because his version of Daisy is tightly wound up in his own dreams and ambitions. His love for her is built on his idea of who he wants to be – rich and successful – and so, Daisy is essentially the final piece of Gatsby’s puzzle and achieving his American dream.
And as a product of such a fantasy, it’s impossible for her to actually measure up to the magnitude of his expectations. Gatsby idealises her to the point where she almost becomes superhuman, mythological, as Nick narrates he ‘committed himself to the following of a grail’ and ‘wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath.’
But this fantasy is cursed to collapse on itself when it’s forced into reality. After all, can real life ever truly live up to the imagination that dreams it?
In meeting her, Gatsby comes face to face with his own disillusionment. Nick wonders whether ‘a faint doubt’ had creeped into Gatsby’s mind about whether the reality of Daisy compared with fantasy. He muses:
‘There must have been moments even that afternoon where Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.’
Excess. This is one of the most prominent themes of the novel. Gatsby dreams in excess of a love too great to be real and tries to win back this love through the excess of his wealth.
After all, Gatsby’s love for Daisy is rooted in materialism, in status, and his failure stems from equating love with success.
Money can buy anything – even Daisy’s fascination, as evidenced in her cry ‘it makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before’. But it cannot truly buy back the love they once had.
The Great Gatsby is many things. It’s a tale about obsession, fantasy, and excess. It’s a commentary on class, wealth, and poverty. It warns against the lure of nostalgia, and highlights the colossal gap between expectations and reality.
But what is it not? A love story.