The intention of this essay is to consider the representation of illusion and reality throughout F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby (1925). It shall focus on characters and their perception of the illusions and realities that they represent, such as Nick Carraway’s illusion of what he perceives Gatsby to be and what in reality, he is. It shall look at Daisy Fay-Buchanan and her perception of what reality is also contrasting these themes with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The yellow wallpaper (1892).
Faithful to the end of the Platonic concept he created, Jay Gatsby personifies the existential lengths a person that deems himself a lesser is prepared to go to in order to fully submerge oneself inside an illusion of an aspiration. James Gatz fabricates his version of how, if manifested, a man would represent the American dream;
The truth was that Jay Gatsby [...] sprang from his platonic conception of himself [...] the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty [...] 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 (Fitzgerald, 2015, p.82).
This most Platonic statement exposed to the reader via the eyes of narrator Nick Carraway not only exonerates Gatz’s creation of himself but here the reader becomes aware of the truth as Carraway describes Gatsby as ‘vast, vulgar and meretricious’ (p.82). Given this, Carraway exposes the harsh reality that Gatsby has dreamed himself into existence: Furthermore, Carraway empathises with Gatsby’s creation as he feels that being faithful to a lie is better than being faithful to things like Tom and Daisy Buchanan who ‘smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness’ (p.142).
Set in the Jazz-Age 1920s a period marked by both prosperity and optimism, this epoch exposed the height of the American dream, equally changing the definition of the American dream. With the end of WW1 having recently been reached, America experienced an economic boom and great expansion. Coining the term jazz-age pathed the way for Fitzgerald to retrospectively refer to a period in which American people embarked upon what he called ‘the gaudiest spree in history’ (Encyclopedia.com, 2019). The main themes throughout Fitzgerald’s novel include decadence, idealism and the concept of the American dream having to deal with the resistance to social change. It embodies the American spirit of their will to constantly reinvent oneself, yet equally, it unveils the extent of the American dream’s destructive power.
The Buchanans are very rich ‘his family were enormously wealthy … his freedom with money was a matter for reproach … he’d brought down a string of polo ponies from lake forest … they drifted here and there unrestful wherever people played polo and were rich together’ (p.14). Although he is the fabrication of his imagination, Gatsby has had to work far harder to be able to obtain the dream that he manifests, unlike Tom who has inherited his mass fortunes. Gatsby’s falsely obtained ‘Bootlegger’ and ‘common swindler’ (Saunders, 2016) illusion of being rich far exceeds the reality of Daisy and Tom, the irony is that Gatsby’s false pretence of wealth, alongside the bootleg coalition with Meyer Wolfsheim, far overshadows the Buchanan’s actual wealth. According to Donaldson, Gatsby is nonetheless worth any number of Buchanans (Donaldson, 2009, p.98).
Echoes of Fitzgerald’s personal life can be seen in The Great Gatsby: Much like Fitzgerald was desperate to secure his fortunes in order to secure the hand of Zelda Sayre, Gatsby is desperate for wealth and possessions, utilising these in an attempt to woo the lady he loves, for he sees the only way to truly win her heart is by excess and grand consumption. The Great Gatsby evidences an era of stark division in American society; riotous parties, mansions, money and consumption for the sake of consumption. Conveyed to the reader as Carraway describes attendees and their careless behaviour at Gatsby’s parties; ‘introductions forgotten on the spot’ and ‘conducted themselves according to the rules of behaviour associated with amusement parks’ (p.40). Furthermore, The aftereffect of the party represents a sense of miserable destruction carelessly perpetrated by the guests. Fitzgerald’s effective use of polysyndeton thoroughly conveys just how little Gatsby's guests consider or even recognise him, and serves as a juxtaposition to the damage that the guests lay in their wake:
‘At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas … on buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold’ (p.39).
For Daisy, reality has failed her. Like the flowers bearing white petals and gold pistils, and her surname Fay meaning ‘ fairy’ she personifies physical beauty and represents an outwardly pure appearance. However terminally pretty she may be, the real Daisy Fay is driven by money, status, a sense of self-entitlement and selfishness. Described by her own cousin Nick Carraway as a careless person who ‘let other people clean up the mess’ (p.143). Daisy Fay is trapped inside an illusion of what she perceives to be a reality. Daisy is a counterpart of Gatsby’s demise and what prayed on him: she is a speck of the ‘foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams’ (p.12). Her refusal to see past Tom Buchanan’s ‘freedom with money’ (p.14) and to accept that according to Carraway; Tom would ‘drift on forever seeking’ (p.15) speaks volumes. The Buchanans care not for any other besides themselves, in reality, the pair are far more compatible than Daisy and Gatsby could ever have been, ‘Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together’ (p.143).
For Daisy, even her own child is a reconsideration: when describing the possession that in truth she should cherish most, Daisy portrays how trapped she is in her illusions and acceptance of fate by describing her daughter in stating that ‘I hope she’ll be a fool - that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’ (p.23).
Clearly indicating for Daisy all that is important is that a woman bears beauty and speaks nothing of what is real which will enable her, therefore, to obtain an idealistic life full of wealth and grandeur, as so obtained in Jordan Bakers’ eyes: ‘in June she married Tom Buchanan of Chicago … he came down with a hundred people in four private cars and hired a whole floor of the Muhlbach Hotel, and the day before gave her a string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ (p.66). Despite the illusion of stability that wealth provides, Miss Baker is acutely aware of Daisy’s sense of self-entitlement and greed:
Even the pearl necklace gifted to her costing some three hundred and fifty dollars…’ give ‘em back to whoever they belong to. Tell ‘em all Daisy’s changed her mine’ (p.66).
Critic Jeffrey Steinbrink describes her in the following way: ‘Daisy lives with a perpetual illusion of recreation, transparent even to herself’ (Steinbrink, 1980, p.161). Even the significance of having a child whom Daisy should desire nothing short of perfection for, is not enough for Daisy to put her selfishness to bed. Daisy is married to a man whom she does not wholly love, a man that is she is acutely aware of having additional marital affairs exposed by Jordan Baker after a telephone call indicates ‘Tom’s got some woman in New York [...] she might have the decency not to telephone him at dinner time. Don’t you think? (p.21). Clearly indicating that the marriage, much like the aforementioned pearl necklace is just material ‘stuff’ and that should Daisy or Tom forget the facade and be true to themselves it is all disposable.
Daisy’s inability to envoke a meaning full whole-hearted relationship with Gatsby later in the novel indicates that Daisy’s reality is an illusion or a dream played over inside Tom Buchanan’s dream of what society deems is required of those men ‘who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax’ (p.14). Moreover, from chapter one, Carraway indicates that he is not a part of the naive social bubble that is apparent. In conversation between Daisy and Miss Jordan Baker he notes that there is no depth or substance to their conversations: he is in tune with the deception of the entire situation that the lives of these women lack purpose ‘unobtrusively and with a bantering inconsequence … and impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire’ (p.19). An early indication that the carelessness of these women is vast and that certainly for Daisy, she seems to be imprisoned in her illusions of social ignorance and inability to converse in any situation, which in turn leads to Carraway feeling ‘uncivilised by Daisy’ (p.19).
In Gilman’s, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) Jane, like Daisy, seems unable to prioritise her child over her controlling husband for she too does not acknowledge her child in the appropriate manner: ‘it is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous’ (Gilman, 1892, p.4). Much the same as Daisy Fay is trapped as Daisy Buchanan inside her inescapable reality, Perkins-Gilman’s ‘Jane’ is also trapped inside the illusion cast upon her by her husband. Daisy may be trapped inside an illusion of wealth and grandeur and Jane trapped by the inadvertent illusion cast by her physician husband John, but it is easy to make clear links between the two female characters. Despite her ‘temporary nervous depression and slight hysterical tendency’ (p.1). Gilman’s protagonist Jane is freed from the constraints of her controlling husband John, unfortunately for Jane: this comes in the form of psychotic visions and in believing that she was, in fact, the mystery lady entrapped behind the wallpaper, furthermore, Jane is trapped in the illusion that she cares more for the wallpaper and would prefer to be in a solitary room with wallpaper that smells ‘a yellow smell’ (p.14). Substantiated by a further statement: ‘I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see’ (p.10). Much like the relationship between the narrator and her husband in the Yellow Wallpaper, the Buchanans to face marital constraints. However, unlike Daisy Fay, who tries to break away from her husband and cannot: Jane does find the power to do so.
Illusion, reality and identity are key themes, amongst many, throughout Fitzgerald’s novel, these themes are presented via the eyes of reliable narrator Nick Carraway. Carraway’s description of first seeing his Gatsby is almost godly, instead of merely noticing who he assumes to be Gatsby, Carraway lays the occasion in both a metaphysical and heavenly scenario… ‘a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbour’s mansion ... regarding the silver pepper of the stars’ (p.26). It may be argued at this point that this metaphor indicates Gatsby’s illusion of his love for Daisy and that like the stars, is completely out of reach: but the reality of Carraway’s situation is that he witnesses Gatsby trying to petition to a being that will never be his to claim. Nick Carraway’s narration both romanticises and sentimentalises Gatsby, Carraway adores Gatsby and almost dreams him into existence, much like James Gatz dreamt Jay Gatsby into existence. Fitzgerald uses an adorning conceit to describe the moment:
Out of the corner of his eye, Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees - he could climb to it … and once there he could suck on the pap of life (p.92).
Nick Carraway of Minnesota and James Gatz of North Dakota know each other, they have an understanding of what it means to be one another. Nick is an idealist who believes that striving for perfection can make the world a better place. However, Nick is not naive and in some instances sees through Gatsby’s flaws and vulgarness ‘I disapproved of him from beginning to end’ he states, yet he rests comfortably in the knowledge that Gatsby’s remarkable optimism has afforded him the capability of transferring a seventeen-year-old boy’s illusion into a reality, to which Carraway simply cannot ignore: ‘It was … a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which is not likely I shall ever find again. No-Gatsby turned out all right in the end’ (p.12).
For Tanner, Gatsby provides Nick with a means to explore his own imagination, Tanner argues that Gatsby ‘seems to offer him a satisfactory, or almost satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality’ (Tanner, 1990, xxvii). Moreover, in chapter six of the novel, the reader finds himself challenged with who’s reality is being played out. Nick appears to be describing James Gatz’s back story but the reader has to work hard to unveil the inner Russian doll in this complexity: ‘his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot… for a while, these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing’ (p.83). This metaphor about impermanence alludes the reader to challenge whether this is Nick Carraway speaking of Jay Gatsby, is it, Gatsby’s rendition of the truth or are we witnessing the birth of Nick Gatsby.
The illusion Gatsby professes is as Tanner (1990) states ‘to display shirts he has never worn, books he has never read and to extend invitations to swim in the pool he has never used’.