The Great Narcissist: A Study of Fitzgerald‘s Gatsby
by Giles Mitchell

A clinical analysis of Jay Gatsby‘s personality shows that he is a pathological narcissist, observes Giles Mitchell, professor of English at the University of North Texas. The themes of perfection and omnipotence in Gatsby‘s character are classic symptoms of narcissism, in which the “ego-ideal” has become inflated and destructive. Gatsby‘s grandiose lies, poor sense of reality, sense of entitlement, and exploitive treatment of others—particularly women—offer further evidence for this theory and help explain why he has lost the will to live by the end of the novel.

Many critics of The Great Gatsby believe, as John Chambers (1989) does, that Jay Gatsby “has a vitality and potential for intense happiness” (p. 115). A few critics, of whom Bettina (1963) is typical, believe that the best that can be said of Gatsby is that he is “a self-made phony” (p. 141). Obviously, those who admire Gatsby find Nick Carraway to be a reliable narrator, and those who deplore Gatsby‘s character believe Nick to be so morally obtuse that his ideas about Gatsby cannot be trusted. Critics who admire Gatsby, as well as those who do not, adduce a great deal of evidence to support their views. There is probably not a single image, act, or statement in this short novel that has not been subjected to extensive analysis in support of both the admiring and the denigrating view of Gatsby. There is at least one item lacking, however, in criticism of the novel, and that is a clinical profile of Gatsby‘s personality. My thesis is that the novel contains insuperable evidence that Gatsby is a pathological narcissist who by the end of the novel has lost the will to live. . . .

I realize that Gatsby is not merely a sick character who can be dismissed after diagnosis. The complexity and richness of The Great Gatsby resists any one approach. The analysis presented here is intended to analyze Gatsby in clinical terms only. It does not attempt to describe his entire personhood

Perfection and Omnipotence

In a person with normal narcissism, the ego-ideal provides “meaning [and] self-esteem” (Menaker, 1977, p. 249). In such a person the “ego-ideal supports the ego” (Menaker, 1977, p. 250) with a realistic sense of self and realistic hopes and aspirations. However, in the narcissist, the ego-ideal becomes inflated and destructive because it is filled with images of “perfection and omnipotence” (Jasovic-Gasic and Vesel, 1981, p. 371). Such images have a “most uncompromising influence on conduct” (Menaker, 1977, p. 250). Two major themes constitute the ego-ideal of Jay Gatsby. One is the theme of perfection, which is expressed in his capacity for idealizing himself and Daisy to an extreme degree. The idealized Gatsby‘s perfection is manifested in the belief that as a “son of God” he is entitled to be exploitive in any way and to any extent consonant with his idealizations. The other major theme in Gatsby‘s ego-ideal is omnipotency, which is expressed in his belief that as a son of God he can control time.

Upon meeting and falling in love with Daisy, Gatsby “committed himself to the following of a grail,” the “green light” that symbolizes the idealized Daisy. . . .

Early in the summer, Nick observes Gatsby standing on his lawn looking across the bay at the green, grail light that symbolizes his spiritualized Daisy. He lifts his hands “in idolatrous supplication to the green light” (Dahl, 1984, p. 195). In worshipping the grail as if it were a light emanating from the idealized Daisy, Gatsby is really worshipping himself in the mirror of Daisy‘s symbolism. Gatsby‘s self-worship reveals what Sugerman (1964) aptly calls the “egotheism” of the typical narcissist (p. 82). At the end of the summer, when Daisy repudiates him and disappears behind the barricade of Buchanan wealth, the grail light also disappears, for it is Daisy‘s symbol. Nick says that on the night before his death, Gatsby was “clutching at some last hope” for Daisy‘s call. By the afternoon of the next day, Gatsby probably “didn‘t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared.” Although Nick says, on the last page of the novel, that Gatsby “believedin the green light,” if in the last hours of his life he no longer believes that Daisy will call or cares about whether or not she will, then it follows that he no longer believes in the grail.

Entitlement, Exploitiveness, and Grandiosity

There is no evidence in the novel that Gatsby feels any moral conflict about urging Daisy to marry him—to marry into a life supported by criminal activities. In Rothstein‘s words, “People with narcissistic personality disorders feel entitled to have what they want just because they want it” (1985, p. 67). It is of crucial importance to note that Gatsby evinces no conscious sense of guilt for deceiving Daisy. Furthermore, there is no hint in the novel that he feels guilt unconsciously, because the feeling of narcissistic entitlement typically “serves as a substitute for normal repression” (Murray, 1964, p. 492).

Gatsby is a poseur in the most serious sense of the word. Therefore, he can have no genuine emotional contact with Daisy, and he compensates for this deficiency as, according to Stern, the narcissist typically does: by “making exploitive demands” (1977, p. 191) upon Daisy and upon the world in general. Exploitiveness with regard to women appears early in his life—in his mid-teens:

He knew women early, and … he became contemptuous of them, of young virgins because they were ignorant, of the others because they were hysterical about things which in his overwhelming self-absorption he took for granted.

When he first met Daisy, “He took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously… He had deliberately given Daisy a sense of security; he let her believe that he was a person from much the same stratum as herself.” Gatsby‘s exploitiveness derives in part from what Kernberg refers to as the narcissist‘s “extreme self-centeredness” (1975, p. 228), or in Fitzgerald‘s phrase, “overwhelming self-absorption.”

Gatsby‘s sense of entitlement is a major force in his character… Gatsby‘s entitlement justifies his grandiosity as well as his exploitiveness. The most extreme expression of his grandiosity has to do with his parentage, which “his imagination had never really accepted.” Instead, he “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that.” The blasphemous, deific quality in Gatsby has a specificgrandiose focus: “his Father‘s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” This narcissistically inflated religious theme is elaborated in the statement that “to this conception he was faithful to the end.” . . .

When Gatsby tells Nick it is “God‘s truth” that he had been “educated at Oxford,” like all his ancestors, he is not telling an ordinary lie, for the grandiose, deific theme is implicit in his use of the word “God‘s.” Whether or not Gatsby is telling the truth about his ancestry and his heroic war record does not matter. The point is that when he tells Nick about it, he is planning to use Nick as an intermediary in order to see Daisy again; and he doesn‘t want Nick to think he is “just some nobody.” He wants Daisy to see his house, which, he tells her, he keeps full of “celebrated people,” special objects in his “universe of ineffable gaudiness.” Given his poor sense of reality and his pitiable grandiosity, it is neatly appropriate that Gatsby‘s mansion be an “imitation,” and a “colossal” one at that. The note inviting Nick to a party there is signed by Gatsby “in a majestic hand.” Grandiosity is a major motive force in his idealizations of Daisy. He projects onto her a kind of royal status. To him, she is “high in a white palace the king‘s daughter, the golden girl.”

A Tawdry Romanticism

Gatsby is extremely adept at embuing his exploitiveness with a tawdry romanticism that Nick finds attractive. Like the typical narcissist studied by Kernberg (1975), Gatsby presents “a surface which very often is charming and engaging,” and a subsurface of “coldness and ruthlessness” (p. 228). Nick says that when he first met him, Gatsby produced a smile “with a quality of eternal reassurance in it"; it “concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.” But beneath his engaging surface, Gatsby is profoundly dishonest and manipulative with Daisy both when he first meets her and later when they are reunited. He tells her lies of a most serious nature in defending himself against Tom‘s revelations about how Gatsby has made his money. In short, in asking Daisy to leave Tom, he is being morally devious. Gatsby lies to Daisy without the slightest compunction because she is the idealized object of his projections and therefore not real. Therefore, he unthinkingly assumes that he need not tell Daisy the factual truth of whohe actually was when they met five years earlier and who he is now: a criminal.

If he loved her, he would want intimacy with her; but intimacy means knowing and being known, and Gatsby does not want Daisy to know him, for he is a criminal with a poor education and a background of impoverished, “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people.” Furthermore, he does not want to know Daisy—the real Daisy—who is five years older than she was when he first met her and who has a husband whom she once loved and by whom she has had a child. The real Daisy runs far away from the scene of her crime and does not even bother to call Gatsby to say good-bye. Although she can weep over Gatsby‘s magniloquent display of shirts, the real Daisy has “impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire.” It is likely that Gatsby is unknowingly attracted by Daisy‘s incapacity for intimacy and by the impersonality in her eyes: He discredits her love for Tom by describing it as being “just personal.”

Omnipotence and Time

When Nick says to Gatsby, “You can‘t repeat the past,” Gatsby is astounded at what he apparently regards as Nick‘s naivete: ‘"Can‘t repeat the past?‘ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!‘” Narcissists typically believe that they can control time, for time presents “threats to omnipotence” (Stern, 1977, p. 194). Therefore, it is often the case that narcissists illogically attempt to “repeat the same experience” (p. 194). What Gatsby wants in this regard is for himself and Daisy to be in Louisville again, in love, and then to “be married from her house—just as if it were five years ago.” Controlling time by repeating an experience would be an attempt on Gatsby‘s part to stop and reverse time. Therefore, Gatsby “talked a lot about the past. . . . [He wanted to] return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly.” Gatsby‘s belief that he can delete the present and restore the idealized past reveals the perfection motif of his ego-ideal. And as Rothstein (1985) notes, “The pursuit of perfection is in itself self-destructive” (p. 99) because it radically diminishes one‘s humanness. But Gatsby rejects his mere humanness, and idealizes the wish to destroy the present—in which he must live if he does live. At the end of the novel, therefore, Gatsby may be choosing not to live. . . .

Nothing but a Mirror

Nick is probably right in surmising that, on the last day of his life, Gatsby “no longer cared” whether Daisy would call or not. (If so, Gatsby has ceased to care only a few hours after last seeing her.) The tone of the text suggests that Gatsby is grieving during the last hours of his life, but he is probably not grieving over Daisy: “When the object is lost, the narcissist mourns not the loss of the object in itself but rather the loss of the mirror” (Jasovic-Gasic and Vesel, 1981, p. 371). In other words, the narcissist does not experience loss of the person but of the person-as-mirror. . . .

Perhaps the most revealing thing about Gatsby‘s behavior during the last hours of his life is that he tells Nick the truth about his past, about his identity. Why does he do so? He has been lying steadily to Nick all summer. Do his revelations amount to a confession and a wish to atone, at least to himself, for a life of lies? I think not. Nothing he says suggests remorse. His revelations are, on the most simple and important level, an acknowledgment that he has “paid too high a price for living with a single dream.” . . .

In telling the hopelessly unromantic truth about his identity, Gatsby is looking at the “universe of ineffable gaudiness” created for Daisy, and he is realizing that it has been nothing but a mirror. The parties for Daisy are over, and Gatsby has lost all interest in time, past or present. He has wanted too much for too long, and now he apparently is unable to want anything, including Daisy. She is, after all, irremediably imperfect. The price he pays for his narcissistic dream is a form of emotional suicide: He is now unable to care, at all, about his life. . . .

Nick is correct—in a way that he is unaware of—in believing that on the last day of his life Gatsby remains “faithful.” But if he no longer cares about Daisy, then he is faithful only to the anomic image of himself that he “invented” at the age of seventeen. And this is the self that lives for images of perfection, which he sees reflected in Nick‘s words, “You‘re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” At this moment, Gatsby‘s “face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we‘d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time.” But Nick is only a minor, satellite mirror. Gatsby apparently regards Nick as being important enough to be told his true story, but he completely disregards Nick‘sadvice that he go into hiding for a while. Gatsby enjoys Nick‘s praise, for losing Daisy as his mirror of perfection does not mean that he renounces his ego-ideal‘s images of perfection. On the contrary, to them he is so faithful that he may very well be the typical narcissistic suicide, of whom Menaker (1977) observes, “One dies for one‘s ego-ideal rather than let it die” (p. 259). For Gatsby to deliberately choose to shore up his ruins and live in the natural, real world—of unmanipulated time—would be to break faith with his ego-ideal.


From American Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 51, no. 4, pp. 387-96 (1991).

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