A fundamental belief in psychoanalysis is that our lives are controlled by our unconscious repression of painful experiences and emotions in childhood. In fact, “the unconscious comes into being when we are very young through the repression, the expunging from consciousness, of these unhappy psychological events” (Tyson 12). The Great Gatsby is a novel about trying to satisfy the unconscious needs of James Gatz, and winning Daisy’s love and elevating his social status provides “emotional insulation from himself, from James Gatz and the past to which he belongs” (Tyson 48). It’s the past that Jay Gatsby is running from that shapes the novel, and therefore repression is at the very heart of The Great Gatsby.
All of the character’s in The Great Gatsby demonstrate destructive personal behavior, they all have anxiety, they all have core issues they suppress in their unconscious, and they all have defense mechanisms, but for this short discussion let’s just take a look at the relationships in Gatsby’s life, his relationship with Daisy, his friends, his parents, and his lifestyle.
Jay Gatsby clearly loves Daisy, but what he fails to recognize is that winning her love will not satisfy the lack, the emptiness within him. Gatsby’s core issues are likely low self esteem mixed with fear of intimacy. Tyson says “The most important fact to remember is that core issues define our being in fundamental ways” (17). Gatsby’s effort to attain wealth and social status predates Daisy. Gatsby’s effort to run from his early life, to turn his back on his parents, and to develop fantasies for his past shows the depth of destructive behavior in repressing an early life he did not enjoy, a life of poverty and psychological trauma.
Jay Gatsby isolated himself from everyone and everything; in essence he built an emotional barrier between himself and those around him. He hosted lavish parties but in doing so he could be alone. He lived in a huge mansion by himself and only had a few personal possessions in his own room. Gatsby is in love with a woman he doesn’t live with and she is the face of his every effort and desire, but deep down it’s a rejection of everything in his childhood he seeks. Gatsby is running from his former self, the part of him born of “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people- his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all” (Fitzgerald 98).
Repression is the impetus behind every action or inaction of the characters in The Great Gatsby. Even the critical junction between Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy results in Daisy turning her back on Gatsby because she is unable to move beyond her own self destructive fears of intimacy and status.
Fitzgerald, Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925. Print.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Originally published at www.happinessfootprint.com on April 8, 2012.