I’ve been meaning to do a Learn From This for The Great Gatsby for a while now. I’m an unabashed Baz Luhrmann fan, and there really wasn’t a director I could think of who was better suited stylistically to match the opulence, excesses, vacuousness and conspicuous consumption of the Hamptons in the Jazz Age. While the movie seems to have polarized the critics, it’s been fascinating to me – an excellent adaptation of an incredibly internal and introspective novel.
It is also a great meditation on several themes that have a lot of meaning for me, personally: the artificial construct that is identity, the need for authenticity and, of course, a man who simply cannot let go of the past or the dream of the girl he once knew. In many ways, Gatsby presents an excellent metaphor for young men who get caught up in the player or Pick-Up Artist lifestyle, trying to emulate the life that they think others are leading and only finding the reality to be vastly different1 in the end.
(Hopefully without vehicular manslaughter and a murder-suicide at the end.)
So let’s take a look at what we can learn from The Great Gatsby, shall we?
“I love these big parties. They’re so intimate…”
It’s appropriate that we only ever see Gatsby through the eyes of Nick Carraway; the wide-eyed wonder and awe make for an excellent introduction to the world that Gatsby lives in. We’re meant to be overwhelmed, just as Carraway is… and its entirely intentional.
Gatsby presents himself as a larger-than-life individual: his mansion is unbelievably lavish in its splendor, he drives a flashy, custom made car2, he dresses impeccably in Saville Rowe suits and his parties… oh his parties are beyond extravagant. Vaudeville performers, live bands, hot and cold running booze (in the middle of Prohibition, mind you) and filled to the rafters with the glitterati of New York – politicians, silent movie stars, Broadway producers, socialites and gangsters all rubbing elbows at his weekly soirées.
The yarns that he spins about his multiple-choice past – that he’s an Oxford scholar, a gentleman-adventurer, a war-hero, a big game hunter, and took the Grand Tour of European capitals where he rubbed elbows with the nobility – are so absurd that people can’t help but be caught up them anyway. And when he can pull out a medal of honor from Montenegro or his photo with the Earl of Dorcaster to back up his stories… well, it’s easy to understand why people are willing to believe him.
His persona is so larger than life that it’s almost impossible not to get swept up in the glitz and glamour of it all. He has a literal carte blanche in Manhattan, able to get cops to look the other way as he speeds recklessly through the crowded city streets. He wants only the best and most extravagant of everything. He takes Nick with him to the speakeasy in the barbershop and glides through like he owns the place, past prize-winning boxers and the Police Commissioner to a seat front and center. In modern terms, Gatsby is the guy at the club who bypasses the line at the front door and is escorted directly to his reserved table in the VIP area and everyone in the club, from the staff to the celebrities know exactly who he is and can’t wait to talk to him.
He’s everything the Old Money blue-bloods of East Egg (AKA: the East Hamptons) hate about the noveau riche; he doesn’t have their education, he’s uncultured despite his pretensions and he shows absolutely no restraint in his spending with his fancy cars and riotous parties, and now he considers himself to be their equal despite having no pedigree or evidence of proper breeding. He’s a living example of every trope of what the proles imagine the rich to be, so much so that it seems impossible that he actually is the millionaire he claims to be. And yet…
“Girls Like Her Don’t Belong With Penniless Paupers Like You”
The reason why Gatsby is so extravagant, so cartoonish in his ostentatiousness is because this is literally how he always imagined how the rich lived their lives.
Like a young, dateless nerd who has dreams of a player lifestyle modeled after rap videos, reality television, bad movies, and stories of Dionysian revels in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York by the scions of the rich and fabulous, Gatsby is trying to live a life that doesn’t actually exist. He’s bought into a fantasy – that only a certain type of man can get women… or in Gatsby’s case one particular woman. All of his goofy affectations, his meteoric rise in New York society, his millions acquired through criminal enterprises funded by his relationship with known gangsters… it’s all been because Gatsby has one of the nastiest cases of Oneitis ever.
It’s something I’ve seen play out over and over again amongst young men who haven’t had as easy a time dating as others; they have an inflated idea of how the “elite”, the “players” of the world live. They tend to buy into the idea that only certain privileged men – assholes, alpha males, the rich, what-have-you – actually “get” women; everybody else has to live with the scraps and leftovers… if they’re even that lucky. They believe that women are status-obsessed, hypergamous social climbers and convince themselves that all women are constantly trying to make men jump through hoops to prove their worthiness. Many PUA systems – especially any that have The Mystery Method in their institutional DNA – are based around this idea: that you have to present yourself as a very specific type of person in order to get women. They base their techniques around hitting these particular attraction triggers, teaching you how to fake being an “alpha male” or a “high-status male” (for whatever random value of “alpha” or “high-status” they believe in) so that you can get around these obstacles.
In fact, many of these young men may have had their own case of Oneitis in the past and they hope that by learning these techniques, they can reinvent themselves and finally, finally win the heart of The One That Got Away.
Much like Gatsby.
Jay Gatsby didn’t start out longing to be rich in order to impress a girl; instead he believed that he deserved a great future – vague and nebulous but one filled with material success and influence. He grew up ashamed of his hard-scrabble origins as the son of a pair of dirt-farmers in the Badlands of North Dakota; he’d absorbed the classism of his day and felt that his being born poor was a mark of shame. Despite the rising popularity of the Horatio Alger narrative of a plucky young man rising from poverty to riches on the strength of his hard work, determination, and grit, he feels the need to reinvent himself as someone born to privilege, rather than a member of the nouveau riche who gained their money in their own generation (like, say, Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller…)
This is reinforced by his falling in love with Daisy Fay – a well-heeled socialite from Louisville, Kentucky that he met shortly before shipping off to the battlefields of World War I. As an officer in the Army, he’s mistaken for being a gentleman (in the sense of being of being from a rich, established family) and he doesn’t feel the need to dissuade her (or her family) from the notion. However, he’s so ashamed of his low birth that he can barely bring himself to keep in contact with her after the war; his heartfelt confession to being penniless and begging Daisy to wait for him until he’s made something of himself arrives fatefully too late, on the morning of her wedding.
Her wedding, I might add, to one Tom Buchanan – the Yale-educated, polo-playing scion of an old and illustrious (and incredibly rich) family. So rich in fact that his marriage to Daisy is signified by a string of pearls that would have cost over $4,000,000 when adjusted for modern inflation.
So, like that hapless geek who just found a copy of The Game, Jay goes to reinvent himself, changing literally everything about himself. Gone is Jay Gatz, prodigal son of the soil; enter Jay Gatsby, wealthy man of mystery. He is literally a self-made man; he’s created Jay Gatsby out of whole cloth, buoyed by lessons and mannerisms from a genuine millionaire mentor from his youth and financed by founding a bootleg liquor empire that he builds by aligning himself with known criminal Meyer Wolfsheim.
And it’s all in the name of winning the heart of Daisy Buchanan.
The problem is that it’s all fake. Oh, the money is definitely real – much to the surprise of the Old Guard of East Egg…
…but Gatsby himself is a massive fraud.
“You Can’t Repeat The Past? Why Of Course You Can!”
The problems that Gatsby faces are incredibly familiar to anyone who has spent time in PUA culture; he’s put so much time and effort into this new identity that he’s lost himself. He may have resented his birth as Jay Gatz, but there’s no there to Jay Gatsby. He’s a shell with no real authenticity to him. He simply can’t be genuine with Daisy, whom he supposedly loves; everything about him has a level of artifice to it. His entire world has been created to support the fantasy of Gatsby-as-millionaire, the child of privilege and wealth. The man-of-mystery air, the extravagant parties… these have all been laying the groundwork, the “social proof” to show how worthy he is of her and that Jay Gatsby can’t simply come forward and tell Daisy how he feels.
He has crafted his life in West Egg specifically so that she will wander into it on her own, so that he can dazzle her with his riches – it’s a part of the fantasy that he’s been building since the day he met her. He needs her to come to him because then it’s not just the end-result of a carefully planned strategy but fate throwing them together again. When Daisy doesn’t find her way to his palace of her own accord, Gatsby recruits Nick to invite her to tea so he can “casually” drop by. He can’t simply send her an invite to a party; that would ruin the whole point of this five-year endeavor. Everything has been planned meticulously so that it can all support the illusion that it’s all completely natural and spontaneous. If he were to intercede directly – calling on Daisy socially, for example – it would ruin the fantasy.
Gatsby is so caught up in being Gatsby that he can’t let himself be vulnerable or open. There isn’t a moment of his life that hasn’t been scripted up until now, and the mere fact that he’s about to be reunited with the woman he’s loved from afar for so long is unbelievably stressful. It’s the one thing he can’t control and it’s taking everything he has not to freak the fuck out.
It’s telling just how wed he’s become to his romantic fantasy; he’s so disconnected from the real Daisy that he can’t connect with her even when she’s clearly overjoyed to be with him again. He can’t drop the act even for a moment to engage with her like a person; instead, he simply attempts to overwhelm her with the material trappings of his success, pulling her around his house at a dizzying speed and flinging shirts at her like a madman. Daisy clearly loves being rich3 , but she makes it clear that she loves Gatz, not James Gatsby, millionaire who owns a mansion and a yacht. She asks him over and over again if they can just run away and leave everything behind them.
And Gatsby can’t do it.
He’s bought into this constructed identity and fictional world – where millionaires regularly hobnob with royalty when they’re not proving that they have the biggest dicks in the world by shooting elephants and leopards and he’s always been rich- that he just can’t let it go. It’s not enough that he’s got Daisy. He needs her to buy into his fantasy as well, to validate his world-view that he is and always has been the better man than Tom Buchanan.
And in the end, that’s what this is all about. He can’t just have Daisy; he has to win, and win so thoroughly that everyone will acknowledge his new reality – that Daisy always loved him, never loved Tom and that he’s always been the man he is today.
This, ultimately, is why he fails. Daisy, in the end, can’t support two lies – that Jay’s past is exactly as he imagined it or that she never loved Tom. Their marriage may be joyless and dead and they both are eager for extramarital affairs, but she can’t deny that there was something there, once.
As soon as Daisy gives the first crack to the shell of Gatsby, it all falls apart in rapid succession. Tom demolishes Gatsby’s persona with ease – the irony of a bootlegger being called a liar by a serial philanderer may be lost on Jay but the sting is still palpable. From there – from that one thing that fails to go according to plan – it all falls appart, starting a chain reaction that leads, ultimately, to Gatsby’s dying alone and unmourned… except by the one person he was honest with.
“I Knew It Was A Great Mistake For A Man Like Me To Fall In Love…”
Gatsby’s flaw – that his new identity is ultimately hollow – is one I see repeated over and over again by people who let themselves be convinced that they have to be someone else if they want to have any success with women. They buy into the idea that with the right identity, the right patter, the right status displays, women will be putty in their hands. They may even get some short-term successes. It can feel incredibly validating when you go from having no dates at all to getting a girl’s number, or a date, or even your first one-night stand and it only goes to reinforce the belief that yes, this is exactly how life is meant to be.
Except it also makes it impossible for you to interact with women on any meaningful level. You can’t be authentic with them, connect with them, because you’ve built up this shell personality and to be real, to be vulnerable means having to admit that it’s all smoke and mirrors.
It’s almost impossible to keep that level of falsehood up for very long, and certainly not without cost. Almost everyone I’ve been friends with in the PUA community has had a breakdown of one sort or another because in the end, it’s all about being fake. Look at Gatsby himself; until he invites Nick to his party, he’s a man starving in the midst of plenty. He has all of the trappings of the life he’s wanted, but he can’t enjoy them. It’s empty. Hollow. Meaningless.
Because it isn’t really him.
The most perverse part of it is that the potential for Gatsby had been there all along. If he hadn’t been so ashamed of who he was, so determined to be “The Great Gatsby, international man of mystery” and focused his energy and determination on chasing his dreams of success… he could have had it all. He could have built his empire, and married Daisy.
Instead he finds himself lost in the Valley of Ashes, with his dreams crumbling around him.
- Oh God, I think I just found parallels between The Great Gatsby and Neil Strauss’ The Game… you can take the man out of the English degree… [↩]
- That, appropriately enough, didn’t actually exist at the time when the film is set [↩]
- And frankly, the movie makes her into a far more sympathetic character than the book does… [↩]