The impact of religion


Image of a rosaryFitzgerald was born into a Catholic family, but did not practise this religion as an adult. During his childhood, he must have been aware of the fact that Catholics, along with Jews, were a religious minority, experiencing prejudice and discrimination. The Ku Klux Klan identified its objects of hatred as Catholics, Jews, immigrants and black people. American society in general was exceptionally intolerant and suspicious of Catholics in the early twentieth century, seeing them as loyal to an outside power, the Pope.

Despite Fitzgerald’s lapsed Catholic status, he still had Scottie baptised, but at his death he was buried in non-Catholic ground until his daughter campaigned for him to be re-interred at a Catholic site in 1975.

Religion in The Great Gatsby

There are few overt references to religious observance in The Great Gatsby. Nick is told by Catherine that Daisy is a Catholic, ‘and they don’t believe in divorce’. This is not true but reveals the ‘elaborateness’ of Tom’s lies in order to maintain his affair with Myrtle, which shocks Nick and shows Catholicism in a cynical light.

However, Fitzgerald plays with the tenets of faith in a variety of ways. In Chapter 1 Nick refers to ‘the fundamental decencies’. The trajectory of the novel, from hedonism and excess towards disaster and death, is a familiar moral pattern, reinforcing rather than challenging core values of honesty, care for others, fidelity in marriage and humility.

For a further consideration of religious imagery used in The Great Gatsby, see Imagery and symbolism > The use of religious imagery.

A hopeless world

Fitzgerald depicts a world which has lost its religious direction, using for his purposes the almost casual deaths of Myrtle, Gatsby and Wilson, which seem to combine the accidental and the hopeless. Nick may represent a moral standpoint, as he condemns Tom and Daisy for their destructive impact, but it is not a religious one. His disillusionment with humanity is expressed in entirely secular terms, and he completes his narrative with an image of the ‘green light’ which humanity aspires to as a symbol of the ‘orgastic future’.

Secularisation and fundamentalism

America in the 1920s was increasingly hedonistic and materialistic, possibly in response to the experience of the First World War. Fitzgerald commented that:

... we inherited two worlds: the one of hope to which we had been bred; the one of disillusion which we had discovered early for ourselves. And that first world was growing as remote as another country, however close in time .. (My Generation, 1940).

Religion appeared to be eclipsed by prosperity and pleasurable indulgence.

In reaction to this, some sections of American society became increasingly fundamentalist. Their ‘return’ to the basic aspects of religion included a literal understanding of the Bible. This jarred with modern scientific understanding, with the result that science and religion were polarised, as seen in the Scopes Trial (1925), which concerned the disagreement over evolution being taught in American schools.

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