Early readers did not love The Great Gatsby upon its April 1925 publication. F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917 clipped and pasted some of the first reviews into his Gatsby scrapbook, now in The Fitzgerald Papers of Princeton’s library — sometimes with withering, or self-deprecating, comments of his own appended. An arch reviewer for The New Yorker summarized the novel thus: “Gatsby, its heroic victim, is otherwise a good deal of a nut, and the girl who is its object is idealized only by Gatsby.” A few months later, The New Yorker would refer to Gatsby as “a rough diamond of devotion and chivalry, cast before swine on Long Island” and “a true romantic hero in North Shore Long Island high low life.”
Yet even the most eager naysayers, keen to pounce on the young novelist trying to follow the precocious successes of This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned with something more thoughtful, understood one thing: Gatsby’s romance. The plot, setting, and characters might be petty, and polluted with Jazz Age decadence, but there was something in Jay Gatsby that compelled and attracted. “Romantic constancy,” “heroic victim,” “devotion and chivalry,” “true romantic hero” — these words are there, even in The New Yorker’s snide assessments.
A year after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, at 44, his friend Edmund Wilson 1916 oversaw the republication of Gatsby. It was one of the first paperbacks in the Armed Services editions printed during World War II and distributed free to 150,000 military personnel. This moment, of great cultural importance, kick-started Gatsby’s popularity: The novel caught something in America’s postwar spirit after World War II as it had not after World War I, and has since come to define that elastic concept “the American dream,” both at home and abroad. By now, The Great Gatsby has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, with half a million sold each year.
What is it that compels? Fitzgerald’s command of language propels the narrative straight through our eyes and minds into our hearts. One word he deploys with precision and passion is “love” (and its corollaries, like “loved”). In a novel of less than 50,000 words, he uses the word love and its forms nearly 50 times — with half coming during the short, cataclysmic scene in the Plaza Hotel in Chapter 7. That scene, though, is the denial of love, the end of love, the dismissal of what Gatsby has felt for Daisy: the end of the relationship that is, quite literally, at the heart of the novel.
Is Gatsby a love story? Before we come to Jay and Daisy, consider the other love stories in the novel. Fitzgerald never uses the word “love” in discussing them except once, at the very end. Myrtle Wilson is Tom Buchanan’s mistress; they do not speak of love. Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker are together for that brief, hot summer of 1922, before death and deception — not theirs, as much as those of others — separate them for good. When Jordan tells Nick she is to marry someone else, he is moved: “Angry, and half in love, with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.” Half in love is not in love. These stories pale next to Daisy and Jay — or, rather, Jay and Daisy. He is the lover, and she the object of his love.
In the end, he could be said to have given his life for Daisy. ... To die for love is, in literature, a macabre and much-sentimentalized pinnacle of achievement.
For a girl he meets in Kentucky and with whom he has a “month of love,” Jay Gatsby remakes his entire life, living in the illusion that someday they will be together. Neither a world at war nor her decision to marry a wealthy bully who is one of the more reprehensible characters in American literature changes this. Daisy Fay Buchanan’s presence is not even necessary for Gatsby’s love; he keeps up with her, and her married life, through the papers, and then from the distance of the little “courtesy bay” between West and East Egg.
Does Daisy ever love Gatsby? She says she does. She also says, though, that she loves to see Nick at her supper table; that she loves her scarcely seen daughter; and, in that pivotal scene in the Plaza, that she has loved her husband, Tom.
“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now — isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once — but I loved you too.”
Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed.
“You loved me too?” he repeated.
The essence of the words from Gatsby’s most famous line, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” repeated here, makes what Daisy says all the more painful, and final. In the long retrospective section of Chapter 8, in which Nick finally hears straight from Gatsby how he became “Jay Gatsby,” and his meeting Daisy and the founding of his infinite love for her, we get the story only because all is, now, in the past. Gatsby returns to Louisville, we learn, after Daisy and Tom had left on their honeymoon. He wanders its streets, looking for “the pale magic of her face along the casual street,” but even then it is there only in his imagination.
Even though he has known from that time “that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and best, forever,” Gatsby spends the whole novel, as the story unfolds in its palimpsest of past and present (though never a future, and here is the novel’s deepest tragedy), trying to repeat those days with Daisy. His fidelity to an ideal makes Gatsby a romantic hero for modern times, a dreamer against the pains of reality. His dreams aren’t pure, and his path to them is a crooked one, but this makes him less of a cipher and more of a man. In the end, he could be said to have given his life for Daisy: After she, in his car, runs down her husband’s mistress, Gatsby takes the blame. To die for love is, in literature, a macabre and much-sentimentalized pinnacle of achievement.
Hollywood cannot stay away from Gatsby — most likely because Fitzgerald’s prose is full of sights and sound: of unforgettable images like golden shoulders and yellowy hair, and golden and silver slippers shuffling to “Beale Street Blues”; Daisy Buchanan’s white dresses; Gatsby’s gorgeous pink rag of a suit; a woman like an angry diamond. Yet no movie version can ever realize the book.
In Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 Gatsby, the theme music assigned to Daisy (Carey Mulligan) was Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful.” The floaty voice arises throughout the film, asking incessantly, “Will you still love me / When I’m no longer young and beautiful?” Yes, Gatsby will love Daisy when she’s no longer young and beautiful. He already does. She is not the girl Daisy Fay any longer, but another man’s wife and a little girl’s mother. This is why Fitzgerald, generous with details in describing other women in the novel, gives so little about Daisy. Is her hair yellow, like her daughter’s? Or dark and shining? What color are her eyes? How tall is she? We really have no idea — because it does not matter. It does not matter to Gatsby, and that is the point. What she looks like is immaterial, because she has become his Daisy, and that is all. If you read Daisy as a sketched-out, incomplete, shallow character, you’re seeing her perhaps as she is, but you are not seeing her through Gatsby’s eyes. Love may be blind, but it is his love, and it is true to the death. Once Gatsby is gone, we never see Daisy again.
Today the name Gatsby is a shorthand for the echoes of the Jazz Age that are most seductive — an elegant man at a party, his party, “the host, who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.” It is in the name of hundreds of blogs, businesses, and a popular line of male grooming products. Above all, though, it is the made-up name of a man who created himself to win a woman. It embodies, to use Nick Carraway’s words (as one must, in the end), “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” That Gatsby is also elusive, sentimental, and likely a criminal pales against this hope, this romantic readiness. A perfect hero happily in love with a perfect heroine who returns his love is the dullest of stories. But they are our imperfect Jay, our flawed Daisy: briefly together at last, so fleetingly, in the pages of the slim novel in its Scribner cover that has become the most famous book jacket of all time.
Anne Margaret Daniel *99 teaches literature at the New School University in New York City. She has published extensively on American Modernism and on F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917, and is writing a book about him.