Ecce Homo: The Classical Refrain of The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel endures its fair share of criticism from Christian parents and classical teachers. It is the poster child for twentieth-century debauchery and godlessness—a reputation it has earned. But a close reading of the novel reveals Fitzgerald working in a literary tradition that goes all the way back to ancient Rome. His masterpiece aims at some of the most cherished literary goals of the classical world while drawing power from a much more contemporary setting.
The Great Gatsby takes place on two Long Island peninsulas called West Egg and East Egg, home to the super rich of 1920’s New York. These upscale neighborhoods are separated from the city by a huge garbage dump called the “valley of ashes,” where the less fortunate of the story’s characters dwell. Over their barren land presides the ghostly image of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, an ophthalmologist whose bespectacled eyes gaze sightlessly out from a huge billboard in the center of the waste. Eckleburg himself is gone, having given up his practice long ago, but his image remains to mock the residents with an empty promise of vision.
The story comes to us through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a young stock broker lately moved to New York from the Midwest. Carraway befriends the mysterious tycoon Jay Gatsby whom he helps to win the love of Daisy Buchanan, a married socialite with whom Gatsby is obsessed. Along the way, Carraway takes the opportunity to observe and comment on Gatsby’s brief and violent career.
Gatsby owns the largest mansion in West Egg and throws the most decadent, lavish parties that anyone can remember. Though he appears to have riches beyond counting, nobody knows where he got them. His entire past is a mystery, in fact. One thing Carraway knows for sure: Gatsby’s desire for Daisy Buchanan is all-consuming. He will stop at nothing to woo her and so realize his dream of success. Over the course of a single summer, this obsession leads to the destruction of his world and to his own violent death.
Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby is the product of a decadent age, as most of us teachers will tell you. What we often fail to mention, though, is that the novel is also a commentary on a decadent age that correctly locates the root cause of its decadence: Eckleburg has moved away. The watching eyes are merely an advertisement; no higher power animates them anymore. In the wake of that great absence, heroes have no choice but to do what Gatsby does: create and control their own futures. To refuse to be disillusioned. The rest of us know, however, that this is a mirage of ashes.
Jay Gatsby is doomed from the start, no less than Achilles or Lear, and his inevitable destruction says as much about man’s ability to control the future as it does about the moral disaster of twentieth-century society. Gatsby’s is a universal struggle, shared by protagonists everywhere.
This is a depressing conclusion, perhaps, but true as can be if you grant the premises. If God has indeed moved on, the only source of security and truth has moved on with Him. Whether or not God had in fact moved on by 1925, He had at least been excluded from the intellectual and cultural milieu of post WWI America. He was included only as a relic of a bygone age, a symbol of verities that no longer seemed to hold. In the wake of a devastating war which left the world in fragments, thinking men like Fitzgerald were forced to ask: how can we explain a world where all that was once certain has been questioned?
Early twentieth century writers were not the only ones to have asked this question, of course. Ancient writers asked it too, as did medieval writers, and Renaissance writers, and early modern writers, and Romantic writers. Writers still ask it today, in fact.
Have you ever asked it yourself?
If you are honest, you will probably admit to wondering from time to time why God is so quiet, why He seems so disinterested in His creation. Why terrorism? Why debauchery? Why war and genocide? There are well-reasoned theological answers to all these questions, but art and literature generally prefer the human explanation to the divine. Artists always ask the same question: “What is it like to be a man in this world? What stubborn inconsistencies (including theological ones) are part and parcel of the human condition?” If you can understand the history of art as the history of this question, then depressing eras of intellectual history prove as powerful and useful as glorious ones.
For Fitzgerald, the question was simple: “What is it like to be a man in a world where science and warfare have shaken the old certainties to the core – a world where meaning must be created ‘out of the ashes’?”
The Great Gatsby echoes nearly all of Fitzgerald’s artistic ancestors with a simple answer: it is hard. Really, really hard.
Confusion, anxiety, ambiguity, mystery, surround the human ship like a foggy sea. Man has to chart his own course, and he must begin by creating his own destination. Ancient men made up gods for this purpose; modern men do the same. Jay Gatsby’s self-made god is a dream of accomplishment, wealth, possession, fulfillment, and belonging, and he strives for it with the single-minded, undaunted courage of any epic hero. He is doomed from the start, no less than Achilles or Lear, and his inevitable destruction says as much about man’s ability to control the future as it does about the moral disaster of 20th century society. Gatsby’s is a universal struggle, shared by protagonists everywhere.
ONE of the novel’s most startling themes is a wistful longing for tradition and for the intellectual security of days gone by. This conservative impulse appears in Nick Carraway’s weary, disillusioned decision to move back to the Midwest at the story’s end. He understands the rotten harvest of his day-and-age, and judges everything he has seen in New York with “unaffected scorn.” He longs instead for a society where families live together in the same house for generations, even though he knows he cannot bring that future about. His famous final line delivers all this cynicism and longing together in one lament: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Is it not true, after all? Are we not more or less powerless against the movements of culture and of history? Like it or not, we are swept along by forces beyond our control. We are creatures of our time and place, and the troubles of that time and place tempt us always to look back to an idealized past.
This is a universal reaction, and Fitzgerald is not judging; he is disillusioned enough to know better. He is simply observing that this is what it is like to be a man in this world. A man knows that his age is corrupt and that it has forsaken some ideal expression of human life and society. He knows, too, that he is powerless to stop its headlong sprint toward destruction.
Of how many ages past could the same be said? Surely Fitzgerald’s was not the first. In fact, The Great Gatsby simply rings twentieth century changes on a classical theme, with Nick Carraway rising like Cicero to offer a Jazz Age version of a complaint as old as culture: “O tempora! O mores!”
Despite this profound and ancient connection, many modern readers interested in preserving a classical approach shun Gatsby and other works from Fitzgerald’s era, including those by Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and John Steinbeck.
The reason often given is that such works are too recently published – too young, as it were – to be included in the so-called “canon” of Western literature. They cannot be considered classics, goes the argument, because they have not yet been around long enough.
The Great Gatsby rings twentieth century changes on a classical theme, with Nick Carraway rising like Cicero to offer a Jazz Age version of a complaint as old as culture: “O tempora! O mores!”
In one sense, of course, this is quite true. It takes time to identify a classic. You must wait and see which books manage to transcend their own time and place and speak to other ages in compelling ways about universally relevant themes.
But saying that Great Books stand the test of time is not the same as saying no recent book is great. Time may reveal the universal relevance of a novel’s themes, but it does not change the book itself. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, contained the same literary greatness in 1320, when it was first published, as it did in the late nineteenth-century, when it was accepted as part of the Western canon. And yet, it took more than 500 years for the Divine Comedy to be recognized as a classic. How do we explain this gap? Did the story develop into a Great Book? Did the passage of time wreak a change on the manuscript?
No, the Divine Comedy did not acquire literary greatness over time. It said the same things about human nature and its contradictions in 1860 as it had been saying since the fourteenth century. It painted the struggle against longing, sin, and finitude in sympathetic detail as vividly on its first day as it ever would. Western civilization may have grown to appreciate the universal quality of Dante’s genius, but it cannot be said that Dante’s genius has grown, or that the Divine Comedy has developed in the least.
What can be said, however, is that we did not read it. The work lay in relative obscurity until nineteenth-century translations by Henry Cary and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow brought it to English ears. Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in Italian, and so it escaped the attention of scholars who gave exclusive preference to Latin works throughout the early modern period and right up into the nineteenth century. The long delay in its elevation to “classic” status has as much to do with linguistic elitism as anything else. The English-speaking world wasted five centuries ignoring the Divine Comedy because of a prejudice against vernacular literature. Will our classical and Christian prejudice against twentieth-century literature look as silly when five more centuries have passed?
Our preoccupation with the “classic” status of books like The Great Gatsby hides a subtler prejudice. Our real problem is not that the novel is too recent, or that it lacks the universal relevance of a classic. Our real problem is that we do not like what it says. This becomes clear if we ask ourselves, “Would I have embraced the Divine Comedy in 1320 if I had read it then? Would Western culture have placed it in the canon sooner if only it had been in Latin (and so available)?” Those of us who answer “Yes” often point to its moral virtues, its catalogues of vices and their proper punishments and its apparent support for an ethical framework that resonates with our own. We embrace Dante because we can use his work to model virtue with our students.
For this purpose, of course, we cannot use The Great Gatsby at all. The only moral virtue explicitly depicted in Fitzgerald’s story is hope, and he makes it clear that hope is for fools. Instead of virtue, Gatsby offers a sordid picture of vice in just about every scene.
Furthermore, time will not change Fitzgerald’s work any more than it changed Dante’s. No matter how long we wait, Gatsby will remain the same. It is therefore safe to predict that readers interested in virtuous models for emulation will condemn the story in 100 years just as we do today. To say that we must wait to evaluate twentieth century fiction because the jury is still out is not completely honest. For many of us, the jury is very much in, and it has returned a verdict of “guilty.”
If we look to literature for models of virtue for emulation, we would indeed do well to avoid much of twentieth century fiction. Nobody ever improved himself by imitating Jay Gatsby or any of Fitzgerald’s characters. But the same goes for Hemingway, Steinbeck, Williams and the rest. As a matter of fact, the condemnation can be extended to nineteenth-century fiction as well, and to all fiction ever written, modern or ancient. The teacher trying to find fictional protagonists who model virtues that can be acquired by imitation should prepare himself for a long, fruitless search.
Why? Because, generally speaking, this is not why writers write. Novelists and poets do not attempt to teach us who we could be; instead, they show us who we are. They present us with our own faces, as in a mirror, and say ecce homo—behold the man. They tell no lies, they offer no platitudes. They force us to accept our sin, our brokenness, our futility, and our insignificance by proving that we share these traits with all men everywhere.
By exposing our common human nature to the clear light of art, great literature creates the conditions for fellowship among us. After all, what else do we really have in common but membership in this imperfect race? Even those of us who know the Gospel as the salve that heals all wounds must know ourselves as wounded before the salve can work. There is no avoiding the death that precedes life. Men in every age have faced it, and because we face it too, we have brothers in every age. Because our neighbors face it, they are our brothers as well. Fiction and poetry record the responses of our race to suffering and death and humanness, our hopes and fears alike.
Every age has its own voices, for history never repeats itself; and yet, each voice —whether Dante in the fourteenth century, or Dickens in the nineteenth, or Fitzgerald in the twentieth—joins all his brothers, past, present and future, in the same conversation.
Perhaps there is a writer out there today preparing to rise up and do for the twenty-first-century what his literary ancestors did for their own ages. Who will that writer be? Let’s keep reading until we find out, and teach our students to do the same.