Did Capitalism Put the “Great” in The Great Gatsby?

A funny thing happened to Jay Gatsby on the way to the Silver Screen in 2013: He became a sympathetic and all too human capitalist. This may not have been Hollywood’s intent, but the most recent adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic may have elevated a minor sub-theme in the book to a new archetype for the capitalist hero in film.

In the novel, Gatsby is consumed by a highly romanticized vision of Daisy, a woman he fell in love with just as he was being sent off to fight on Europe’s bloody battlefields during World War I. Five years later, Daisy is married to Gilded Age trust fund brat (and Yale graduate) Tom Buchanan. In order to woo her back, Gatsby amasses fabulous wealth during the Roaring Twenties by taking advantage of the vast underworld created and fed by Prohibition. Buchanan’s wealth is inherited, not earned, so he lives on East Egg on Long Island Sound with the other “old” money. Gatsby represents the “new” wealth—men (and women) of ambition, entrepreneurial verve, and risk taking—and lives across the bay in West Egg. (The distinction is strikingly emphasized when Gatsby introduces Buchanan at one of Gatsby’s grand parties as a polo player.)

This juxtaposition sets up an important source of conflict that drives a large part of the story. Buchanan never accepts Gatsby’s wealth as an indicator of status. In a pivotal scene, Gatsby tells Buchanan that he is materially worth as much as Buchanan, thus making them “equal.” Buchanan snidely denies Gatsby’s claim, dismissing him as an unethical bootlegger in bed with the Mafia.

But this morality play is not what sets Gatsby’s character apart. Rather, it’s Gatsby’s motivation and intent. For Jay Gatsby, material wealth is a tool, not an end in itself. More importantly, his wealth is used to attain a noble goal—Daisy’s heart and loyalty. Daisy, readers (and viewers) are led to believe, married Buchanan because Gatsby didn’t have the means to provide for her (at least at the level of wealth her well-to-do family provided). So, the ambitious, driven and calculating Gatsby threw his heart and soul into an entrepreneurial venture—“drug” stores that were fronts for speakeasies—to generate the wealth that would show Daisy that he was capable, and willing, to sacrifice everything for her love.

Readers and viewers know that the end is more tragic than uplifting, but the positive imprint on the classic capitalist in the film unmistakable. Gatsby is not a Randian egoist. He is also not the stereotypical greedy capitalist whose primary goal is to use his wealth to acquire power to subjugate others. On the contrary, in the film, he is clearly depicted as a noble character sacrificing self for a higher value; his wealth is a projection of this value and for the practical role it plays. In this case, the end Gatsby aspires to secure through self-sacrifice is love. This is an archetype that is long overdue in contemporary film.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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