An American Nightmare
– A Marxist Reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
"'Her voice is full of money', he said suddenly" (Fitzgerald 92). This quotation is an example of the various moments in the novel, where we can see Gatsby's ambiguous and mysterious character. On the one hand, he seems to be madly in love with Daisy Buchanan, then again, we get the impression that it is something completely different that he is after. This leads to my thesis that Gatsby's desperate pursuit of Daisy is not only out of real love towards her, but he is more interested in gaining her social status. For him, Daisy has exactly what he wants, and has always wanted for himself. She is what he needs to acquire in order to complete his perfect vision of himself. Obviously this obsveration of Gatsby and his past have already been made by others, for example, by Jonathan P. Fegely: "The wealth he has amassed serves only as a means of attracting Daisy, and attracting Daisy serves only as the means of becoming that which he once envisioned himself to be" (132).
Basically this demonstrates that he believes that his money is not worth anything without Daisy to prove it. In his opinion therefore, Daisy is the last and most important commodity sign he has to capture to become a fully accepted member of her upper-class (old money) society.
To analyze Gatsby's character, and give a detailed description and argumentation of my thesis, I will mainly focus on Jay Gatsby's behavior throughout the novel, his vision of himself, as well as who he really was before he turned James Gatz into Jay Gatsby. Having explained Gatsby's circumstances, I will then continue to investigate in his relationship to Daisy and its real purpose. By briefly outlining Daisy's background and her own lifestyle, I will reveal why Gatsby feels so attracted to her. It is, because he wants her status and not her love, he tries to “recover something, some idea of himself perhaps that had gone into loving Daisy” (Fitzgerald 82).
Jay Gatsby is so fixed on his dream, of accomplishing the creation of his flawless illusion of himself that after all these years of patiently waiting for Daisy, he has never even thought about finding another way to attain it, and has in the end fallen victim to his own dream.
The Concept of Marxist Criticism
Before starting my argumentation, I briefly want to explain Marxist Criticism. Literary theorist Lois Tyson offers the following defintion: "Marxism focuses on the material/historical forces - the politics and ideologies of socioeconomic systems – that shape the psychological experience and behavior of individuals and groups" (64). This means that Marxist Criticism takes a close look at the different social classes and the relationships between these. Marxist Criticists also think that all belief systems (ideologies) were created by the capitalist society (56) and that these ideologies "serve to blind us to this fact [that we are products of material/historical circumstances] in order to keep us subservient to the ruling power system" (57). She also mentions the American Dream, as an opportunity to have financial success, if you work hard enough (57). Furthermore, the damaging effects of capitalism are looked at and its realtion to the "commodity",which either has "exchange value", it can be traded for other commodities or money, or "sign-exchange value", which stands for an improvement of the social status for the owner (62). In the following I will apply this to Jay Gatsby.
Gatsby's character in view of sign-exchange value
As described before, there are many instances in the novel that demonstrate Gatsby's impression of himself and how he tries to bring this perfect vision of himself to life. The want for a new identity is already revealed very early in the young James Gatz, for example, in his daily schedule and his resolves (Fitzgerald 134). He never really accepted his parents, because they were poor and "unsuccessful farm people" (75), and he basically saw no chance to "climb the social ladder" by staying, and so he left them behind. Seeing his opportunity in Dan Cody, a self-made millionaire, he invented the identity of Jay Gatsby, which marks the rebirth of a new man, who strives for more than the hard-working, lower-class people do (74). In fact that day, James Gatz made the sole purpose of his life, to live the American Dream, or his revised form of it.
"Money was a means rather than an end for Jimmy Gatz too. He aspired towards something whose definition eluded him at first, but he caught at what symbols America offered him. Jimmy Gatz could begin to be a new man by taking on a new name for his true identity" (27). This quotation from Pearson's essay also indicates Gatsby's longing for something that at first, he did not even understand himself, until he met Daisy. It explains his belief in the importance of money and its value, but not only to buy things with it, but also to get whatever he wants (sign-exchange value).
Moving on to his first encounter with Daisy, he is confronted with a new opportunity to achieve his goal. He is fascinated by her world full of rich and beautiful things that he never had. She becomes a symbol for him, of the vision he so desperately tries to realize."She was the first 'nice' girl he had ever known. In various unrevealed capacities he had come in contact with such people, but always with indiscernible barbed wire in between" (114). He takes his second chance and "now he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail" (115). She was supposed to be his last step on the ladder.
She is this one last piece that he needs in order to become who he wants to be, a person of the upper-class, with "old money", he wants to cease being "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere" (99). Therefore, everything Gatsby does, how he spends his money on parties and expensive clothes (68), are meant for Daisy to see that he can afford such things now, and to prove to himself that he has a right to touch her, even though it was all acquired by the illegal and corrupt business he is involved in (102). This is a facade, with which he tries to win Daisy, to become a permanent part of her social class, which is hinted at, when Jordan tells Nick about Gatsby's and Daisy's past and that Gatsby only wants to meet Daisy in Nick's house, so she will be able to see his mansion. (58-9).
"Possession of an image like Daisy is all that Gatsby can finally conceive as 'success'; and Gatsby is meant to be a very representative American in the intensity of his yearning for success, as well as in the symbols which he equates with it" (251). In this quote by Edwin Fussell, the importance of sign-exchange value for Gatsby is again revealed. His purpose is clearer than ever, when he refuses to leave the past behind and desperately clings to his image of himself, trying to recover it by reuniting with Daisy (84). "Daisy of course, represents the 'object par excellence,' as Marx defned money." (Posnock 206)
Taking all of this into account, we can eventually say that Gatsby's vision of himself is mainly the idea of acquiring wealth or exchange value and Daisy's social status/sign-exchange value. To do so, he needs to get rid of his unsuccessful, and simple background. No one is supposed to know, who he really is, because that would hinder him from reaching the status of a permanent member in the upper-class (old money) society. Daisy attracts him, because in her world everyone has always had money, and it is something natural and not worth mentioning (Fitzgerald 115). This is what Gatsby tries to convey and represent, and it is where he fails to achieve his otherwise perfect imitation.