A Dangerous Dreamer: An Optimist’s Take on Gatsby

Part One:
The Dangerous Business of Dreaming.

“I keep it always full of interesting people, night and day. People who do interesting things. Celebrated people.”

This quote is probably one of my favorites from the book “The Great Gatsby,” although I’m not sure that it conveys quite the same meaning for me as F. Scott Fitzgerald originally intended.

In this scene, Gatsby is trying to impress Daisy by taking her around his house—his mansion in the “new money” section of New York. The quote references the parties he holds every weekend—events to which seemingly everyone in New York is invited, each orchestrated to celebrate the excess of the era with bootlegged alcohol, the equally intoxicating and risqué rhythms of jazz, as well as the presence of other New York, new-money elites.

Gatsby does it all in hopes of winning back Daisy Buchanan, a lost love he met five years prior as a penniless soldier about to ship off to fight in World War II. Daisy was born into money, a detail that may have been a cause for Gatsby’s obsession with her—if he’s able to win her over, maybe then he’ll finally belong at the top of the social hierarchy he’s worked so hard to climb.

But regardless of his reasoning for pining after Daisy, Gatsby’s ambition to reach the social heights of the elite (as well as become known for that kind of money) set him on-course to create a new life for himself long before she entered (and abruptly exited) his life. He ran away from his beginnings as a poor farm boy in the midwest when he was young, by chance encountering a wealthy yachtsman later on who would teach him to be a gentleman. After he returned from the war though, it was all for Daisy. The parties, Gatsby’s mansion, even his likely (though never confirmed) occupation as a bootlegger are all attempts to reach out her, to show her that he’s finally the kind of man worthy of her company.

But if you’re familiar with Gatsby (and you were paying attention in high school English, weren’t you?), then you know Gatsby’s dream is doomed. Rather than simply rekindle his relationship with Daisy (an idea made a bit more complicated by the fact that now Daisy is married—wait for it—with a child), Gatsby seems to want to recreate the past exactly as it was at the time of their first meeting, five years ago.

“He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…”

From the point-of-view of narrator Nick Carraway (Gatsby’s neighbor who happens to be Daisy’s cousin), the idea is of course, ludicrous. It’s out-of-touch with reality. In Gatsby’s mind though, it’s all very attainable. Gatsby, who had once re-imagined his life to be completely different from what it once was, wasn’t going to fail at attaining what he had done it all for. He’s a dreamer for sure, and a darn good one at that.

Part Two:
Shattering Illusions.

“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.”

Gatsby’s propensity for dreaming, a quality that allowed him to move so far from his humble beginnings, also proved to be a rather dangerous trait. Gatsby imagined his relationship with Daisy into something it never really was and never really could be—an immaculate version of things with no room for any deviance. Nothing could match his expectation, and Daisy couldn’t live up to what he wanted her to be.

Gatsby’s green light (which was actually Daisy’s green light, because it came from her dock across the bay from Gatsby’s house) symbolizes Daisy in a way that allows Gatsby to put everything he wants to remember and imagine about Daisy into this one perfect dream. He’s literally reaching out for it the first time Nick catches a glimpse of him outside his house—it’s as though he’s trying to reach back into the past.

Yet while he’s just across the bay, Gatsby never really reaches out to Daisy, the person—not directly at least. It’s as though he wants to preserve his illusion as best he can… and deep down, maybe he knows it. Eventually though, he does ask Nick to coordinate a meeting between the two at his cottage next door to Gatsby’s mansion (I’ve always thought it was interesting though, that he didn’t just invite her to a party or something—it might’ve saved him some time).

At their afternoon meeting for tea, things start out a bit tense—there’s an accidental breaking of a clock and both parties seem a bit surprised by their own reactions to seeing one another. After a bit though, they start to settle in. The two catch up, enjoying each other’s long-delayed company. But it’s during this time that Gatsby’s illusion seems to start breaking down in his mind. He seems to start seeing things as they are, though almost appearing to prefer his imagined version of reality.

“If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,” said Gatsby. “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”

If it wasn’t for the mist, indeed… Gatsby’s probably a bit confused by his own reaction to Daisy. He may be starting to realize that real life just can’t measure up to the grand illusion he’s been harboring.

Part Three:
Chasing Green Lights.

“No–Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.”

To chase a green light, some might say, is a foolish endeavor. I wouldn’t disagree with this exactly, but I also wouldn’t completely agree. I do see the error in purposefully overlooking the realities of a situation, allowing yourself to continue imagining an idealized future—that’s not a great strategy. But to bring it all back to my original inspiration, Gatsby’s quote about keeping his house full of interesting, celebrated people, I see the positive qualities in Gatsby more than criticize the negative:

“I keep it always full of interesting people, night and day. People who do interesting things. Celebrated people.”

To me, this quote, reminds me to fill my life with the creative work of people who inspire me and learn about how they achieved what they’ve come to be known for—to learn about lives well-lived and evaluate my own trajectory. As Gatsby said in the movie, “My life, old sport, my life has got to be like this…”

I realize its intended meaning isn’t exactly as I’m interpreting it, but the optimist in me sees what I want to see.

To me, an idealized dream like Gatsby’s—a future that may well live solely in your own mind—that type of thing is more of a compass pointing you in the right direction, rather than a map that will get you there. With a dream like that, there’s no concrete, step-by-step guide showing you the route to take to get to your destination. It’s more like an abstract concept, like setting out to reach “due north.” You can’t reach simply “north,” because you can always go more north—it’s unattainable, like Gatsby’s vision of Daisy.

What this type of thinking does though, is force to you to stretch yourself in ways you might not have before, going further than you would have if you hadn’t set the bar so high for yourself. It’s like that old (non-Gatsby) saying goes: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

For me Gatsby is such a strong, admirable character because I identify with his relentless readiness to dream—his ability to accept what could be, over what currently is. If he can envision it, there’s no reason he can’t bring it to life—that’s a way of thinking I really appreciate and often try to echo in my own thought process.

But what I’ve learned over the past few years as I wander further into adulthood, is that things don’t always turn out quite as you wanted. Sometimes plans fall short. Sometimes the future and the paths you think will take you there are a bit unclear—and that’s okay.

This doesn’t mean you stop trying, though—not until you’re satisfied. Keep going, but understand when a bit of compromise is necessary. Optimism with a healthy dose of pragmatism—that’s how I’ve tried to navigate the past few years. It’s always good to dream—just know when your illusion is a bit too colossal and when a green light is just a green light.

About the author

Hi, I’m Andre! I’m your standard, run-of-the-mill, millennial with a thing for avocados, a major coffee-habit and a blog I work on when I'm not listening to podcasts or collecting cans of rare, sought-after craft beer.

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