F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a classic American tragedy. The novel has all the basic elements necessary to classify a story as a tragedy: a tragic hero, his character flaw, and a twist of fate which results in the hero’s ultimate destruction. Jay Gatsby is the doomed tragic hero, blinded by his irrational dream to relive the past. Fate interferes in the form of the unexpected manslaughter of one character’s mistress by his wife. All these facets of the story come together to cause the end of Gatsby.
In order for a character to be defined as a tragic hero, he must be noble in character. Jay Gatsby demonstrates this in his devotion to Daisy Buchanan, whom he has been preparing for a re-encounter with for the past 5 years. When he finally finds himself in her presence again, “…there were twinkle-bells of sunshine in the room, he smiled like a weather man, like an ecstatic patron of recurrent light…” He talks with Daisy, and even after 5 whole years of building her up in his mind, he is still very much in love with her. “…[After speaking with her,] there was a change in Gatsby that was simply confounding. He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the room.” He loves her, everything he does is for her, and there is no characteristic more noble than true love and devotion.
The very denotation of a tragic hero is a noble person with a tragic flaw which helps to bring about his downfall, and which may cause the hero to make poor decisions. Mr. Gatsby’s character flaw is his enduring dream of finding Daisy, the woman he met and fell in love with before he was sent to fight in World War I, and reuniting with her. When they met, he was a poor nobody and she was a member of the old-money elite, a match that they both knew could not possibly work. So, even though he knew she was married, when Jay came back from the war, he devoted his life to reinventing himself to make himself good enough for her.
“Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees — he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” Basically, his pure, true love for Daisy was reinforced with obsession and encased in determination and wrapped in everything he could find to make it real again. His love for Daisy outweighed any kind of reality to the point where he could no longer distinguish fact from fiction. “It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
Fate, with the tragic flaw, plays the principal role in the undoing of the protagonist. In The Great Gatsby, the turn of fate is when Daisy, driving Gatsby’s car with him in the passenger seat, hits and instantly kills Myrtle Wilson, and in a panic flees the scene, too shaken to stop the car. Myrtle Wilson happens to be the woman who Daisy’s husband tom has been cheating on her with, and Myrtle’s husband George Wilson witnesses the accident. He sees his wife killed by someone driving Gatsby’s car. He find out that the car belongs to Gatsby, who he has never met before, and assumes that it was he who had so violently and recklessly killed his wife. George, in a state of grief-stricken insanity, kills Jay Gatsby in his own backyard the very next day. It didn’t happen a moment too soon, either.
The quality of Gatsby’s life had been deteriorating at an exponential rate, ironically, since his dream had come true. Becoming involved with Daisy at this point was upsetting his life — he had learned firsthand of the shortcomings of the woman he loved, had witnessed her weaknesses. It was tearing him up inside that he had spent half a decade on something that would be mostly detrimental to him in the end. “…perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.” The narrator conjectures of Gatsby that, just before his death, “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.”
Gatsby’s intentions were pure, modest, innocent, genuine, but the momentum of his pursuit carried him into trouble when he was forced to stop dreaming because his dream had become reality, a thing to which Gatsby had become unaccustomed after imagining for so long. Once his dream tumbled into a brick wall and things were sent spinning in disarray, there was no longer a place for Jay Gatsby. He had come to belong only to his dream, and was consumed by it. “…Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”