F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is usually seen as a classic American romance, and one all the more powerful because the core romance is doomed. This is true to a large extent; Gatsby’s love for Daisy, realistic or otherwise, drives the story, and his inability to be with her adds the romantic quality of loss and constant longing. At the same time, Fitzgerald goes much farther than this and creates different levels of romance nearly going to the grotesque because exaggeration and intense frustration mark each romance. On one level, there is Daisy’s idea of herself, a “romance” all its own. Then there is the frantic obsession of Myrtle, whose love for Tom is as destructive as Gatsby’s love for Daisy is unreal. Finally there is the grotesque ridiculousness of that passion of Gatsby for Daisy, so extreme its romanticism is based only on a vision of Daisy, and not the woman herself. The various forms of romantic obsession in The Great Gatsby, taken to grotesque levels, reveal Fitzgerald’s essentially tragic view of romance as a delusion or illusion
An element in the novel not usually examined may be called Daisy’s romance with herself, or her romantic concept of herself as creating the final tragedy of the story. Gatsby’s intense love for Daisy, as noted, drives the novel, but it is important to recognize that Daisy’s nature itself is a destructive force, her mild and charming character aside. From the beginning, the reader sees Daisy as victimized, but also too fascinated with her own victimization for it to be genuine. She is pampered and wealthy, and the critical point to remember is that, as she later tells Gatsby, she made the choice to marry Tom because that is what rich girls do. She knows he is having an affair, but her response to this is so disproportionate, it is grotesque; that is, Daisy creates the role for herself of extreme victim, when it is clear that she has options. This goes to her self-obsession. She discusses and treats her child as though she were an accessory to her own self-image, using exaggerated language: “’Bles-sed Pre-cious…Come to your own mother that loves you’” (117). Then, Daisy adds tragic mystery to the simple fact of her husband’s infidelity: “’Well, I’ve had a very bad time, Nick, and I’m pretty cynical about everything’” (Fitzgerald 16). The beauty and charm of Daisy, clearly powerful, cannot disguise the reality that she is in fact a remarkably self-centered woman, and one trapped in a romantic concept of herself. This reality then adds a grotesque quality to the consuming love for that brings about Gatsby’s destruction.
If Gatsby’s love is delusional, or based only on a fixation of an idea of Daisy, the same may be said for Myrtle Wilson. In fact, both Myrtle and Tom indulge in a fantasy of romantic love, the physical desire aside. For Tom, having Myrtle as his mistress translates to his idea of himself as a man of the world; she is in a sense as much of an accessory as Daisy’s child is to her. Myrtle is also a means for Tom to defy Daisy’s power over him, and both elements go to the grotesque unreality of the “love affair.” With Myrtle, the situation is even more false. When she tells of her first meeting with Tom, it is clearly a case of only sexual attraction, but she has the need to elevate this into something grandiose: “’All I kept thinking about, over and over, was ‘You can’t live forever, you can’t live forever’” (36). For Myrtle. Tom represents an opportunity to recreate herself as a sophisticated woman attached to a powerful man, and her embracing of this romantic fantasy is consistently extreme: “’I’m going to make a list of all the things I’ve got to get. A massage and a wave, and a collar for the dog….I got to write down a list so I won’t forget all the things I got to do’” (36). All of this then goes to a romance that is no real romance; both parties to it are pursuing ideas of romance, just as Daisy is centered on the romantic concept of herself as a victim.
Ultimately, however, it is the romance of Gatsby and Daisy that most powerfully reveals Fitzgerald’s deep cynicism regarding the subject. On one level, his Gatsby is authentically in love; Daisy has long been the fixation of his life, and he has dedicated himself to being worthy of her. More importantly, however, this takes on a grotesque quality because it is a concept of Daisy that Gatsby loves. If he is as captivated by her beauty and charm as he was when they knew one another earlier, he is still unable to actually see her as who she is. He has lived with the fantasy so long, it has become his reality. Consequently, when he finally comes together with Daisy at his estate, and as he carefully goes through the motions of proving his wealth to her, her actual presence is unreal: “’It’s the funniest thing, old sport,’ he said hilariously. ‘I can’t — When I try to ——’” (91). The inability to express to Nick what he is feeling goes to the inevitable conflict. At the same time, and ironically, Daisy and Gatsby are as one in this conflict because she is also unable to reconcile her romantic delusions with an impending reality. This would mean sacrificing her sense of herself as a tragic victim, and it is also interesting how Daisy’s “love” for Gatsby fails to understand his need. She breaks down, insisting that she has loved Tom but loves Gatsby now, and this reveals how blind she is to his need. His reaction is as confused as when he is unable to take in her reality earlier: “Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed. ‘You loved me too?’ he repeated” (175). Perhaps even more so than the murder, this is the tragedy of Gatsby, in that his romance – and as is true of Tom, Myrtle, and Daisy’s character – is fictional, or a grotesque exaggeration of romance so strong, reality is set aside.
It may be that the most interesting aspect of Fitzgerald’s great romance, The Great Gatsby, is that actual romance does not exist within it. The heroine, Daisy, appears to be a classic romantic figure, but everything about her goes to a consistent image of romantic victimhood as embraced by herself. Her husband Tom’s affair with Myrtle is also so based on delusion, it is nearly comically grotesque, as each partner creates for themselves the ideas of the other matching their own needs for “romance.” Lastly, there is the core fantasy of Jay Gatsby, who loves, not Daisy, but an idea of himself as loving and being loved by a Daisy he has largely created. The levels upon which this particular fantasy are played out, in terms of grandiose living and the ways in which other lives are affected, renders it grotesque in its insistence on unreality. All of this combines to present a distinct point of view from Fitzgerald which is, if sad and haunting, non-romantic. In the final analysis, the various forms of romantic obsession in The Great Gatsby, taken to extreme or grotesque levels, demonstrate Fitzgerald’s essentially tragic view of romance as a delusion or illusion
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.