I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

The Dual Nature Of Fantasy In Gatsby And War And Peace

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby has a distinctly American character. He is deviant, romantic and idealistic; tenacious but sensitive; ostentatious but nostalgic. He is driven by a desire for transcendence, and this is why as a protagonist he does not come to life. Daisy is to “Great” Gatsby a vision, a dream, a past-bound ideal. Gatsby thus becomes the victim of his creation. The Great Gatsby could be seen as a critique or a celebration of Gatsby.

It is useful to approach such a problem from a perspective which treats the human condition with a biblical sense, and to analyze this by finding aspects of human nature and reality that make us see them differently. Tolstoy’s reader is offered this. Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace seems like he has the vitality Gatsby lacked. Pierre is a bit aimless in his pursuits during the first half of this novel. However, when he finally finds the right image to fill that void within him, he rises to a spiritually higher plain. We can see that the protagonists of both War and Peace and The Great Gatsby are lifted to higher spiritual planes when a cosmic desire is fulfilled. If we carefully examine the stakes in each novel, and the ways that achieving dreams can satisfy their inner yearnings, then we will be able to discern how Pierre and Gatsby’s fates are so different.

After ‘knowing’ Gatsby for more than half the book, we learn the origin of Jay Gatsby: from the ashes and ruins of his much less glamorous past self. James Gatz, a character with rural and middle-class roots, was not a particularly interesting one. Jay Gatsby’s self-creation is remarkable, not just for his ascent to the upper ranks of society. We are asked to overlook his somewhat adulterous method. But also for his effort to develop an identity according to his own vision. Fitzgerald calls Gatsby “a son from God” who was born immaculately, the creator of his own image and omnipotent to create himself in his own image. James Gatz does indeed give birth to the idea of him; “Jay Gatsby sprang forth from his Platonic vision of himself. He models his own life on an ideal that is perfect and never changes. Gatsby is unaware that Platonic ideals will be inaccessible for those who live in a world of sensations and instability.

Gatsby commits the same error as the prisoners who were chained in Plato’s Cave when he tries to shape himself to fit his Platonic vision. Chained to earth, the prisoners take what they cannot see to be reality, a mere illusion. Platonic ideas become flawed in the journey to earthly terms where everything is unstable, constantly changing, and subjected to death and time. Gatsby’s desire for himself to be like an ideal is a reflection of his hubris. In truth, Gatsby is a mere shadow of the ideal he strives to achieve. Gatsby is most clearly shown to be a shadow of an ideological conception when he recalls his very first kiss. Gatsby can’t live up to his self-made image, no matter what he pretends. Like us all, he’s a victim of the past. He is a victim of his past, just as we all are.

Pierre is a more willing misfit. Pierre Bezukhov’s unpretentious and awkward ways are not noticed by the Russian upper-class until the bastard inherits his father’s large inheritance. Pierre is able to see the impact of wealth on himself as well as those around. Pierre’s life is filled with falsehood and evil. He cannot participate actively in it. Pierre is still forced to live, despite the existential anxiety he feels – the questions and doubts that remain unanswered, his desire for inspiration and meaning. The need to survive drives him to seek sensory pleasures in order to suppress these questions. Tolstoy appears to have understood that Pierre’s anxiety was not due to his inability of producing satisfactory answers, it was because there wasn’t a suitable way for him distract himself.

Gatsby shares the outsider label with Pierre, as well as a deep struggle to fit in. They are both of the same element, but they also find themselves helplessly outside. We find in each story a moment that Pierre and Gatsby realize their own ideas about themselves through the love of the other. Both of these instances are embodied in particular, significant moments in each novel. These deep relationships combine a cosmic desire with a mortal manifestation. These men will never be the same after these experiences. These men’s subsequent relationships are shaped by these moments of clarity. Gatsby’s entire life is spent trying to recapture that moment when Daisy and the stars lined up above him for their first kiss. Pierre’s journey forward is fueled by the lasting image of Natasha. We must examine the revelations themselves in order to understand how Gatsby’s and Pierre’s relationships are shaped.

Nick Carraway traces Jay Gatsby’s emergence back to the moment Gatsby kissed Daisy at dawn, under bright stars. Gatsby describes his memories in an appalling way, he says. Gatsby is poetic to the point of being unbelievable. Daisy and Gatsby reach the vast, pure spot together “where no trees were present and the street was bright with moonlight”. The cosmic excitement of the seasons mirrors Gatsby’s desire to be with his love. It is as if there is a palpable excitement in the air. Gatsby is surrounded by a world that has already prepared for his moment of life and understands Gatsby’s insatiable yearning. Gatsby expresses his anticipation in the esteem he has for all of the forces and powers that have come together to make him a reality. Gatsby, knowing that Daisy’s kiss is approaching fast, prepares his soul to ascend in a brief moment. Daisy is at the core of Gatsby’s dream. He imagines a ladder leading to a secret location above the trees. Gatsby could then climb up to this place and drink the incomparable wonder milk. The elixir will change him forever. This morsel is so perfect that it will destroy his passion for fantasy.

Gatsby pauses. He longs for Daisy with all his passion, but he also wants to experience the feelings of his soul when Daisy’s face is near him. It’s possible that he hesitates because of what it will cost him to achieve his goal.

When he kissed that girl, he knew his mind, which had been raving like a God before, would never again romp. Then he listened, for just a second longer, to the tuning pin that was struck upon the star. He kissed the girl. When he touched her lips, she bloomed into a beautiful flower for him. The incarnation had been completed.

Gatsby listens to the vibrations of the cosmos as long as possible, before committing to a time-resistant, single role. Wedding his “unutterable images” with Daisy’s “perishable breathe” would be to join Gatsby’s Platonic self-image to a certain moment in history – the time when Gatsby first kissed Daisy. Gatsby’s self-creation power is lost once this union has been sealed. He is trapped in his Platonic conception, which he crafted, and in this one moment of time. Gatsby’s yearning for peace has made him lose his sublime ability to create, as well as his omnipotence. Gatsby seems to be obsessed in both this moment and Nick’s last assessment. Gatsby has irreparably been bound to the past by his decision to continue on his path. Daisy’s embrace deals Gatsby a mortal blow, as it tethers his lofty ideas to the flesh. He will never be able to “romp like a God’s mind”, because his mind has become corporeal, incarnate and fixed in Daisy.

Pierre’s soul reaches the same lofty heights when he interacts with Natasha following her breakup with Prince Andrei. Pierre is disappointed by Natasha’s obvious hopelessness. She seems to think that everything makes no sense. Pierre, who shares Natasha’s feeling, comforts her in such a gentle and heartfelt way, that Natasha weeps with gratitude. Pierre’s sudden emotion is so overwhelming that he surprises himself at first. He doesn’t understand the emotions that have risen in his chest. Natasha, with a loving glance, leaves feeling comforted. Pierre doesn’t know what to say next.

Pierre asked. Pierre asked himself, ‘Where to?’ The club was closed and she did not want to see him.

Pierre’s life seems insignificant to him after he has felt such an intense love for Natasha. It was only now that he realized his soul had the ability to soar, reaching a sublime state of mind. He thought that his surroundings were mundane and uninteresting. The world has become a source of pity for him. Pierre’s next gesture, ordering his driver to drive him home, reveals a transformation within. “His joyously breathing chest” is soaking up the new spiritual air. It’s a world of brighter spirituality where, despite doubts, it’s worth living. Natasha’s picture gives Pierre a newfound purpose in life, rather than letting everything be a waste of time and energy compared to the joy that his soul feels. The bright, 1812 comet crosses the starry night sky above Pierre and echoes his newfound heights. The comet that was meant to be a sign of destruction, instead evokes calmness in Pierre. It shields him from “insulting baseness” of all things earthly.

When you examine the language Pierre employs to describe comets’ journeys across the skies, you can see the inspiration he derives from that sublime feeling. Pierre’s inner yearning is inspired by this moment of cosmic awe, and he feels a sense of sympathy for an event that has both a localized energy as well as a universal one. He felt that the “bright star” matched his softened, encouraged, and now blossoming soul. It is a picture of Natasha, fixed in history by the main historical event: The great comet 1812. The comet even takes note of Pierre’s internal growth:

The comet, having flown at an incomprehensible speed in immeasurable space, on its parabolic trajectory, suddenly appeared to have reached its chosen spot, piercing through the blackness of the sky, and had stopped. Its white light was shining brightly and dancing among the other stars.

Pierre considers this comet to be his. After having “traveled to infinity and beyond,” the comet lands at this precise moment in the darkness. The comet, in its calmness, shines with a bright and energetic spirit. The comet traveling a “parabolic ” course is a symbol of Pierre’s personal journey. It brings to light the balancing act that occurs as “countless” other stars are brought in balance. It is at this moment that Pierre feels renewed, as he conceives a hope which encourages his soul, propelling him forward.

If you juxtapose these two moments — when an image expressing cosmic longing becomes a love feeling that elevates the spirit — it might appear that Jay Gatsby, Pierre Bezukhov and others will make similar decisions and reach similar conclusions. Gatsby has quite the opposite reaction to this perfect moment. Gatsby’s obsession with recapturing the moment his dreams came true, when Daisy kissed him, and his idealized self-created picture touched the ground, will last the rest of Gatsby’s life. He’s chained to that moment, fighting for “some idea about himself” which was lost after his lips met hers. Pierre’s trip moves in the exact opposite way, fueled by the memory of a perfect alignment. Natasha’s image becomes the totem that represents this memory. Pierre is no longer as horrified by her answers, but rather because it immediately took him into a new realm of spirituality …”.

How do we interpret these opposite trajectories? The one propelling us forward, and the “other dragging us back endlessly into the Past”? The key to understanding the difference is to understand what it means for someone to have a life gift, the very reason for which they continue to walk forward. To truly possess this gift, you must be able to access a source of constant strength. Pierre is one of those people who always has a photograph of Natasha close by. Tragically Gatsby is unable to change himself and his raison d’être. To try to make reality conform to his image is to attempt to bring fantasy into existence. Gatsby’s fantasy comes true in one moment, but the results are devastating. Gatsby’s fantasy becomes tainted and ruined once it is consummated. He is unable to recover his basic motivation for living, because all of the plans he has made to achieve grandeur will only lead him further from that part he lost after a kiss with Daisy.

In comparing these two passages, we can illustrate the destructive power of fantasy and memory. The reason our fantasies exist is because they’re not true. They are corrupted by the uncertainty of human existence, which is why imagination is shielded from the tug of the time. A timeless feeling gives you the assurance that even the most mundane of life is worth it. The soul is elevated above earthly matters and the heart has a talisman that reminds it of this. Memory shows us that a world not in the present can trap or liberate. Gatsby, who is trapped in an eternal moment of memory, discovers the reason to live now.

Cited Works

No, this is not an acceptable paraphrase. A more appropriate paraphrase would be “References” or “Bibliography.”

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Fantastic Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a novel about the pursuit of wealth and the search for true love. It follows the story of Jay Gatsby, an eccentric millionaire, and his relationships with the people around him. The novel examines the themes of morality, ambition, and the American Dream. New York City’s Scribner publishing house released a paperback fiction book in 1925.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace is a novel that centers around the events leading up to and during the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century. It follows the lives of several characters affected by the conflict and examines the psychological effects of war on those individuals. Richard Pevear & Larissa volokhonsky (trans.). New York: Vintage Classics, Random House, Inc., 2007


  • emmetthouse

    Emmett House is a 29 yo school teacher and blogger who is passionate about education. He has a vast amount of experience in the field and is always eager to share his insights with others. Emmett is a dedicated teacher who truly cares about his students' success. He is also an expert on using technology in the classroom, and is always looking for new ways to engage his students.

Back to top