The Mysterious Popularity of The Great Gatsby: The Mythic Hero When we discussed The Great Gatsby in class, most of us agreed that we enjoyed reading the book. However, when asked why we thought it is so popular and widely examined and debated in literary circles, nobody seemed to have an answer. There is a mysterious attraction to the story and the characters that Fitzgerald created. I think that the reason people love this book is because the title character is an Americanized version of the mythic heroic figure that can be found throughout literature and mythology. The mythic hero is fascinating because he represents "the living inspiration"ÃÂÃÂ¦of the activities of the human mind"ÃÂÃÂ (Campbell 3). Fitzgerald presents Gatsby as the mythic hero in the context of early twentieth century America, thereby re-inventing and modifying the existing archetype of the hero.
ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ I am not the first person to see similarities between the character of Gatsby and the mythic hero.
According to Neila Seshachari, "Gatsby's story offers a complete parallel to the embryonic path of the mythic hero"ÃÂÃÂ (Seshachari 93). These parallels are so strong that it seems likely that Fitzgerald may have borrowed many of the details of Gatsby's life from mythological stories. Gatsby's origin is similar to the origins in many hero myths. Steven G. Kellman writes, "The hero alone must create his identity ["ÃÂÃÂ¦] he inherits nothing, not even a father"ÃÂÃÂ(Kellman 1252). James Gatz had rejected his actual parents and reinvented himself as Jay Gatsby, thereby fathering a new identity for himself. His status as a parentless child is confirmed when Nick comments: "his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all"ÃÂÃÂ (Fitzgerald 99). James Gatz, therefore, is enacting a powerfully mythic fantasy when he reinvents himself: "The fantasy of being simultaneously father and son is primarily a fantasy of immortality, of a timeless personal omnipotence"ÃÂÃÂ (Kellman 1252). By changing his name and inventing a new persona, Gatz plays out a mythic urge to play God by creating himself. The archetypical hero is usually parentless or adopted, and must invent himself before going on his quest.
ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ According to Campbell, part of the heroic journey is a call to action where there the hero takes part in a "rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, when, complete, amounts to a dying and a birth."ÃÂÃÂ Furthermore, "the familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals and emotional patterns no longer fit"ÃÂÃÂ (Campbell 51). The details of James Gatz's transformation into Jay Gatsby run parallel to this heroic call to action.
It was James Gatz who had been loafing along the beach that afternoon in a torn green jersey and a pair of canvas pants, bit it was already Jay Gatsby who borrowed a rowboat, pulled out to the Tuolumne, and informed Cody that a wind might catch him and break him up in half an hour. (Fitzgerald 99) Gatz dies and Gatsby is born. When Gatsby rows out to the yacht, he is partaking in a rite of spiritual passage, after which he no longer lives his life by the "old concepts, ideals and emotional patterns"ÃÂÃÂ (Campbell 51).
A mythic hero is often depicted as being a sort of child prodigy. They often demonstrate some level of power or understanding as a child that is both wonderful and disturbing. The story of baby Hercules killing two poisonous snakes with his bare hands demonstrates this. The fact that Gatsby was a child prodigy is confirmed when his father shows Nick the schedule that Gatsby had written as James Gatz. The schedule is a parody of sections of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. It lists the things to do in the course of a day in order to improve his chances for success. Tasks such as "practice elocution and how to attain it,"ÃÂÃÂ "study needed inventions,"ÃÂÃÂ "study electricity,"ÃÂÃÂ and "read one improving book or magazine every week"ÃÂÃÂ show that Gatsby was an extraordinary adolescent. The fact that Gatsby studies inventions and electricity confirm the connection to Benjamin Franklin's writings since Franklin is famous for inventing many things and for his groundbreaking experiments with electricity. This schedule, and its connection to Ben Franklin, shows that young Jay Gatz is industrious in the American tradition. Instead of killing snakes as baby Hercules did, Gatsby shows his predilection towards greatness in a more American and culturally updated way. After showing the schedule to Nick, Gatsby's father says, "It just shows you, don't it? Jimmy was bound to get ahead"ÃÂÃÂ¦He was always great for that"ÃÂÃÂ (175). Even as a child, Gatsby already had the drive and single-minded industriousness that would prove to be his ticket to wealth.
ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ Gatsby's dream is not simply the American Dream because the American Dream calls for material attainments and Gatsby is looking for much more. He wants to recapture his past- a golden moment when he and Daisy first kissed. His dream is to get together with Daisy and he tries to achieve this dream by becoming wealthy. Gatsby knows that achieving the American Dream is not enough to bring him happiness. As Neila Seshachari writes, "Gatsby's dream transcends the accepted modes of the American Dream to envelop man's primordial concepts"ÃÂÃÂ (94). Instead of just looking for material wealth and power, Gatsby pursues the American Dream in order to acquire the object of his love. This is important since the quest for a woman, or what she represents, is the ultimate goal for the mythic hero. "Women represent the totality of what can be known"ÃÂÃÂ (Campbell 116). Support for the theory that Gatsby's goal of joining with Daisy was part of a heroic quest comes when Nick describes Gatsby's motives: "He was a son of God- a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that- and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty"ÃÂÃÂ (Fitzgerald 99).
ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ Another indication that Gatsby is a mythic hero is the story telling that takes place because of his parties. "Gatsby's notoriety, spread about by the hundreds who had accepted his hospitality and so become authorities upon his past, had increased all summer until he fell just short of being news"ÃÂÃÂ (Fitzgerald 98). Gatsby is mysterious and admired and the partygoers create a myriad of stories to explain their host. Gatsby seems to be aware of these stories and tolerates it. A mythic hero needs for his story to be told. The fact that people are fabricating stories about Gatsby shows the importance and wonder associated with his character. According to Campbell, a historically based mythic hero rarely has his story told accurately: "If the deeds of an actual historical figure proclaim to have been a hero, the builders of his legend will invent for him appropriate adventures in depth"ÃÂÃÂ (Campbell 321). Gatsby's association with an "underground pipe-line to Canada"ÃÂÃÂ and the "persistent story"ÃÂÃÂ that he lived on a boat instead of a house, show that the partygoers need to invent appropriate stories about the man to explain his actions.
In Campbell's hero myth there is always a helper, one who assists the hero on his quest. Nick is Gatsby's helper. He facilitates the meeting between Daisy and Gatsby and seems to be the only one that recognizes the significance of Gatsby's quest. Nick seems to see things through the same romantic perspective as Gatsby. Just before Gatsby's death, when Nick says to him, "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together,"ÃÂÃÂ Nick is confirming the mythic importance of what Gatsby was trying to do.
Since Gatsby fits the mold of a mythic hero, there must be a mythic villain to struggle against; one whose traits show that he is a villain by virtue of his oppositeness from the hero. This villain is definitely Tom Buchanan. Tom Buchanan, like Gatsby is very wealthy. However his wealth was inherited, whereas Gatsby's was attained through his own struggles. Tom is from old money and represents the entrenched upper class families, while Gatsby represents new money and class mobility. The oppositeness of Gatsby and Tom is most apparent in how they regard Daisy. Tom views Daisy as a possession, as just another perk to his being wealthy while Gatsby views Daisy as the ultimate goal in his quest.
There is a very good reason that the novel does not end happily ever after. The mythic hero rarely ends his quest happily: The happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation; for the world, as we know it, as we have seen it, yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our heart with the passing of forms that we have loved. (Campbell 25,26) If Gatsby had lived and gone on to marry Daisy, it would have been an absurdly unrealistic ending. Gatsby's death is appropriate since he has accomplished his goal by reuniting with Daisy. The fact that she probably would not have left Tom for Gatsby is irrelevant. Gatsby succeeds in reliving the past when Nick leaves them together at their first meeting. Gatsby achieves his goal and therefore any further dealings with Daisy will taint the dream. His death prevents him from realizing that Daisy probably was not worth all the trouble.
ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ ÃÂÃ Like most of the readers of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway has trouble placing where he has heard Gatsby's story before: I was reminded of something- an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's, as though there was more struggling upon them that a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever. (Fitzgerald 112) The "elusive rhythm"ÃÂÃÂ and "fragment of lost words"ÃÂÃÂ are from the story of the mythic hero. Gatsby had just told the story of his first encounter with Daisy using symbols that unequivocally demonstrate Gatsby's status as a questing hero. Nick cannot place where he has heard the story before, much like many of the students in class could not quite explain the attraction they have for this book.
Works Cited Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Princeton UP, 1973.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1980.
Kellman, Steven J. "The Fiction of Self-Begetting."ÃÂÃÂ MLN. 91.6 (1976): 1243-1256.
Seshachari, Neila. "The Great Gatsby: Apogee of Fitzgerald's Mythopoeia."ÃÂÃÂ Gatsby.
Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1991. 93-102.