Curriculum Vital

The Education Umbrella Guide to The Great Gatsby
Themes, symbols and motifs

This page is part of the Education Umbrella guide to The Great Gatsby, which contains everything students need to understand F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous jazz age tale.

East coast v Midwest - If the East coast is 'haunted' for Nick, and the Midwest feels like 'the ragged edge of the universe', where does he belong?

Drinking and Prohibition - New York City in 1922 was awash with whiskey, despite (or perhaps because of) the 1919 amendment to the US Constitution that made the sale of alcohol illegal.

Bigotry and anti-Semitism - Discover the subtle but unmistakable prejudice in Fitzgerald's characters.

Colours - The green light, the yellow car, the pink suit, the blue lawns... What do they all mean?

Religion: "God sees everything" - Where is God in the hedonistic world of West Egg?

East coast v Midwest

Instead of being the warm center of the world the middle-west now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe—so I decided to go east and learn the bond business.

The contrast between the east coast of the United States and the Midwest is an important theme in The Great Gatsby.

The United States of America grew from east to west, beginning with the independence of the original 13 colonies (of which New York state is one, and which are all represented in the US flag by the 13 red and white stripes) in the late 1780s after the War of Independence against Great Britain. There then followed the colonisation of the southern states in the early and mid 19th century and the settling of the Midwest and west in the mid and late 19th and early 20th century.

‘East’ as used by Nick and others really means the northeast – New England (the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire), New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. It contains the cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and the capital, Washington, amongst others, as well as the six Ivy League colleges, including New Haven (Yale) college in Connecticut, alma mater of Nick and Tom. It was in the northeast that the first colonists arrived, that the American Revolution began, that the American War of Independence was fought and that both the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence were drafted and signed. In 1922, to an even greater extent than today, the East was the cultural, commercial, political and historical hub of the United States.

In 1922 the Midwest, by contrast, contained very few large cities, with the notable exception of Tom Buchanan’s home city, Chicago, Illinois. The Americans who settled the Midwest in the 19th century were, for the most part, immigrant farmers eager leave the crowded cities of the East for the vast tracts of fertile land to the west. Their great migration was driven largely by a movement called Manifest Destiny, the belief that bringing civilisation to the west was ordained by God. 

Midwest USA

(Above: the Midwest of the United States)

Nick, Gatsby, Tom, Daisy and Jordan reverse this natural trend by moving back to the east coast. Nick says that when he informed his aunts and uncles of his intention to move East they reluctantly agreed while looking at him with ‘grave, hesitant faces.’ Wise elders that they are, they sense something ominous in this reverse migration.

Nick’s relatives are right, of course, though Nick realises this only in chapter nine as his East coast dream fades with the summer. As he prepares to head west once more, he begins reminiscing about his youth:

One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time…

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

This contrasts sharply with Nick’s sensation in chapter two during the gathering in Myrtle’s flat in Manhattan on a warm summer evening when he feels ‘within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.’ In the fresh, wild air of the Midwest he has an identity; but in the East any sense of belonging is quickly trampled by something unpleasant.

Continuing his reflection of the Midwest, Nick says,

That’s my middle west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all---Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

Frustratingly, Nick doesn’t define what this common ‘deficiency’ could be. In fact, it’s difficult to think what common characteristic these five have. Is it plainness? Honesty? Naivety? Or is it, as he says of Tom, Daisy and Jordan, carelessness?

Ultimately, Nick realises that he has, in fact, mistrusted the East all along:

Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old—even then it had always for me a quality of distortion.

‘[T]he Ohio’ means the Ohio River, a vast river that flows westward from Pennsylvania and takes in Daisy’s home city of Louisville, Kentucky, amongst many others. Its name comes from the Iroquoian word Ohi:yó, which means, fittingly, ‘Good river’. Crossing this river can, it would appear, turn good people bad.

Ohio River

(The Ohio River and basin, beginning in Pennsylvania and flowing westward to the border of Illinois and Missouri)

In his final meditation on all that has passed, Nick reflects that Gatsby was never aware that his dream was ‘already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.’ That ‘vast obscurity’ is the Midwest beyond the Ohio as perceived by snobbish Easterners: its great fields of wheat and corn are ‘dark’ with a lack of both electrical light and knowledge, culture and wealth.

The East, though, is ‘haunted’ to Nick: ‘a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon.’ After Gatsby’s death, Nick, following in the footsteps of his ancestors, goes west.

Drinking and Prohibition

In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.

If one had no knowledge of US history one could easily finish The Great Gatsby under the false impression that in 1922 alcohol was legal: Jay Gatsby’s abound with it; Tom and Myrtle frequently get drunk on it; characters are forever inquiring whether they need more of it; waiters casually take orders for it. What is remarkable is that in 1919 the US Congress passed a Constitutional amendment which made it illegal to sell, produce, transport or import alcohol, though not to own it or drink it. After years of controversy, the National Prohibition Act was repealed in 1933. 

‘Drinking’, writes Sarah Churchwell in Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, ‘was a great leveller, not because it made everyone equally drunk, but because it made everyone equally guilty.’ Interestingly, though, of the five main characters in the novel, one is teetotal and three drink very little. Daisy becomes horribly drunk the night before her wedding to Tom, and thereafter, having never drunk before, does not drink again, which is why, according to Jordan, she is able to survive in Tom’s ‘fast crowd’. Gatsby, his mansion forever awash with whiskey, remains scarred by memories of Dan Cody having his hair washed in champagne by a swarm of preying women, one of whom cheats him (Gatsby) out of his share of Cody’s inheritance. Nick says in chapter two that the informal gathering at Myrtle Wilson’s New York apartment marks only the second time in his life that he has been drunk. In chapter one Jordan Baker refuses the cocktails that Tom and Daisy’s house staff offer because she is ‘in training.’ Only Tom, insecure, ignorant and ‘supercilious’, drinks heavily and regularly, with unpleasant consequences.

New York in 1922 was a city of Highballs, the whiskey-based cocktail so beloved of the speakeasy clientele. We get a sense of its ubiquity in chapter four when the head waiter in Meyer Wolfshiem’s cellar restaurant says simply 'Highballs?' and receives an affirmative reply from Gatsby. That Fitzgerald could so easily create this verisimilitude is testament to both his skill as a writer and his own love of drinking.

Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda moved to Manhattan in 1922, by which time it was clear that the ‘Great Experiment’ of Prohibition was failing: drunkenness and debauchery were increasing along with criminality. The young Fitzgeralds limited themselves to just the first two.

When after less than a year in New York the couple returned to the Midwest they had an unshakeable reputation as the pinnacle of Highball society. Those who spent time with them in this period noted how fun, free, gay and witty they were, or seemed.  However, in the Fitzgeralds’ marriage, as in The Great Gatsby, alcohol is often the accompaniment to misery.

Throughout the novel characters are either far too drunk or drinking for the wrong reasons. In chapter two Tom ‘tanks up’ during lunch and later breaks Myrtle’s nose. In chapter three Nick, alone and confused at Gatsby’s party, thinks about getting ‘roaring drunk from sheer embarrassment’ until Jordan Baker arrives. Together they wonder the grounds looking for Gatsby, but find only the man they dub Owl Eyes, who, by his own admission, has been drunk for a week. When later in the evening Nick begins to have a ‘gay time’ it is only because he has happened upon the sober company of Jay Gatsby. As he is leaving the party that evening he witnesses a drunken man try to drive away from a crash that has knocked out one of the wheels of his car.

In chapter six, Gatsby at first does not realise that Tom and his two riding companions have stopped by his house solely for liquid refreshment. When the woman in the party finishes her second Highball she invites Gatsby and Nick to supper at her house in the expectation that they will say no (Gatsby, though, accepts her invitation, to Tom’s surprise). Later in the same chapter, Daisy’s first taste of Gatsby’s soirées is ruined in large part by the guests at her and Nick’s ‘particularly tipsy table’. In chapter seven, on the drive to New York, Nick remarks that he, Tom and Jordan suddenly feel ‘irritable now with the fading ale.’ Later, in the stifling hotel suite, after the calamitous row between Tom and Gatsby has ended and the latter has slunk home with Daisy, Tom’s first reaction is to proffer a bottle of whiskey. The chapter ends with Nick espying Tom and Daisy seated at their kitchen table and conspiring calmly over a plate of chicken and two bottles of ale: Daisy, confronted for the second time in her life with something beyond her comprehension and control, has turned again to the bottle. It’s a fittingly dismal and contradictory image: a couple so often fractured by the husband’s drinking each take a beer as they plot their escape.

The biggest offender, of course, is Gatsby, who earns his fortune working for an alcohol smuggling gang led by Meyer Wolfshiem. The ‘drug stores’ he claims to own are, as Tom reveals, fronts for selling illegal booze. Given that he drinks very little, it’s a tragically ironic way to make money.

Part of the reason Daisy falls out of love with Gatsby is that she cannot believe that the modest lieutenant she once loved could become a bootlegger for a sinister Jewish racketeer (Meyer Wolfshiem). Their love blossomed in Daisy’s ‘beautiful white girlhood’ in Kentucky, and dies on Gatsby’s blue lawns ‘among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.’

Bigotry and anti-Semitism

During her conversation with Nick in chapter two, Myrtle Wilson's sister Catherine says: 'It's really his [Tom's] wife that's keeping them apart. She's a Catholic and they don't believe in divorce.' Nick is surprised by Catherine's remark: 'Daisy was not a Catholic and I was a little shocked at the elaborateness of the lie.'

Catherine would likely classify herself as Protestant, though it's unlikely that she is very spiritual or devout. In New York and much of the US in 1922, and still somewhat today, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (or WASPs, to use the unkind acronym) controlled most of the wealth and positions of power.

Anglo-Saxon means an English-speaking person of English descent. Protestantism and Catholicism are branches of Christianity. The two groups have had many violent conflicts because of their different interpretations of Christianity, the main difference being that Protestants do not believe in the Pope. Catholics were regarded with great suspicion by many WASPs because of their prohibition on divorce and birth control, policies that often lead to Catholic couples having many children. Even in 1960 during the US Presidential election campaign, John F. Kennedy, a Catholic from a large and prestigious Catholic family, had to reassure voters that he would not take his orders from the Pope.

Romani, or gypsies, were regarded with even greater disgust and suspicion. Shortly after her remark about Daisy being a Catholic, Catherine tells Nick about her recent trip to Marseille: ‘We had over twelve hundred dollars when we started but we got gypped out of it all in two days in the private rooms.’ ‘Gyp’ as a verb is a derogatory term meaning to cheat or trick someone out of their money. The Romani (‘gypsy’ is now regarded as politically incorrect) were and still are stereotyped as thieves and tricksters. During World War II, many tens of thousands of Romani were executed by German troops.

Myrtle, meanwhile, displays subtle anti-Semitism. Early in the party she says to her sister, "I had a woman up here last week to look at my feet and when she gave me the bill you'd of thought she had my appendicitis out." When Mrs McKee asks her the name, Myrtle replies, "Mrs Eberhardt." Eberhardt is a Jewish surname of Germanic origin. (Note that Myrtle displays her ignorance in two other ways. She says 'you'd of thought' instead of 'you'd have thought,' and then confuses 'appendix' with 'appendicitis.')

During World War II Jews suffered the same fate as the Romani, but on a much larger scale. The root cause of the Holocaust - the attempted extermination of the Jewish people - was anti-Semitism, meaning hostility or prejudice towards Jews. 'Semitic' actually means relating to the family of languages that includes Hebrew and Arabic (the two official languages of Israel). Anti-Semitism has existed for thousands of years. In Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, for example, the character Shylock, a Jewish money lender, demands 'a pound of flesh' from a man who cannot repay his loan. This has helped perpetuate the belief that Jews are obsessed with money, hence Myrtle's belief that Mrs Eberhardt overcharged her because she is Jewish. 

Later, during the discussion about why Myrtle is married to her husband, Mrs McKee says, "I almost married a little kyke who'd been after me for years. I knew he was below me." 'Kyke' is a derogatory slang term for Jew. Nobody is certain of how the word originated, but the most convincing explanation is that Jewish immigrants arriving on Ellis Island in New York in the 19th and early 20th century preferred to sign their names with an 'O' rather than an 'X' because of the Christian connection to the cross symbol. In Yiddish (an old Jewish language) the word for little circle is 'kikel.' Eventually the immigration authorities used 'kike' or 'kyke' to refer to those Jewish people who signed with an 'O.'

In displaying such prejudices Fitzgerald’s characters show more disdain for characteristics that people cannot change or control than they do for distasteful traits (heavy drinking, violence, etc.) that people choose to display. 

Colours

Fitzgerald uses a wide range of colours to complement his descriptions of the characters and the settings.

In chapter one the main motif is the contrast of white and red – virginal innocence juxtaposed with blood.

In her first appearance Daisy sits with Jordan Baker in a ‘rosy-colored space’ with ‘gleaming white’ windows and a ‘wine-colored rug’. Both women are in white dresses, which suggests an innocence that, in different ways, has been lost, or taken.

Shortly after Tom expresses his fears about the white race being taken over by non-whites, Daisy mentions Louisville, Kentucky, where she and Jordan spent their ‘beautiful white girlhood’. Now, instead of enjoying a white(washed) world, she lives in a house filled with ominous shades of red, the colour of the blood that swells beneath the skin of her little finger since the ‘hulking’ Tom accidentally bruised her. The house’s ‘gleaming white’ windows offer a chance to escape the violence and oppression (‘It seemed to me that the thing for Daisy to do was to rush out of the house, child in arms’ says Nick), but Daisy remains.

Later in the same chapter, Nick sees Gatsby staring across the water at ‘a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.’ As we will discover, the dock belongs to Daisy.

This green light is the most important symbol in the novel and one of the most celebrated images in American literature. Green is the colour of vegetation, whether the manicured lawns of Tom and Gatsby’s respective mansions or the crops growing from the fertile soil of the Midwest. American banknotes are green (hence the informal term ‘greenback’ for dollar bill). Green also symbolises a number of human emotions and behaviours: one can be ‘green’ with envy, while the title of the well known 16th century English folk song ‘Greensleeves’ refers to the grass stains on the dresses of promiscuous women. All of these associations beam from the light at the end of Daisy’s dock.

Because of the omnipotence of motor vehicles we nowadays associate green with ‘go’, but, as Sarah Churchwell points out in her book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, New York City council only established the modern traffic light system on the 27th of April, 1925, two weeks after The Great Gatsby was published. While Fitzgerald was writing the novel the city was trying to phase out the various other systems, many of which used green to mean ‘stop’.

Gatsby, as Nick notes sardonically in the final chapter, believes in the green light. This symbol of his dream, Daisy, almost becomes more important than the dream itself: when he finally meets Daisy again after five years he is unsure how to proceed, and ultimately makes several wrong moves that drive his love away. Fittingly and suggestively, on the day Gatsby and Daisy are finally reunited the green light is shrouded in mist. 

Where the green light shines there was once, as Nick writes, ‘a fresh green breast of the New World’ that ‘flowered’ in the eyes of the first European explorers. It is the ‘fresh green’ Daisy that Gatsby seeks. He does not realise that she has long since gone, replaced by a faint, ‘minute’ and ephemeral light.

Away from the green light, Gatsby is a smorgasbord of stark colours: he wears a pink suit, drives a yellow car and walks a blue lawn. The last of these may sound strange, but in fact it is a symbol of wealth. The grass is so rich and well maintained that it grows a dark shade of green that is almost blue. The US state of Kentucky – home state of Daisy, and the place where Gatsby and Daisy consummated their young love – is nicknamed the ‘Blue grass’ state.

Blue does not always symbolise vitality, though. George Wilson’s wife, Myrtle, whose name denotes a type of dark berry, is a dark character with dark hair and dark dresses. Whereas Daisy prefers white dresses, Myrtle dresses in various hues of brown, blue and black, the same colour as both her face the day after Tom hits her and Daisy’s little finger after it is accidentally bruised by her husband. Tom’s car is a grimly appropriate blue coupé, from the French word for ‘cut’.

Gatsby’s yellow car may look luxurious, but it is a harbinger of death. Similarly, Jordan Baker’s ‘autumn-leaf yellow’ hair evokes something withered in a woman who is largely dead inside. The huge, ominous eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are covered with yellow spectacles. Under his endless gaze near the Valley of Ashes is a ‘small block of yellow brick sitting on the edge of the waste land’ on a road that is ‘contiguous to absolutely nothing’. One of the three shops it contains is that of George Wilson and his wife, Myrtle. After encountering this sad place for the first time in chapter two, Nick then goes with Tom and Myrtle to their secret apartment in New York City. He does not enjoy the gathering that Myrtle organises, remarking at one point,

Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets…

Gatsby’s parties may be classier and more lavish, but there is the same unshakeable sense of death. In chapter three, observing the festivity for the first time, Nick says,

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher.

Soon after this, Nick and Jordan chat with two girls in identical yellow dresses. The pair are just two more uninvited guests, ‘contiguous to absolutely nothing’, and care little, if at all, for their generous host.

Gatsby’s death comes as autumn closes in and the trees turn yellow. Nick’s final image of the living Gatsby is of a man struggling with a lilo on his way to his swimming pool ‘among the yellowing trees’. As Gatsby is enjoying his opulence, George Wilson, having tracked down the owner of the yellow car, arrives to kill him. 

Religion: 'God sees everything.'

On Sunday morning while church bells rang in the villages along the shore the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn.

The above passage, the opening line of chapter four, might appear to capture the place of religion in the world of The Great Gatsby: the marginalised provincial folk maintain their silly Christian traditions while the wealthy hedonists flaunt their material wealth, even on the ‘Lord’s Day’. God is dead, faith is unfashionable and the bootleggers rule. The reality, however, is not so simple.

Christianity is weak in West Egg, but it is there. Throughout The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald drops subtle reminders of the pugnacious pre-eminence of Protestantism in the East coast establishment, while also exposing the faint fear of almighty retribution that stalks some of the island’s more vulnerable characters.

The Great Gatsby is set in 1922, four years after the end of WWI. The Great War not only brought down empires, it also wrecked the idea that Christianity was the great civilising force in world affairs; it was the end of Christendom.

In chapter one Nick describes the war as ‘that delayed Teutonic migration’, a ‘counter raid’ that he enjoyed ‘thoroughly’. In chapter three, he talks with the man he does not yet know to be Gatsby about ‘some wet, grey little villages in France’ after Gatsby recognises him as a fellow solider of a particular division. Nick then makes no further reference to his time on the Western Front until the final chapter when, having returned to the Midwest, he reflects that,

West Egg especially still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon. In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house—the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.

This dream combines Nick’s conscious memories of World War I, the war that killed Christendom, and the subconscious residue of his Christian childhood. Stretcher bearers transporting wounded comrades were a common sight for frontline soldiers in the Great War, as in the image below.

Stretcher bearers

In Nick’s vision, the stoic heroism of the Western Front has morphed with the worst elements of the East – tawdry materialism (the jewels, the evening dress), excess (the ‘drunken woman’) and cold indifference (‘nobody knows the woman’s name, and no one cares’). The Christian imagery is provided by the 'creator' of this tableau, El Greco, the Greek-born painter of the 15th and 16th centuries who spent the latter half of his life in Spain. The image Nick describes amalgamates several of El Greco’s most famous works, most notably The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, below.

Burial of Count of Orgaz

The ‘white evening dress’ that Nick describes evokes Daisy, who wears such a robe in nearly every scene, while the drunkenness and jewelled hand bring to mind Myrtle Wilson and her sister Catherine, who, Nick observes, is accompanied by an ‘incessant clicking as innumerable pottery bracelets jingled up and down upon her arms.’

God may have been stretchered off in some ‘wet, grey little’ village in France in 1918, but his legacy remains, even in Jay Gatsby.

In chapter four, as he drives Nick to New York in his yellow car, Gatsby introduces his long-awaited life story with, “I’ll tell you God’s truth”. As he utters these words, Nick remarks, Gatsby raises his right hand, the command for ‘divine retribution to stand by.’ What follows is a series of half-truths and lies that leave Nick sceptical and vexed. ‘The truth’, Nick writes two chapters later,

was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s Business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty.

The man born James Gatz took the first step towards becoming the book’s title character at the age of 15 when he left the Lutheran college at which he’d spent two restless weeks. Two years later he met Dan Cody on the ‘insidious’ waters of Lake Superior. Introducing himself to the mineral baron, the former Lutheran hacked away the overtly Christian connotations of his first name and the vague Jewish ring of his surname and became Jay Gatsby.

Ironically, James Gatz left the Lutheran college for the same reason that the German Protestant theologian Martin Luther left the Catholic Church in the 16th century: he was ‘dismayed at its ferocious indifference to the drums of his destiny, to destiny itself’. Luther was also disgusted by the ‘vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty’ of the Vatican. Using money from the sale of ‘indulgences’ (forgiveness of sins), the church financed the construction of a palace and a basilica that remain today. Compare:

StPetersrome

Gatsby's mansion

The top image is St Peter’s Square. Below it is Jay Gatsby’s mansion as depicted in the most recent film adaptation of the novel.

The drums of Martin Luther’s destiny beat towards the Protestant reformation. For Jay Gatsby, invigorated by the fabulous world of Dan Cody’s yacht, ‘destiny’ is Daisy Buchanan.

With her blonde hair, white dresses and ‘white girlhood’, Daisy represents the innocence that clung to life in America as the combined forces of post-war spiritual disillusionment, jazz music and speakeasies chipped away at monotheistic morality. Fitzgerald captures this in the description of Gatsby and Daisy’s first kiss, which is littered with Christian allusions:

His heart beat fast and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.

Here, Fitzgerald sexualises the Christian custom of consuming Jesus’s flesh in wafer form. Daisy’s ‘white face’ approaches Gatsby’s like a wafer in the hand of a priest. This southern virgin is Gatsby’s dream 'incarnate', from the ecclesiastical Latin incarnat – ‘made flesh’. In Christianity the sacrament of holy communion affirms devotion to one man, Jesus Christ. Gatsby, after tasting the flesh of Daisy’s lips for the first time, turns his life to one woman.

Jay Gatsby, though, does not heed the thirtieth of Luther’s 95 Theses: ‘No one is sure of the reality of his own contrition, much less of receiving plenary forgiveness.’ Gatsby wrongly assumes that Daisy will indulge his high-class bootlegging. Where Martin Luther was excommunicated for his attack on the Catholic church, Jay Gatsby is left similarly shamed and isolated by his ostentation.

After losing his love, Gatsby loses his life at the hands of a man who, though apparently godless, is consumed by the fear of ‘divine retribution’.

From the moment he sees his wife run over by Gatsby’s car, George Wilson’s thoughts turn to God. ‘O, my Ga-od!’ he calls ‘incessantly’ in the moments after the accident. Later, his neighbour Michaelis tries to take George’s mind off the tragedy by asking George if he belongs to a church. When George says no, Michaelis says he ‘ought to’ have one, and reminds him that he got married in a church. ‘That was a long time ago’, George says. 12 years, in fact, before the moral rot began spreading in America. If civilisation means monogamy then, based on the Wilsons’ dismal marriage, Tom is right to assert that it is ‘going to pieces’ (though does not recognise his own contribution to the downfall).

The suspicious George warns his wife that while she might fool him, she can’t fool God. ‘God’ to him means the enormous eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, the optician who stares out on the Wilson household from a giant billboard in the vast wasteland of the valley of ashes. ‘God sees everything,’ says George.

George’s retribution is a warning that every action leaves a trace; nobody gets away scot-free; and there is no ‘plenary forgiveness.’