The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is considered one of the greatest works of 20th century literature. It is a scathing critique of the materialism and hypocrisy of the so-called ‘American Dream‘ as embodied in the Roaring Twenties (a time to which current levels of income inequality are often compared) and the Jazz Age, and therefore of American capitalism in general.
A number of movie adaptations have been made of the story over the years, most notably the 1974 version with Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby, Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway, and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan; and also the 2013 version with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick, and Carey Mulligan as Daisy. I’ve included links to a few YouTube videos of scenes from both of these film versions below.
Here are some famous quotes:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
‘”Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” –Nick Carraway, the narrator
Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.
Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it was what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
“All right.[…] I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” –Daisy, on her daughter
This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.
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.
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.” –Nick and Gatsby, on Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy
He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: “I never loved you.” After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money — that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it…high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…
Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night. “God sees everything,” repeated Wilson. –Wilson talking about the billboard outside his window
And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. –closing lines
A pervasive myth in the US is this notion of ‘the American Dream,’ as personified in Daisy in the story. Apparently, it doesn’t matter where one is born on the social ladder: if one works hard enough, one can rise to the top. Given the reality of class, as it has always existed in the US, right from the time of the Founding Fathers and the creation of the Constitution, every bit as much as elsewhere in the world, we can see what nonsense this fantasy of upward mobility is.
Even the wealth and success of Gatsby cannot disprove this disillusioning reality, for when he’s murdered, he is publicly despised (no one other than his father and Nick attends his funeral), not only because he takes the blame for the manslaughter of Myrtle Wilson, but because he has acquired his wealth through the illegal practice of bootlegging during the Prohibition years (the Prohibitionists themselves a much-misunderstood political movement). Though the capitalist accumulation of wealth through the exploitation of workers–that is, in the conventional way–may be legal, it’s no less immoral than Gatsby’s way.
Nick has received advice from his father not to judge those in the world who haven’t had the advantages he’s had; but by the end of the novel, he can easily judge Tom and Daisy Buchanan–the latter actually being guilty of Myrtle’s killing–since these two have had all the advantages of being from the upper classes. The “fundamental decencies [are] parcelled out unevenly at birth.” (page 1, my emphasis)
Many working class Americans admire Donald Trump as an ‘anti-establishment president’ embodying the American Dream, but they ignore that he was born into wealth. His grandfather made the family fortune, and the Donald claimed his father gave him “a small loan of a million dollars” to start out when he was young, which isn’t true, incidentally; but even if it were, the average Third World sweatshop worker (some of whom work like slaves for Ivanka) would kill to have that much money to start a business. This inequality is what we socialists mean by class privilege.
The Carraways embody this class privilege, too, since Nick’s “grandfather’s brother…sent a substitute to the Civil War” (page 2). Nick goes East to learn the bond business, and has “bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities…promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew.” (page 3)
Nick lives in a house in a fictional area on Long Island, New York, called “West Egg,” and on the other side of the bay, “the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water” (page 4). These two oval-shaped formations of land are the eggs that begin the life of this story.
Daisy and Tom, when Nick meets them in East Egg, almost immediately display their upper class arrogance: she shows her contempt of those in West Egg, and Tom blatantly reveals himself to be a white supremacist (page 10), right at a time, incidentally, when fascism was emerging in Europe. Recall elsewhere when Tom says, “Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” (page 99)
Tom is especially obnoxious: he’s arrogant, aggressive, and obscenely wealthy (having “brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest” to Long Island–page 5), and we learn soon enough that he has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson, whom he hits for daring to say his wife’s name (page 27). But it turns out that Daisy will have an amour of her own–Gatsby, who gazes out at a green light (where the Buchanans’ home is, far off across the water from his mansion).
The colour green is appropriate–the green of greenbacks. Money, accumulated in large enough amounts, it would seem, is the ticket of entry into the world of the upper classes. Since Daisy personifies ‘the American Dream’ in this story, and Gatsby so yearns for her, we can see why he’s gazing far off at that minute green light.
Myrtle lives with her poor husband, George Wilson, in a place between West Egg and New York City referred to as “the valley of ashes.” (page 17) The place is actually Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, which in the 1920s was a kind of dumping ground of ash and waste; but since Myrtle is struck dead by Gatsby’s car on the road there, and since George shoots and kills Gatsby in revenge for his wife’s death, then kills himself, making “the holocaust…complete” (page 125), I can’t resist associating this “valley of ashes” symbolically with Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, where burnt offerings of sacrificed children were given.
Both Gatsby and Myrtle are sacrificed, as it were, by Tom and Daisy, who carry on their upper class existence without repentance–hence Nick’s contempt for both of them at the end of the story. In this story, sacrifice isn’t about giving up something valuable in order to get something better: here, it is just ceremonial murder.
Gatsby, as the man who rose to wealth and has fallen by the end of the story (rising and falling is a motif expressed over and over again, in different forms, throughout the novel), is a kind of Christ for capitalism. He takes the blame for Daisy’s manslaughter of Myrtle (page 110), just as Christ died for our sins; then “Gatsby turn[s] out all right at the end” (page 2), which suggests at least a symbolic resurrection. He rose to wealth, died, and–so to speak–rose again.
[Fitzgerald published this novel four years before the stock market crash of 1929, but he seems to have been a prophet, seeing how overconfident people were in the Twenties, buying now and paying later. He saw how the economy rose and rose…he must have known it would fall. In any case, a casual reading of economic history would have informed him of the many economic crises that had already plagued the US over the centuries, enough to inform him that another one was coming soon.]
Gatsby’s mansion is his church, where he is the host of wild parties, his Mass. Heavy drinking goes on there; such drinks as champagne are his sacramental wine. As a bootlegger, Gatsby is saying to his guests, “Drink…This is My blood…” (Matthew 26:27-28). In the “hilarity” of these parties, we see a fusion of the Eucharist with Dionysian revelry.
Zagreus was a version of Dionysus (whom some ancients identified with Yahweh) who was killed, cooked, ceremoniously eaten (as are the wafers of the Host), and who rose from the dead. The Eucharist (drinking Christ’s blood and eating His flesh) is believed to have been derived from ancient pagan cannibalism; certainly the pagan Romans persecuted Christians out of a belief that Communion was cannibalism.
Nick refers to Gatsby as his host a number of times in Chapter 3, which vividly describes one of these parties; on one occasion, after “the first supper” (!), Nick and Jordan are “going to find the host” (page 33), which sounds–in this context–rather like trying to find Jesus, in this story, the Christ of wealth.
The “premature moon,” which has been “produced like the supper,” (page 32) has “risen higher” at “midnight [when] the hilarity ha[s] increased” and “happy, vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky” (page 35). The moon is associated with lunacy, in this case Dionysian lunacy. Towards the end of the party, the moon is described as a “wafer…shining over Gatsby’s house,” and later in the same paragraph, Gatsby is once again referred to as “the host” (page 41).
When Nick meets Gatsby, the latter says to him, “I’m not a very good host.” Of course not: he’s a Christ for capitalism. The Great Gatsby-Christ does, however, confer his grace on you: “He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. 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. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” (page 36)
Passages of this sort, among other Biblical allusions, abound in the story. Recall when “Owl Eyes [is] washing his hands of the whole matter.” (page 40) Earlier, there’s a reference to a magazine named Simon Called Peter. (page 21)
Gatsby is from a poor family in rural North Dakota; but he considers himself “a son of God” (!) and narcissistically aspires to something better. His wish to marry Daisy is thus like Christ’s love of His bride, the Church. Not only must she love Gatsby, though, she must also say she’s never loved her husband, Tom–rather like how the sinner must completely renounce his life of sin in order to be saved.
Gatsby’s fantasies of upward mobility, as opposed to the Buchanans’ already established class status, are like the right-wing libertarian’s dreams of striking it rich through the “free market,” as opposed to the way capitalism establishes wealth in the real world–through the protection of the bourgeois state and its laws…through class.
Gatsby as a nouveau-riche has made his fortune in a lawless manner, by selling booze as a mafia-capitalist during Prohibition. He is thus regarded as scum by Tom and the upper-class establishment. The Prohibitionists were opposed to the capitalist exploitation of alcoholism, of getting rich off of drinkers’ addiction; they weren’t so much priggish opponents of having fun, as popularly assumed. On the other side of the coin, the scorning of Prohibitionists as liberty-denying prigs was more out of a wish to continue profiting from the sale of liquor than from promoting ‘liberty.’
For these people, ‘liberty’ is really just licence to be selfish. Such ‘liberty’ is also seen in the taking of mistresses, which contrary to the denials of those into polyamory, just fuels jealousy, as we see mutually between Daisy and Myrtle over Tom, and between him and Gatsby over Daisy. Class differences intermingle with these jealousies, too–not just between aspiring Gatsby and Tom, but also between Myrtle and Daisy, the former being ashamed of her poor husband, George Wilson.
Gatsby idealizes not only the class status of Daisy, whose “voice is full of money” (page 92); he also idealizes the past–namely, his past with her prior to the war. He imagines, in his utterly quixotic way, that he can bring back that pristine past–the same way the market fundamentalists, wilfully ignorant of how capitalism has metastasized from its nineteenth-century, free competition form into the monopolistic, imperialistic finance capitalism that it has been for over a hundred years, imagine they can bring back the old laissez-faire of the past.
Gatsby’s love affair with Daisy, years prior to the beginning of the novel, was a kind of absolute jouissance that was taken from him when he had to fight in World War One. Having returned from the war, he’s hoped to reunite with her, but his hopes have been shaken from learning she’s married Tom. The happiness he had with her prior to the war is what Lacan would have called Gatsby’s objet petit a (“little-a object,” a standing for autre, “other“), the object-cause of his unfulfillable desire. He hopes his reunion with her will bring back that unrealizable joy, that excess of jouissance.
Gatsby has a lack, a void or hole in his life that he imagines Daisy will fill for him, when of course she can never do that, since she’s married to Tom and, in class terms, she’s out of Gatsby’s league, in spite of his newly-acquired wealth.
James Gatz has changed his name to Jay Gatsby, hoping this change in words will help change who he is. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Gatsby, and the Word was Gatsby. And the earth was waste and void, just as Gatsby has a void he needs Daisy to fill.
He takes the blame for Daisy’s having killed Myrtle with his car; for Gatsby so loved the girl that he gave his one and only life, that her reputation shall not perish but carry on living. His lack, his void, is the poor world he’s ashamed to have been born in. As a ‘temporarily embarrassed millionaire,’ he has this embarrassment as his objet petit a, which causes him to desire Daisy, marriage with whom will be his ticket to the upper classes.
Is his love for Daisy based on a transference of Oedipal feelings for his mother? Does Daisy’s voice, so “full of money,” remind him of his mother’s voice from when he was a child? We have no way of knowing, and it very well may not be; but even if there is no literal Oedipal connection, the relationship between Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom can be seen as at least symbolically Oedipal.
In this scenario, Gatsby is the ‘son’ (recall that he’s “a son of God”), Daisy Buchanan is the ‘mother’ (with whom he’s had unrestrained jouissance before the war, as an infant has had with its mother before the Oedipal conflict begins), and Tom Buchanan is the ‘father,’ whose nom (or Non!) forbids the love of the first two.
Since Gatsby is ashamed of his humble beginnings, we can imagine him, in all likelihood, having grown up with a family romance, in which he has dreamed of being born to aristocratic parents. “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people–his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.” (page 75) Thus, his “Platonic conception” of being “a son of God” is an immaculate conception, in which his idealizing of Daisy, the American Dream personified, makes her a symbolic Madonna.
The Oedipal love in this family romance could have been unconsciously transferred onto Daisy and Tom. Just as Jesus was born into a humble setting, yet said to be “made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God…” (Romans 1:3-4), so has James Gatz been declared Jay Gatsby, “a son of God.”
Thus, Gatsby’s time of jouissance with Daisy before the war is like a baby’s time of narcissistic mirroring with its idealized mother, Lacan’s Imaginary, as I’ve described it elsewhere. In this scenario, Jesus Gatsby, if you will, is with Daisy the Madonna. The mythography of Mary, mother of Jesus, was influenced by mythology (or, at least, iconography) involving pagan couplings of mother goddesses (or virgin mortals) and their divine sons/(sometimes) lovers. Gatsby, as a “son of God,” is an expression of James Gatz’s grandiose self, and Daisy, as a symbolic Virgin Mary, represents an idealized mirror reflecting that narcissism back to him.
Law and custom must break up that narcissistic relationship, though: hence, Gatsby’s leaving Daisy to fight the war. This represents a leaving of the Imaginary to enter the Symbolic Order of language, culture, and society–no more one-on-one relationship with a mother/lover figure. One must embrace the world and know humanity in general.
Gatsby has his parties, but he doesn’t drink with his guests. His only reason for socializing with Nick is to get him to arrange a meeting with Daisy, the one person he wants to connect with, to revive that one-on-one, narcissistically mirrored relationship.
In Gatsby’s confrontation with jealous Tom in the Plaza Hotel (Chapter 7), we see the symbolic Oedipal hostility between ‘son’ (Gatsby) and ‘father’ (Tom). It isn’t enough for Gatsby to have Daisy love him, and for her to have formerly loved Tom: she must never have loved Tom, just as a child wants Mommy to love only him, and never Daddy. Such is the child’s narcissistic, self-absorbed state, to have Mommy all to himself and for her to be his entire world, an extension of himself. Gatsby wants the same from Daisy: his petit objet a demands this unrealistic, impossible thing from her.
“There is no such thing as a sexual relationship,” Lacan once enigmatically said. What he meant by that, apart from his usual verbiage about language and ‘signifiers,’ was that love, in the sense of finding an ideal, life-long mate, is an illusion. Shortly after we get married, the romance dies out, and we become disillusioned with, bored with, or even fed up with our partner. For many, religion, tradition, and/or custom are the only things that stop them from divorcing.
This disillusion is what we see in the marriages of the Buchanans and the Wilsons: hence, Tom’s and Myrtle’s affair, then that of Gatsby and Daisy. Still, keeping the ‘sacred’ institution of marriage intact is all-important to Tom, in spite of his philandering, since the preservation of that institution is part of what holds society together, which for him includes protecting his class and racial privileges. (Recall his racist remark about miscegenation on page 99.)
One should recall what Marx had to say about the bourgeois institution of marriage in this regard: “The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion, than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.
“He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.
“For the rest, nothing is more ridiculous than the virtuous indignation of our bourgeois at the community of women which, they pretend, is to be openly and officially established by the Communists. The Communists have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed almost from time immemorial.
“Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each others’ wives.
“Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women. For the rest, it is self-evident, that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.” The Communist Manifesto, II–Proletarians and Communists
In sum, the following illusions are among the crucial ones that keep class conflict, in its current capitalist form, an undying problem: the unattainable, yet still ever-desired American Dream; racial superiority; bourgeois marriage; narcissism, and the Church. That love is expressed through adultery is more of a sign of alienation than any other.
George Wilson imagines God’s eyes seeing everything, but He did nothing to save the Wilsons’ marriage, let alone Myrtle’s life. The gigantic, God-like eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg watch over everything in the valley of ashes (page 17), yet like the God of the Church, they don’t do anything to intervene in the mayhem caused, to prevent the tragedy; thus they are rather like the aloof, yet watching eyes of the ruling class.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Collins Classics, London, 1925