The Great Gatsby may be the greatest novel in American history. Fitzgerald takes the reader deep into the wealthy Long Island manifestation of the Roaring Twenties, an era when, according to the New York Times, “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession.” Yet Gatsby is not merely a period piece, a myopic look at a narrow, passing period in American history. The novel is a deep dive into the world of men trapped in the box of a materialist world, where the heart continued to yearn for transcendence but the culture offered no path to fulfill such a desire. In this world, man continues to want to escape his selfishness and seek something beyond himself, but he finds no way out.
Like Gatsby—and like Fitzgerald himself—the human person yearns to “romp . . . like the mind of God,” to transcend the world of gin and sex, of mansions and parties, of the millions of dollars ready to be made here in the American Dream. But trapped in a world—the Roaring Twenties in particular, modernity in general—where one’s physical and intellectual surroundings seem devoid of God, one is in an earthly box with a depressingly low ceiling. So the restless heart seeks transcendence among the gin and sex, the mansions and parties, the millions of dollars. And such hearts will find no rest. The Great Gatsby is the story of these restless hearts.
There is a reason Gatsby is set among the great mansions of Long Island. Fitzgerald understands that, to tell the story of souls in a materialist world grasping for transcendence, it is best to tell stories of the fabulously wealthy. Those who do not have wealth and power often channel their lack of fulfillment towards the quest for wealth and power. If only they were rich, had the mansion and the cars, the high-end job, access to the rich and famous and beautiful, then they would be happy. We see these unhappy people scattered throughout Gatsby’s world: the girls downing drinks and dancing at parties to which they were not invited, the unhappy men stalking around the same parties (also uninvited, and perhaps accompanied by their wives) looking for exciting women and adventure. Created with a heart meant for greatness, for eternity, yet completely unaware of the One who can fulfill such desires, people look to fill the void with food and drink, with glitz and glam, with sex and excitement and everything else at Gatsby’s fabulous, over-the-top parties.
But watching the rich attempt to transcend their restless lives is much more interesting, because they already have all the wealth they could desire. No longer able to pin their hopes on wealth and its accouterments, they continually, desperately, grasp to transcend their circumstances somehow. What they grasp at forms a profound commentary on the human condition.
One sees the sad, futile attempts to transcend the meaninglessness of a materialist world in the lives of Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Tom Buchanan is something of a dumb man, extraordinarily wealthy with inherited money and largely unaware of what to do with himself. He found his purpose, like many young wanderers today, in sports: he “had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven . . . one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax.” From there, he drifted. As an adult, Tom seems like a man who “would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.”
So Tom travels the world. He buys mansions and horses and cars and everything there is to own and consume. He has affairs with women. Yet predictably, none of this fulfills him, because none of this transcends himself. Attempting to fill oneself with food and sex and experiences, to fill one’s surroundings with possessions, does not appease the longing of the human heart for something more than self. In an interesting turn from this unintellectual man, Tom attempts to find something greater than himself in worrying about the fate of “the white race” in society. In the midst of a terribly uncomfortable dinner party, where the knowledge of Tom’s affair with a woman from New York hovers over Tom, Daisy, and the guests, Tom vents about where his restlessness has taken him:
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?”
“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we—”
“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently . . . “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”
. . . There was something pathetic in his concentration, as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more.
Tom has clearly hit a wall of complacency. Boxed in by a life that does not allow the transcendence that the human heart demands, Tom reaches the point where his vast wealth, his relationships, all the things he has collected, have failed him. Even this generally unthoughtful person reaches toward something beyond himself, trying to find meaning in the collective struggles of races, nations, and civilizations. Of course his attempt to do so is—like the man himself—stupid and unserious. But the grasping of this thoroughly wealthy and worldly man to seek intellectual meaning beyond himself is nonetheless a telling movement of a restless heart.
Daisy appears to be more intelligent than her husband, and that intelligence, finding no transcendent outlet, results in the cynical nihilism of one who has basically given up. She dabbles constantly in silliness and sarcasm, saying things she doesn’t mean and attracting people to herself just for the fun of it. She admits as much—her wealth and travels and life with Tom have left her empty:
“You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow,” she went on in a convinced way. “Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.” Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom’s, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. “Sophisticated—God, I’m sophisticated!”
The instant her voice broke off ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said . . . I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face, as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged.
This moment captures Daisy’s person. Occasionally, her deep unhappiness, her cynicism about life and inability to find any meaning, break through her sarcastic facade. But she recovers quickly. She has learned to hide the emptiness in her heart by play-acting. Everything is a game; there is nothing to be taken seriously. As she reunites with Gatsby later on and remembers the love she once fleetingly experienced, in her youth before her cynicism hardened, there are hints of sincerity. Their friend Jordan Baker hints that Gatsby may be a chance for Daisy to ascend out of her nothingness: “Daisy ought to have something in her life.” But this glimmer of the hope of transcendence from the abyss does not last: Daisy toys with the idea of leaving Tom and her meaninglessness and running off with Gatsby, then quickly returns to her comfortable nothingness: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness . . . and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Daisy and Tom Buchanan are icons of two of the most common reactions to the modern materialist worldview. When people have tried to fill the void in the soul with food and sex and other earthly consumable pleasures, some, like Tom, begin to grasp desperately beyond their surroundings for a cause greater than self. Others simply give up and descend into nihilism, where everything is a joke or a game in a cruel world where we are all living and dying for no real reason.
Gatsby manages to transcend these types. Or he almost does. He at least glimpses the proper object of transcendence as love, even if his attempt to fulfill it is misguided and doomed to failure. Gatsby is something of an anomaly: he comes from nothing, but his desire to make something of himself is not centered on creating wealth or power for their own sake. His vision of greatness is centered on his love for—perhaps his obsession with—Daisy. As a young military officer, he fell in love with Daisy but was swept off to fight in the Great War. By the time he came back, she had married Tom Buchanan. As disordered as Gatsby’s fixation on Daisy was, there was something impressive about it. This man who came from abject poverty did not fix his desire for success on riches and power for their own sake but only as the means to attain the end of Daisy’s love. Everything Gatsby created and acquired was to attract Daisy to himself so that he could fulfill the yearning for love.
We see Gatsby’s yearning for transcendence throughout the story. At the beginning the narrator, Nick Carraway, almost approaches his neighbor Gatsby to introduce himself, until he realizes he would be interrupting something strange and intimate:
[Gatsby] gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.
The green light both literally and figuratively represents Daisy and Gatsby’s longing for her. Literally, because the green light comes from the dock on the Buchanan’s property across the water; Gatsby strategically bought his mansion directly across from Daisy’s home. Figuratively, the green light is that which calls out to Gatsby, that for which he yearns, toward which his trembling arms are ever outstretched.
Gatsby’s character yearns for the infinite; he sparkles with something unusual in the midst of the lavish wealth and chaotic parties of Long Island’s frivolities. Gatsby has “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it . . . it faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.” Gatsby had a mind that sought desperately to exceed the materialist limits of the world around him. He was confident that he could make anything of himself, that he could alter the past (“‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’”). With Gatsby’s infinite capacity for hope, he believed he could go back, ensure that Daisy never loved Tom Buchanan, invite her to leave Tom cleanly and marry Gatbsy, and so make everything right.
Yet while Gatsby’s love of Daisy transcends a petty love of wealth and power—itself an impressive feat in the lavish world of the Roaring Twenties—he fails to find the transcendence he seeks at the moment he takes his unlimited capacity for love and wonder and fixes them in a complete, disordered fashion upon Daisy. Gatsby was aware of the transformation of his limitless ambitions, his limitless desire for wonder and love:
“I can’t describe to you how surprised I was to find out I loved her, old sport. I even hoped for a while that she’d throw me over, but she didn’t, because she was in love with me too . . . Well, there I was, ‘way off my ambitions, getting deeper in love every minute, and all of a sudden I didn’t care. What was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do?”
Gatsby shows the glimmer of transcendence, the infinite hope that maybe, just maybe, the human person can transcend the ordinary and passing things of this world. But when that yearning for transcendence fixates on something less than the Infinite, the whole endeavor is doomed to failure. And he knew it. Gatsby gazed upward
to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.
His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. 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.
Here is the moment of tragedy, where his unutterable visions were wed to the perishable breath of a mere mortal. In a world where many people wander aimlessly, unaware of the desire for transcendence within them at all, Gatsby had a rare sense that life contained the possibility for infinite love and wonder. Yet he made the choice to bind himself to a finite creature, to take all his potential for limitless love and wonder and fix them on Daisy. From the moment that choice was made, tragedy was the only possible outcome.
And the tragedy came. On the very day Gatsby reunites with Daisy, he already starts to feel the reality that she cannot satisfy the infinite desire for transcendent love that he has placed completely on her. Mere hours after he achieves the singular desire built up in him over years, when Daisy comes to him, seems to love him, and is in his arms, the reality that Daisy is not God begins to dawn.
I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.
From the moment Gatsby built his limitless dreams upon a limited person, his fate was sealed. When Gatsby ends up dead, shot by a rightfully jealous husband who targeted the wrong man, it almost didn’t matter. Gatsby was lost one way or another. And Daisy’s inclination to cynical nihilism made it even more obvious that she would buckle under the weight of Gatsby’s dreams and run back to her life of wealth and carelessness with Tom. Gatsby’s end came not from Wilson’s gun, but from Gatsby’s own attempt to transcend the material world through love of a finite creature who could never fully satisfy him.
The Great Gatsby is the great American novel because it tells the modern American story. Society has largely adopted a materialist worldview: all can be explained by science, religion is an old-world myth, and the primary function of the human being is to consume and to avoid suffering. The contemporary culture has a vague concept of God, not as Being Itself, the transcendent and infinite One who can fulfill human yearning, but merely a distasteful cultural hangover, an image of a judgmental being looking with disapproval from above—perhaps like the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg over the ash heaps of New York. In such a world, there is really no way out. The characters in The Great Gatsby display the various ways the materialist story ends: most people dissatisfied with their selfishness will either cling vainly to some idea or cause beyond themselves or else simply descend into cynical nihilism. And when a unique and good soul actually glimpses the potential to seek the infinite and “romp with God,” he knows not where to turn. The wedding of the infinite desire to any finite creature can only end as Gatsby did, in hope unfulfilled.
In reflecting on Gatsby’s story before he tells it, Nick Carraway observes, despite this being a story of the “abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men,” that “Gatsby turned out all right at the end.” In a world without God, Nick’s point is intriguing. Gatsby was on to something: in a filthy world of wealth and sex and drink, Gatsby grasped that there was no point to becoming wealthy and powerful, to doing great things, if he had nobody to share it all with. Gatsby’s world was devoid of God, so all he could do was put those infinite longings on poor Daisy. Gatsby’s achievement was that he took seriously the cause of attempting to transcend the mundane circumstances of this life.
This is not a world of individuals, where the good will be good and the bad will be bad no matter what the societal circumstances. From the dumb fools like Tom to the cynical players like Daisy to those inclined to yearn for transcendence like Gatsby, the world in which one lives makes all the difference. A world where broad education, orthodox religion, beauty, truth, and goodness are on offer from our families and institutions, searching people have transcendent things to cling to; models of properly ordered loves will be on offer to guide their questing. In a world devoid of all of that, a world like Gatsby’s where there seems to be nothing but gin, sex, parties, and day-to-day meaninglessness, those inclined to nihilism will be confirmed in it and the hopeful, finding nothing to cling to, will die in despair. We cannot rely on isolated individuals simply finding truth, beauty, and goodness. The transcendentals need to be passed down through our institutions, our families, our culture, so that the next generation will know where to find them.
Image credit: “Scott Fitzgerald, 1921” via Wikimedia Common