Last weekend while I was getting a pedicure, my favorite nail salon was showing Baz Luhrman’s remake of The Great Gatsby on their screens. Usually I try avoid watching their movie selections, which tend to involve poorly written love stories with faux-feisty blonde women, but this movie has more depth, and I couldn’t help watching longer than my pedicure took, even though I saw the movie when it first came out in 2013.
In the book The Great Gatsby—whose publication has a great story of its own, in that it didn’t become famous until long after Fitzgerald’s death—Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) feels a mix of sympathy and admiration for the perpetually lost, mysteriously successful, and lonely Jay Gatsby, struggling for so many years to attain the dream of his one true love, Daisy. What Luhrman’s rendition does so well is show another side to the Gatsby story. Perhaps Gatsby doesn’t want Daisy—the true Daisy—at all. Perhaps he only wants a mirage of her. He only wants how she reflects him.
The scene that stood out to me the most as I watched, my feet under the dryers, women in massage chairs getting their toes painted, was when Gatsby has a party to impress Daisy and she brings her husband, Tom. By this time, Gatsby and Daisy have already spent several weeks together (we assume), falling back in love after a long separation. The two find each other outside, in the dark and shade, and dance while the party and lights continue further away.
“Let’s just run away together,” Daisy says. She seems like she means it. Give up the money, the status, all the trinkets and baubles they own and make a new life on their own terms.
“No, that’s not possible,” Gatsby replies. “Don’t you see? We have to live here.” Afterward, he insists that Daisy tell Tom she never loved him—he even wants her to say that exact phrase. (The poor woman isn’t even supposed to speak for herself!) He wants her to leave Tom and move across the water to be with him in his mansion. On the surface, this might seem like a reasonable expectation, considering the two are in love. But underneath, it becomes clear (at least to me) that it’s not Daisy at all that Gatsby loves—it’s a vision for himself, the conquest of her. He will never be satisfied, even if he has her, because he is too interested in how he appears to the external world.
For me, this movie is less the story of Gatsby and more the story of Daisy, a woman in the 1920s who has to rely on a man for her success in her life, who is a prize for two men to battle over. Neither Gatsby nor Tom can feel a deep love for Daisy—instead, they associate objects or status with love, rather than honoring what’s in her soul. In the end (spoiler alert!), it’s no wonder that Daisy doesn’t go with Gatsby and that she stays with her husband—her paramour is just another version of her husband anyway. And with Tom, there’s at least the hope of raising her daughter to carry on a more positive legacy for the next generation.
Love, so ubiquitous, is unfortunately hard to define. It could be seen as a mix of attachment, obsession, infatuation, dependability, history, responsibility, willingness to sacrifice. It could be defined as a spirit that takes over two people, or in some cases, more. But what I do believe about real love is that it is about being able to look above your own wants and needs and giving priority to another person’s soul, to their growth, to their development as a human, and hopefully receiving that in return. That’s why, I think, people so often repeat the saying, “If you love somebody, set them free.” You can love someone and not be with them; you could have let them go for good reasons. And you can be with someone for any number of reasons and not love them, too.
I think Daisy, in the film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, just wants to be loved for her soul—beyond her looks, her wealth, her status. She knows those things just turn to ash. But unfortunately, she’s stuck in a world where men use women as trophies—where marriage and relationships are another pretty image, rather than a chance for elevation or consciousness.
May all of us be wary of a doomed love like hers.