I will not be writing up a full review of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for several reasons. One of them is that this far past the release, most critics have already gotten their works out there and I really have nothing new or interesting to say in that overall regard. I will say that the movie’s quite good, and you should go see it. Leonardo DiCaprio has a screen presence that completely cements him as a Hollywood leading man on par with classics like Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable, with an intimacy and humanity in many of his roles that pulls the audience in without visible effort. His Jay Gatsby is no different. But I find myself pondering something about this self-made man: is Gatsby great?
We’re certainly lead to believe he’s great. His wealth, opulence, and movement with ease amongst high society’s best and brightest certainly seems great by the standards of our materialistic, superficial culture. If he kept a bevy of attractive women in his mansion, he’d be the Roaring 20’s Hugh Hefner. A person in his position in our current day and age would probably be one of those odious Kardashian or Jersey Shore types – rich and famous for no reason, and vacuous as a result. Yet Gatsby is so smooth and polished, so classically debonair, so relentlessly likable, that envious as we might be, we can’t hold his success against him. His charm is, perhaps, his greatest weapon, especially in the eyes of narrator Nick Carraway.
Nick, for his part, is so close to Gatsby almost from the beginning, and so overwhelmed by the man and his image and achievements, that it’s very difficult for him to see past the facade to the truth underneath. This is, in fact, one of the few quibbles I have about the film version: the audience is so wrapped up in Nick’s perception of events that close attention must be paid to see Gatsby’s shortcomings as true, crippling flaws rather than obstacles for this great man to overcome. The difference is a subtle one, but Nick’s glasses are so rose-colored that even Gatsby’s worst moments as seen as tragic moments rather than revelatory turning points.
The biggest problem between Jay Gatsby and objective greatness is his objectification of Daisy. As much as he fell in love with her five years ago, his inability to let go of his idealized version of her and his placement of her in a central role of his life without her knowledge strikes me as incredibly unhealthy. Instead of focusing on building himself up for his own sake, bettering himself in order to be a more successful Gatsby today than he was yesterday, he strives towards the distant goal of reclaiming Daisy. Instead of self-determination or ambition, his driving force is obsession, an all-consuming focused idea that if he just acquires this person, his life will be perfect, matching or exceeding the nearly fantastical recollection he has of his past. He sees Daisy as needing to be rescued and swept off of her feet and back into his life.
However, before Gatsby reveals himself, Daisy doesn’t seem to be all that interested in rescue. Her husband may be a racist asshole, but he provides her with all the comforts of a rich life and she gets by just fine with that. Gatsby does not reawaken some spark of an old flame within her, he merely presents her with something new and exciting and interesting in her life. In truth, neither of them is really interested in the other as a person, as they are now: Gatsby desires the Daisy he used to know, and Daisy desires the distraction of this mysterious rich man who shows more affection than Tom tends to. Nick cannot see how pathetic and doomed Gatsby’s obsession has become; Daisy simply doesn’t care. When Gatsby’s facade begins to crack and Daisy sees more of who he really is, she immediately retreats to Tom. As Nick puts it, the Buchanans are careless people, in that they do not care about the affect they have on others. Gatsby, too, is somewhat careless, but he spends so much time trying to carefully proceed in his own way that, by extension, he prevents himself from truly harming others. He may be wounded, stunted, and held back by his own selfish desires, but the glimmers of good in him shine all the more brightly due to these internal shards of darkness.
In the end, no, I don’t think Jay Gatsby is a great man in the same way world leaders or true altruistic souls are great. I think that his life-defining plan was flawed from the beginning; I think he suffered from a serious case of tunnel vision; I think his inability to check his ambition and see the Buchanans – both of them – for the shallow and worthless people they are prevents him from putting his wealth and charm and hope towards a more worthy end. However, it is these very flaws and shortcomings that make Gatsby a great character, and a great protagonist. His charisma puts us squarely in his corner, his ultimate plan fills us with concern, and as much as we can feel him reaching towards something he both should not have and will fail to achieve, we can’t help but wish him the best. Because who among us can say we’re truly great? Who has not had moments of obsession, of selfish needs, of failure that’s threatened to cripple or destroy? Jay Gatsby is all of these things, and he’s endearing for it. He may not be a truly or objectively great man, but he’s great for us to relate to and connect with, he’s great in his determination and his successes and his endless and overwhelming capacity for hope, and he is the central reason that The Great Gatsby is a true Great American Novel.