The use of religious imagery in The Great Gatsby


First seen in Chapter 2, and overlooking all the subsequent journeys made by the characters in the novel, is the dominant, if faded, advertising image of the ‘eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’, which George Wilson explicitly identifies as ‘God’. There is an inherent irony in this symbolism: Wilson quotes from the New Testament letter to the Galatians that ‘God sees everything’ and cannot be fooled – 

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. (Galatians 6:7)

Yet the hoarding depicts someone who cannot see clearly! In this sense, an awareness of overarching ‘divine’ judgement is missing from the novel. Everything is relative, according to which spectacles you wear.

Furthermore, Wilson is shown to be an unbalanced loner, outside the boundaries of conventional religion. He draws on his obsession with an omniscient and judgemental presence in his and Myrtle’s life to justify a controlling and punitive attitude towards his wife. When Michaelis asks Wilson if he attends a church, intending to supply a source of comfort, Wilson replies, ‘Don’t belong to any.’ 

So there is little sense of a coherent moral universe. While it is possible to see the death of Gatsby as retribution for his hedonism and ‘sins’, Tom and Daisy escape punishment and express neither guilt nor remorse.

Spiritual emptiness

The ‘valley of ashes’, where the advertising hoarding is placed, is often seen as a metaphorical location, signifying the spiritual emptiness of society. Within the novel, human life has little value. Myrtle’s death inspires very little pity, except perhaps from Nick, whilst Gatsby is murdered by Wilson, who then commits suicide. 

In that sense, the novel echoes the opening chapter of Ecclesiastes (an Old Testament philosophical treatise) on the condition of humankind:

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. … Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. Ecclesiastes 1:14-15, Ecclesiastes 1:17-18.

Nick’s disillusionment with the world he has encountered ‘out East’ can be seen as an echo of this. He has tried to make sense of- and attribute worth to- it yet it proves ‘beyond [his] eyes’ power of correction.’

Gatsby’s narrative arc is also analogous to the start of Ecclesiastes chapter two:

‘I will test [myself] with pleasure to find out what is good.’ But that also proved to be meaningless. ‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?’ I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. … I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and … made gardens and parks … I amassed silver and gold for myself, … acquired male and female singers … I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labour, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. Ecclesiastes 2:1-11

Daisy proves herself not worth the winning, deceit and deception take their toll and the reader is left with the ‘incoherent failure’ of Gatsby’s achievements.

The ‘saviour’ who fails

There are a number of parallels between Gatsby’s actions and motivation and the figure of Jesus as depicted in the New Testament:

  • He enjoys the enjoyment of others in his lavish generosity (John 2:1-10)
  • He has a complete commitment to the one he loves, which motivates everything he does (John 6:38)
  • He asks his beloved to wait for his return (John 14:3)
  • He pursues the object of his love in order to free her from the shackles of an unfulfilling life (John 10:9-10)
  • His love seems out of proportion to the response it receives from the fallible beloved (1 John 4:10)
  • He takes the punishment justly deserved by his beloved, to the point of being killed (1 Peter 2:24)
  • On the way to the site of his death, he shoulders a burden (John 19:17)
  • At his end, he is deserted by his friends (Luke 22:54-62).

There are other symbolic and verbal associations:

  • When we first encounter Gatsby, he has his arms outstretched, for the sake of the one he loves (who proves ultimately to cause his death). This might be seen as an echo of the Christian belief that Jesus was motivated by his love for humanity as he held out his arms for his death by crucifixion (Acts 2:23)
  • Gatsby is described by Nick as having a smile evoking ‘eternal reassurance’ (John 14:27) and ‘An instinct toward his future glory’ (John 12:23)
  • When Gatsby is reunited with Daisy he is dressed in white, associated with the purity of Christ in popular iconography
  • Later his pink suit and the stained water of the swimming-pool evoke the shed blood of Jesus’ sacrifice (Matthew 26:28)
  • Nick’s narrative of Gatsby’s mission directly references Christ, as being about his ‘Father’s Business’ (Luke 2:49) like a ‘son of God’ (Matthew 14:33)

However, in spite of creating such associations, Fitzgerald continually subverts them, highlighting the hollowness of the Jazz Age’s values:

  • Gatsby’s ‘spiritual father’, Dan Cody, is a violent drunk
  • Gatsby’s faith is actually placed in material prosperity and absolute self-determination, and he uses whatever corrupt means necessary to achieve it
  • His desire for human love undermines the institution of marriage by encouraging infidelity and deceit
  • Rather than being able to provide a concrete ‘new life’, Gatsby’s hopes are for something ‘unutterable’ which he locates in his past relationship with Daisy.
  • His funeral appears to be virtually secular and there is no sense of hope of a ‘better life’ by his few mourners – Gatsby is just a ‘poor son-of-a-bitch’.

Through these unfulfilled allusions, Fitzgerald points to a world where religion and spirituality are in decline and their secular alternative is found wanting. 

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