In the Great Gatsby, each character is longing for one particular paradise. Only one character actually reaches utopia, and the arrival is a mixed blessing at best. The concept of paradise in The Great Gatsby is a shifting, fleeting illusion of happiness, joy, love, and perfection, a mirage that leads each character to reach deeper, look harder, strive farther.
There is Myrtle Wilsons gaudy, flashy hotel paradise in which she can pretend that she is glamorous, elite, wanted and loved. She clings fiercely enough to this ragged dream to brave the righteous anger of Tom Buchanan by voicing her jealous terror that he will return to his wife. There is a desperation to her full, spirited style of living, she wants so much to escape the grey, dead land of the Valley of Ashes that she colours her life with any brightness she can find, be it broken glass or diamonds. Nick describes land she finds herself in as a wasteland, a desert, saying “this is the Valley of Ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air” (page 29). It is from this that Myrtle is trying to escape, this life-in-death valley that characterises the underbelly of New York’s glitter and lights and finery, and this that she is dragged back to by the dawning jealous rage of a normally unassuming husband. To run away from the grey and the death, the colourful, brimming woman runs out, arms outstretched, to the car she thinks belongs to the man who promised to take her away from the Valley. But — she began in shadows and in shadows she dies, “her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick, dark blood with the dust” (page 144).
There is an “ashes to ashes dust to dust” element to every action in the novel, and Myrtle is no exception. We as readers focus more on Daisy and Tom, Gatsby and Nick; Myrtles fall is telling the same story as Gatsbys, as Daisys. In the end, her life is worth no more and no less than the great millionaire in his mansion on West Egg. Daisy and Tom are bereft of these dreams. Daisy at one point in the novel suddenly rebelled, realising that she did not love the man she was going to marry despite his rich gifts, and Jordan describes her struggle Tell ’em all Daisy’s change her mine. Say Daisys change her mine! She began to cry — she cried and cried . .
. She wouldn’t let go of the letter. She took it into the tub with her and squeezed it up into a wet ball and only let me leave it in the soap dish when she saw that it was coming to pieces like snow (page 83).
Society in the form of Jordan Baker was there to spread on more lies to cover the rough spots, to make the surface elegant and hope no one had depth enough to look beneath it. When Daisy marries Tom “without so much as a shiver” she becomes an empty person, who lives, but takes no joy in it. It could be said that she just exists. When Gatsby returns with all her old dreams in his hat and his glittery mansion across the bay, like some handsome prince come to rescue her, Daisy tries but cannot return to the time that Gatsby has been living in for the past five years. She has become the shell that Jordan fixed up and sent off to a wedding, one of the “careless people” that Nick describes her as. Tom and Jordan are careless and destructive because they never have anything to care about. For them, life has been money and bright lights, cities and high paying jobs, parties with American aristocracy in expansive pleasure houses.
This all glitters, but none of it is true gold. When Nick speaks of his home town, a Midwest of open plains, family and friendship, he is speaking of an emotional “home” that none of these people ever possessed. What passes for love in their world is the act of clinging to empty dreams of paradise, “blue gardens where men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars” (page 45). Gatsby’s tragedy is not his death. It is the death of his dream of utopia. He discovers that Daisy’s gold is money, not her soul.
Nick describes the new world that the storyteller faces the night he lays his dreams to rest “material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about . . . ” (page 168). Gatsby must have looked out upon a world he thought loved him, that he thought valued things like dreams and happiness, and the shock at what he found there, at what he found both in the emptiness of Daisy and the indifferent machine of the city were what killed all that he had ever hoped for. Nick’s paradise was his return to a place, not a time.
His is the only paradise realised in the novel. Gatsby doesn’t understand time, he wants to skew it as he skews his life and the lives of those around him. Gatsby believes, until the very end, that “it eluded us then, but no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther .
. . And one fine morning .
..” (page 188). Gatsby reached an emotional level, upon which he expected to find utopia. But the flimsy, showy yet shadowy structure he built to reach that point won’t support him in his crisis of self, and he is forced to realise that all of his ambitions have been in vain. Without the dream, there is no Gatsby. In the wreckage of so many falls from grace, Nick alone resurfaces, burdened by his understanding of the entirety of the tragedy.