Before there was “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” there was the ostentatious fictional protagonist in “The Great Gatsy,” says Jared DeFife, a clinical psychologist and Emory assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral studies.
So who exactly was Jay Gatsby? The "self-made man" archetype created by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald is set to get renewed attention when portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in a movie releasing this weekend.
To understand the underlying character of Gatsby, DeFife says it’s important to think about two primary emotions: Shame and grief.
Gatsby’s lavish displays of wealth are what psychologists call “a reaction formation” built around his shame of coming from a rather shiftless, lower-class family, DeFife says.
Shame involves worrying about how others see you, which is probably why eyes become a powerful symbol in the novel, DeFife adds. “The characters are relatively without guilt about their actions, but they are very afraid of being seen, and the negative things about them being seen.”
Gatsby also shows a complicated grief reaction to his loss of Daisy, who broke up with him when he went off to war. “What happens in distorted grief reactions is time sort of stops,” DeFife says. “Gatsby is really trying to reclaim that lost era. In fact, there’s a scene where he meets Daisy for the first time after so many years where he almost knocks a clock over on the mantle.”
Gatsby’s mindset remains back in the time when he was 17, and holds an idealized image of Daisy. “He’s stuck not being able to be able to go back to the past and recreate that life, and not being able to move forward, either, and that’s where his great tragedy comes in,” DeFife says.
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