In addition to being a commentary on the American Dream, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel The Great Gatsby comes down to us readers in the 21st century as a tale of love—unrequited love, to be exact. More readers, I think, can personally relate to Gatsby the hopeless Romantic than to Gatsby the ambitious businessman. Shocking us with this realistic, tragic romance, Fitzgerald reminds us that love, beneath all the glamor media sell us, can be—and often is—a complex, ugly, and difficult thing to attain. It is revealed throughout the book that Gatsby’s love for Daisy falls apart because it is a different idea kind than we expect, one that seems out of place in 1920s America, with its riotous Jazz Age parties, frequented by scandalous flappers and men dressed to impress, all looking for a way to forget their worries for the night. Gatsby is an oddity who stands out among his peers, Nick observes; he is living in the wrong age—he belongs in 5th century B.C. Athens, when the Greek philosopher Plato wrote about love, giving us that lovely, misunderstood namesake of his: Platonic love. Indeed, Nick is right to be in awe of Gatsby, for he is the most accurate literary embodiment, I find, of the Platonic lover. Thus, in this blog, I want to explore the possibility that Jay Gatsby is neither a German spy nor a murderer but, more shockingly, a Platonist!
This connection is not as arbitrary as you might think: Fitzgerald himself acknowledges Plato when he says, “The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself” (104). Here, he appears to be hinting at Plato’s most notable theory—that of the Forms. In Plato’s philosophy, there are these things called “Forms,” or “Ideas,” and one exists for every object there is. Living in a constantly changing world, with people growing older, leaves turning colors, and cliffs eroding, it is hard to tell what is real, what remains the same, what identity a thing really has. To solve this, Plato argued that, for every entity, there is a perfect version of it, unchanging and pure. When Gatsby comes up with a “Platonic conception of himself,” he is reinventing himself in the future. The real Gatsby, James Gatz, is imperfect and flawed, a poor farmer, not of the upper class, just an ordinary guy; however, when he sets his imagination loose, he conjures up an ideal image of himself, one where he has everything he wants, be it wealth or property or Daisy. In other words, Jay Gatsby is an abstraction because he does not exist.
Plato even says that “each… form is a thought, which cannot properly exist anywhere but in a mind.” No matter how hard he tries, James will never really be able to become Gatsby, since it is an impossible goal to reach; the “Idea of Gatsby” he has created is mental, meaning it cannot be grasped physically, as it will stay in the realm of thought, inaccessible to the senses. Gatz cannot wake up as Gatsby because that would mean he has purified himself, has transcended this transitory world of ours—Gatz would have to be perfect, which he neither is nor can be. Fitzgerald thus sets Gatsby up with a vain quest, an absurd one, seeing as it can never be fulfilled. As such, James Gatz lives under an illusion thinking he has attained Jay Gatsby, when, in reality, this “conception” eludes him every time, like a will-o’-the-wisp, attracting him with its brilliant luminosity, but running away as he gets near, taunting him, misleading him, and, ultimately, dooming him.
The Forms themselves, though, are not what are most important in relating to Gatsby; it is the narrative Plato tells about the Forms that interests us. Plato’s dialogue The Phædrus deals with the topic of love. To explain how love comes about, he must explore how it is impacted by beauty, which has its own Form, and further, how we ourselves can comprehend the Form of Beauty. Part of Plato’s system is the belief that the soul is immortal and that, when the body dies, it transmigrates, or transfers to, another body; however, before the reincarnation is complete, there is a middle stage, when the soul, after leaving the body, ascends to the world of the Forms: “There abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned; the colorless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to the mind, the pilot of the soul,” which, after “feasting upon [the Forms]… returns home.” That final phrase, “returns home,” is crucial because the original Greek from which it comes is close to nostos (νόστος), the root of our English word “nostalgia.” Nostos, meaning “home-coming,” and algos (ἄλγος), “pain,” when put together, equal “the pain of returning home.” This, then, is the essence not just of Plato’s philosophy, but of Gatsby’s life: A nostalgic longing for something in the past.
For Plato, the soul finally gets a chance to take in the fullness of the Forms, “feasting upon them”—enjoying and delighting itself as much as possible in their presence, greedily because it has been starved of them—only to fall back down to Earth, stripped of the only thing that brought it happiness, forever divorced from the Forms, from perfection, for which it hungers until its next reincarnation. Likewise, Gatsby lays his youthful eyes on Daisy, “the first ‘nice’ girl he had ever known” (155), of whom he cannot get enough, desiring her and her alone, “[taking] what he could get, ravenously” (156), just as the soul “feast[ed] upon” the Forms. The two spend their evenings together talking and holding each other, falling in love, until Gatsby ships off to war, his lack of inheritance preventing Daisy, who is prohibited by her parents never to talk to him again, from seeing him off. When Gatsby returns from the war, and when he learns Daisy has married another man, he is empty, so he commits himself to getting her back, whatever it takes, amassing a fortune and buying a mansion across from Daisy. Thus, both the soul and Gatsby experience nostalgia, the pain of returning home, for they lose something dear to them, both hoping for the day to reunite with them.
Yet I have left out an important part of the story, one that, if neglected, prevents Gatsby’s love from being Platonic in nature: Gatsby, at one specific point, abandons his love for Daisy in place of his love for the Form of the Good and the Beautiful. In reality, the soul and Gatsby are not two different characters, they are one and the same. The restless yearning of the soul is Gatsby’s restless yearning, and vice versa. This baffling moment happens when Gatsby and Daisy are walking together one night and Gatsby, absorbed in Daisy’s beauty, realizes 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” (117). Recall that Plato contrasted our physical world, with all its impermanence and imperfections, against the world of the Forms, with its permanence and perfection. In this moment, which fundamentally alters the course of his life, Gatsby panics, as if realizing it too late—in fact, he “knew,” Fitzgerald wrote—that the Daisy before him, Daisy who is trapped in a physical body, will never be the Daisy he has in mind, just like the persona of Jay Gatsby, a Form so perfect that it is impossible to actualize, or bring into existence.
Hence, I must revise what I said earlier: Gatsby’s nostalgia is not for Daisy at all—he does not find her then lose her, stuck with trying to return to her—but for her Beauty, her Goodness—he starts with her Form, loses it, and is stuck with Daisy! Fitzgerald’s poetry is therefore more telling than previously supposed: In “wed[ing] his unutterable visions to her perishable breath,” Gatsby is falling down to Earth, because Plato earlier described the Forms as “colorless, formless, intangible essence[s], visible only to the mind”; Daisy contradicts this because she is sensory. Gatsby sees, touches, smells Daisy—she is everything her Form is not. The Daisy with whom he is stuck is flawed. Her personality, for example, troubles readers who cannot understand why Gatsby would lover her. Well, the reason becomes clear now, as Gatsby does not love this Daisy; his love goes “beyond her” (101), to her Essence.
Gatsby’s “visions” are “unutterable” given that he cannot express them in words, the Forms being ineffable. And even if he were to somehow put them into words, Daisy would not understand them, for his ascent to the Forms remains only in the memory of his individual soul. In comparison, Daisy’s “breath” is “perishable.” The use of “breath” is perfect because it represents the impermanent; it is a metaphor for Daisy herself. It would be ridiculous to imagine the Form of Breath because something like the breath does not belong in the world of Forms, where things do not change. What this moment in The Great Gatsby tells us is that the basic conflict is not Gatsby’s trying to win back Daisy from her husband Tom but, ironically, his trying to move on from Daisy. Gatsby does not miss Daisy: He is nostalgic for his memory of her Idea’s perfection.
This is elaborated later on when Gatsby, reunited with Daisy at their mutual friend—and the narrator—Nick’s house for the first time since Gatsby’s departure, shows off his mansion to impress her. Nick, observing their interactions, comments, “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of [Gatsby’s] dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything” (101). As a side note, the fact that Gatsby is not wholly content during their reunion—he was “running down like an overwound clock” (97)—proves he did not miss her, per se, but someone, or rather something, else; otherwise, his being with her again would have raised his spirits, and his mission would be complete.
Like I mentioned earlier, Gatsby’s vision goes “beyond” Daisy, in fact, “beyond everything,” considering anything in the realm of the Forms transcends the objects of our world. Even Gatsby’s mansion, his piano, his myriad shirts—they each have an equivalent in the world of Forms, their perfect counterparts, yet they are “visible only to the mind.” When Gatsby dies, his soul will return to the transcendent world, and there he will see the Forms of Daisy, his mansion, his piano, and his myriad shirts, all as they could be in their perfection, rather than as they are, spoiled and marred by natural processes. For example, Daisy ages, so her beauty will fade, its being a temporary quality; his piano may look good from afar, but maybe some of the paint is chipped, or a key is faulty; one of his shirts, buried beneath the others, may have a stain—the fact is, these entities are real, they are actual, they belong on Earth, subject to change, whereas their respective Forms are ideal and mental, immune to alteration.
As a result, it is inevitable that Daisy should “tumble short of his dreams”; however, as it is pointed out, this is “not through her own fault,” but the “colossal vitality” of Gatsby’s love. When he looks at Daisy, Gatsby sees something missing, although he cannot quite put his finger on just what it is. Daisy is right there, all of her, yet something important is missing, something without which she is not herself, and as such, something invisible—her essence. The “vitality” of Gatsby’s love is so immense that it is not content with just Daisy; it is something more. For this reason, even if Gatsby were to marry Daisy, he would not be content, because he would still not “have” her. The fact that her essence is intangible means he can never have Daisy except in his mind. Either way, with or without her, he is left in a constant state of wistfulness. Gatsby is a nostalgic character.
All who read Fitzgerald comment on how beautiful his prose is, how it sounds like poetry, the way his sentences flow into each other, their concision and masterful word choice creating a vivid movie for the reader, effecting beautiful, emotional imagery in our minds—but the same can be said of Plato in his dialogues when, occasionally, he will break out into the most eloquent, impassioned descriptions, such as his observation of the lover “who, when he sees the beauty of the earth, is transported with the recollection of the true beauty; he would like to fly, but he cannot; he is like a bird fluttering and looking upward and careless of the world below; and he is therefore thought to be mad.” Plato, in this excerpt, is writing about what happens after the soul returns from seeing the Forms and, newly incarnated, catches a glimpse of them, albeit a weak, fleeting one, by which it reawakens the sublime sensation it felt upon perceiving them the first time; in other words, this is the closest the soul ever gets to the Forms in its lifetime as a body, so it is understandably an emotional event. Another of Plato’s dialogue, The Meno, calls this process “anamnesis,” meaning recollection: The soul remembers a brief fragment of its sojourn up to the realm of the Forms, a fragment to which it holds on dearly and cherishes, almost like a souvenir of sorts.
When Nick sees Gatsby in person for the first time outside his mansion, he considers introducing himself, “But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling” (25-6). Another time, recalling his return to Louisville, riding on a train, Gatsby “stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever” (160-1). The Platonic lover is “thought to be mad” because, upon recognizing the Form in something, he feels himself transported, elevated, time and space melting away, leaving him and the Form alone for a blissful second, while, to everyone else around him, he seems to be dissociated from reality, just some guy having a psychotic episode, under possession of some force.
We can imagine the confusion Nick must have felt, for instance, seeing his neighbor out late at night, reaching for the bay, shaking, his eyes transfixed meditatively on a green light in the distance, as if caught in a revery, having an out-of-body experience, perhaps the light exercising a magical property on him. And Gatsby says that he passed a trolley full of people during his train ride—who knows what they or his fellow passengers thought of this madman trying “to snatch… a wisp of air.” It is not just other people in the book, but us readers, too, who are perplexed by Gatsby’s “extra” behavior, his over-the-top devotion to Daisy, his crazy parties, his Quixotic chivalry in the face of Tom Buchanan. We are fond of saying of someone in love that they are “possessed by” it, implying that they have no control over it. Gatsby is a man in the throes of Platonic love. Every time he sees Daisy, or even imagines her, he finds himself enthralled. Like I said, though, it is not Daisy who excites him, but what he envisions in her—Gatsby, having once seen the Forms of Beauty and the Good, remembers them through Daisy; she is the flint to his steel.
Gatsby is so overcome emotionally in his recollection of Beauty, that it manifests itself physically in his “stretch[ing]” for Daisy. This act of “stretch[ing]” is obviously a reaching—that much is evident by its definition—but, importantly, this implies that whatever he is reaching for cannot be attained; it is a vain reaching, just as someone stretches to reach their keys that have fallen down the side of the seat, too far down so as to be irretrievable. Similarly, Gatsby tries to hold the green light, which is famous as a symbol for Gatsby’s ambitions, only to find that it cannot be grasped at all; the Form of Goodness that inheres in Daisy, I have stressed, is literally out of this world. We feel pity for Gatsby, who tries “desperately… to save a fragment” of the Forms as expressed in Daisy, yet he fails, because they come only in intimations, in small bursts, teasing him, persuading him, deceptively, that his goal is within reach when it is really not. These tragic images of Gatsby make me think of a widower who looks over, hoping to see his wife, only to see an empty seat; Gatsby experiences an extreme form of nostalgia, having lost the most important thing to him, but glimpses it every now and then, convinced that it is out there, somewhere.
As if foreshadowing, Plato includes that the lover “look[s] upward…[,] careless of the world below,” indicating the lover’s transcendental propensity—his tendency to look above and beyond this world. This “careless[ness]” suggests a degree of indifference toward our world, and, indeed, Plato did feel disdain for the material world. Gatsby, we cannot help but think, is not really satisfied with all his worldly success, despite his committing his entire life to it, for it is still incomplete: He lacks Daisy. We get the impression that Gatsby would happily give away all his money and property if it meant getting Daisy back; unfortunately, he has wasted his adult life pursuing the wrong thing. What all this foreshadows, I would argue, is the necessity of Gatsby’s death. It is only if he dies that Gatsby can truly be reunited with the Idea of Daisy to which he is bound. This might be a stretch, but this could explain why Nick thinks “Gatsby turned out all right at the end” (6): Gatsby’s death liberates him from this world, from his endless striving and suffering, allowing him, finally, to return to the Forms, to what he has been seeking all along, putting his restless soul to rest.
Plato also writes that, in our initial visit to the world of Forms, “we behold the beatific vision…, celebrated by us in our state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come”; and nostalgically, beautifully, he concludes, “Let me linger over the memory of scenes which have passed away.” A key theme is the contrast between past and present, or as poet William Blake put it, Innocence and Experience. Platonic love, love of the Forms, is pure and heavenly, perfect and peaceful; our love, love in the real world, love of real people, is nothing like this for the most part: It is complicated, anxious, ugly, warlike at times, and, above all, imperfect. We all long for Platonic love, yet we are stuck with the love we are given.
As youths, our idea of love is kind of similar to Plato’s in the sense that it is ideal in every way, with a happy ending, the kind found in fairytales, and Gatsby is youthful in this respect, but also naïve—we and Nick root for Gatsby the whole way (although both Nick and we shake our heads occasionally) because he represents purity, youthfulness, a sense of innocence fighting against the corruption of his day; he is the White Knight who stands against Tom’s infidelity; Gatsby is the underdog because he embodies the belief that, no, love does not have to be spoiled, love can be as we always wanted it to be—ideal and perfect. Of course, we know how the story ends, and we leave with the disappointing conclusion that, yes, maybe love does have to be spoiled—but its Gatsby’s determination, his youthful rigor that wins us over.
Just as the settlers found America in pristine condition, so Gatsby, “for a transitory enchanted moment,” was “compelled into an æsthetic contemplation” regarding the Forms, comprehending them in their awesome plenitude. Little did the settlers know that, over two centuries later, their land of opportunity would become so corrupted, their original vision of what America could be ruined by human instinct. Gatsby’s naïveté prevents him from realizing his love is “already behind him” (189); Platonic love is nostalgic insofar as it longs for a return to the Forms. Gatsby’s early love for Daisy takes place “before [he] ha[s] any experience of evils to come,” namely, his consciousness of class, wealth, and men like Tom, all of which contradict Gatsby’s ideals.
Additionally, Nick believes, based on Gatsby’s references to the past, that “he wanted to recover something… that had gone into loving Daisy” (117). Again, the use of “recover” evokes the nostalgic mood of Plato. The Form for which Gatsby seeks, be it Beauty or the Good, is found within Daisy, the highest expression of them. We might add that Gatsby is also attributing his own self-idealization to her: As James Gatz created Jay Gatsby, so Gatsby has created Daisy in his mind, an abstraction of her individual, concrete, and substantial person. Accordingly, we might reason that he feels a kinship with her because his two creations are so alike in essence. The same idealization that went into creating who he wanted to be went into creating whom he wanted to be with. However, he is left with only “memor[ies]” of these “beatific vision[s],” and is powerless to do anything more. He is optionless, as the capacity to “recover” his “state of innocence” transcends his human abilities; as a mortal, Gatsby, Plato would say, is trapped in his body, unable to go beyond himself. Nostalgia, then, is necessarily tragic in that it denies the possibility of retrieving the past.
A question arises, though: If the truth is that Gatsby does not love Daisy but the Forms she embodies—in other words, if Daisy herself, her “outside,” does not matter, but her “inside,” her essence, her Idea, does—then how come he persists in trying to get her? Why does he insist on having her? Why not Jordan? Why not “some unbelievable guest…, a person infinitely rare and to be marvelled at, some authentically radiant girl who with one fresh glance at Gatsby, one moment of magical encounter, would blot out those five years of unwavering devotion” (115)—why Daisy Fay/Buchanan? The reason, I think, is an important part of Platonic love: The soulmate. “Out of the corner of his eye,” on the very night he decided he would try, in vain, to love the physical Daisy because he could not love the abstract Daisy, Gatsby “saw that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb it, if he climbed alone” (117).
Sections 210-12 of Plato’s The Symposium summarize what he called the “ladder of love,” which is the series of steps taken by the lover in order to reach the object of his love, the Forms. The lover, he says, starts with an individual person, finds what is good/beautiful about them, moves to people in general, proceeds to objects, advances to ideas in general, and then arrives at the Forms when he is mature enough. Connecting these two strands, we can determine that Gatsby, if “alone,” can “climb” Plato’s ladder of love, Daisy being the first step. This agrees with what has been said thus far, mainly, that Daisy is not the real end of Gatsby’s love, but only the beginning. Because it has to be done “alone,” it means it is a private process, personal to Gatsby, a purely mental act. So to what extent does Daisy really matter? Well, she is really just a “stepping stone” for Gatsby, a starting point, which would suggest that she is substitutable and, therefore, not unique to Gatsby. Any other girl could replace Daisy, theoretically; regardless, Gatsby cares more for what she will lead to than what she is in herself.
Yet this interpretation seems contrived when we consider the sheer amount of work Gatsby puts into chasing Daisy without his ever moving past her. If he were really following Plato’s ladder, then he would have surely discarded Daisy long ago. Does Gatsby have real feelings for Daisy, then? Otherwise, why remain with her physical form so long? This is hard to answer. My only explanation would be that Daisy is, in some function, Gatsby’s soulmate. Our modern-day understanding of the soulmate, believe it or not, actually comes from Plato’s Symposium! Through the character of Aristophanes the comedian, Plato recounts a mythological story about how humans were originally born in pairs, but Zeus, fearing them, split them up, causing them to search for their lost counterpart to reunite with them, to become whole again. Perhaps Gatsby’s and Daisy’s souls were at one point related in some way? And along the way, as they passed from body to body, they became separated, until one lifetime when they became Gatsby and Daisy as we know them today?
If we proceed with this interpretation, then this would mean that Gatsby’s soul, before entering him, as it saw the Forms of the Beautiful and Good, also saw Daisy’s soul, and thus wants to recover both. Daisy, then, plays a more important role than formerly thought, to the extent that she has to be the “one” through which Gatsby reaches the Forms. It is in this “communion only,”—that of the intertwining of the souls—”beholding beauty with the eye of the mind,” Plato writes, that “he [Gatsby] will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities.” In other words, Gatsby’s rigid fixation on Daisy is the means by which he will be allowed to see the Forms of Beauty and the Good—because she becomes their mediator; it is through Daisy, through the mere sight of her, that Gatsby will envisage the Forms, reuniting, if only mediately, with them. So maybe Gatsby and Daisy were meant to be, forever and always…
In conclusion, Nick is right in seeing in Gatsby “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as [has] never been found in any other person” (6). Jay Gatsby is a unique literary character in several respects, among which is the fact that he does not exist—he is an abstraction of James Gatz—and that he views love in a peculiar way, peculiar, at least, to us modern readers, who expect the beloved to be loved for who they are, imperfect though they be. Instead, Gatsby’s distinctive Platonic love clings to Daisy’s possibilities, Daisy as a perfect individual, the physical embodiment of the qualities of Beauty and Goodness. In contrast to Tom’s natural view of love, Gatsby’s is spiritual in nature. We can thus understand Gatsby better, not as a dramatic, lowkey-stalkerish guy who cannot move on from a girl, but a Romantic dreamer in the purest sense, someone who, when he sees Daisy, truly sees the Beauty inside her. Gatsby is a rare breed of man. He is a lost soul who, after reaching the highest point, loses the light of his life, condemned to trying to recover something irrecoverable, destined to long for what cannot be brought back. As such, both Plato’s and Gatsby’s stories are suffused with a tragic sense of nostalgia, a theme that will play a bigger role in my next blog on the philosophy of The Great Gatsby…
 Parmenides, 132b
 Phædrus, 247c-e
 Id., 249e
 Id., 250c-d
 Symposium, 212a
For further reading: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1995)
The Symposium by Plato (1973)
The Phædrus by Plato (1973)