“We must not attempt to find an absolute in the flesh” (C.S. Lewis)
My niece came over a few days ago and she told me that her High School class in Michigan is reading America’s iconic novel about the roaring twenties, The Great Gatsby. She told me that the teacher often reads parts of the book to the class, and also shows them a movie version of the book. I told her she might want to consider listening to an audio rendition of the book because I have found that listening to this particular book being read is almost more edifying and real – or at least more pleasurable – than reading it.
In any event (as I explained) most of the action in the novel takes place in Long Island, and secondarily in Louisville, but almost unknown is the fact that one of the most important scenes in the novel takes place in Michigan! If you drive to the far western end of the Upper Peninsula – really as far as you can go west and south and still stay in Michigan – you will come close to a bay on Lake Superior known as Little Girl’s Bay or Little Girl’s Point (and there is a park nearby where you can camp called Little Girl’s Point County Park). A little further north along Lake Superior are the beautiful Porcupine Mountains where I camped two summers ago, and where I witnessed a spectacular display of stars the first evening there (my own mystical experience on Lake Superior!).
It is at Little Girl’s Bay that the dramatic transformation or recreation of James Gatz’s life takes place and he changes into the person known as Jay Gatsby. “James Gatz – that was really, or at least legally, his name. He had changed it at the age of seventeen and at the specific moment that witnessed the beginning of his career – when he saw Dan Cody’s yacht drop anchor over the most insidious flat on Lake Superior” (Chapter 6). Dan Cody “had been coasting along all too hospitable shores for five years when he turned up as James Gatz’s destiny in Little Girl Bay” (Chapter 6).
Julie Kenyon points out in an essay on The Great Gatsby that there is a folk-tale associated with the naming of Little Girl’s Point, which tells of a “young maiden who runs off with her fairy lover. At night her moonlit figure is seen on the shore by the fisherman across the waters. When they approach she flees, sheltered by her lover’s green plumes.” It is interesting to note, in this context, that Daisy’s maiden name, Fay, means fairy, and that the euphoric green light that formed the basis for all of Gatsby’s dreams and aspirations signified her presence. One could argue that The Great Gatsby is a fairy tale that crashes into reality and ends with a very unhappy ending.
But as the fairy tale goes, Gatsby hit it off with Cody, a multi-millionaire, hopped on his yacht, and sailed around the continent for five years! Pretty cool! During this voyage of discovery, Cody became a Father figure for Gatsby, educating him in a “vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (Chapter 6). If you look up the word meretricious it means fake, or insubstantial, or even prostituted. Fitzgerald adds, “So [Gatz] 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.”
Gatsby’s reimagining himself as a new person has a religious dimension because he sees himself, as Fitzgerald indicates, as a “son of God,” a clear reference to the life of Jesus, and a very poor and vulgar comparison. I think at this point Fitzgerald would have been better off sticking to his philosophical description of Gatsby’s “Platonic conception of himself” rather than bringing in the weak (and crude) religious comparison as well. After all, Daisy is a Platonic ideal for Gatsby, she is the perfect form that gives life a transcendent reality for Gatsby, and all his efforts are employed at getting her back from Tom Buchanan.
And there is no Jesus sacrifice made by Gatsby at the end of the novel, implied by him “shouldering” his mattress to the pool and being asked if he needed help to carry it, and this is because Gatsby has no idea he is about to be shot by George Wilson. So again, the Jesus allusion is weak, contorted and pretty much unnecessary.
The real relevance Jesus has to this novel are his warnings about the dangers of riches and a purely materialistic view of life. For the American dream, at least in its most elevated form, sees God as the transcendent reality by which all material gains must be seen in their proper perspective. It is said that F. Scott Fitzgerald admired the literary skills of G.K. Chesterton. But in actuality it is Chesterton’s theological insight that seems far more applicable to the life of Gatsby. Chesterton says:
“The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck.”
As Fitzgerald acutely observes in the novel, Daisy ultimately “tumbled short of Gatsby’s dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.”
As Professor Stanley Cooperman suggests, “Perhaps the chief element in Gatsby’s inevitable destruction is the fact that his romanticism, his misplaced ‘faith’ in material success (as a kind of spiritual rite and proof of identity), is so intense that he ultimately believes that he can indeed recreate reality according to his heart’s desire.”
Jesus was not at all influenced by Gatsby’s illusion (an illusion which transcends time and place, an illusion that dates back to Adam and Eve). He understood the true value of things (and persons) in relationship to God. See, for example, Matthew 4: 8-10. Whatever “higher” ideals Gatsby may have had, he was corrupt to the core and not worthy of being compared to Jesus. Simply put, Gatsby is not a Christ figure, and it was Fitzgerald’s own misconception to imagine it so.
And so to my niece I say: be careful what you dream about on the shore of Lake Superior!
Thomas L. Mulcahy
References: The essay by Julie Kenyon is entitled, “Little Girl Bay,” Frontier, and Folklore: Fitzgerald’s Use of Regional History in The Great Gatsby (available online). The quote from Chesterton is in his famous book, Orthodoxy. With respect to the spelling of Little Girl’s Point (or Little Girls Point) I note here that some internet sites use the apostrophe and some do not.
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