The Great Gatsby: A Secular Saint?
by Questing Beast
by Zach Meckley
“We can die by it, if not live by love
…And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us Canoniz’d for Love:”
– John Donne
The Great Gatsby is indubitably a work indispensable in a full experience of American literature. Well established as a stylistic masterpiece, a rich portrayal of the Roaring ‘20s, and a dramatically magnificent story, this work is stolidly shelved among the foremost writings in our national heritage. Its beautiful prose, historical vividness, and emotional poignancy entitle F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus to the highest ranks of literary genius our nation can lay claim to.
Such an evaluation is no petty encomium; nevertheless it is not enough. This masterpiece, though perhaps not entitled to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dante’s Inferno or Homer’s epics, is worthy of some place among the Great Books. Obviously, this audacious classification must be justified by the discernible presence of the qualities which all truly great works of literature possess in some eminent way. In this essay, two essential properties of the most significant books mankind has to treasure will admit The Great Gatsby into the canon of Great Books. These are firstly: the presence in a work of themes or questions universal to human experience, transcending particular political, social, and economic boundaries as well as the confines of any particular time, and secondly: a portrayal of these themes and questions that adds something to the continuous human conversation about them (referred to as the “Great Conversation” by Mortimer J. Adler).
The Great Gatsby stands up to both of these standards. The first qualification, that of a universal human theme or question, is fulfilled in the central thematic element of the story, which is the soul-changing power of a rare, profoundly genuine romantic love. In the story of Jay Gatsby’s brief and tragic quest, this directly ties in to the second standard of original, serious treatment of a universal matter. That is, the dynamic explored in this book of how the presence of love in the soul imparts a sort of redemption by providing meaning. By telling a tale of romantic love in its highest, redemptive form and addressing its effect in Jay Gatsby’s life, Fitzgerald approaches one of the more sublime realities in the human experience, worthy of a place in the Great Conversation.
Intentionally or not, Fitzgerald develops this theme of true romantic love in the situation most hostile to any redemptive action, so that it stands out in stark relief. The decadent opulence of New York’s West and East Egg neighborhoods and the profoundly careless spirit of the Jazz Age in which Jay Gatsby sought the fulfillment of his love contrast strongly with his utter devotion to his beloved, sharpening the poignancy and purity of his passionate affection. Besides Gatsby’s love, there are two other examples of romantic love that illustrate the extremes of unredemptive romantic desire. These are, on the side of deficiency, Nick Carraway’s inconclusive inclinations for Jordan Baker, and in an extreme of excess, Tom Buchanan’s passionate ownership of Daisy. Fitzgerald illustrates well the different effects of love on the human heart, showing how a romantic relationship can lead to the fulfillment of great potential.
Jordan’s life is motivated fundamentally by fear, and her feelings for Nick are rooted in her perception of him as a reflective, considerate person who is unlikely to harm her.
The lackluster love of Gatsby’s only faithful friend, Nick Carraway, for the jaunty, aloof Jordan Baker does not denigrate his integrity as a man, but simply fails to have any directly positive impact on him at all. This ultimately unsuccessful relationship begins with a coy promise of potential, with hints of deep, insightful connection into a rich personality; “Then it was something more. I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity. The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something…”
Nick is intrigued by the possibility of making a profound discovery of personhood, but no real connection has been made at this point. In fact, his first insight into Jordan’s character is that she is “incurably dishonest.” He realizes that she is protecting herself with a callous coolness, so characteristic of the feminine elite of her time, and that deception and even lies are simply practical parts of her dealings with the world. This fault he consciously forgives because he writes it off with the dismissive aphorism, “Dishonesty in a woman is something you never blame deeply.” Thus he has already established his relation to Jordan, which blossoms as the story unfolds, with a cynical tolerance of perceived imperfections in his beloved, tempering his feelings with cold, removed evaluations and compromises. Both his side and her side of the relationship is tainted from the beginning, curtailing any significant effect love might have on him.
As the story continues, Jordan and Nick draw closer to each other, but the problems inherent in what is between them remain, and ultimately cause the bond between them to be fruitless. Jordan Baker clearly sees Nick as desirable insofar as he is non-threatening, as is indicated when Nick cautions her concerning her dangerously thoughtless behavior, prompting her to state that it takes two careless people to cause a serious accident, finishing up with, “I hate careless people. That’s why I like you.” Jordan’s life is motivated fundamentally by fear, and her feelings for Nick are rooted in her perception of him as a reflective, considerate person who is unlikely to harm her. Thus, no glimmer of hope for any deep-seated change is possible for her, because the relationship is only a strategy in her struggle for survival.
On Nick’s part, love for Jordan is based on the fragile mystery of her self-protective blasé, which is charmingly broken by little moments of affectionate expression. Her willingness to be in some small way his, giving over her suave, pretty independence, creates a strong attraction within his sequestered, sensitive heart. He says as much;
“Suddenly I wasn’t thinking of Daisy and Gatsby any more, but of this clean, hard, limited person who dealt in universal skepticism and who leaned back just within the circle of my arm. A phrase began to beat in my ears with a sort of heady excitement: ‘There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.’”
It seems that Nick is one of the busy, always thinking and feeling about what he encounters, constantly evaluating and wondering, comparing and considering. He has met one of the tired, someone whose reaction to the world has solidified into a demure disdain for the violent foolishness of her fellow men. This attitude, so foreign to his own, seems to be powerful and admirable in some way to him, as he observes on first encountering Jordan; “Almost any exhibition of complete self-sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me.” However, the basic selfish disregard inherently present in Jordan’s weary stance toward life causes her to calmly ignore the brutal betrayal of Gatsby as it unfolds right in front of her and Nick. This callousness to the pathetic suffering of Jay Gatsby separates Nick from her more and more as he gradually perceives the vacuous dearth of human sympathy in her that his affection cannot live down. He is unable to see Jordan in the same light, and finally realizes fully the rigidly self-centered essence of her personality. He relates, at their final parting, “Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.” Here the death of what might have come from this connection is completely relinquished. Nick, while still enamored of Jordan, has experienced an ultimately insurmountable revulsion for the very same quality that drew him to her. And so, though he leaves Jordan Baker a soul a bit sadder, a bit wiser, and much older, he has undergone no serious interior change.
The relationship between Tom and Daisy Buchanan may be broken down easily into its dysfunctional and spiritually stagnant dynamics. He is an insensitive brute of a man with “a cruel body,” an egotistical mind, and a “peremptory heart.” Daisy, a perfect counterpart to his unyielding self-assertion, possessed a resentful, bitter, yet easily manipulated soul whose resentment she covered up with effeminate carelessness and whose pain she avoided with elegant elitism. Tom is passionately possessive of her, constantly harboring suspicion towards her interactions with almost any man she takes serious notice of, and guarding his entitlement to her loyalty with a zeal that easily becomes cruelty. In one instance, he breaks his mistress’s nose when she dares to equate herself with Daisy. In another, he verbally tears Jay Gatsby apart, destroying his reputation and stomping on his dreams when Gatsby presumes to rescue Daisy from Toms’ reckless mistreatment of her (granted, Gatsby goes about this by attempting to run off with her.)
The Buchanan’s relationship, though dramatically stormy and passionately dependent, is a twisted tangle self-centered emotionalism that is utterly incapable of imparting any real redemption to either party involved.
Tom periodically prepares affairs with new women over which he exerts the power of his personality and vast wealth, setting aside with each new escapade his previous promises to Daisy and the anguish he causes her when, time after time, she finds out. This dysfunctional pattern continues unabated throughout the book, and is, if anything, strengthened by the events of the story. Romance will provide Tom with no redemptive opportunity because he is beneath any call to true, self-forgetful love. Daisy, Tom’s regrettably well-fitted partner, relates to him on the basis of resentful subservience and wounded co-dependence. Her relationship to him is based fundamentally on a desperate need to be guided emotionally and given material security. She absolutely requires the opulent, carefree lifestyle that has formed and nurtured her. This is summed up in Nick’s narration; “…all the time something within her was crying out for a decision. She wanted her life shaped now, immediately—and the decision must be made by some force—of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality—that was close at hand.” Thus her love for Tom is only tolerant because she fears life without his domineering manipulation directing her and his immense wealth protecting her from any material discomfort. He is the solution to her self-indulgent and indecisive inability to live life for herself. The Buchanan’s relationship, though dramatically stormy and passionately dependent, is a twisted tangle self-centered emotionalism that is utterly incapable of imparting any real redemption to either party involved.
Finally, after many an interminably long sentence and flowery phrase on my part, we reach the example of romantic devotion that truly deserves to be called great—that of Fitzgerald’s fascinating creation, Jay Gatsby. This pure playboy, this incorruptible criminal, this naive master-swindler who gained his vast riches through dishonest conspiracies, and yet in truth was broken by the betrayal of a world too treacherous for him to understand, carried in his heart a ridiculous, redemptive love that would make him the perfect worldly reflection of a saint. The moment of his salvation comes when, as a poor yet transcendently ambitious young soldier, he meets Daisy. Intending originally only on using her as a means to an exertion of a kind of Nietzschien will to power, he finds himself pulled into an ardent admiration of the ideal he senses in her, or perhaps more accurately, behind and beyond her. When he senses this ideal, the original desire for some unformed glory that drove him on in his youth finds a goal. His initial appetite for greatness, so ruthlessly grand it smacks of the ubermensch, is expressed in Nick’s words;
“The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s Business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty…his heart was a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed as night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain…a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.”
From this wonderful, if rather strange, description of Jay Gatsby the potent uniqueness of his basic motivations becomes obvious. He will be satisfied with nothing less than the very highest fulfillment the world can offer. Though he does not even have a clear conception of what this grand fate will be, he yearns for it, tasting transcendent hints in his adolescent dreams. No substitutes or compromises are acceptable to him. This is evidenced in the contemptuous reference made to his unsatisfactory experience of academic drudgery and, alternately, licentious frivolity. Neither intellectual self-satisfaction nor indulgence of base passions can sate his desire for the ineffable self-actualization of which he has had the first inklings. He falls in with a wealthy ex-pioneer, Dan Cody, and learns from him a bold self-confidence and crafty, practical resourcefulness. In this stage of his development, with his massive drive still unformed, still seeking some object to exert its energy upon, he meets Daisy, a child of untouchable, opulent elite. Daisy is at first only a potential conquest, a worthy goal for the exercise of Gatsby’s vaulting ambition. He is at this point a poor Army officer with no background to speak of and “liable at the whim of an impersonal government to be blown anywhere about the world.” However, when he won her affection, he found that he had somehow himself been caught, unexpectedly committing himself “to the following of a grail.” An object outside of himself had drawn him to herself, awakening a new kind of desire. Gatsby speaks to Nick of how this change was wrought in him, and Nick recounts;
“One night, five years before (the events of the story), they (Gatsby and Daisy) they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling…and the sidewalk was white with moonlight…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…at his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”
Gatsby describes here how his love for Daisy drew him down from the vast paradise of his personal potential and directed the flow of its force toward her. His desire for that ineffable wonder he is intuitively tuned to is ‘incarnated’ by his encounter with Daisy. He steps out of the possible paradise of his own dreams to pour his whole self into this woman. Thus his love has taken him out of himself and caused him to seek fulfillment in another, and the truly tragic yet ultimately glorious process of his redemption in the power of this love has begun.
The world soon thwarts this love, as Gatsby is sent off to aid heroically in the senseless slaughter of the First World War, but it is the enduring purity of what he holds for Daisy in his heart that raises him into his worldly sanctity. When Gatsby is no longer present, Daisy’s flighty heart is pained, then desperate, then finally complacent. She struggles briefly with her loyalty to Gatsby, and then submits to the promise of wealth and security that Tom Buchanan offers. Though she is very obviously unworthy of Gatsby’s affections, and now quite out of his reach, when he returns he seeks her with total abandon. Now though this may seem like the mere foolishness of a love-struck young man, it is much more. For Gatsby dedicates everything to his beloved. He befriends an arch-swindler, Meyer Wolfshiem, and amasses a fortune by assisting in the crafty old man’s shady dealings. Once again, though the matter of Gatsby’s life appears contemptible, and by this time perhaps even despicable, there is a force at work that raises up what he does, sanctifying it in some way. The ill-gotten gains he accrues are only for the sake of obtaining Daisy, because he believes that he can win her back if he can establish himself as part of the coterie she trusts. He has no interest in wealth or life itself unless he gains the love of Daisy. His life is dedicated to the winning of his beloved, and he has ordered everything in himself and his life to this goal. The fact that Daisy is simply not worth this sort of devotion, and is patently unable to return his love does make his absolute dedication in a certain sense ridiculous.
Gatsby’s feelings for Daisy have purified his own heart, allowing him to transcend the selfish hatreds, judgments, and manipulations of those around him.
However, though on a practical level he is hopelessly deluded, the effect of his love is a redemptive one for him. He is, in some way, utterly unconscious of himself, focused with single-minded ardor upon personal union with Daisy. He has no anger against her when she betrays his trust at the outset of the story or when she does it again in a more hurtful way near the end of the book. Though this may be from one perspective very foolish, it is also evidence that Gatsby has been preserved by his love in a sort of innocence, free from resentment, from petty lust or real greed. For he could simply revel in his massive fortune, seeking fulfillment in hedonistic abandon or the thrill of power that money can bring.
Yet Gatsby, though he throws parties incredibly large and lavish, though he could have anything with his money, seeks only Daisy. He walks into his vast riches with startling suddenness, but possesses them with a truly inspiring ease, spending with generous abandon on others, unconsciously remaining free of the power of his possessions. Thus he has avoided resentment, lust, greed, and other vices by directing his heart toward the woman he loves. The only true desire of his heart is his beloved. Even the fact that he is attempting to take her out of her present marriage might be all but completely excused when Tom’s brutality and almost immediate betrayals his nuptial vows are taken into account, making it fairly clear he never intended to be married to her in any meaningful way. In addition, Gatsby truly believes that Daisy is profoundly miserable in her marriage, which is in fact completely true, and believes he is rescuing her. Thus, he sincerely attempts to attain a better life for her. Further, though Gatsby intends to leave Tom without a wife, with a the proverbial flea in his ear, he has no vindictive intentions, no desire to harm Tom except the unavoidable unpleasantness of losing a wife he did not seem to deeply value anyway. Thus, Gatsby’s feelings for Daisy have purified his own heart, allowing him to transcend the selfish hatreds, judgments, and manipulations of those around him. This is the final impression Nick gets of him; “(He had)…an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have not found in any other person…Gatsby turned out alright in the end.” Even though Gatsby is ultimately a failure in the eyes of the world standards, Nick perceives his inner innocence, his “incorruptible dream.”
In delving into the redemptive power of absolute romantic dedication to a beloved, The Great Gatsby shows itself to be a work of true greatness, worthy to stand amongst the most significant works mankind has catalogued. Both its presentation of a truly timeless theme and the furthering of the discussion of that theme cause this story to merit such an exulted place. This book continues the discussion in the Odyssey of a man who travels and seeks for his home without being daunted or ultimately distracted by the world, showing this in Jay Gatsby’s relentless quest for his own home: his place of rest, fulfillment, and identity, which is his beloved. The Great Gatsby also references the salvific effect that romantic love can impart in Dante’s Divine Comedy, though Gatsby does not reach the same transcendent level of true love that Dante reaches through Beatrice. The story of Jay Gatsby brings these and other universal themes into a modern context, exploring the profound tension between the modern world and our fundamentally spiritual needs as human beings.