Fitzgerald employs the theme of desire as a force of manipulation for both his plot and his characters.
James Gatz, at seventeen, desired money and wealth, and so reinvented himself as the great Jay Gatsby, who lived the epitome of a luxurious lifestyle. In a modernist world, though, one must be forever desperate for more – for Gatsby, this desire came in the form of Daisy Buchanan. Conversely, though, Daisy is also a representation of the past, of what Gatsby once had and subsequently lost; she is not a desire for something new and unknown, but rather for what could have been.
As a young man, Gatsby equated material gain with happiness. In a yacht he sees “all the beauty and glamour in the world”; a lifestyle more exciting and grand than he had then. At this moment, the reader is made aware of his naivety: our protagonist believes money will fulfill his desires, and in his youth is unaware that it may not entirely satisfy him. Arguably, Gatsby never quite ‘grows up’ in this sense; at heart he remains forever a seventeen-year-old boy, desperately seeking his dreams. He remains endearingly ignorant of the disadvantage that his working class background puts him in – that, as rich as he may become, he can never have the reputation or power associated with ‘old money’. Throughout the novel, he desires what he cannot have, as symbolised by the “green light” which he constantly reaches for – this manifests itself as Daisy, a woman with a social status to outmatch his own.
Gatsby’s reinvention of himself, and his rise through the world, was characterised by him constantly desiring more than he had at any one moment: as Nick observed, “He was never quite still; there was always a tapping foot somewhere or the impatient opening and closing of a hand.” Here, Fitzgerald outlines the dissatisfaction Gatsby constantly felt; though not quite existential, we are given the impression that on some level he desired more to life than the consumerist culture provided. Fitzgerald describes Gatsby’s house as “an infinite procession of shadows” – a metaphor, perhaps, with Platonic subtext. He travelled through life never entirely understanding the world around him, and seeing one version – one reality – when there were others to be found. Gatsby desired to ‘come out of the shadows’, and find another reality in which he and Daisy could be together; in his naivety, he lived in a ‘shadow’ of desperation in which he did believe Daisy and he could end up together, despite the differences in social class.When we finally learn the full story of Gatsby and Daisy’s past – or one version of it – Fitzgerald outlines the circumstances of two contrasting social backgrounds coming together: in Nick’s words, Gatsby “took her because he had no real right to touch her hand”. The connotations of class warfare are strong here, with Gatsby very much in the inferior position.
However, there is a distinctly sinister tone in the verb “took” when associated with a woman, and presents the objectification of her. Gatsby’s desires seemingly led him to become a desperate man – he is portrayed as forceful and aggressive when, in the same passage, Nick comments, “He took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously”. This passage further indicates a level of indifference in his attitude, and that the ‘object’ he is taking is of a somewhat worthless value. The relationship is far from idealised, and the reader is alarmed at this young man’s drive to get what he wants.
Fitzgerald presents desire as a dangerous force, and one that ultimately destroys the person who possesses it in the extreme, as Gatsby did. His desire for Daisy is one rooted in the past; he obsesses over her as an object he failed to obtain in his youth because he was not rich enough. He wants the woman who escaped him; she had “vanished into her rich house” while Gatsby was left feeling “married to her”. When they meet again after five years, he is described as leaning against a “defunct mantelpiece clock”, a symbolic representation of Gatsby’s desire for Daisy leaving him stuck in the past, unable to move on. He had dreamed of her “at an inconceivable pitch of intensity” for so long that he had lost touch with reality – and this was why he couldn’t let go of her.
As Nick narrates, his dreams were “a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded on a fairy’s wing.” This metaphor illustrates Gatsby’s world: at centre it is a “rock” – seemingly hard, constant and unyielding – but the basis of it is “a fairy’s wing” – fragile, imagined and delicate. The basis is his unending love for Daisy, which is somewhat detached from the truth; or, from a Platonic perspective, detached from other versions of reality.The green light is a motif throughout the novel, representing all that Gatsby desires, and all that is just out of his reach.
When we first see him, he is stretching “out his arms to the dark water in a curious way”, toward this light. The colour of it is symbolic; green traditionally has connotations of nature, new life and renewal – Fitzgerald may have chosen it to be suggestive of Gatsby’s desire of a repeat of his past relationship with Daisy (made clear in the notable exchange between Nick and Gatsby in the sixth chapter, in which Gatsby exclaims: “‘Can’t repeat the past?’ … ‘Why of course you can!'”).
It also, though, is associated with money and finance; of ambition that drives its host to greed. The colour green chosen for the light is a contradiction in itself, just as is Gatsby’s desire of Daisy is: on the one hand, she is a symbol of purity to him, and on the other, she is merely another object to be attained. Gatsby owns everything that is new and modern – Nick, in his introduction, even compares him to “one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away”. He is in control of many things desired by others, shown by the grand parties he throws, and yet all he is in control of is for a single purpose – a single overarching desire: to win back Daisy. Is Daisy, though, merely the incarnation of all the materialistic desires of Gatsby, or is she more: a representation of purity and goodness which creates a paradox at the heart of the great Gatsby? It certainly seems like the latter; with her feminine traits, the reader is given the impression her character is a sweet relief from the crude, masculine world surrounding Gatsby and his illegitimate dealings. Her voice is described by Nick as an “exhilarating ripple”; “a wild tonic in the rain”.
The poetic language employed by Fitzgerald here illustrates the stark contrast he wants to present between Daisy and the capitalist world which she lives in and is a beneficiary of. However, later in the novel, when the reader can assume Gatsby is having an affair with her, he says, “‘Her voice is full of money'”, and Nick, in his typically unreliable fashion, immediately latches onto this as the “inexhaustible charm” in her voice. All along, then, she was a representation of money and consumerism – not the goodness and morality we had first hoped.This is nowhere more true than at the conclusion of the novel, when Daisy escapes all responsibility, and leaves Gatsby alone. As Gatsby’s desire, she was his downfall; the weakness of our tragic hero. Whether a romantic or materialistic desire to Gatsby, she was his “single dream”, and he “paid a high price” for it.
Desires in a consumerist world are expected to be ever-changing and ever-growing – Gatsby became obsessed with Daisy, and the “unreality of reality” which she brought with her. He allowed the intensity of his emotion to magnify the beauty and brilliance he saw in her, and thus was stuck utterly committed to a married woman who had a daughter. Daisy, contrary to traditional plots in which women suffer for sexual transgression, was able to leave the story virtually unscathed because of the money and reputation she embodied; Gatsby, despite the facade, had no such luxury. Desire brought his end about abruptly and painfully, and it did not leave him even with the dignity of being remembered by anyone other than Nick and his father.