Dreams Against the Current
A dream is an intangible paradise. In the heavenly world of a dream, all hopes are within reach, and time knows no defined direction. To dream is to believe in the existence of the limitless realm. To dream is to be consumed by the passion and beauty of life, for although a dream may never become a reality, the true substance of a dream is its place in the heart. Jay Gatsby is a dreamer. He believes that the future can return him to his past and to his love, Daisy. Time blocks Gatsby’s dream, for Daisy has made Gatsby a mere memory by marrying Tom Buchanan. Tom and Daisy have minor conflicts with time that parallel Gatsby’s principal struggle with time, yet Gatsby’s dream emerges as the distinguishing factor of his conflict. When challenging the natural course of time, a dream, created by the intricate workings of the mind, and a simple memory of the past cannot be attained with the greatness of their origin. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby’s destruction and the death of his undying dream are intensified through the magnification of the conflicts found in the characters of Tom and Daisy Buchanan.
By dreaming, Jay Gatsby develops a false world that can never completely capture the grandeur of its original place in time. An attraction exists between Gatsby and the past, for Gatsby’s past holds the source of the dream that molds the individual he becomes. Thus, the beginning of Jay Gatsby is marked by the beginning of his dream when he falls in love with Daisy Fay. "He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God" (Fitzgerald 112). From this moment, Gatsby is forever held captive by his dream of Daisy and their love. Imprisoned by his heart, Gatsby is never free from Daisy, for he incessantly works toward renewing their relationship after Daisy marries Tom Buchanan. Such dreams as Gatsby’s seem without hope, but explaining how a dream always contains some form of possibility, critic Kenneth Eble writes, "[. . .] the vision is not in itself false; and the truth does gleam there at the center [. . .]" (36: 94). As its "truth" (Eble 36: 94), Gatsby’s mind takes Daisy from reality and places her into a great dream that can never exist because Daisy will never remain exactly as he dreams her. Gatsby’s hope that in the future he can repeat the past places him in conflict with time, for he is trying to return to the past, where fragments of what became his dream survive. Somewhere in time, these fragments of Gatsby’s dream wait patiently, silently, knowing that they can never be found.
Even though achieving the former magnificence of the foundations of his dream is impossible, Gatsby strives to relive his past with Daisy. From the instant he falls in love with Daisy, all of Gatsby’s actions are directed toward overcoming the barriers that separate them. As a poor boy in love with the wealthy Daisy, Gatsby overcomes the obstacle of money by partaking in illegal activities, and finally after acquiring ample means, the Jay Gatsby of colossal parties can compete for Daisy’s love. In this respect, Gatsby’s attempt to transform his dream into a fact of life is faulty (Raleigh 102), and by working in the present so that his future can contain the past, Gatsby engages in a conflict with time. While endeavoring to achieve his dream, Gatsby evolves certain standards and expectations of Daisy from his misconception that a dream can come true in its entirety. Gatsby is unable to lower his expectations of Daisy because they form the framework of his dream. "He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you’" (Fitzgerald 111). Gatsby’s inevitable disappointment with Daisy comes from his failure to understand that "[. . .] it is too much to ask that the object of the deepest hunger of the human heart should have remained inviolate and unchanged and untouched in the reality of human weakness [. . .]" (Stern 251). Gatsby will not allow himself to comprehend that the real Daisy cannot meet the imaginary standards of his dream because time changes all things. With his one "[. . .] long[ing] to conquer the passage of time [. . .]" (Steinbrink 162), Gatsby is conquered by his dream, and reality vanishes. Gatsby grasps only the Daisy of his dream, so when he refuses to see the real Daisy, reality ceases to exist for him. A dream will never match the height of its beginning because of the changing powers of time.
The inability of a dream to seize the complete essence of its previous identity causes Gatsby’s unavoidable resolution. When Daisy fails to meet the expectations of Gatsby’s dream, a part of Gatsby dies, but when his dream is crushed completely, Gatsby physically and mentally cannot survive. The completeness of his dream’s one day becoming a reality maintains Gatsby, but time will not permit this to happen. Jeffrey Steinbrink explains, "Moments of happiness or triumph from the past can neither be recaptured nor repeated, and for that reason seldom can they be forgotten" (158). Gatsby builds his entire life on one unforgotten and unattainable dream that takes shape in the past, and when his dream dies, Gatsby dies. The only resolution to his conflict with time is for Gatsby to be murdered, for his dream is murdered by time with the words of Tom Buchanan. Tom reveals to Daisy the methods by which Gatsby makes his fortune, and "‘Jay Gatsby’ had broken up like glass against Tom’s hard malice" (Fitzgerald 148). When Tom ends Gatsby’s dream of renewing the past, Gatsby’s world evaporates before his eyes. "[. . .] [Gatsby] must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream" (Fitzgerald 162). With his dream, Gatsby presents a threat to time by trying to control time, but in actuality, time is controlling him. Gatsby is a "[. . .] boat [. . .] against the current [. . .]" (Fitzgerald 182), and the current of time keeps him from reaching his destination, the realization of his dream. After Tom demolishes the hope of Gatsby’s dream, Gatsby’s physical body is murdered. With his death, Gatsby wins part of his conflict with time, for Gatsby ultimately achieves a fixed placement in time. Time also succeeds because Gatsby’s dream is out of his reach, located on some current yet to be seen. As a distinguishing factor of his conflict with time, Gatsby’s single dream that sustains and eventually destroys him is unreachable.
In Tom Buchanan’s conflict with time, he searches for a momentary feeling from his past that is impossible to duplicate with the same intensity that it was first experienced. In Tom’s youth, he had a pure physical force and ability. Richard Lehan summarizes Tom’s physical capacity when he states, "The idea of power [. . .] is embodied in Tom Buchanan" (80). Although Tom retains some of the physical remnants of his powerful youth, time has erased part of his sheer strength. "[. . .] [Tom is] one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax" (Fitzgerald 6). Using his great wealth to manipulate his surroundings, Tom is given a sense of mental and physical control, and with this combination, he seeks a brief sensation from his past that perfectly captures the full range of his power. His desire to feel complete supremacy and dominance is in conflict with time, for this emotion is only found in his past. On a quest to evoke this past feeling, Tom used his money and his power to manipulate his situation with Daisy, for he married her and took her away from Gatsby. Tom’s affair with Myrtle Wilson is another instance where he uses his power in search of the past. This power of Tom’s is derived from his youth and his money, for it is this power that makes him feel once again "[. . .] the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game" (Fitzgerald 6) that he played in his youth. Tom’s money is not only a manipulative tool, but a concrete object threaded into his intangible nature. In his affair with Myrtle, he is not looking for a future, for that would entitle him to dream. Although the feeling he pursues is equal to a dream because it cannot be achieved, Tom’s feeling is simply a memory, not a dream. Tom is unable to dream because he does not possess the power of the imagination (Eble 36: 94). His affair with Myrtle is simply an endeavor to find a feeling of the past that remains chained to his memory. Using his money and his leftover physical supremacy, Tom attempts to recapture a feeling from his past that cannot be attained with the same magnitude of his youth.
Daisy Buchanan reaches through time to recall a feeling from her past that can never equal its original vitality. After she is left unhappy in her marriage because of Tom’s many rendezvous, Daisy is confronted by Gatsby and her past, and she chooses to begin a relationship with Gatsby. With this relationship, she becomes involved in a conflict with time, for Daisy is probing for a feeling she once knew in her rich, young innocence. During her prime blossoming at eighteen, Daisy had had men from a nearby army base occupy her attention, and one particular officer that Daisy had fallen in love with was Jay Gatsby. These many suitors gave her great attention, attention that she now lacks from her dead marriage. While arranging a meeting between Daisy and Gatsby, Daisy’s friend says, "‘Daisy ought to have something in her life’" (Fitzgerald 81). Daisy’s need for "‘something in her life’" (Fitzgerald 81) is her own responsibility, for she had allowed herself to be bought by Tom Buchanan and planted like a flower among the secure soil of the rich (Crawford). In her languid life without the energy of love, Daisy searches for someone to give her attention through money and sincere feelings. With Gatsby’s capability to give her this attention, she is trying to replenish the scarcity of this attention in her marriage by looking for the feeling she received from many suitors in her past. Violating time’s laws, Daisy can never recreate her memory of the past with the same atmosphere that she first experienced.
Since a feeling from the memory cannot be duplicated with its original power, the conditions of Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s latest conflict with time have to arrive at an abrupt conclusion. Daisy ends the conditions of Tom’s present conflict with time by running over Myrtle with Gatsby’s car. Tom mourns Myrtle’s physical death as the death of the resurgent feelings from his youth. By ending the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy, Tom destroys Daisy’s emerging feelings from her past with words that devastate Daisy’s conception of what Gatsby offers. She believes Gatsby offers attention through true money and genuine emotions, but when Tom crushes the money aspect, Gatsby cannot give her a portion of the attention that she craves. In mourning her feelings from the past, Daisy kills Myrtle. Together, Tom and Daisy always buy what they want or need, but since they cannot buy a memory, Tom and Daisy must move on to another city in search of an unforgotten feeling. After they commit their crimes and end their present conflicts with time, Tom and Daisy move with no hesitation that they might destroy other lives, for "[. . .] they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness [. . .]" (Fitzgerald 180). Tom and Daisy are destined to continue roaming in search of that unattainable feeling that will always put them in continuous conflict with time.
Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan each have distinct conflicts with time, but while Gatsby forms a dream to pursue, Tom and Daisy use their memory to track a feeling found in the past. Since Tom and Daisy are chasing a memory, they have no expectations for the future, but, living solely on the basis of a dream, Gatsby has extreme hopes for the upcoming years. Without his dream, Gatsby has no future and is forced to die, but, in their future, Tom and Daisy are forced to drift from place to place, dying with each move. Moving to another location is similar to experiencing a death because Tom and Daisy end their previous engagements when they begin anew in another area. The feelings that Tom and Daisy are trying to find exist in the mind from experience; therefore, these feelings lack the unique loveliness of something created from the human imagination. Altogether, "[. . .] the characters [. . .] have the wistful sense of a past [. . .] to be recaptured" (Stern 204). Gatsby’s dream cannot be achieved, and Tom and Daisy’s feeling from their memory cannot be felt again with the same initial excellence because of their position in time.
Through Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s conflict with time, the destruction of Gatsby’s underlying dream is illuminated because a dream has no hope of developing into a reality. Time holds all truths and changes all things, so nothing remains constant except the human ability to dream. Even though a dream cannot be obtained with the same level of greatness that it was first imagined, a dream gives a special sense of purpose and identity.
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Stern, Milton R. The Golden Moment: The Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1971.
"Dreams Against the Current" was written by Ashlee King, a PSO Student majoring in Engineering at the time of this writing. It was written for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 1102 class during fall 2002 semester.