Critical Text Essay: The Great Gatsby As A Reflection Of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Through A Psychoanalytic Lens - Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson

When you dream, you project your struggles, desires, and regrets. You relive through past traumas and painful memories, sometimes in the form of a metaphor. This theory that our subconscious is where our repressed memories and desires escape to is not alien. In fact, it was introduced in the 1890s by Sigmund Freud, deemed the “father of psychoanalysis”. He believed that our identity is made up of three distinct areas in our subconscious that together make up who we are. These areas are the: Id, Ego, and Superego. The Freudian theory is much like the analogy of the angel and devil on your shoulder. The Id being the devil, wanting immediate gratification, the Superego being the angel, wanting to do what’s moral, and the Ego being you, the one to make a compromise between the two. He also theorised that the unconscious is where all this happens, and that by interpreting our dreams, we can see what our repressions are. Along with this, he was arguably the first person to make the connection between how someone was raised and who they became as an adult. Although this has been heavily praised and talked about, another theorist worth noting is Erik Erikson as he also makes a very good point in regards to identity and the significance of the parent. Instead of Freud’s theory that the human psyche is what makes us act how we do, he believed that eight distinct periods of time within the course of our lives dictate our personality for the future, with each period adding on to our growing identity. What marries the two theories is the idea that our personality traits, especially the negatives, are due to our parents and how they raised us. Both Erickson and Freud explore the idea that our repressions are hiding in our subconscious, and when decisions in the conscious world need to be made, our repressed traumas, painful emotions, drives and instincts seep up to our consciousness and the ego and influence these decisions. A way to see our Id which hides completely in our unconscious and the Superego which partially hides there is through our dreams. Dreaming, which is much like taking a stroll in our unconsciousness, reveals these repressions that are too painful to think about when awake; and much like dreams, literature serves the same purpose. We write to unload our painful emotions and share a piece of ourselves to the world; a dream that everyone can see. This is what many authors have unconsciously done, and notably F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

Before we look at how F. Scott Fitzgerald projected his repressions in The Great Gatsby, we need to look at his life, and who he was as a person before and during the writing of his book. He was born to an upper-middle-class family in 1896 Minnesota to his mother, Mary Fitzgerald, and his father, Edward Fitzgerald. His mother “had lost two children to epidemics before her bright, handsome Scott came along” and was described as not very beautiful, so when her promising son was born “she spoiled her son and loved to show him off.” The proud and arrogant parading of the young writer contributed to his narcissism, which ultimately led to his belief that he could get any girl he wanted. This negative development of the personality is what Erik Erikson put forward in what he called the 4th Crisis: Industry vs. Inferiority. To summarise, his theory is that “If children are encouraged and reinforced for their initiative, they begin to feel industrious (competent) and feel confident in their ability to achieve goals. If this initiative is not encouraged, if it is restricted by parents or teacher, then the child begins to feel inferior, doubting his own abilities and therefore may not reach his or her potential.” However, Fitzgerald’s mother followed this too closely as she pampered him and encouraged his talents too much, thus creating the illusion that he is above everyone else. This is also supported by Erikson as he said that “Some failure may be necessary so that the child can develop some modesty.” The failure of the 4th Crisis eventually seeped into his personality as he “used to imagine that he was born of royal blood but had turned up on the Fitzgeralds' doorstep” and later “developed an inferiority complex in a family”. He was described as having “loved his father, but could hardly respect him. His feelings about his mother were even more complicated.” All of this combined point towards his arrogance that was brought upon by his mother as she encouraged him too much. This was even said that “Until he was fifteen, he later remarked, he did not know anyone else was alive.” He saw himself as above his own parents, which is a clear sign of extreme arrogance. His handsomeness and intelligence certainly did not help steer him away from his arrogant ways as “At an unusually early age he became interested in girls, and still more interested in the game of adolescent courtship.” Usually arriving at age 18, his early attraction to women came very early. This did not stop his success as at age 14 he wrote in his diary or “thought book” “Last year in dancing school I got 11 valentines and this year 15,” The bragging of his success only advanced his narcissism and he even went as far as to write the “names of his favorite girls of the moment. Marie Hersey was the prettiest, Margaret Armstrong the best talker. He wanted to be first in the affections of both, and saw no need to draw the line at two.” He saw no reason to choose only one partner and saw boy-girl relationships as “a kind of contest in which there could be only one winner.” Unfortunately, his flirtatious attitude lasted past adolescence and into adulthood as he “regarded man-woman relationships in much the same way, except that as he grew older the game turned into an increasingly bitter and sometimes violent conflict.” This unfortunate development was theorised by Erikson in Crisis 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation. It is summarised as “Successful completion of this stage can result in happy relationships and a sense of commitment, safety, and care within a relationship.” This stage was not completed as he, later on, had a disastrous marriage with a woman called Zelda and they regularly had affairs. But before Zelda, there was Ginevra, upper-class and the first girl that he couldn’t “have” per se. There was even a rumour that “Ginevra's father told Scott that “poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls.” ” This sudden denial would have been a first for handsome Fitzgerald, and later on inspired nearly every piece of literature that he has written, proving that it was a very significant memory for him. However, this was not his last encounter with an unattainable rich girl as when he met Zelda, she only agreed to marry him when his first book was published. This was the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald leading up to The Great Gatsby. A life that started with an unnecessary amount of pampering that created a warped view of women and courtship. Flirting was a game and women were the prize for a handsome man like him, who is above his own parents - an illusion he created for himself. What started as an innocent childhood led to a disastrous marriage full of affairs dealt with excessive drinking - a coping mechanism. To summarise, it is best said by Sigmund Freud: “Beneath all of this speculation surrounding intimacy and sex lies the assumption that a child’s relationship with their parents, or lack thereof, is one of the most important factors in a person’s psychological and behavioral development. If anything is taken away from this component of the psychoanalytical model, it is that the relationship between a child and parent in a text should not be overlooked and may be used to reconcile questions or problems surrounding a character’s behavior and psychological profile.” The influence of a mother and father is tremendous on a child as children are incredibly malleable, especially by parents. What led up to Fitzgerald becoming who he is is not a mystery as he has had many biographies written about him. But what is most interesting is how he projected himself and his repressions, most notably his psyche and his obsession with the “golden girl” that he can never obtain due to his class. We may not be able to look inside his head, but ones writing is as close as you can get to the unconscious.

Much like our dreams, literature is a collection of characters in situations stemming from our creativity that feeds on our subconscious. Sigmund Freud’s theory best describes this link “that the unconscious, like the poem, or novel, or play, cannot speak directly and explicitly but does so through images, symbols, emblems, and metaphors.” In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald does this by projecting his own psyche in the book; Tom being his Id, Nick his Ego, and Jay his Superego. The Id is best described as the devil on your shoulder; primitive and impulsive, it seeks immediate gratification. Tom is morally-corrupt and born into “old money”, and acts carelessly, only wanting to consume and not have to face the consequences. This is shown when he breaks the nose of Myrtle, his mistress, for wanting to discuss his marriage to Daisy. She does so in an irritating way by repeating Daisy’s name to which he makes “a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.” His act was impulsive and uncalled for, regardless of how irritating she might have been, and he showed no remorse afterwards. Along with that, by betraying his wife and child by having a mistress and hurting his garage mechanic as well, he clearly does not care about who he hurts through his actions. Even as a middle aged man, this is the classic behavior of the Id, “infantile in its function throughout a persons life and does not change with time or experience, as it is not in touch with the external world.” It is a “primitive, illogical, irrational, and fantasy oriented” way of thinking and has ”no comprehension of objective reality, and is selfish and wishful in nature.” This is the text-book definition of the Id, which Tom vividly embodies, but what is also striking is how Nick portrays the Ego. Tom is out having careless fun whilst Nick remains stuck, not quite rich but not quite poor; always at parties but never actively having fun. He is the observer. His role in The Great Gatsby is to keep Tom, Daisy and Gatsby out of trouble by reminding them about morals and that the public is watching. This is seen after Daisy hits Myrtle with her car, killing her instantly, and as they drive away he remarks the eyes of T. J. Eckleburg watching them. As the Ego, he reminds the Id and Superego that others are watching. He even describes himself as “slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires, and I knew that first I had to get myself definitely out of that tangle back home.” He curbs his desires and sets rules, acting as a “mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world. It is the decision-making component of personality. Ideally, the ego works by reason, whereas the id is chaotic and unreasonable.” He attempts to work out realistic ways to which he can satisfy both the Id and Superego and does this by considering social norms and rules. This is seen when he remarks T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes watching. The best way to describe the Ego is by Freud in the analogy “of the id being a horse while the ego is the rider. The ego is 'like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse.” However, the polar opposite of the Id is the Superego which is portrayed by Gatsby. The Superego acts as a steering wheel for the Id’s impulses, “especially those which society forbids, such as sex and aggression. It also has the function of persuading the ego to turn to moralistic goals rather than simply realistic ones and to strive for perfection.” Although Gatsby has obtained his wealth through illegal means, his motive is pure as he seeks to find what he deems his “true love”. Gatsby, like the Superego, is the ego-ideal (or the ideal self), which is “an imaginary picture of how you ought to be, and represents career aspirations, how to treat other people, and how to behave as a member of society.” Gatsby yearns to be good enough for Daisy and will do anything to be accepted as a member of her society. This is seen when Nick watched Gatsby from his window and sees “a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.” The green light symbolises the hope that Gatsby has, as it is the light from Daisy’s house. He stretches his arms to it, praising it, he is full of hope and longing. However, once he is gone, Nick is sourrounded by darkness. This shows that the hope is only present when Gatsby is looking at it, thus indicating that he is indeed the Superego, always aspiring. Along with Daisy, he aspires to be golden, like her, and aspires to be his best self. In addition to being the ego-ideal, the Superego is also the conscience, the punisher of the Ego when it gives in to the Id’s desires and the rewarder for when it does what the Superego wants. For example, when Nick invited Daisy and Gatsby over for tea, Gatsby rewards him with friendship as it was beneficial for Gatsby.

As I previously stated, F. Scott Fitzgerald had a strange upbringing. He was pampered too much by his mother which led to the development of narcasism. Along with that, his devastating encounter with Ginevra, his first “Golden girl”, created an obsession with rich girls that don’t want him because of his income. The Great Gatsby in its entirity mirrors who he is and how he sees the world, and especially women. But tragically, it was also his end. When he published The Great Gatsby, it was at the peak of the Jazz Age of the 1920s and he and Zelda were seen as celebreties. They personified the nation, but sadly, they also personified its end. During the depth of the Depression, Zelda and him skidded to a halt. His drinking became more and more frequent, and Zeda’s mental health dove to rock bottom, not to mention their long list of affairs. In The great Gatsby, Tom faces a similar problem with his affairs as “once in a while I go off on a spree and make a fool of myself, but I always come back, and in my heart I love her all the time." This not only mirrors their situations, but also their view on women, as Tom justifies his cheating, therefore justifying Fitzgerald. This is called displacement, as seen in the Freudian theory: “whereby one person or event is represented by another which is in some way linked or associated with it”. By displacing himself into his work, he is projecting his current situation onto a character that represents his Id, the part of him that betrays and lusts as it is sex-driven. This is not uncommon as “that behavior is primarily driven by the unconscious and that a character’s fears, desires and motivations are born out of unresolved conflict, sometimes stemming from childhood experiences", thus confirming that his inflated sense of pride due to his mother and his illusion that women belong to him have influenced him in the long term, and has seeped into his literary work. Although she did not intend to do so, the “superego incorporates the values and morals of society which are learned from one's parents and others” as said by Freud. Unfortunately, near the end of his life, Fitzgerald had ridden the wave of the Jazz Age to its peak and descent. The newspaper at the time described him as a “very broken man, who's physically feeble and mentally very pathetic and reaching to the highboy to have a drink”. This devastated Fitzgerald and if anything, led him to drink more. What caused this descent was what Erikson called Crisis 7: Generavity vs. Stagnation. This particular crisis “leads to feelings of usefulness and accomplishment, while failure results in shallow involvement in the world”. Saldly, he did not accomplish this task as he “was at a low point. He was drinking 50 ponies of beer a day — the "beer cure" — in an attempt to wean himself off gin. His writing, 10 years after The Great Gatsby, had gone flat. He was churning out hack stories for magazines, trying to pay off debts and the bills for his wife Zelda's hospitalization in a psychiatric facility. Few magazines were interested.” To summarise, F. Scott Fitzgerald was seen as a has-been by the public that adored him for so many years during the Jazz Age. But when it came to a halt, it led him to feeling disconnected from societywhich ultimately encouraged the affairs as a way to connect and cope. What makes it interesting is that near the end of his life “he’d begun pulling himself together, drinking less and writing The Last Tycoon — an unfinished masterpiece.” Somewhat of a happy ending, it is what differentiates him from The Great Gatsby. Gatsby, his Superego, had been shot for a crime he did not commit. Nick, his Ego, continued judging and making his way through life more or less unnoticed. And Tom, his Id, lived on with his wealth, wife, and freedom. Fitzgerald had written a novel that reflected who he was and the past conflicts that he had lived through. He tried to justify his affairs and rewrite his past with Ginevra and Zelda, but his Id had won, his Ego forgotten, and his Superego dead. Although it reflected who he was at the time, it did not reflect F. Scott Fitzgerald in his very last moments.

SOURCES Peter Barry (2009) Beginning Theory: An Introduction To Literary And Cultural Theory, Third Edition. Retrieved from

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) The Great Gatsby (Book) Quotes retrieved from &

McLeod, S. A. (2018, May 03). Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development. Retrieved from

Miles Greene (Date Unknown) Film, Freud and Fitzgerald: A Psychoanalytical Critique of The Great Gatsby and Jazz Age Values. Retrieved from

McLeod, S. A. (2016, Feb 05). Id, ego and superego. Retrieved from

Susan Stamberg (2013) For F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, A Dark Chapter In Asheville, N.C.Retrieved from

Scott Donaldson, College of William and Mary (2015) F. Scott Fitzgerald Biography. Retrieved from

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