Gatsby: The False prophet of the American Dream The American dream, or myth, is an ever recurring theme in American literature, dating back to some of the earliest colonial writings. Briefly defined it is the belief, that every man, whatever his origins, may pursue and attain his chosen goals, be they political, monetary, or social. It is the literary expression of the concept of America: the land of opportunity. F. Scott Fitzgerald has come to be associated with the concept of the American dream more so than any other writer of the country.
In fact, the American dream has been for Fitzgerald what the theme of the separate peace has been for Earnest Hemingway – the focal point or building block for much, if not all, of his work. However, Fitzgerald’s unique expression of the American dream lacks the optimism, the sense of fulfilment, so evident in the expressions of his predecessors. Cast in the framework of the metaphor, the aforementioned exponents of the American dream were Old Testament prophets predicting the coming of the golden age, complete with a messiah who was to be epitome of the word “American. ” Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s answer.
To Fitzgerald the long prophesied American dream had its fulfillment in the “orgiastic” post World War I period was known as “The Roaring Twenties. ” He was the self-appointed spokesman for the “Jazz Age”, the term he takes credit for coining, and he gave it its arch-high priest and prophet, Jay Gatsby, in his novel The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is aptly suited for the role of arch-high priest because he is the persona and chief practitioner of the hedonism that marked this period. He is also its unwritting prophet, for his failure and destruction serve as a portent for the passing away of an era.
The suggestion that The Great Gatsby may contain religious implications is not a new idea. Bernard Tanner sees it as a “Jazz Parody”, “The Gospel of Gatsby”. Gatsby is characterized as an “inverted Christ” in this drama, and the rest of the dramatis personae are neatly fitted in, perhaps too neatly, to this allegorical framework. To wit: Nick Carraway is Nicodemus, the Pharisee; Dan Cody is St. John the Baptist with his femme fatale , Salome, in the guise of Ella Kaye; and Meyer Wolfsheim is St. Peter complete with three denials.
These characters, plus others, act out their parts in the gospel, carrying out such events as the marriage feast at Cana, various parables, Judas’ betrayal, and Christ’s crucifixion. A. E. Dyson maintains, that Dr. T. J. Eckleburg “is the only religious reference” in this novel. Roger L. Pearson doesn’t agree with these two interpretations. He believes that Fitzgerlad is much like Hemingway in his symbolic technique in The Great Gatsby, in that he projects a series of variations in his imagery so as to achieve a cumulative effect.
Fitzgerald becomes at times orthodox and formulistic to a degree in this novel. However, he achieves a totality of expression by introducing motifs that give the reader a slightly differing perspective of Gatsby, while always moving in a specific direction. Hence, Gatsby is no shallow stereotype. Instead, he has depth and complexity. There is a religious design in The Great Gatsby, and it has its basis in Jay Gatsby himself. Nick Carraway, the narrator and interpreter of the novel, describes Gatsby thus: 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. It should be noted that Gatsby is “a son of God,” the God of material love-Mammon. Rather than an “inverted Christ” or God, Gatsby is a perverted God; one who is dedicated to the physical rather than the spiritual world. Gatsby has come to espouse the gospel of the corrupted American dream. His existence is founded on a lie, a delusion, and he terms this monstrous lie “God’s truth” in relating to Nick his past.
It is evident, even to Nick, that Gatsby is a self-deluded fraud living in a world of shams. His lie especially reflects his materialism. He is Mammon resurrected by the hedonism of the 1920s. Fitzgerald introduces a supporting image for the Mammonism of Gatsby in the description of his house which serves, among other things, as the temple of his Philistinism. The description about Gatsby’s home has overtones of Babel with its tower when viewed in the content that it is inhabited by people “who never knew each other’s name. The beauty of this image of Gatsby’s house is that it is a dual one. It seems that Fitzgerald has created a twentieth-century replica-“a factual imitation”-of Milton’s Pandemonium. The image is further solidified in that Mammon was its chief architect and builder. The lights that decorate the mansion, the expensiveness of its appointments, the opulence of its library, all contribute to this image. Fitzgerald appears deliberately to contribute to the God-like image of Gatsby by withholding him from the novel, while surrounding him with an aura of myth.
Some believe him to have been a double spy during the war, others that he once killed a man, while some see him as a criminal lord of the underworld, dealing in bootleg liquor, among other things. A principal image in The Great Gatsby is the valley of ashes, presided over by the ubiquitous Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. This wasteland lies between West Egg and New York City. Several interpretations have been offered as explanations of this scene. There are similarities between the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg and Fitzgerald’s description of the anonymous Owl Eyes. It is Owl Eyes who murmurs the eulogy of “The poor son-of-a-bitch” at Gatsby’s grave.
William Goldhurst believes that Dr. Eckleburg’s presence in the novel is to “symbolize some implacable deity”. This has credence, for George Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, refers to Dr. Eckleburg as the eyes of God. “God sees everything” But what of the valley of ashes itself? One critic has noted that Fitzgerald may have had the Valley of Hinnon in mind when he created the valley of ashes. Hinnon is the Old Testament name for the city dump outside the walls of Jerusalem. Since fertile, it was defiled by the worship of false god ant turned into ashes by God in his wrath. This analysis resolves the relationship between Dr.
Eckleburg, the valley of ashes and Gatsby. The valley of ashes is the result of Jay Gatsby’s testament, the dust of a perverted American dream; and like its biblical counterpart, it has its association with the worshiping of a false god, Mammon, incarnate in his son, Gatsby. A contributing factor in this assessment of the role of Gatsby is provided by Meyer Wolfsheim. It is an often stated premise that it takes evil to recognize evil. We have just such an instance here. Wolfsheim claims to have “made” Gatsby, and refers to him as a “man of fine breeding”. Gatsby also has a perverted or mistaken sense of what constitutes character.
He refers to Meyer Wolfsheim as a “smart man” and he also lauds Jordan Baker as a woman who “wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t all right”. Gatsby’s gospel of hedonism is reflected in his house, wild parties, clothing, roadster, and particularly in his blatant wooing of another man’s wife. Daisy, a rather soiled and cheapened figure, is Gatsby’s ultimate goal in his concept of the American dream. However, he falls victim to his own preachings. He comes to believe himself omniscient – above the restriction of society and morality. He will win back Daisy by recapturing the past.
Gatsby is going to achieve his ends through sheer materialistic means, through the power that he thinks he commands from his wealth. It is at the death of Gatsby that Fitzgerald becomes formulistic and orthodox in his symbolism. The rejected and soon to be betrayed Gatsby stands alone under Daisy’s window, keeping a vain vigil over his shattered dream. The following afternoon, Gatsby, with the help of his chauffeur, fills his pneumatic mattress and starts for his swimming-pool. Shortly thereafter, the chauffeur hears the shots, fired by an “ashen fantastic figure” and Gatsby lies dead, a victim of his own absurd aspirations.
The passion and crucifixion imagery is perhaps too unmistakable here; however, it does have its desired effect, because it casts Gatsby in the role of a rejected messianic figure through its Biblical illusion. He had come alive to us, “delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendour,” only to fail in his mission. Jay Gatsby’s eulogy is spoken by Owl Eyes. Gatsby was the bastard of a hedonistic age, spawned by it and killed by it. Nick, at one point, surmised: “ his imagination had never really accepted…his parents at all. The sole monument to the world of Gatsby’s ministry is “that huge incoherent failure of a house” that he left behind. And his epitaph on this monument is an obscene word, scribbled in chalk, by some neighbourhood boy. As a prophet of the American dream, Gatsby fails – miserably – a victim of his own warped idealism and false set of values. The American dream is not to be reality, in that it no longer exists, except in the minds of men like Gatsby, whom it destroys in their espousal and relentless pursuit of it. The American dream is, in reality, a nightmare.