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According to late civil rights advocist Dorothy Height, greatness is “not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reach his goals.” Height’s declaration embodies the idea that dedication to a vision, rather than the end result, is the true way to measure the concept of greatness. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, James Gatz, who later takes on the name Jay Gatsby, is a poor midwesterner in his youth, hoping to attract the attention of his former lover, Daisy Buchanan. There’s just one problem: Daisy’s already married to another man, who happens to be extremely wealthy. In an attempt to impress her and rekindle their love, Gatsby accumulates wealth in mysterious ways, and many speculate that he was involved in criminal activity. Contrary to the belief that he was a foolish lover and dishonest criminal, Jay Gatsby was an ambitious young man whose incredible drive and passion for a successful life classifies him as great.
Since he was a young boy, James Gatz dreamed of leaving his life in poverty. Opportunity struck and after a chance encounter with Dan Cody, a wealthy copper mogul, Gatz ran away from home at the age of seventeen to learn the ways of the rich (Fitzgerald 98). This milestone marks the death of poor farmhand James Gatz and the birth of the sensational persona whom he strives to be: Jay Gatsby. Throughout the rest of the novel, Gatsby consistently maintains the enigmatic personality he crafted, only breaking character on a few occasions. Gatsby transforms himself from a “clam-digger and salmon-fisher” (Fitzgerald 98) into a charismatic and charming young man with “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four of five times in life” (Fitzgerald 48). Furthermore, Gatsby had to overcome enormous obstacles along his journey. Before Gatsby became the rich host of his lavish parties, he was “a penniless young man without a past” (Fitzgerald 149). Entering the realm of the rich, Gatsby was at a considerable disadvantage; he had no connections, no friends, and most importantly, no money. The sizable inheritance he was slated to receive from the late Dan Cody was stolen from him by Cody’s mistress. Gatsby only knew the mannerisms of the wealthy which he had learned from his time spent as Cody’s associate. Nevertheless, he persevered through these hardships and eventually ended up owning a “colossal affair… a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden” (Fitzgerald 5). Gatsby, coming from a poor family living in the middle of nowhere, ends up owning an enormous and beautiful mansion in one of the most affluent towns in the country. Despite how impressive this is, may be, some, including literary critic Claire Stocks, denounce Gatsby’s success as a fraud due to his criminal activities. In her analysis of the novel, Stocks states that, “The eponymous hero of the novel, we soon discover, is a liar and a criminal. He is arguably [not] ‘great’…” (Stocks). However, Stocks and others fail to realize that Gatsby’s criminal activities are besides the point. Gatsby understood the risks he was taking when he engaged in activities such as bootlegging; if he was caught, he would suffer jail time and his entire persona would be ruined. Even in the face of these consequences, Gatsby was still determined enough to work towards his goal at any means necessary. Something as impactful as the law may have deterred others, but not Gatsby, who would not let anything stand in the way of his pursuit of wealth. How Gatsby obtained his wealth is not important, as the facts don’t change. He was still originally a rural farm-boy who ended up immensely wealthy. This monumental leap is not something any ordinary person can accomplish. Gatsby’s progress in the face of adversity demonstrates his resolve and ultimate success in surmounting the hardships of his upbringing and attaining the wealth he longed for.
As a self-made man, Jay Gatsby had only his own ambition and will to depend on. Gatsby’s extreme discipline stemmed from his youth, and grew into a lifelong hunger for success and perfection. Evidence of this can be found within his boyhood planners that he used to map out his day. Every hour of his life was meticulously outlined with useful activities that would help to improve himself, such as “Study electricity”, “Study needed inventions” and “Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it” (Fitzgerald 173). Gatsby’s planning of his early life exposed him to the path of success he would travel down later. While most other children his age would be playing with friends or loitering around, Gatsby had the desire to advance his own education and character in search for a better future. After attaining wealth and elite social status, Gatsby still carefully manages his life and appearance. Even in the midst of his own wild party, “he was not drinking [which] set him off from his guests… as the fraternal hilarity increased” (Fitzgerald 50). Those attending Gatsby’s large parties tend to get roaring drunk within a short time, but Gatsby restrains himself because he wants to keep up his polished and formal appearance in order to impress others and make respectable connections. Just like his childhood, Gatsby willingly sacrifices having a good time in exchange for gains in character. However admirable Gatsby’s work ethic seems, Stocks once again finds an obscure way to criticize him by pointing out that Gatsby fails to achieve his goal in the end, saying “Tom [Daisy’s husband] has to protect his privileged position from the threat of ‘new money’ and he does so by destroying Gatsby, both literally and metaphorically. [His] revelation of Gatsby’s true origins signals the beginning of the end for him, and [he is killed shortly after]” (Stocks). Yet, Stocks doesn’t consider the fact that Gatsby knew he and Tom would eventually have to confront each other and yet Gatsby had the courage to not give up on his dream and attempt to defeat Tom, his final obstacle. Gatsby’s failure is insignificant because it doesn’t change the sheer will and drive that he possessed throughout his journey. During both his childhood and his adult life, Gatsby shows remarkable self-discipline and a strong desire for success, both of which contribute to his greatness.
When one looks back upon the life of Jay Gatsby, a single characteristic stands out more than anything else: ambition. From when he was a child, Gatsby demonstrated his determination to greatly improve his life through his intense work-ethic and fastidious planning. In the span of his short, thirty-two year life, Gatsby ascended the social ladder, going from a poor, rural boy with no foreseeable future to a fabulously wealthy and charming member of the American elites. Stepping back to look at Gatsby’s journey as a whole, the obstacles he faced on his path to success were insurmountably high. The fact that he possessed the drive for perfection, the resolve to be simply better than what he was, is the true reflection of his character and what makes Jay Gatsby “great”.
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