What’s so great about The Great Gatsby?

May 15, 2013 / by / 1 Comment

Gatsby and Daisy

Maybe you’ve been hearing people talk about the film since December, and since then you’ve been seeing Leonardo di Caprio everywhere you go (not that anyone’s complaining about this). But what, exactly, is The Great Gatsby? I’ve had friends who thought the film was somehow related to the brand Gatsby, a hair gel product that is supposed to make your hair stand up for hours on end.

Evidently the film is about grander things in life than hairstyling essentials for men, although hairstyle, of course, does play an important part in the film. In fact, appearances are integral to the story itself, for Jay Gatsby is nothing if not a man who hides behind a romantically wealthy façade, tormented by his own demons due to his impossible love for Daisy Buchanan.

Before we begin to delve deeper into why the story resonates with us decades after its publication, it might be helpful to examine the setting of the story first. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus depicts life in America in the roaring twenties, a time marked by social decadence and moral corruption. It mainly evolves around Gatsby’s inextinguishable passion for Daisy, while highlighting the morally corrupt lives of the people in American society with rampant bootlegging and other criminal activities going on all the time.

The novel itself has long been lauded as a masterpiece of the 20th century in the literary world, perhaps due to its use of language and other literary elements such as symbolism embedded within.

Take colour symbolism, for example. The colour yellow in the story can be seen to symbolise the moral corruption of the characters, the loss and distortion of ethics as the characters become increasingly blinded by materialism and social status. Yellow is often associated with Gatsby; the station wagon he uses to transport his guests is ‘a brisk yellow bug’. When Gatsby meets Daisy for the first time in five years, notice that he wears a ‘gold-coloured tie’ as an attempt to impress her with his wealth.

Daisy is another character who is often associated with yellow. She is described as a ‘golden girl’; the use of Daisy’s name is significant as well. Daisies are flowers with white petals and a yellow centre; with white petals and a yellow centre. If yellow is a symbolism for corruption and white represents purity, then the fact that daisies have a yellow centre suggest that, despite Daisy’s seemingly innocent appearance, she has actually been corrupted all her life, her corruption being the blatant disregard for others’ well-being as a result of her over-indulgence in materialism. For instance, Daisy becomes indifferent to Gatsby once she learns of his poor family background. She lets Gatsby take the blame for Myrtle’s death, which ultimately leads Gatsby to his own death.

Green, then, represents Gatsby’s dreams from their conception to decay. After Gatsby successfully transforms himself from rags to riches, he sets up a mansion on West Egg. From there, Gatsby always watches the ‘single green light’ coming from the end of the dock, where Daisy’s house is located. However, the green light, like the dream of winning Daisy’s love, is impossible for Gatsby to reach; he can only ‘stretch out his arms toward the dark water’ towards the green light, which is ‘minute and far away’. Although Nick realises the forlornness of Gatsby’s dream, Gatsby still ‘believe[s] in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us’. He yearns for a future with Daisy and adamantly rejects the notion that his past with Daisy can no longer be resurrected. In the end, Gatsby is left in the darkness as his hope is finally extinguished by the cruel forces of reality.

The above are just a few brief examples of Fitzgerald’s artistry in crafting the story. Indeed, the entire story is a tragedy of grandeur – what attracts me to the story, however, isn’t just the beauty of his writing, but the hope Gatsby holds for the return of Daisy’s love. His undying passion for her is what makes me feel genuinely for Gatsby, for, like what Nick Carraway says, he was one of the most hopeful men he had ever met.

How many times have we harboured dreams for things we think we will never be able to get and how often have we given up on such fantasies? I have dreams, some grand, some modest, but whilst I still hope and pine for their realisation someday, deep down, somewhere, I just can’t get rid of this feeling that they will never materialise. What, then, of Gatsby? He genuinely believes that he can win back Daisy’s love, that the past can indeed be repeated. An innocent fool, perhaps, but I find him to be braver than I am in confronting my own dreams. And somehow I relate to him because I know how desperate one feels when everything you do seem to be futile. For this reason, I admire him in a terribly unrealistic and impractical way.

Let’s not speak of dreams. What of love? I trust that many of us have, at least once in our lifetimes, loved someone who did not or could not love us back the way we envisioned them to do so. Gatsby would go to impossible lengths in order to win Daisy back – throwing lavish parties, rising from a penniless, nameless nobody to one of the richest men in the city by doing everything he could for the woman he loved. Perhaps love does blind people. While the story shows the destructive power of love, it perhaps also reminds us that love can be one of the best motivations for doing something, including rising to greatness and fame.

But Gatsby’s fairy-tale with Daisy, like many others’, doesn’t last. Perhaps Daisy is simply too conceited to love him back, or that her “love” for him is too shallow such that she cannot bring herself to sacrifice anything for Gatsby. This, too, perhaps reminds us of why relationships fail. Sometimes it’s not the lack of love per se, contrary to what absurdly simplified notions of love people might hold nowadays. Sometimes it’s also the disproportional degree of love both parties hold for each other – can we say that Daisy never loved Gatsby, although she was so cruel as to not attend his funeral in the end? Perhaps not. I think it cannot be denied that Daisy did love Gatsby – she simply loved herself more. Loving oneself more, really, isn’t a problem; nor is self-love a sin, for one cannot love another for without self-love. What makes it problematic is when one loves the other more than he loves himself, when the other party loves herself more than anything in the world. This gives rise to different expectations from both parties, and is doomed to result in disappointment.

Would Gatsby and Daisy have made a great couple, even if Tom wasn’t involved in the first place? I’d say no. Daisy loves herself too much such that she’s unable to give Gatsby the love he deserves. But then as I and many others throughout the ages have noted, love IS blind. Gatsby knows Daisy is not good for him, but he still continues to love her with every fibre of his being. Some might call him a fool, a lovesick fool, but is there anything wrong with being a fool? Is there anything wrong with chasing your dreams?

Perhaps, yes, when it results in tragedy. But Fitzgerald’s tale serves to illustrate one of the most horrific situations one can be in – to be in love in a morally corrupt society with someone who is too narcissistic to love you back. Nevertheless, like other great tragedies, The Great Gatsby is a gem that cannot be missed. While the story can be regarded as a criticism of the moral collapse in a decade of hedonism, it is much more than a mere social commentary. It is a work of art that tells of the great destructive power of love.