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The Catholic Influence Behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’

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Daniel McInerny - published on 05/10/13 - updated on 06/08/17

Fitzgerald’s prose has a sacramental quality

It’s Gatsby week in America. 

Director Baz Luhrmann’s long anticipated 3-D hip-hop Leonardo DiCaprio-fueled version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic 1925 novel hits movie screens across the country, and once more the figure of Jimmy Gatz – the poor romantic boy turned bootlegging Trimalchio in order to impress the woman he loved – impresses itself upon our collective consciousness.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but my expectations were low even before the first tepid reviews were registered (see here and here). The hype surrounding the film, however, puts me in mind of a lecture given last June by Charles Scribner, whose great-grandfather originally published The Great Gatsby, and whose father instigated the renaissance in appreciation of Fitzgerald’s work in the 1950s – a fandom that continues to this day.

Scribner’s lecture, entitled “Scott Fitzgerald: From Paradise to Party Lights,” was delivered at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum. Unfortunately, the lecture is not available online, but Mary Claire Kendall, writing in Forbes.com, has provided an account of it that glistens with the romantic tone familiar in writing about Fitzgerald. What Kendall gives us of Scribner’s remarks is engaging in many ways, not least in this description of what Scribner takes to be the secret of Fitzgerald’s magic:

“The real magic lies embedded in his prose. It reveals itself in his amazing range and versatility… There is a sacramental quality in which Fitzgerald’s words transform their external geography as thoroughly as the realm within. The ultimate effect, once the initial reverberations of imagery and language have subsided, transcends the bounds of fiction.”

It is a suggestive description: the sacramental quality of Fitzgerald’s prose… the effect of which transcends the bounds of fiction. There is a an obviously religious, indeed Catholic, resonance to these words, and the very title of Scribner’s lecture echoes, intentionally or not, a 1978 book by Joan M. Allen, Candles and Carnival Lights: The Catholic Sensibility of F. Scott Fitzgerald. One wonders whether Scribner had Allen’s book in mind when writing his lecture, and whether in the lecture itself he explored the Catholic themes in Fitzgerald’s work, and in particular The Great Gatsby. Anyone doubting the presence of such themes should read Allen’s discussion of The Great Gatsby as well as the analysis of Fitzgerald’s short story, “Absolution,” that precedes it.

Fitzgerald’s first-person narrator in Gatsby, Nick Carraway, boasts in his opening monologue of his talent for reserving judgments, which he claims is “a matter of infinite hope.” But then immediately he qualifies himself:

“And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or on the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn, I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction – Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.”

This famous passage depicts the ambiguity in what Nick has taken away from his sojourn in the East: a desire for the world to stand at moral attention forever, and a desire to exempt Gatsby – the master of the revels – from his moral judgment.

Perhaps Nick’s attitude toward Gatsby reflects a related ambiguity in Fitzgerald himself, an ambiguity between his fascination with the allurements of this world and his moral sensibility, deeply rooted in his Catholic upbringing (Fitzgerald was raised in a Catholic family in St. Paul, Minnesota). The title of Allen’s book, Candles and Carnival Lights, is meant to underscore this ambiguity. As she puts it:

“The title of this book means to suggest Fitzgerald’s divided nature. The appearances of his life and work, the lights of the carnival which attracted and destroyed him and his fictional brothers, the apparently glamorous life, is one component. But that masks his profound moralism, the realization of sin and destructiveness which underlie and permeate the temporal world. The carnival lights had outshone the candles, but the candles had indelibly touched him….”

In 1924, the year before The Great Gatsby’s release, Fitzgerald himself wrote that the “whole burden of this novel … [is] the loss of those allusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” While Allen is no doubt right that in his life Fitzgerald was deeply attracted by the glamor of such allusions, I believe that when it comes to this novel, Fitzgerald’s attraction to glamor had its limit. This limit is defined by the novel’s negative moral comment upon the destructive power of unbridled eros

ErosC. S. Lewis argues in The Four Loves, is not merely sexual desire; it is the tendency to make of the beloved an idol, an elevation of which no mortal can long pretend to be worthy. Unchecked, says Lewis, eros turns into a demon, or at least, in Gatsby’s case, into a despairing spirit which makes one feel “he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.”

Writing about Luhrmann’s film in the New York TimesMaureen Dowd quotes Leon Wieseltier, literary critic of The New Republic, shrewdly observing: The problem with the Gatsby movies “is that they look like they were made by Gatsby. The trick is to make a Gatsby movie that couldn’t have been made by Gatsby – an unglossy portrait of gloss.”

It would require some of Nick Carraway’s infinite hope to expect from Luhrmann’s film an exploration of the moral issues raised by Fitzgerald’s novel. But that is just the sort of attention The Great Gatsby deserves – not only from directors, but from all readers who return this summer to this American classic.

Daniel McInerny is a novelist, journalist, philosopher, and member of Aleteia’s Editorial Board. You can contact him at danielmcinerny@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: @thecomicmuse. 

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