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5 great money lessons of 'Gatsby'

Set in the '20s, the classic novel -- and Hollywood's latest attempt at a film version -- offers some timeless wisdom about money, love and the pursuit of both.

By MSN Money Partner May 9, 2013 12:59PM

This post comes Kristin Colella at partner site MainStreet.


Does Leonardo DiCaprio master the role of elusive millionaire Jay Gatsby in the new film adaption of F. Scott Fitzgerald's literary classic? We'll let the movie critics comment on that. What we can do is impart some financial wisdom we've gathered from the beloved novel, which provides a snapshot of the excess, overindulgence and, of course, excitement of the Roaring '20s.

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, right, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in a scene from Set during the summer of 1922, "The Great Gatsby" is told through the eyes of narrator Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner who recently moved to Long Island to pursue a career as a bond salesman in Manhattan. Carraway becomes increasingly intrigued by his über-wealthy neighbor, Gatsby (DiCaprio), who throws wild, extravagant parties in his opulent mansion. The mysterious Gatsby isn't who he says he is, and as the story unfolds Nick discovers that along with Gatsby's great success are many great flaws. Other main characters, including Nick's cousin, Daisy Buchanan (played by Carey Mulligan) and her blue-blooded husband, Tom, also serve to show us that having a lot of money doesn't mean having it all.

Although the time of flappers, bootleggers and speakeasies is long gone, there's still much to learn from Gatsby and the other characters in the story. Here are our top five money lessons from "The Great Gatsby" that are still relevant today.

1. Money can't buy you love

It's hard not to pity poor Gatsby. Obsessed with the idea of reclaiming his lost love, Daisy, he goes to great lengths to make himself worthy of the wealthy socialite, from earning riches through criminal activity to purchasing a sprawling Long Island mansion across the bay from Daisy's home. The extraordinarily lavish parties that Gatsby hosts -- which feature "floating rounds of cocktails," buffet tables "garnished with glistening hors-d'oeuvre" and fashionable guests who arrive in cars from New York "parked five deep in the drive" -- are also motivated by Gatsby's hope to one day win back Daisy. Daisy is, of course, married with a child and has clearly moved on since she last saw Gatsby five years earlier when he was a poor Army officer. Still, Gatsby believes that Daisy and he belong together and spends many nights watching the green light on the edge of her dock just to feel close to her. Desperate? Maybe. But you've got to give the guy credit for trying.

Daisy and Gatsby do rekindle their romance for a short while, but Gatsby's fortune isn't enough to woo her away from her brutish husband, Tom, for good. It's hard to believe that Daisy really cares for Gatsby at all when, after he is murdered, she doesn't attend the funeral or even send a wire. Ouch. Clearly, Gatsby's inability to win Daisy back proves that when it comes to matters of the heart, money can get you only so far, and it certainly can't buy you true love.


2. Wealth doesn't prevent loneliness

Despite Gatsby's great riches and packed parties, Nick Carraway comes to realize that his neighbor is a very lonely man with no close relationships in his life. Sadly, after Gatsby is murdered toward the end of the novel, Carraway struggles to round up people to attend the ill-fated millionaire's funeral. Gatsby's loyal party-goers are nowhere to be found (except for one nameless man), and it's evident that they simply used Gatsby to enjoy the revelry that his fetes provided. Even Gatsby's business partner, Meyer Wolfsheim, refuses to attend the funeral, explaining to Carraway that "when a man gets killed I never like to get mixed up in it in any way." In the end, it's evident that Gatsby did not have any true friends except Carraway and that his ruthless pursuit of wealth came before his desire to form meaningful relationships.

3. Cheating your way to the top rarely goes unnoticed
How Gatsby earned his wealth is a mystery to his party guests, and rumors abound about his past. Some say he was a "German spy during the war," while others insist he is a criminal who "killed a man." Gatsby himself claims that he attended Oxford and inherited money from his family, then lost it and made a fortune in the "drug business" and then the "oil business."

The truth, however, eventually comes out. After Tom Buchanan suspects that Gatsby is having an affair with his wife, he conducts an "investigation" and discovers that Gatsby made his money illegally through bootlegging. Gatsby clearly couldn't keep his criminal activity a secret, and the same is often true for those who make money through dishonest means today.

4. Money corrupts

Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Gatsby are all enormously wealthy but are also enormously selfish. The characters are controlled by money, putting it before their relationships with others. Tom's wealth contributes to his arrogance, and he cares little about the moral consequences of his infidelity and the effect it has on his wife. Daisy is also a shallow character, marrying Tom for his riches and the promise of a life of leisure. Her self-absorption is perhaps most evident when she doesn't so much as stop after (accidentally) hitting and killing Tom's mistress, Myrtle, while driving Gatsby's car.

Gatsby, too, is a slave to money and feels that his true worth is measured by his bank account rather than his character. In fact, it seems as though Gatsby's "love" for Daisy is really just infatuation, as he is drawn to her wealthy upbringing, her popularity among other men and her fashionable lifestyle, even remarking that her voice is "full of money." Despite the luxury that Tom, Daisy and Gatsby all enjoy, none of these characters seems to experience true happiness.

5. 'Greatness' is often an illusion
Young, handsome and rich, Gatsby seems to have the world at his fingertips, but his greatness is simply an illusion. The millionaire earned his fortune through dishonest means as a bootlegger, and he tells constant lies about his background and the source of his wealth. In fact, the man "Jay Gatsby" is really a false persona created by James Gatz, the son of "shiftless and unsuccessful farm people" from North Dakota. Though radiating with charm and surrounded by luxury, Gatsby is really a lonely, hollow man. The idea that success is often illusory still holds true (just think of Bernie Madoff and Lance Armstrong, for instance). If you look around, there's no doubt that you'll still find Gatsbys among us, and perhaps there's a little Gatsby in all of us, too.

More from MainStreet:

May 9, 2013 7:52PM
Half of that list describes U.S. politicians and they always seem to do just fine.
May 9, 2013 2:32PM

THe original and the one with Redford were the  best ---redoing it again is a waste of money talent and time!


Poor choice!


How many more repeast does the public need from thee entertainment world---they have grown old and never compare to the originals!


IS there no real talent in Hollywood writers anymore to create and envision originals?

May 9, 2013 4:50PM

Being nothing is better than having nothing. That is the true lesson of the world of the real.

May 9, 2013 4:43PM
Actually, the novel is really pure fiction in that character, honor, integrity, honesty isn't all just "blah, blah, blah" and that money, like success, is really the sole earthly judge of right and wrong. I'm paraphrasing somebody we aren't supposed to speak about these days. Gee. I wonder who that can be, and why we aren't allowed to speak of him?
May 9, 2013 6:47PM
Really want to save money?
- Dont go to this movie.

May 9, 2013 5:40PM
The book is called The Great Gatsby, so Fitzgerald obviously liked him.
May 9, 2013 2:20PM
Money won't get me to see this movie either. DeCrapio as Gatsby? Kid is fat, can't grow a beard. Redford is forever Gatsby.
May 9, 2013 4:14PM
Great book! Descent Redford movie. 
Don't think it needs to be redone.
Don't care for Decraprio all that much.
May 9, 2013 5:59PM
I agree with these other posts. Leonardo Dicaprio and Terry Muldune (or something like that) look like kids play acting, and Dicaprio no way embodies Gatsby the way Robert Redford did.
May 10, 2013 12:22PM
The real point of Gatsby is exposing the empty promises of the American dream. One set forth by a greedy society that does not promote individual self satisfation, but instead a certain way of being which is somehow morally acceptable. Good luck with that.
May 9, 2013 11:57PM
Like my own youth i am not sure what Gatsy is all about.  But, i do hope it is about more than money.
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