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. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end (99).
James Gatz was already "about his Father's business" when he carefully sketched out a schedule for self improvement on the back of his "Hopalong Cassidy" book. He had already realized what his dream was and had created his own personal religion, which was one of romantic ideals: wealth, youth, and beauty. Gatsby, "a son of God," strived to obtain the "vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty," and to incarnate these ideals with reality. Like Jesus Christ came here as an incarnation of man and the divine, "the perfect word entering the imperfect world-- and yet remaining perfect"
(Christensen, 154-155), Gatsby is referred to as "a son of God" because through his invention of Jay Gatsby, James Gatz tried to incarnate his ideal dream with reality. Daisy becomes the embodiment of that dream because she is the personification of his romantic ideals. For him she represents his youth and is the epitomy of beauty. Gatsby, "with the religious conviction peculiar to saints, pursues an ideal, a mystical union, not with God, but with the life embodied in Daisy Fay" (Allen, 104). He becomes disillusioned into thinking the ideal is actually obtainable, and the realization that he will never be able to obtain his dream is what destroys him in the end. Gatsby realizes that Daisy isn't all he thought she was, and with this his dream collapses. The symbolic implications of this can be realized when studying Fitzgerald's religious beliefs and other religious imagery in the novel. Through Gatsby's disillusionment, Fitzgerald makes a profound statement about humanity.
In order to understand the religious imagery in The Great Gatsby, one must first understand Fitzgerald's own ideas on religion. Fitzgerald was a troubled man much of his life, and was a victim of psychological and emotional turmoil. Fitzgerald's friend, John Peale Bishop once remarked he had "the rare faculty of being able to experience romantic and ingenuous emotions and a half hour later regard them with satiric detachment." Fitzgerald had an "almost religious awe that he felt toward the idealization of great wealth and the romanticization of sexual love, by both of which he felt simultaneously attracted and repulsed, enchanted and offended" (McQuade, 1308). This ambivalence is shown in his religious beliefs. He had a love/ hate relationship with the Catholic Church. He was repulsed by the Church, but the Church had much influence over his moral decisions throughout his life. Fitzgerald once said, "'Parties are a form of suicide, I love them, but the old Catholic in me secretly disapproves.' Fitzgerald's midwestern Puritanism or middle-class Catholicism was his salvation, as burdensome as it might have been at times. It was... what kept him from denying his obligation to his family and his artistic integrity" (Allen, 88).
One night in 1921, a friend of Fitzgerald's heard him mutter a strange comment. "God damn the Catholic Church; God damn the Church; God damn God!" he said (Allen, 92). It was three years before he would write The Great Gatsby. In the years preceding this incident, he would often visit with a priest by the name of John Barron to talk about "Fitzgerald's writing as well as other literary and religious matters" (Allen, 91). Barron noticed his "spiritual instability," and "his natural response to Fitzgerald's iconoclasms was a quiet "Scott, quit being a damn fool'" (Allen, 92). Fitzgerald left the Catholic Church and became skeptical as to whether or not Jesus was the Son of God.
Fitzgerald's attitude toward Jesus Christ is reflected in his appreciation for Ernest Renan's book, The Life of Jesus. He was very impressed with it, which is shown in his 1919 book, This Side of Paradise. Renan was included in "Amory's list of the sword-like pioneering personalities who were concerned in the 'eternal attempt to attach a positive value to life'" (Christensen, 156). Renan had such
an impact on Fitzgerald that his appreciation for his work endured. Twenty years later he wrote a letter to his daughter Scottie asking her if she had read any good books lately, such as Renan's Life of Jesus (Cristensen, 156).
Renan believed that Jesus was a romantic idealist, not an incarnation of the divine. He believed He was "merely mortal," and "intellectually dismisses Jesus' declarations of God's truth about His Messianic identity and power because these declarations violate 'our principles of positive science'" (Christensen, 157). Renan admires Jesus for being faithful to His dream, which was salvation for mankind. He believed that Jesus' dream, although it seemed he had a brief period of success, was destroyed in the end because He was disillusioned; His ideas were not grounded in reality. The realization of this is what caused him to give up his life and surrender to the Romans to be crucified.
Fitzgerald creates many parallels between Jay Gatsby and Jesus Christ in order to establish a powerful message about humanity, and in this message he communicates his own feelings about Christianity. Before Gatsby tells Nick about his past; his travels through Europe, Montenegro, and his Oxford days, he said, "'I'll tell you God's truth.' His right hand suddenly ordered divine retribution to stand by" (65). "Fitzgerald makes Gatsby announce, as did Jesus, that his account of himself is 'God's truth'" (Christensen, 154). The events that lead up to Gatsby's death and Gatsby's death itself resemble in some ways Jesus' death and resurrection. Gatsby, "shouldered (his) mattress" on the way to his pool, the place of his death, much like Christ carried the cross to Golgotha before He was crucified. The murder of Gatsby occurs at around 3:00 in the afternoon, the same hour of Christ's death (Allen, 109). Also, "like Christ, Gatsby is left among strangers during a three-day vigil, and 'on the third day' (167) his true identity is resurrected with the telegram of Henry C. Gatz of Minnesota" (Allen, 109).
Other elements of the character of Jay Gatsby take on new meaning when compared to Renan's idea of Christ, and in this Fitzgerald voices his beliefs. Gatsby was a romantic idealist. He tried to make his ideal dream, which was embodied in Daisy, a reality. For one moment it seems that he had done this, just as Renan claimed Jesus enjoyed a brief period of success.
"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. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete" (112).
But, he soon realizes that his dream will never be obtained. He realizes this at the suite in the Plaza Hotel, after Daisy claims she loves both him and Tom.
But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up, and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room" (135).
Gatsby realizes that everything he had lived for was gone. Not only did Daisy deny him, but Gatsby realizes that she is an illusion. Although he still desperately tries to keep his dream alive by waiting for Daisy's phone call, he probably realized that his whole life had been based on nothing but an illusory dream.
"I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass" (162).
Once Gatsby realized his dream was dead, he had to die. He could not bare the reality that Daisy would never be his. Renan claims that Christ realized at the end of his life that his dreams weren't possible, mankind could not be saved, and with this realization, he died in despair.
Both Renan and Fitzgerald "allow their respective heroes to pursue their dreams, but remain themselves sufficiently outside of the dream to remind the reader that those dreams cannot be reconciled with hard fact" (Christensen, 157). Nick's comparison of Jay Gatsby to Jesus "implies a trenchant criticism of the American culture which shaped Gatsby's dream and thus put him in 'the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty' so different from the gracious Father whom Jesus served; however, it also suggests sympathy and admiration for Gatsby rivaling that for Jesus Himself" (Christensen, 155).
Gatsby was sacrificed for Daisy; George Wilson wouldn't have murdered him if he knew that Daisy was driving the car. What Gatsby did for Daisy is symbolic in that it imitates what Christ did for mankind. Gatsby, although betrayed by Daisy, as an expression of his love for her, was willing to take the blame for Daisy's ultimate sin, the killing of Myrtle. Fitzgerald believed that humanity was hopeless, and Daisy's character is a symbol of that hopelessness. "Aren't we all a little like Daisy--foolish sinners who wander around avoiding reality, hurting and being hurt by those around us, letting others take the punishment for our transgressions?" (Clark, 3/10).
Allen, Joan M. Candles and Carnival Lights: The Catholic Sensibility of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York University Press: New York, 1978.
Christensen, Bryce J. "The Mystery of Godliness." Major Literary Characters: Gatsby. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.
Clark, Larry. "*******your essay ideas*******." E-Mail message. 10 March 1996.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1925.
Gindin, James. "Gods and Fathers in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Novels." Modern Critical Views: F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
McQuade, Donald, ed. The Harper American Literature. Harper & Row Publishers: New York, 1987, pp. 1308-1311. This paper is the property of NetEssays.Net Copyright 1999-2002
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