Gatsby’s Superficiality

Just putting a question out there:

Is it ironic that The Great Gatsby primarily portrays the narrator’s (Nick’s) study of a character (Jay Gatsby) who does not really seem to exist? He appears to be so incredibly superficial, and I’m trying to figure out the purpose for this. Is it meant to be a portrayal of the culture and shallowness of the time’s nouveau riche, or of post-traumatic stress disorder from the war (displaying that even wealth cannot cure psychological damage), or something else entirely?

10 thoughts on “Gatsby’s Superficiality

  1. Awesome points. Maybe it is exactly because he has “seen so much of the world” that he wants to return to the idea of loving Daisy, the last thing he did before the war? Or maybe it’s because when he was still in the Midwest, he was determined to better himself but to an indiscriminate end – and Daisy gave him something specific to reach for, a five-year plan. I can definitely agree with you now Rachel, after exploring the idea in class, that once you strip Gatsby of his charm and the assumed airs, it doesn’t seem like there is much left of James Gatz to be found.

  2. The ‘romantic hope’ that Gatsby produces seems to tether him to the world. If one day he throws a lavish enough affair, maybe Daisy will attend. Does Gatsby really enjoy his parties, sitting unidentified in a corner seat? Perhaps he finds people and their motives harder to understand after his war experience, and needs subjects to analyze. Anyone’d be just as desperate for company in ‘complete isolation’ (55), and veterans aren’t always given a warm welcome by society (Vietnam, for example). Is the eternal reassurance (48) Nick feels from Gatsby’s smile a practiced ability, or a natural phenomenon?

  3. I think that Gatsby created a new superficial self because he believed that who he was was not enough to please Daisy. He believed that she held wealth and extravagant lifestyle above a meaningful relationship without these things. And as the age old maxim goes “time makes the heart grow founder” but I think that his short time of contact with Daisy before the war and his long absence from her caused most of later character flaws. He wanted wealth not for it’s sake but so that he could provide Daisy the lifestyle he believed that she wanted. I think that he became Jay Gatsby because of Daisy, but I don’t think that the superficiality of his character negates his existence. I think that James Gatz left his imprint on Jay and that Jay left his imprint on James. It would be interesting to see what occupation that Gatsby would have taken had he lived. Would he have gone back to the simple life or continued with the high style. I think he would have gone back to the simple life because his crystal ball of high society had been shattered. What do you think??

  4. Wow, this discussion really made me think! I feel that the last three posts have been especially interesting, and I’ll primarily respond to those.

    Although it is true that Gatsby – as the host of lavish parties, well-known for their glamour – is the center and source of much superficiality, he isn’t really an involved participant. He floats about these parties, not drinking, not making himself known. Perhaps he’s guilty by association; by hosting superficiality, he can therefore be considered superficial. However, I think that his deeply driving intentions of impressing Daisy separate him from being defined as purely shallow. To echo Ian and Rachel, “[Gatsby] has a plan.” He isn’t hosting extravagant parties simply for the sake of extravagance. The glamour is meant to appeal to Daisy, to demonstrate, through excess, how he can now provide for her.

    Again, this prompts Rachel’s question, “Why does he still want Daisy?” If Daisy is to be attracted by such superficial extravagance, what does this say about Daisy’s character, and likewise, what does it say about Gatsby for incessantly pursuing this shallow woman? Although this concept demonstrates Daisy’s spoiled nature, I think there’s more to her than that. She may be flawed, but there is also a vitality, intelligence, and loveliness about her that make her worth Gatsby’s desire. She, too, is not purely shallow.

    Nevertheless, I still agree that there is an artificial aspect to Gatsby, a trait that does make him feel nonexistent to me. Perhaps it is not superficiality, but his tendency of clinging to the past, that makes Gatsby seem so illusory. Certainly, he is a very worldly person, and yet he is also almost “other”-worldly, not in a ghostly sense, but in the sense that he doesn’t really belong to this extravagant society. He has spent five years of his young life trying to recreate and rekindle the romance of his past, and this obsession detaches him from the present in a way that makes him mysterious. (It vaguely reminds me of Amanda Wingfield of The Glass Menagerie. Any thoughts?)

    Either way, Gatsby feels strangely distant, an idea that is perpetuated by Nick’s narrative point-of-view. Nick’s narration of limited familiarity with Gatsby makes the title character all the more elusive, as much of our description of him is based on rumor. However, specifically identifying him as nostalgic rather than superficial does emphasize for me the tragedy of his ultimate end. Gatsby’s tragic demise reminds us of Nick’s assertion, “You can’t repeat the past” (Fitzgerald 110). Not even the Great Gatsby could manage that.

  5. Rachel, I think that I understand where you were initially coming from more clearly after that comment. I very much agree with all your points. One of the most gripping aspects of the novel, especially for a first time reader, is the “illusion” of Gatsby. Who is the mysterious man behind the mansion? When it’s revealed, we can’t help but utter a sigh of disappointment, because in the same way that Gatsby over-imagined Daisy, the reader over-imagines Gatsby. After hearing so many grandiose stories about his identity, it is difficult to accept the rather mundane truth. What you said about “assuming too much about his character” – I think that’s what Fitzgerald tricks us into doing.

  6. Ian, I suppose that it was Gatsby’s superficiality that appeared most noticeable to me because of the situation. It seems as though most of the other shallow characters come into contact with Nick through Gatsby, at least primarily at his parties. This suggests that Gatsby supports the superficiality of the people with whom he associates.
    Of course, the exceptions to this rule are the Buchanans. I think that Daisy and Tom are less upsettingly shallow than Gatsby because Nick already knew them and described their uninspired pasts. Their spoiled and naive perspectives of the world give them the air constant shallow-mindedness.
    On the other hand, Nick does not know Gatsby’s past until later on, when we realize that Gatsby could have been anything, and yet he decided to become some guy with a big house, trying to woo a girl who already has a husband.
    But you’re right; he *does* have a plan. He’s incredibly intelligent, and he nearly succeeds at what he set out to do. So perhaps I was assuming too much about his character… . It was just that the identity that Gatsby made for himself has seemed, to me at least, to be a little bit disappointing.

  7. Just out of curiosity, in what ways specifically do you consider him superficial? I certainly wouldn’t argue with that statement, but I do think it’s a bit unfair to single out Gatsby himself for superficiality. In my opinion, Jay is no more superficial than his counterparts. He is constantly surrounded by superfluous consumption of alcohol, men/women who staunchly conform to gender roles, and an erupting Vesuvius of gossip. Sure, maybe he perpetuates some/lots/most of that, but at least the man has a focused goal in mind while he’s throwing his weekly shindigs. He’s not doing anything “just because” – he has a plan. He’s a bit superficial, and he’s definitely a victim of his own tragic desire, but at least he’s yearning for something, even if it is an elusive green light at the end of the bay.

  8. Gatsby is full of ideas. He lives in his head – a dreamer. When Gatsby first met Daisy, and felt that initial infatuation with her, he wanted to hold on to that cliche moment as long as possible (just like every human being). But he took it too far, never wanting to give up. By not seeing Daisy in so long, he built up this image of her in his head, a perfect image, and that became his life. Nothing would ever come close to her in Gatsby’s life. Eventually his goal in life was to have Daisy, no matter what it took, no matter who she became. Daisy, however, was more “worldly”. In the physical sense and in her mind. She too held Gatsby in a high place in her mind, as a mental escape from her current life. But when it came down to it, she could not run away with her fantasy.

  9. On the other hand… what does it say about Gatsby that, after experiencing so much of the world, he still clings to somebody as shallow and ignorant as Daisy? I suppose I did not phrase my comment correctly when I said that he does not seem to exist. He certainly does exist (to an extent), but I was trying to point out that Jay Gatsby is, essentially, a mere creation of James Gatz’s imagination. So I guess the resulting additional question to “Why did he decide to become so superficial?” would be “Why does he still want Daisy?”

  10. Why does his superficiality negate his existence? After the war, Gatsby reinvents himself in the hopes that wealth could bring Daisy back to him. If you think Gatsby’s extravagant lifestyle is superficial, what does it say about Daisy that he thought it would impress her? 🙂

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