By Catherine Addington
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.
The narrator of The Great Gatsby, the title character’s next-door neighbor Nick Carraway, gives us this description after finally unveiling his friend’s early history. It is one of the only uses of explicitly Christian language in the novel, and it is shakily Christian at that, presenting Gatsby, and by analogy Christ, as a man whose intensely idealistic self-image does not match up with reality. And yet it is precisely in that exploration of superficial grandeur that the novel’s tragic message can most speak to Christians.
These few sentences strike at the tragedy of Gatsby, a man whose single-minded passion could have been considered virtuous had it not been committed to the wrong ideal. Throughout the book, Nick uses faithful language to describe Gatsby’s drive for his version of perfection: for Nick, Gatsby was “the most hopeful man I’d ever encountered,” a man who maintains a religious belief in the “future that year by year recedes before us.” He simply misorients all of that hope, looking to a blissful future in a material world that was not just fading in the eschatological sense but in a short-term socioeconomic one as well.
As Nick rightly observes, Christ was a servant of beauty. He sought it in the faith and perseverance of the poor and the afflicted, and he had his hope in the knowledge that his kingdom is not of this world. Gatsby perverts that search of beauty, reducing it to materialistic allure alone. Christ’s model of selfless love, promising holiness and eternal life rather than kingly power as its reward, finds no place in Gatsby’s conception of the world. Gatsby assumes love is a function of impressing someone with sufficient material pleasure, so he builds up his wealth and style in the belief that this alone will be enough to win over his lost love, Daisy Buchanan. It is not that he misunderstands love, exactly, but that love is not what he is going for. Daisy functions not as a person but as a symbol of the easy luxury and charm that he longs desperately to escape into.
For a fair amount of the novel, that seems to be working. Gatsby executes that illusion of wealth — arrived at by bootlegging and organized crime — so well that the novel reads like a success story before it becomes a melancholy reflection. He throws opulent parties, catches Daisy’s eye once more, and is much more of a legend than a protagonist for more than half the book. By drawing the reader into Gatsby’s world, Fitzgerald plays on a deeply held American ideal, as Jackson Cuidon and Alissa Wilkinson pointed out in their review of the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. “We love this kind of thing, the person who comes from nothing. It tells us that anyone from anywhere can make his mark in the American landscape—that anyone can change the world. But what’s it like to be on the other end? … Do you want to be the self you made?”
That remade self stems from a self-loathing that Gatsby never seems to escape. The “American dream” that Fitzgerald invokes, and the fantasy life of Jay Gatsby, depends heavily on the assumption that it was not worth living life as James Gatz, the rural North Dakota veteran who had to pay for college by working a janitorial job on the side. It assumes that with wealth comes a more meaningful life, a more emotionally and spiritually fulfilling one, not just a materially easier one.
It is fundamental to the Christian view of humanity that we are made in God’s image and likeness. As Orthodox Christians, we consider one another icons of God for this exact reason, that we are manifestations of His beauty. It can be tempting to conflate that analogy with a worldview that prizes physical and material allure over spiritual truth, the way Gatsby does. It can also be tempting to interpret Christ’s command that we be perfect using the world’s, and Gatsby’s definition of perfection, dealing in earthly success alone. But The Great Gatsby dwells on the falsehood of this material “American dream” in much the way that Christ eschewed earthly cares. As we read Gatsby’s story, we should be mindful of the ways we ourselves confuse earthly and heavenly perfection. Let us not forget that the Christ who is now king of heaven spent his time on earth as a poor, traveling rabbi in backwater of the Roman Empire, and let us ensure that the James Gatzes of this world hear that message with loving care.