“The Great Gatsby” is one of the most famous of all American novels. In this sample paper, an Ultius writer analyzes the characters of Jay Gatsby and Myrtle Wilson and what the two have in common. The paper argues that both characters are social climbers, and may be more alike than a cursory read might reveal.
Gatsby and Myrtle as social climbers
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel The Great Gatsby the characters of Jay Gatsby and Myrtle Wilson have a great deal in common. Neither is satisfied with their modest beginnings and both desire the accumulation of material wealth in a quest to better their societal standing—a preoccupation that leads to disastrous consequences.
While Gatsby and Myrtle are hardly the only characters in the novel with an fascination with wealth and accumulation of status, their humble roots and their overwhelming desire to disguise them are what set them apart from the other characters. Their conviction that they will never be able to ascend to the highest strata of society without amassing wealth and material goods forms an unmistakable link between the two characters. Gatsby and Myrtle strive for wealth and luxury at all costs in an attempt to validate themselves and erase their true backgrounds, and as a result their characters represent the dark underbelly of the American obsession with consumerism and materialism.
Why Jay Gatsby is obsessed with wealth
Jay Gatsby is the prototypical child of poverty who amasses wealth as a defense against his shame over his true beginnings. Fitzgerald describes the mindset of the young Gatsby by stating that
“his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the wash-stand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor” (70).
Gatsby’s complete and total obsession with the accumulation of wealth and status and his inability to be honest about his past are the defining aspects of his character. While a desire to surmount the obstacles of poverty is certainly no vice, from an early age Gatsby longs not for basic necessities but for ostentatious demarcations of wealth and status that he believes will open the door to a more fulfilling life. This overwhelming desire for material signifiers of luxury and prestige in an attempt to overcome the stigma of an impoverished background is paralleled in the character of Myrtle Wilson.
Myrtle’s need for external validation
Myrtle’s character is also defined by her pursuit of material goods as a method of masking her insecurities regarding her humble beginnings. (Visit the Ultius glossary for more information on literary character types.) We see the paramount importance of luxurious possessions to Myrtle’s sense of self-worth when she becomes
“attired in an elaborate afternoon dress of cream-colored chiffon, which gave out a continual rustle as she swept about the room. With the influence of the dress her personality had also undergone a change. The intense vitality that had been so remarkable in the garage was converted into impressive hauteur” (Fitzgerald 24).
The profound impact that the elegant dress has on Myrtle’s behavior and actions is evidence of her quest to accumulate material goods in a gambit to validate herself in the eyes of both others and herself. She is incapable of possessing any modicum of self-confidence without the external validation she finds through the aggregation of consumer goods and wealth. This is a trend we see paralleled in the actions of Jay Gatsby.
Gatsby and Myrtle hide behind material possessions
Gatsby also uses his material possessions to legitimize himself in the eyes of others in an attempt to overcompensate for his impoverished background. One of the more striking instances of this behavior is when Gatsby, in an attempt to impress Daisy,
“took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue” (Fitzgerald 65).
Gatsby, just like Myrtle, uses his possessions, and clothes in particular, to signify his worth to those around him. He is incapable of separating his value as a person from the value of his belongings, and this attitude is the foundation of his character and an indubitable result of his feeling that he is an imposter amongst the monied social elites with whom he surrounds himself. This deep seated preoccupation with ostentatious displays of money and property is uncannily paralleled in Myrtle’s character.
Myrtle is also congenitally incapable of moderating the importance of possessions to her worldview as a result of her destitute background. One of the most profound illustrations of her overwhelming obsession with wealth is when she expresses her regrets about marrying her husband by saying that
“The only CRAZY I was was when I married him. I knew right away I made a mistake. He borrowed somebody’s best suit to get married in, and never even told me about it, and the man came in one day when he was out. ‘oh, is that your suit?’ I said. ‘this is the first I ever heard about it.’ But I gave it to him and then I laid down and cried to beat the band all afternoon” (27).
The fact that Myrtle is so deeply wounded by her husband’s lack of expensive attire is indicative of her superficial desire to surround herself with extravagant belongings as a way of masking her insecurities regarding the economic differences between her and the rest of her social circles. Both Myrtle and Gatsby are afflicted with a crippling need to flaunt whatever wealth they can amass in an attempt to conceal the insecurities inherent to those who come from the working class. This parallel between the two characters has long been noted by scholars of the novel.
Why Gatsby and Myrtle feel out of place among the aristocracy
The similarities between the two characters have been examined at length by many academic critics of the work. Paul Levitt sums up the consensus relating to the two characters in his essay “The Great Gatsby and Revolution, in Theme and Style” with his statement that
“Gatsby represents new money; he is a parvenu, an upstart vulgarian with loud tastes in parties, clothing, and cars. His feminine equivalent is the poor and lower-class Myrtle Wilson, who has in common with Gatsby the urgent need to ascend the social ladder” (261).
Gatsby and Myrtle clearly represent both the male and female sides of the shame that comes from growing up poor in America, and the impossibility of ever fully shedding that stigma when associating with old money social elites. Gatsby and Myrtle’s inability to completely gain the respect and admiration of their friends and acquaintances and their unshakable sensation of being out of place illustrates the existence of a rigid aristocracy in American society, based not on titles or monarchies, but nevertheless immutable. Both characters, in a sense, are portrayed as imposters attempting to overcompensate with ostentatious displays of wealth for the fact that they belong to a different world from the rest of the characters, and always will no matter what they accomplish or achieve.
Related reading: Read about The Bourgeois Gentleman, a 17th-century comedic ballet that criticized the pretensiousness of the middle class and the snobbery of the aristocracy.
Gatsby and Myrtle share humble beginnings
In conclusion, the characters of Jay Gatsby and Myrtle Wilson have far more in common than may be initially evident. Both come from humble backgrounds, and as a result feel the need to gaudily display what they view as harbingers that they are superior to the working class.
Clothes in particular are a recurring theme that intertwines these two characters throughout the novel, as we see them obsessively groom their appearances in an attempt to portray themselves as members of the uppermost strata of the social hierarchy, and harshly judge others who fail to garb themselves as extravagantly.
The deep pain and insecurity we see in their characters and their constant desire to present themselves as elegant and fashionable is indicative of the existence of a uniquely American aristocracy that seeks to forever separate those born in poverty from the rest of society.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York, NY: Scribner, 1925. Print.
Levitt, Paul M. “The Great Gatsby and Revolution in Theme and Style.” International Journalof Humanities and Social Science. Web. 30 Nov 2013.