Crisis of Meaning in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby Essay

It is expected that many people would consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a story of unrequited love. The story, after all, gives much focus on the title character’s efforts to win a woman’s heart despite of circumstances that do not allow it to happen.  Jay Gatsby is an individual who manages to achieve a level of affluence primarily because he wants to get the attention and ultimately earn the love of Daisy, despite the fact that she is already married to a rich and famous individual, Tom Buchanan.  However, love stories would tend to follow the usual formula of happy endings or tragic outcomes that would still leave the reader appreciating the romantic feelings between the main characters.  However, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is definitely not a novel that should be considered as just another love story.  It is in fact the author’s apparent criticism of the perspectives that Americans have on life during the 1920s.  It is a subtle presentation of the questions about the meaning of life that the author himself wishes to deal with.  The Great Gatsby, therefore, tackles the existentialist perspective of life in which the crisis of meaning is the central issue that should be resolved.

The crisis of meaning

The crisis of meaning or existential crisis is one that brews within the individual when he or she encounters junctures in life that tend to result to confusion.  This usually involves “the inner conflicts and anxieties that accompany important human issues of purpose, responsibility, independence, freedom, and commitment” (James 2008: 13).  This condition does not arise though when one is an environment that he is already very accustomed to.  Familiarity does not result in crisis of meaning.  An individual would tend to accept something that has been around for very long time as a part of the order of things.  It is when confronted with the new, however, that the crisis of meaning sharpens.  Modernity therefore is the most decisive external factor that could lead to such crisis. The setting of The Great Gatsby is exactly a time when the United States was adjusting to the emergence of certain cultural products of modernity.  New trends in people’s behaviour and attitudes towards life challenged the established norms and moral principles.  As this occurred, attempts at understanding the meaning of life became numerous.  Apparently, without the new challenges presented by modernity, the meaning of life is conveniently explained by religion.  It is at this point when science has advanced to a point that it challenges the ‘truths’ that religion has insisted upon for thousands of years.  New discoveries presented new truths which invalidate those that have upheld by religion.  This results in a crisis of meaning, a confusion regarding the essence of truth itself. It is in this context that Friedrich Nietzsche argues that “truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power” (1976: 47).  An in-depth appreciation of The Great Gatsby would expose the narrator of the story, Nick Carraway, to be the very person who seeks to resolve this confusion by turning his back on modernity and re-embracing the ‘truths’ to which he is already accustomed to by going back to the West. By staying in the East, every option for a solution to problems is unreliable because this is still a result of modernity.  The existential view on this matter is that “any one solution to the problem is bound to appear dubious since there are so many seductive alternatives at hand” (Eagleton 2008: 28).  The only option for Nick, therefore, is to flee from modernity and go back to a life prior to it.  

The crisis of identity

The crisis of identity is essentially the precursor of existential crisis.  When one begins to create an identity according to the desires of others, there is always the tendency to fail, which would eventually result in the crisis of meaning. Nick Carraway envies Gatsby for his ability to make himself a man to be admired by others by changing what he really is.  Gatsby clearly believes that “identity is a product of social activity, and that ‘who we think we are’ is based on the mirror of feedback others provide for (us) in interaction” (Cote & Levine 2002: 56).  However, it is also because of this that the crisis of meaning sets in. Under such circumstances, there would always be the contradiction between the identity developed by previous social activity and the new one desired by other people. The individual is torn between what others want him to be and loses his conception of self in the process.  With identity so intertwined on impressions made on other individuals, one could easily experience a crisis too once those other individuals are gone.  This is what Nick felt when he narrated in the final part of the story: “Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness” (Fitzgerald 2008: 21).   The ‘unquiet darkness’ that is mentioned here is basically a metaphor for crisis in meaning. An identity that is hinged on others would naturally crumble when those that influenced its creation falter or cease to exist. Once this happens, existential crisis naturally occurs.  Blazek and Glenday described the final lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel portrays an individuals who feels defeated, who attempts to transcend this the stage but is always overwhelmed by modernity (2005: 4).  It is not only at the end of the story that the narrator is portrayed as an individual who is experiencing a crisis of meaning.  Even at the beginning, this existential crisis is already made clear when he said that he is “inclined to reserve all judgments” (Fitzgerald 2008: 5) while only pointing out afterwards that “reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.”

It is clear that it is in the person of Nick Carraway that the crisis of meaning is best exemplified.  The story seemingly does not revolve about his life but his reactions or responses to the situations of which he is a witness can easily be understood by readers who have experienced the crisis of meaning too.  Nick comes from the West, a place where modernity has not yet affected people as much as it has with those in East.  His reaction epitomizes the existential crisis that occurs once one realizes that impact of modernity and he “knows about the infinite hope of the frontier spirit, and he also has witnessed the corruption of the American promise of equality for all” (Mangum 1998: 514). As witness of how people live in the West and the East, Nick’s mode of thinking is certainly the result of the clash between the old and new values.  Treading between the two would naturally result in crisis.  Even the changes that take place in his impression of Gatsby are clearly products of such crisis of meaning.  Gatsby is first presented as someone whose identity is built on the impressions of others even as they do not really know much about him (Kronig 2009: 26).  For being accustomed to life in the East, Gatsby may not experience much crisis at first.  However, for Nick, who not only knows Gatsby but also came from the West, the meaning of one’s existence becomes blurred to the point of being confusing.  

Self-Made Man

Jay Gatsby is an example that is closed to the ideal definition of a self-made man.  Gatsby successfully created “just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent and to this conception, he was faithful to the end” (Fitzgerald 2008: 80).   It is with this angle in the story that F. Scott Fitzgerald also exposes his disagreement with the American Dream.  Gatsby is presented as a self-made man, which is exactly the point that the American Dream proposes.  In an environment of equal opportunity, it is the individuals who work really hard who have the chance of becoming rich.  This is the case with Gatsby.   Despite the affluence that he enjoyed though, Gatsby is still unhappy because he failed in having Daisy as a lover. It is clear that wealth is not the bearer of real happiness.  From being confused why this is happening when so much has been done just to be happy, pessimism would set it in.  Pessimism is the offshoot of the frustration that one feels when he discovers that the truth he once believed is absolute is found to be false.  In The Great Gatsby, the truth that is shattered is that money brings happiness.  A crisis of meaning occurs when this truth is debunked right in the presence of those who have firmly believed in it.  Regarding this concern, Nietzsche reasoned “that people unable to infer wisdom from this statement were, in fact, too stupefied by the culture to enter into a conversation about truth” (Hayes 1998: 47).  Gatsby apparently goes into this level of ultimately being shocked by the discovery that all he struggled for to achieve happiness is for naught while Nick, realizing this, decides to go back to the West, his comfort zone, and escape the challenges posed by modernity.

The American Dream

Readers of The Great Gatsby who firmly believe in the American Dream and in the individualist attitude that it promotes would be caught in a bind with the outcome of the story, an experience that may also be likened to experiencing a crisis of meaning. At the start of the story, Jay Gatsby is presented as the epitome of an ordinary individual, a member of the middle-class who is able to climb the social ladder through sheer determination and hard work.  The American Dream is a concept that encourages everyone to strive harder and achieve their personal goals in a favorable environment found in the country.  America is a land of equal opportunities, which means that everyone can get rich as long as he works for it.  This is what Nick also has in mind as he observes how Gatsby is able to live his dreams, wallowing in luxury and affluence and socializing with those in the upper crust.  If Jay Gatsby were a real person, he would certainly be living proof that the American Dream actually works and that it is a perfect condition, one that would really make a person happy.  However, this is not the case and F. Scott Fitzgerald continues with his story by gradually exposing the evils of the American Dream.  At the end of the story, Nick Carraway’s decision virtually negates the essence of the American Dream. The process, however, is not smooth; transcending the philosophy resulting from the onset of modernity would require undergoing a crisis of meaning.  This is when an individual has to understand also the negative implications of the American Dream and ultimately reject it. The crisis develops when the only alternative to it that is available is also one that the individual does not wish to apply or pursue.   In The Great Gatsby though, Nick decides to resolve the existential crisis that he faces by going taking the easy route to life, which is to stick to the old, including its traditions and values.  Nick narrates that “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”  (Fitzgerald 2008: 140).  At the peak of his personal crisis, Nick ultimately states an idea that is similar to rejecting new things because of the challenges that these bring.  The East represents the new while the West is old.  Such a concept, however, is weak and it could be argued but Fitzgerald actually exposes his frustration with the materialistic tendencies of the new American society.  

It is clear that, in the story, “Fitzgerald explores the difficulty of individuals maintaining moral integrity in a material society which values the acquisition of wealth above all else” (Lee 1997: 6).  What makes this even more difficult for Gatsby is that it is not just out of social pressure that he is striving to be rich but also because he wants to earn Daisy’s love, which may, as well, symbolize genuine happiness.  This situation is essentially a representation of what Karen Armstrong explains in her essay Faith and Modernity. Armstrong points out that angst, anger which is intense but meaningless, is a dreadful by-product of modernity.  She describes modernity as “enthralling, empowering, and liberating for those (of us) who are fortunate enough to live in the privileged sectors of the world” but she also explains that “without a faith that life has some ultimate value, human existence becomes prey to despair” (Armstrong 2005: 88).  Confusion and the crisis of meaning are unavoidable when in living in a modern world, the East in The Great Gatsby.  If one wishes to escape from these and be freed from such ‘despair’, the only viable choice is to return to the religious faith, which is the West, in the story.

Is the American Dream really that undesirable that it deserves a novel as a criticism?  Fitzgerald definitely thinks so.  Before a discussion on the perceived flaws of the American Dream though, it may be necessary to consider reviewing the concepts related to it. It was in the book The Epic of America, written by James Truslow Adams, that this was first coined.  According to Adams, “the American Dream is a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” (Martin 2007: 229).  Such a definition could be attributed to an era when the United States was still in the process of tapping its resources and making use of the lands in the frontier.  During the said process, the country is also experiencing the effects of modernity, with science continuously providing new thoughts that virtually negate much of religion and, consequently, the values that this teaches the people. From mere two words that encourage people to expand horizons and go to the frontiers and become rich in the process, the American Dream soon developed into a cliché.  As Caldwell puts it, “a Mommy, a Daddy, two-and-a-half children, a comfortable home the suburbs, two cars, a steady job, college educations, a secure future, all were constituents parts of a new, standardized, all-middle-class ‘national identity, perfectly packaged, easy to digest, and all based on the Dream of progress” (2006).  The American Dream later evolved into a standard that is used to judge the success of individuals.  As a result, people are pressured into complying with its essence. What used to be a challenge for excelling into becoming successful and unique individuals ultimately encouraged a new trend that promotes conformism.  Nick finds out that one could not be absolutely free and unique in the East Egg because people would only expect a lot and the individual would be compelled to meet such expectations.

True to his existentialist philosophy of life, Fitzgerald criticizes the American Dream as just another negative result of modernity. He presents Gatsby as a person who is living the Dream.  With great wealth in his hands, he is able to host grand parties on a weekly basis.  People come not only to marvel at Gatsby’s affluence but also to socialize with others who are of the same economic status.  Fitzgerald describes this in a manner that would make the reader imagine living the said life. However, he also points out that the said parties do not end in a happy note always.  Violent fights occur and so much waste is made.  Again, this is an attempt the Fitzgerald to highlight the meaninglessness of it all.  On the part of the individual who experienced this and then later gets into a stage of reflection or self-exploration, an existential crisis would occur.  At this juncture, he would have to decide whether to continue with such a life or to transcend it. As in Nick’s case, it is either to stay in the East or to go back to the West.

The Great Gatsby is obviously a fictitious account.  However, the characters in the story reflect the actual tendencies of people who have to contend with modernity and all its offshoots, whether these are good or bad.  Being the product of the author’s imagination, it is only correct to conclude that the story actually reflects Fitzgerald’s own crisis of meaning.  Confronted with the increasingly consumerist and materialistic tendencies of Americans resulting from modernity, Fitzgerald and other writers in his era who share the same existentialist views could only highlight the conditions that triggered their crisis of meaning through the literary works they produce.  Fitzgerald acknowledged the fact that American society is being adversely affected by such consumerist and materialistic attitudes.  The decadence and the lack of genuine compassion by some of the characters in The Great Gatsby are actually reflections of Fitzgerald’s social commentary.  Ultimately, the return to the West reflects also his rejection of the modern values and norms emanating from a modern and capitalist American society. His realization in this regard is that it is not just society that suffers as a whole but also the individual.  This notion, of course, is closest to the heart.  Nick Caraway, the narrator, is the very reflection of Fitzgerald’s sentiments.  In The Great Gatsby, Nick is caught in a crisis of meaning because of what he observed or what he witnessed while he was in the East.   This sentiment of F. Scott Fitzgerald is manifested most in The Great Gatsby where there are “lost, directionless, impotent, and emotionally unfulfilled characters” (Sanders 2007: 170). These are individuals who experience an existential crisis, one which Fitzgerald must have undergone also; the very material that inspired him to write the story.


F. Scott Fitzgerald is not the first to write a story that tackles the crisis of meaning.  Among the earliest is the poet William Wordsworth.   One of Wordsworth’s most renowned works is The Prelude, which is a very long poem that narrates an account of how Wordsworth discovers himself further.  While the poem is an expression to others, it is actually a product of self-reflection.  Wordsworth wrote the poem in a “drawn-out process of self-exploration” and “worked his way toward a modern psychological understanding of his own nature and thus more broadly of human nature” (Luebering 2011: 154).  Fitzgerald, however, may have gone through the same process.  When Nick decided to go back to the West, he dealt with the crisis of meaning through self-exploration.  The final parts of the novel and his decision are the results of being what he wants to be and his shunning the allure of modernity. This is the author telling the reader that he too is able to transcend and overcome the existential crisis that modernity has given him.  This is the more compelling message of The Great Gatsby.

List of References

  1. Armstrong, K. (2005) ‘Faith and Modernity.’ In The Betrayal of Tradition: Essays on the Spiritual Crisis of Modernity. ed. by Oldmeadow, H.  Bloomington: World Wisdom, Inc.
  2. Blazek, W. and Glenday, M. (ed.) (2005) American Mythologies: Essays on Contemporary Literature. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press
  3. Caldwell, W. (2006) Cynicism and the Evolution of the American Dream. Washington DC: Potomac Books
  4. Cote, J. and Levine, C. (2002) Identity Formation, Agency and Culture: A Social Psychological Synthesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  5. Eagleton, T. (2008) The Meaning of Life: A very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  6. Fitzgerald, F.S. (2008) The Great Gatsby. Sioux Falls, SD: NuVision Publications
  7. Hayes, C. (1998) Beyond the American Dream: Lifelong Learning and the Search for Meaning in a Postmodern World. Wasilla: Autodidactic Press
  8. James, R. (2008) Crisis Intervention Strategies. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole
  9. Kronig, C. (2009) The Novels & Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Munchen: GRIN Verlag
  10. Lee, V. (1997) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Mentone, Vic.: Insight Publications
  11. Luebering, J.E. (ed.) (2011) English Literature from the Restoration through the Romantic Period. New York: Britannica Educational Pub.
  12. Mangum, B. (1998) ‘The Great Gatsby’. In Encyclopedia of the Novel. ed. Paul Schellinger. London: Fitzroy-Dearborn: 514-515
  13. Martin, D. (2007) Rebuilding Brand America.  New York, NY: American Management Association
  14. Nietzsche, F. (1976) ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’. In The Portable Nietzsche. ed. and trans. by Kaufmann, W. New York: Penguin Books
  15. Sanders, J. (2007) The Art of Existentialism: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and the American Existential Tradition. Ann Arbor:  ProQuest Information and Learning Company