Obsession With The Past In The Great Gatsby By F. Scott Fitzgerald And The Movie Inception
Haruki Murakami wrote, “Dreams come from the past, not from the future. Dreams shouldn’t control you—you should control them” (Past Quotes). In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby obsessively pursues a great dream that is linked to his past. However, there are some parts of his past that he cannot escape and ultimately destroys his dream. In the film Inception, Dom Cobb, whose job involves dreams, is hindered by his daunting past. Similarly, Cobb finds it difficult to escape his past, which almost destroys his mission of performing inception on Robert while he is dreaming. The Great Gatsby and Inception show us that it is not easy to leave our past behind us, because it is always a part of our present.
The American Dream is an important theme in The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is the embodiment of the American ability to dream (Maclean 99). His desire to be rich and successful is a vital component of Gatsby’s dream of reuniting with Daisy. In a flashback, we are told that Gatsby’s, “heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” (Fitzgerald 119). This quote explicitly shows us that Daisy is tied to all of Gatsby’s larger dreams for a better life (his “American Dream”). When Nick Caraway moves to New York, we are told about the West egg and East egg. The East Egg is largely populated by those from “old money” backgrounds, meaning that they come from families who have been wealthy for a long time, like Tom and Daisy.
On the other hand, those who live in West Egg are newly rich, like Gatsby. This means that they were not necessarily born into a wealthy family and acquired wealth differently from East Egg residents. When Tom finds out that Daisy is having an affair with Gatsby, he mocks Gatsby’s past when saying, “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife…She’s not leaving me! Certainly not for a common swindler who’d have to steal the ring he puts on her finger” (Fitzgerald 138-142). Gatsby’s past (being born into a poor family and choosing to participate in Wolfsheim’s business) becomes a part of his present. Although he becomes successful, it seems that from Tom’s perspective, he is not only still “different” because he was born “different,” but also because he was a “bootlegger. ” In the novel, Nick Caraway states that Gatsby “talked a lot about the past” (118). We see that Gatsby is determined to achieve his version of the American Dream because he hasn’t let go of his past with Daisy—he lives to repeat it. When Nick tells him that he cannot repeat the past, Gatsby replies, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” (Fitzgerald 118). Nick also mentions that Gatsby “wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you. ’ After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken” (Fitzgerald 118).
Later on in the book, when Gatsby tells Daisy to deny her ever loving Tom, she says “‘Oh, you want too much! I love you now—isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past. ’” Gatsby wants Daisy to actually erase the past and rewind five years back, when they were together, but Daisy cannot help it. He seems to be forcing her to remember only some parts of her past (those that include him) and forget the other parts (those that include Tom and her family). Gatsby is so blinded by his dream that he does not seem to grasp the idea that the past cannot be repeated. As a result, he does everything he can to attain his dream, including getting involved in Wolfsheim’s business and becoming tremendously wealthy illegally through bootlegging. Besides Gatsby’s fervent devotion for repeating his past with Daisy, we also notice his obsession for controlling every situation and making everything work out perfectly, “‘I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,’ he said nodding determinedly, ‘She’ll see’” (Fitzgerald 118). Another example of Gatsby’s obsession with being in control, is when Nick and Gatsby’s father find a book detailing Gatsby’s intense daily schedule that he followed in order to become successful for Daisy, “He opened it at the back cover and turned it around for me to see.
On the last fly-leaf was printed the word SCHEDULE, and the date September 12th, 1906” (Fitzgerald 184). In the book On Monsters Stephen T. Asma writes, “Obsessive pursuit of greater power and control is equally monstrous” (217). Gatsby has this monstrous obsession with being in control and achieving his dream of wealth, power, and grandeur to impress Daisy and relive their past. In a brutally ironic twist, the bootlegging that makes Gatsby rich enough for Daisy is also one of the main reasons that he ultimately loses her. This occurs when Tom exposes Gatsby in front of Daisy, “‘You’re one of that bunch that hangs around with Meyer Wolfsheim…He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter’” (Fitzgerald 143). Daisy becomes “terrified between Gatsby and her husband” and “her frightened eyes told that whatever intentions, whatever courage she had had, were definitely gone” (Fitzgerald 143-44). Gatsby’s dream self-destructs because, like the American Dream as a whole, it has been utterly corrupted by money and power to the point where it is no longer either real or viable. The film Inception shows us that the dreams have an impact on the characters’ lives in reality.
For example, the deeper Dom Cobb’s team goes into Robert’s mind, the more they affect his waking mind. In Stephen T. Asma’s book On Monsters, he states that “Fear and anxiety are ubiquitous in humans; they are reported to be the most common emotions in our dream lives” (239). When they enter Robert’s mind, his fears and desires in his subconscious expose the broken relationship he had with his father. The film also showcases how their dreams are incredibly volatile and can have a lasting effect on their emotional state and their decision-making. Whereas Gatsby wants to repeat his past with Daisy, Cobb is haunted by his past with his wife Mal. The fact that he performed inception by planting in Mal’s mind the idea that her “world isn’t real” haunts him every day, which is a hindrance to his job. The issue for him is that he wants to return home to his kids, but in order to do that, he has to go deep into Robert’s mind with a team of people who don’t know the instability he’s created because of the guilt he has about betraying Mal. Cobb cannot let go of his past with Mal and it becomes a part of his present because of the consequences of what Mal could do to all of them—including sabotaging the mission and killing everyone.
Regardless, Cobb tries his best, and in doing so, he has to come face to face with his greatest regret in life in order to move into the future that he desires. In Inception, there are different versions of reality because the dreams can seem realistic. Cobb says that the dream technology “is the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that never existed, things that couldn’t exist in the real world,” but this is a hypothesis the film repeatedly finds problematic, as the dream world and the real world overlap and resemble each other very closely (Tan 410). In the dream, Fischer’s father seems very real, much like Mal can be real if Cobb lets her. We see that what is “real” seems to be just a matter of perspective. In the film, Cobb explains that when he dreamt with Mal, “she had locked something away, something deep inside her. A truth she had once known but chose to forget. Limbo became her reality. ” Similarly, Gatsby is so determined to achieve his great dream that he becomes blinded by it and it seems to almost become his only reality—being with Daisy.
Another example in the film that shows us how dreams can become real to us would be the people dreaming in Yusuf’s basement. The world that they think is real is the world that matters most to them: it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with physicality. In the film, when Yusuf is showing Cobb and Eames the sedative that he uses on the people dreaming in his basement, Eames asks, “They come here every day to sleep?” The old man in the basement replies, “No, they come to be woken up. The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise, huh?” The people dreaming in Yusuf’s basement have about forty hours of dreaming every day, which takes about four hours of their real time. The dream is more important to them than the physical world, and the old man has no problem with that, as he points out that what we think of as “real” is very subjective. The ambiguous ending in the film shows us how Cobb ignores his totem (like Mal did) and no longer cares whether he is dreaming or not because he chooses to believe it is reality. In his book On Monsters, Stephen T. Asma quotes, “‘Evil’ is a lot like the word monstrous…” (227). We see the characters commit monstrous actions in the novel and the film: Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom are engaged in affairs, Mal haunts Cobb and tries to sabotage his work, and Cobb performs inception on Mal and Robert.
We see that most of these “monstrous actions” are linked to the characters’ past. Gatsby has an affair with Daisy because he can’t let go of his past with her. Mal haunts Cobb and tries to sabotage his work because Cobb can’t let go of his past with her. And Cobb’s past experience with inception becomes a part of his present when he performs inception on Robert. Maybe the actions do not necessarily have to be “evil,” but perhaps just doing something wrong or bad is a form of monstrosity. Both the novel The Great Gatsby and the film Inception teach an important lesson: that it is not easy to leave our past behind us, because it is always part of our present. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. ” (Fitzgerald 193). As the tragic conclusion and poetic closing lines in The Great Gatsby tell us, it can be difficult to let go of the past (What ‘The Great Gatsby’ Can Teach You About Life).
As hard as Gatsby tries to shirk off his reputation as a bootlegger, he’s unable to do so. Our past events and occurrences shape our present and future life (Kwisnek, 2016). Gatsby’s whole life is changed because he met Daisy in his past. He falls in love, and for the rest of his life, he is never the same. Similarly, Cobb’s past haunts him every day and it becomes a part of his present. He blames himself for betraying his wife, and it dangerously affects him while working. Our past has an enormous effect on our entire lives—some for the better and some for the worse. In The Great Gatsby and Inception some of the characters are in some way monstrous, such as Gatsby’s obsession over his dream and being in control, and the other characters’ “evil” actions in the film and novel. Gatsby’s dream of reuniting with Daisy and repeating his past seems to become his only reality. He appears to have no other alternative. Cobb’s past with Mal haunts him. When they dreamt together, limbo became her reality. When he dreams about her, after she passed away, she can be real to him if he chooses so. The novel and film also show us how hard it is to let go of the past because it is a part of our present. To quote Sarah Dessen, “Your past is always your past. Even if you forget it, it remembers you” (Past Quotes).
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