Writing Catalog

Margaret Chen

Grade: 11

Hathaway Brown School

Instructor: Elizabeth Armstrong

(Self) Consuming Illusions: a Braided Essay

Critical Essay

(Self) Consuming Illusions: a Braided Essay

In the beginning of the Great Gatsby, everyone, including the narrator, Nick, simultaneously knows everything and nothing about Gatsby. Since he is not formally introduced until much later in the novel, the readers' impression of Gatsby is solely based on Nick's initial interaction and New York society gossip. Despite contradictory rumors, there is no doubt that he is extremely wealthy, made evident by his sprawling mansion, complete with towers and a marble swimming pool. The unnatural colors of Gatsby's material possessions, such as his robin blue butler and bright yellow Rolls-Royce, showcase his social superiority even further, serving as a distinction between his monetary capabilities and that of the ordinary. Gatsby is perhaps most famous for his lavish parties, attended by the fashionable masses who return week after week. Upon Nick's first exposure to one of these events, he notes that behaviors at the revelry were reminiscent of "amusement parks," and Gatsby's mansion itself, "the World's Fair" (Fitzgerald 33, 63). This comparison summarizes the large-scale displays of glamour, indulgence, and luxury that characterized the atmosphere of American society during this period. The elite chase the temporary high of never ending debauchery fostered by Gatsby's grandiose parties, which in turn, effectively marks his character as the epitome of popular upper-class culture. However, while he appears to be widely known and well-connected, the truths behind his character are shrouded in mystery. For example, Nick hears a variety of speculations about Gatsby's history: he is a "nephew or a cousin of Kaiser Wilhem," he "killed a man once," he was "a German spy during the war" (27, 35). While these wild assertions were clearly false, they build an aura of enigma around Gatsby and foreshadow that he is not who he seems to be. Still, none of his guests cared about his sketchy origins: as long as the revelry raged on and the alcohol remained flowing, they were more than glad to associate themselves with Gatsby.

Everyone who encountered Anna Delvey saw an affluent, German heiress with impeccable taste and bottomless wealth. Even at a glance, her presence screamed old rich. All her clothes were designer. Whenever she tipped, she paid exclusively with crisp $100 bills. Even the legitimate elite admitted that Anna Delvey was part of the New York social scene—present at the best parties and hosting nightly dinners at the Le Coucou, attended by a neverending list of CEOs, artists, athletes, and celebrities. To anyone who would listen, Anna spoke about her desire to establish a "dynamic visual-arts center dedicated to contemporary art" called the Anna Delvey Foundation, or ADF for short. She hired the top names in finance, interior design, art, and food to plan out the basis of her new Soho-esque club, which was going to be located in the iconic Church Missions House. This venture was projected to be extremely costly, but for someone with Anna's supposed wealth, taking out a $25 million loan was casual business. By this point, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that Anna Delvey was accustomed to living a lavish lifestyle. However, those around her often speculated about the source of her expensive habits. When asked, Anna vaguely explained that her father was in the solar panel business, and her generational family wealth was why she had a massive $60 million trust fund that would unlock as soon as she turned 26. While the details were unverified, this was in the 2010s, in the heart of downtown Manhattan. Anna clearly had the idiosyncratic habits of the upper classes, so as long as the bills got paid, nobody cared how she got rich.

In 1977, 118 college students were introduced to a professor, who had an extremely thick Belgian accent. They were told that this was part of an experiment to determine how the length of a lecture impacted students' opinions on the lecturer. However, while it was an experiment, the students were unknowingly testing a different hypothesis—one proving the relationship between initial impressions and final judgements. The students were split into two groups and shown two different lectures. Group 1 was shown a video of the professor answering questions in a warm and welcoming manner, giving off the distinct impression that he actually enjoyed teaching. Group 2 was shown a video of the same professor, except he responded coldly, with a clear authoritative tone. After watching the video, the students were asked to evaluate the professor's appearance, methods, and accent via an 8-point scale. In general, the results concluded that the students exposed to the detached version of the professor rated him more negatively in all the categories, while ratings by the other group of students were significantly more positive. In fact, about 80% of the negatively influenced students found his accent annoying, while only 50% of the students in the other group thought so. This study provides proof of the "halo effect," the psychological phenomenon that suggests the perception of a single positive attribute can cause an overall positive judgment of that person. The negative version of this idea is known as the "horn effect."

It quickly becomes clear that Gatsby's character is a persona he has deliberately crafted. Eventually, Gatsby confides in Nick and reveals who he truly is. Jay Gatsby was actually born James Gatz, the son of two unsuccessful farmers in the Midwest. Ambitious and seeking to escape the mundane life he was living, James seized an opportunity to reinvent himself, leaving his family behind to pursue more adventurous prospects. In the process, he adopts a permanent alter ego, the illusory Jay Gatsby, who represents everything he wanted to be but could not achieve with James Gatz's financial and social status. While Gatsby continues to fool society throughout the novel, the cracks in his facade become apparent to readers, and Nick, as he spends more time in his company. Even from the first party that Nick attends, he notes Gatsby's peculiarities, observing his "elaborate formality of speech" that "just missed being absurd" and the way he seemed to be "picking his words with care" (39). In other words, while Nick initially perceives Gatsby as the charming host everyone believes him to be, Nick also immediately senses something unnatural about his mannerisms. Later, it is revealed that Nick's intuition was right: Gatsby's personality seems superficial because it is. He has deliberately shaped every aspect of his character to appear classy, like the rich and powerful. However, as hard as Gatsby tries to imitate these stereotypical behaviors, he clearly does not fit in with the rest of the elite. In an interaction with Tom and his upper class friends, Gatsby fails to realize that the dinner invitation extended to him was a mere pleasantry. When Gatsby is out of earshot, Tom even says in disbelief: "My God, I believe that man's coming"…"Doesn't he know she doesn't want him?" (80). Gatsby's inexperience regarding the behaviors of the elite showcase his naivety about people's underlying intentions. In a way, this situation is almost paradoxical: Gatsby, who is hiding who he really is, cannot discern when others are being insincere. This demonstrates how Gatsby is an innocent idealist who does not understand the duplicitous nature of American society. He invests his entire life towards his dream of becoming wealthy and influential enough for Daisy, his long lost love. But in the end, Gatsby is consumed by his illusion, sacrificing everything for it, which eventually leads to his own destruction.

When Anna was arrested and tried in 2016, her actual background story was released to the public, exposing her facade. Anna Delvey, born Anna Sorokin, was from a middle class family in Russia. Her father was a truck driver and her mother had previously owned a convenience store. Though she struggled with the language, Anna spent her childhood in Germany, before moving to Paris in 2013 for an internship at the popular fashion magazine Purple, when she reportedly adopted the surname "Delvey." After an assignment in New York City, Anna decided to permanently move to the United States and reinvented herself as a socialite. As shown, she clearly did not have the financial means to fund a lavish lifestyle, so how did she spend like she did? During her trial, the prosecution accused Delvey of swindling an estimated $275,000 from various people, hotels, and banks, over the course of four years. To the people she was scamming, it was not initially obvious that they were being taken advantage of. In fact, Anna almost secured a $40 million loan with no legitimate assets to her name. She just appeared to be one of the odder members of the rich and famous: asking to put bills on friends' credit cards with promises to pay them back, sleeping on others' couches, paying exclusively in cash. When instances where money owed was never paid became frequent, people began to catch on to Anna's scheme. Such realizations were why she was banned from upscale hotels and deserted by her friends, leaving Anna homeless and broke before she was finally arrested in October 2016. However, even during her incarceration, Anna insisted that she was not the "wannabe socialite" the New York Post had dubbed her, maintaining that her connections within the upper class and dreams to establish the Anna Delvey Foundation were legitimate. She challenged skeptics throughout her widely publicized trial as well, appearing in coordinated, glamorous outfits selected by celebrity stylist Anastasia Walker to showcase her upscale taste. As a result, it is reasonable to conclude that Anna Sorokin had become deluded by her own illusion of wealth, willing to stake everything on the legitimacy of Anna Delvey—even five years in prison.

As scientifically supported by the "halo effect," narcissists generally portray alluring characteristics, often through a false image of themselves, that persuades people to trust and like them. For an outsider, this can seem like a manipulation tactic, but when serious, narcissism can develop into a disorder known as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). According to Mayo Clinic, individuals with NPD often display an exaggerated sense of self-importance, readily take advantage of others for their own interests, fixate on illusions of success, power, brilliance, or the perfect partner, insist on having the best of everything, and refuse to associate themselves with people who are less important than them. As a result, this mental disorder can cause issues with relationships, work, or financial affairs, and those with NPD may feel disappointed or angry when they do not receive the special treatment they believe they deserve.

Anna Delvey and Jay Gatsby's narcissistic tendencies create an impression of entitlement, allowing them to portray an illusion of wealth and prestige. Delvey and Gatsby's successes in convincing society of this serve as a cautionary tale for individuals about the danger of fantasies, especially when the need to achieve the unrealistic becomes unsustainable. While the pursuit of dreams encourages ambitious drive and perseverance, they have the capability to consume oblivious victims, just like how Anna Sorokin and James Gatz are eventually destroyed by their obsessions with illusions of their own creation. Still, their legacy will outlive their memory, so in a way, their dreams of grandeur were admittedly fulfilled despite their unfortunate endings in real life.

Pertaining to humanity as a whole, Delvey and Gatsby's effective manipulation of behavioral stereotypes exposes the gullibility of society and the power of initial perceptions on generalized judgements of a person's character. However, this is not necessarily the fault of individuals that fall victim to these fabricated schemes, per se, but rather our generation's failure to think independently and look beyond stereotypes shaped by mass misconception. After all, history has long established that conformity is the greatest persuasive tool…