Considered to be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, The Great Gatsby is about as canonical as a text can get; it’s been analysed to death and almost everyone is familiar with the Gatsby illusion—grandiose, impressive and almost Elysian. In truth, however, what makes Gatsby such a nuanced character is quite the opposite—it is his insecurity, neuroses and fundamental humanism that makes him endure.
These latter, truer, characteristics are revealed as the novel progresses through a series of discoveries by narrator Nick Carraway, that expose his life as a series of calculated measures toward creating the Jay Gatsby persona. As the eponymous title suggests, ‘The Great Gatsby’ is nothing more than a façade of importance, an illusion of grandeur—merely smoke and mirrors that deceive the reader and the other characters into believing that James Gatz is a somebody.
If Gatsby inhabited the modern age he’d conjure this, not through exuberant parties and a gaudy mansion but through a carefully manufactured online persona on social media. He’d fuel rumours of notoriety via Twitter indirects, Project X type Facebook events and Insta posts of yellow cars, silver shirts and green lights (with a Lo-Fi filter to make the colour really pop). Because, in the real world, we too put forward a carefully crafted image of ourselves through manipulated content in order to depict our best life for public consumption. It is a counterfeit that creates the illusion that we too are somebodies. Like Gatsby’s commodified wealth, ‘Likes’ and ‘Retweets’ become the currency in which we quantify our self-worth in order to redress the anxieties of insignificance and unimportance that also trouble Fitzgerald’s protagonist.
Existential anxiety has forever plagued humanity and, as philosopher Ernest Becker argues, stems from a unique consciousness of our own mortality—unlike other animals, humans live with the constant awareness that death is impending and therefore, we have an innate drive to defy death (self-preservation), or at the very least, distance ourselves as far from it as possible.
The opposite of death is of course life but insignificance in life equates to social death—to serve no purpose in life begs the question as to why you exist in the first place. To escape this nihilistic potential reality humans feel an intrinsic necessity to create purpose in their own personal worlds by establishing markers of significance that demonstrate their impact on the world—that they are somebody. The ultimate goal is to create a legacy that will transcend mortality. For Gatsby, this method of transcendence manifests in the rumours that float like elusive vapour around his name, offering whispers of larger than life information that are not substantiated by the certainty of fact nor evidence. Jay Gatsby is not a human but a mythology that cannot be grasped and therefore destroyed.
An illustrative example is the rumour Carraway hears that Gatsby was an ‘Oxford man’, a ‘fact’ that adds to his mysterious prestige. However, as the story progresses we learn that while Gatsby did indeed spend time in Oxford, it was not necessarily at the university. It is a lie packaged with truth and therefore, is palatable and believable. In parallel, most people do not just outright lie on social media but often manipulate the information they project, declaring and exaggerating the commendable, the enviable and the successful whilst simultaneously muting failure and the mundane. Gatsby’s Oxford lie is somewhat similar to setting up a free WordPress and saying you’re the CEO of a magazine or putting up a picture that is technically you, but just with a little help from Photoshop. This is done with the intention of creating an identity of hyper-perfection, that the sun always shines upon you and therefore, you transcend ordinariness. To be human is to be flawed however social media enables a person to erase this fundamental characteristic as a means to, consciously or subconsciously, establish an almost divine hyper-idealised self, as far from ordinary mortality as possible.
Fitzgerald alludes to this through Carraway, writing:
The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God… he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
It is worth noting that Fitzgerald uses the narrative voice of Nick with great consequence in the context of this reading of the novel—everything the reader understands of Gatsby is projected through the lens of Carraway, bolstering the notion that perhaps our character is determined largely by how other people define us.
The Gatsby name, loaded with associations of W.A.S.P aristocracy, omnipotence and elitism, is the polar opposite of the poor, anonymous, European sounding James Gatz. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney would describe the persona of Jay Gatsby as his ‘idealised self’; in order for Gatsby to deal with his neuroses about his own insignificance and anonymity (that work to diminishes his self-esteem) he invents a perfect semblance of himself that is absent of his inherent flaws. It is toward this that he constantly strives, away from his true self, whilst simultaneously looking for validation from others that he is indeed the person he has successfully become.
Gatsby’s attempt to achieve this extraordinary ‘hero’ figure is best symbolised by his gruelling self-improvement schedule Nick comes across at Gatsby’s funeral; it reads very much like modern fitness or well-being Instagram accounts that documents a person’s journey toward an idealised self that simultaneously offers a literal validation button in the form of the double-tap feature. Therefore, while it is discouraged from psychoanalysing fictional characters, here it is done with the understanding that Gatsby has been created as a mimesis of a very real human experience.
For Gatsby, the ultimate validation comes from Daisy. To win her back would be the absolute marker that he has finally become ‘good enough’. What initially reads as a grand quest for love becomes less about romance and more about self-validation. Daisy is everything Gatsby wants and wants to be therefore he packages all his anxieties of inadequacy and loneliness into the idea of Daisy— he truly believes that once they are finally together, all his problems will be solved. Becker classifies this as a method of transference, arguing that romantic (and platonic) relationships are a coping mechanism that humans engage, in order to quell anxieties of unimportance. This is done by creating a microcosmic space in which a person lies at the epicentre and therefore holds upmost significance.
Perhaps then, social media is a modern manifestation of transference—we create an online space in which we are at the epicentre and everything of ourselves that we put into it is done with desperate yearning for tangible validation—the affection of a real life relationship that indicates that we are a somebody to someone is equated in the digital world by the click of a Favourite or the double tap of a Like. With this in mind, perhaps what makes The Great Gatsby endure as a piece of relevant literature, is that never has so much truth about the fragility of the human ego been so exposed with such timeless potency.
Mariana Des Forges is an award-winning audio producer and freelance radio producer and documentary maker for the BBC.