© August 2014 Mary Crockford
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been characterized as the Great American Novel by authors and literary critics since its original publishing in 1925, and as a gothic-style tragedy in the tradition of Shakespeare’s MacBeth and Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Comparisons have also been drawn between the novel and melancholy romances such as Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Hugo’s Les Miserables, though it conspicuously lacks the redemptive aspect of pure, if unrequited, love. Jay Gatsby’s “love” for the vain and selfish Daisy Buchanan is not the love of a rational man for a precious object of affection, but rather the fixation of a psychologically damaged individual, rooted in an insatiable desire to not simply “belong” in wealthy society, but to possess the fantasy woman he sees as the perfect accessory to his gaudy, materialistic world. Through the lens of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Gatsby is revealed as a pathological narcissist whose delusions of grandeur and perpetual identity crisis precipitate his inevitable disenchantment with the various people and possessions that play a part in his conceptualization of the American Dream.
The reader’s first real glimpse of Gatsby’s personality is through the eyes of Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, as he describes Gatsby’s mansion, “a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy” (Fitzgerald 8). Gatsby’s decision to position his mansion in “the consoling proximity of millionaires” is a cynical one, as it will serve as the venue for parties within view of “the white palaces of fashionable East Egg,” like Daisy’s, which “glittered along the water” (Fitzgerald 7). It is the site to which he plans to lure Daisy, and seduce her with the “dispensed starlight” of his new wealth and glamor (Fitzgerald 85), making her more than a mere romantic interest, but in fact his quarry. The “overwhelming self-absorption” characteristic of the pathological narcissist is already in full flower (Mitchell 3), as Gatsby behaves as one “entitled to be exploitive in any way and to any extent consonant with his idealizations,” including his idealization of Daisy (Mitchell 2). Not only does he determine to possess her physically, but as a self-appointed “son of God,” (Fitzgerald 105) to possess her transcendently as well:
“…he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as
I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling …I glanced seaward —
and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far
away…” (Fitzgerald 24)
Freud associated the color green in various guises with envy, intercourse and pregnancy (Freud & Brill 1911), an appropriate application to Gatsby as he lusts not only for the wealth and power of East Egg society, but also for Daisy’s body, in spite of the fact that she is married and has a child with Tom Buchanan. The “green light” that beckons from Daisy’s dock is not a one-dimensional metaphor for Gatsby’s dreams of a financially prosperous future, but also implies his jealousy for her and a position in the Buchanans’ social and economic stratum. Gatsby stretches his arms out toward the water separating East and West Egg as if to submerge himself in it, adopting a “flinging” stance toward the water that Freud associated with womb memory and rebirth (Vollmar 470). Gatsby embraces the lies upon which his present life is based – wealth through corruption and the substitution of idolatry for love – the first of many “defensive stratagems” of Gatsby’s “divided self” that he adopts to justify his obsession with Daisy and the material trappings of Manhasset high society (Robertson par. 3). In this posture, Gatsby exhibits the beginnings of his complete rejection of moral self-governance in the present, and his willful preference for past delusions of a romantic future with Daisy, setting the stage for a form of psychological suicide in which he casts off personal and psychological integrity in order to actualize his fantasy.
When Gatsby succeeds in enticing Daisy to his mansion for a party, she expresses an insufficient level of awe with the “universe of ineffable gaudiness” (Fitzgerald 106) he has so carefully crafted. Her “failure” to be impressed to his satisfaction is the first of many mortal blows to Gatsby’s precarious ego, and to the fragile pedestal upon which he has kept Daisy for the years they were apart:
“Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon
when 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…”
Early in the novel, Gatsby represents a potentially sympathetic character, one with whom the reader can identify as he continues to suffer from the youthful trauma of his loss of Daisy to Tom Buchanan five years earlier. But as he deludes himself that he ends up in Daisy’s house one evening “by a colossal accident,” the extent of Gatsby’s psychosis is visible (Fitzgerald 159). Standing on Tom Buchanan’s ground evokes his neurotic shame as a “penniless young man without a past” with no hope of winning Daisy for himself (Fitzgerald 159). His present is infected with the insecurity of his impoverished upbringing, temporarily erasing his egoistic arrogance and effectuating a crisis of identity. In those moments, Gatsby’s “chronology is mixed in the sense that a past event…jumps into the present and then shifts it back and forth in time” (Thi Huong 43). Gatsby, desperate to possess what he can of Daisy for the sake of his self-indulgent fantasy, allows the criminality behind his “self-made man” status to merge with his lingering shame over his unimpressive lineage, and he resorts to stealing what he has come to accept honest effort can not earn him:
“He ravenously and unscrupulously…took Daisy one still October night, took
her because he had no real right to touch her hand.” (Fitzgerald 159).
Up to that moment, Gatsby has idolized Daisy in spite of the realities of her marriage, her attachment to the security and lifestyle purchased by her husband’s “old money,” and her own “reckless amorality” (Washburne 16). As he is confronted with the hopelessness of the fantasy that she will ever choose him, he essentially rapes her. Like a porcelain doll kept out of the reach of an impetuous child, Gatsby sees Daisy as a thing better sullied and used than in the exclusive possession of someone else. Afterward, rather than feeling the shame and guilt of someone with the “spontaneity and sensitivity outward” Nick naively saw in him, Gatsby expresses dissatisfaction with the results of his conquest and justifies his act as a disappointing but necessary step in a romantic quest:
“…he didn’t despise himself and it didn’t turn out as he had imagined. He had
intended, probably, to take what he could and go—but now he found that he had
committed himself to the following of a grail” (Fitzgerald 159).
In other words, Gatsby’s only discomfort with his rape of Daisy was its ineffectiveness in satisfying his lust or changing his circumstances, and it is an act he feels no remorse for committing. As a man who “knew women early” and “became contemptuous of them,” (Fitzgerald 105) Gatsby sees Daisy as the woman created for his use, even his battery, so that his own “entitlement justifies his grandiosity and exploitiveness” (Mitchell 3).
Gatsby’s fatal flaw – the tragic protagonist’s hamartia – is what Mitchell describes as an “ego-ideal” that “becomes inflated and destructive” along with a “capacity for idealizing himself and Daisy to an extreme degree” (Mitchell 2). Gatsby the narcissist never saw Daisy as an individual existing separately from himself, but rather as a reflection of his self-concept and desires. Because he is a narcissist, Jasovic-Gasic and Vesel explain that Gatsby “mourns not the loss of the object in itself but rather the loss of the mirror” (Mitchell 5). By the time Myrtle dies beneath the wheels of Gatsby’s car, and George murders Gatsby in the belief that he is the one responsible for his wife’s moral and physical destruction, Nick sees Gatsby as a despondent man who has “paid too high a price…for living with a single dream” so that “he no longer cared” (Fitzgerald 172). At the novel’s end, the pool in which Gatsby’s corpse floats is an eerie reminder of the Manhasset lakeshore where he had previously consecrated his happiness to Daisy. His life ends not merely with a bullet to his heart, but with his mind and will broken by the loss of Daisy, as well as the falseness of the self-created world that ultimately consumed him. As Daisy failed to live up to the shining “green light” of his unrealistic ideal, Gatsby’s “ghostly heart” is stopped by a crime of passion, rendering him a lifeless reflection of his counterfeit American Dream.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “The Great Gatsby.” (1925): n. pag. Planet EBook. Web. 24 Aug. 2014.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. A. A. Brill. Vienna: n.p., 1911. N. pag. Eserver Books Collection. Eserver.org. Web.
Mitchell, Giles. “The Great Narcissist: A Study of Fitzgerald‘s Gatsby.” American Journal of Psychoanalysis 51.4 (1991): 387-96. Ucoz.ru. UCoz, 2005. Web.
Robertson, Sandy. “Reflection: On Laing’s The Divided Self.” British Journal of Psychiatry
204: 68. BJ Psych – The British Journal of Psychology. The Royal College of Psychiatrists, Jan. 2014. Web.
Thi Huong Giang Bui. “English Language and Literature Studies.” English Language and Literature Studies 3.1 (2013): 42-46. Jay Gatsby’s Trauma and Psychological Loss. Canadian Center of Science and Education, 17 Jan. 2013. Web.
Vollmar, Klausbernd. The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Dream Symbols. New York: Sterling Pub., 1997. 468-70. Print.