Gatsby as a Romantic Hero
To define F,. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous character, Gatsby, as a mythic character is a relatively easy task; to define Gatsby as a romantic hero is a bit more difficult. Assessments of Gatsby’s romantic dimensions must be viewed in light of the historical times which gave rise to the novel’s major themes and the resonance of its central character’s mythical scope.
The basic elements of Gatsby’s character which define him as a romantic hero are those characteristics which reveal: self-reliance, ambition, and economic wealth. The more subtle character traits which reveal Gatsby as a romantic hero are those which center around his romantic love for Daisy and his longing to be accepted by the upper-class socialites who threaten to disregard him altogether. Gatsby’s self-reliance, coupled with his success in economic terms make him a mythic hero due to American capitalism being the primary mode of socialization in Fitzgerald’s time. Gatsby’s love for Daisy adds a dimension of romanticism: a longing for an ideal love and for someone to share his success with which a more subtle aspect of the novel.
In order to make Gatsby’s status as a romantic figure clear, Fitzgerald often uses highly poetic and romantic writing to forward the feeling of Gatsby’s world being steeped in a longing
for the ideal and a longing to “transcend” his ordinary stature. An example of how the use of poetic writing, which is a subtle device in the novel, helps forward Gatsby as a romantic hero is the description of the party at Gatsby’s house early on in the novel: “By seven o’ clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitiful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the hills and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors, and hair shorn in strange ways, and shawls beyond the dreams of Castille.” (Fitzgerald)
This kind of lyrical writing helps et the mood of Gatsby’s exalted idealism where the actual bounties described help create the mythic impact of his character: a huge orchestra, a hundred happy friends, a massive grounds, food and wine aplenty. Gatsby is shown as a provider of the American dream for all of his friends and hangers-on; the mythic impact of his character is heightened right along with the poetic language and imagery.
Another method Fitzgerald uses to increase the mythic and romantic scope of Gatsby is to consistently employ mystery about and around his character. The central mystery of the novel is, of course: who is Gatsby, really? And where did he get his money? However, other mysteries abound: including what, exactly is the nature of his fascination for Daisy, what, in fact, did he do upon “losing” her the first time and what, in fact, does he stand to gain, now, from winning her back? When Gatsby buys the woman at his party who had her dress soiled an expensive replacement, the guests talk about the mystery that surrounds Gatsby:
“There’s something funny about a fellow who would do a thing like that,” said the other girl eagerly. “he doesn’t want any trouble with anybody.”
“Who doesn’t?” I inquired.
“Gatsby. Somebody told me— “
The two girls and Jordan leaned together confidentially.
“Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once.”
By showing that gatsby is a mythical figure to the other characters in the story, Fitzgerald encourages the reader, also, to consider Gatsby as a mythical figure. As the idea of Gatsby as a mythical and romantic character is given to the reader very early on in the story, the reader will, from the beginning of the novel, start to wonder what kind of mythic figure Gatsby actually is: a positive or negative figure, hero of villain.
Gatsby’s obvious love for Daisy is the thing which keeps the reader believing that Gatsby is a romantic hero rather than a tragic villain. In his struggle to attain wealth and respectability, Gatsby symbolizes not only the “egalitarian” beliefs of America, but embodies the idea of the self-made man, which has been historically interpreted as the American dream. So, in fact, Gatsby is the living embodiment of the American dream ion that he has struggled through his own ingenuity and ambition to attain wealth and social stature.
In addition to these facts, Gatsby actually adds a dimension to the purely materialistic dimension of the traditional American dream in that all of his wealth and stature have seemingly been amassed and cared for because of his love for Daisy. When Nick remarks “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams– not through her own fault, but because of the collosal vitality of his illusion,” he is indicating that Gatsby’s mythic scope, like America itself, is so vast and so powerful as to be unrealizable, and yet, the dream of American ambition and Gatsby’s dream of Daisy persist. This is the romanticism and longing for the ideal which gives Gatsby the distinction of being a romantic hero. The scope of his ideal dream is also mythic and gives his character an added mythic resonance in the novel.
Often, Nick serves as a foil for Gatsby’s idealism and his highly poetic observations remind the reader that Gatsby’s dream is both a dangerous one and one which is very hard if not impossible to attain. Nick knows that Gatsby’s heart is “in a constant , turbulent riot ” and that the “most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted his bed at night” and these realizations by Nick are meant to imply the same kinds of negative qualities in the American dream itself, as far as Gatsby is a mythic representation of the American dream.
By serving as a foil for Gatsby but also lacking his mythic or romantic stature within the novel, Nick’s character actually serves to elevate the power of gatsby as a character and gives Gatsby additional mythic scope. Nick is the novel’s narrator but the readers’ deepest sympathies will also be with gatsby. By allowing Nick himself to become mesmerized by Gatsby and by demonstrating this in the novel through poetic reflections and also by Nick’s actions: such as arranging the meeting between Gatsby and Daisy, Fitzgerald further convinces the reader to regard Gatsby as a mythic figure.
Gatsby’s idealism is almost innocent in the novel, but the reader, through Nick’s observations, knows from a very early point that Gatsby is, himself, not an innocent man. The idea is that America, too, has a veneer of innocence, by the nation is not innocent and its materialism impacts the rest of the world and maybe just beneath the surface of the ideal, a less-than-ideal reality waits.
Another message of the novel seems to be that all ideal and romantic myths must at some point touch on the actual world. By including the murder of Gatsby at the novel’s climax, Fitzgerald adds mythic scope to Gatsby’s character, but he also shows what becomes of an ideal myth in the actual world of reality. In other words it is ironic that an idealist attempted to use materialism to attain an ideal which was, in the end, not material in nature. This theme is precisely the way Fitzgerald and many other artists and commentators have interpreted American capitalism and materialism Gatsby stands as a mythical and romantic embodiment of American idealism as it was interpreted through materialism.
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