Self-Determined Sacrifice

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the Western culture has struggled to conciliate its Christian tradition with the philosophical precepts of self-determination and power of the will championed by Friedrich Nietzsche, for many of the Christian values and beliefs (specially those of Calvinism) are grounded mostly upon fate and self-restriction—precisely what Nietzsche’s philosophy (his life-affirming nihilism) opposed and denounced. As part of that Western struggle of ideals, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea have references and thematic traits that belong to both philosophical currents, all which the Modernists authors use, mesh, and balance to create appealing and significant literary pieces.

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald presents in the character of Jay Gatsby a figure who not only epitomizes the “self-made man” but who also resembles or parallels Jesus in several ways. The contrasting combination, therefore, renders Gatsby as a double hero: one according to Christian standards, and one according to Nietzschean precepts.

Fitzgerald establishes the character’s name as the first parallel between Jesus and Gatsby. While the first name starts with the same letter as Jesus, the Gatsby’s last name goes beyond matching initials; when read out loud, it seems to invoke God by saying “God Be.”

Gatsby’s activities, to a degree, also resemble some of the actions that built Jesus’s reputation according to the Bible. For instance, Gatsby is tolerated as a suspected outlaw (“a bootlegger” [Fitzgerald, 492]) as much as Jesus was by the Judaic and Roman authorities (John 18:30). Moreover, Gatsby hosts big lush parties during the weekends to which anyone can come “with a simplicity of the heart that [is] its own ticket of admission” (Fitzgerald, 479)—events equal to the crowds attracted by Jesus “from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan” (Matthew 4:25), or similar to church services.

The way in which Fitzgerald delivers the narrative appears influenced by the Bible, too, for he uses a third-party character (Nick Carraway), instead of a neutral and omnipresent narrator, as a tool for the recounting of Gatsby’s life in a very Evangelist or Paulian fashion: Nick becomes a sort of disciple of Gatsby, one who learns from and narrates the life of the man who had “something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” (Fitzgerald, 454). With such a description in the first paragraphs, and in such a style, Fitzgerald frames Gatsby almost as a Messianic figure.

The most significant parallel between Gatsby and Jesus, however, lies in Gatsby’s sacrifice out of love. Similar to Jesus’s submission to Roman execution, Gatsby simply waits for whatever fate has prepared for him after he takes the blame for Daisy’s manslaughter behind the wheel (Fitzgerald, 549); he waits and meditates in his garden, while asking Nick to be left alone, just as Jesus did with his disciples in Gethsemane (Mark 14:31-33). In the end, Gatsby’s choice gets him killed (Fitzgerald, 561) despite being innocent—killed for his love for Daisy, killed for the Buchanan’s sins.

Precisely Gatsby’s self-determined sacrifice serves as the culminating point of his living as a self-made man because “[he] will it thus!” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 163)—a steadfast ideal that pervades Gatsby’s life.

Again starting with the character’s name, Fitzgerald frames Gatsby as an ultimate self-determined man, for Gatsby literally made up his name, changing it legally from James Gatz (Fitzgerald, 517). Moreover, through the revelations of Gatsby’s father, Fitzgerald gives further proof of Gatsby’s self-determination: he decided, designed, and regimented his whole life in order to achieve his goals (Fitzgerald, 569)—namely, to reach the financial success that would bring him closer to his love, Daisy, even when that meant years of struggle, patience, and yearning (Fitzgerald, 505). Therefore, due to the several references to self-determination that Fitzgerald provides, Gatsby must be understood as a man whose will and power “no amount of fire or freshness can challenge.” (Fitzgerald, 516).

Gatsby’s self-determination, nevertheless, seems to be grounded upon pride and love—his love for Daisy that gives him hope (a sort of Nietzschean loving hope [226]) and his pride for the man he has become (what he determined himself to become [226]). Such motivations unveil best when Gatsby confronts Tom about Daisy’s love (Fitzgerald, 540), when Gatsby dares to say he can repeat the past that has been long gone (Fitzgerald, 526), and ultimately, when he refuses to flee (something he could easily do) after the accidental manslaughter, leading to his murder (Fitzgerald, 561).

Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea represents, likewise, an allegorical play between the contrasting Christian and Nietzschean ideals, in which the latter become the “Hemingway code” that infuses the novella (among other works of the author).

The Christian allegories stand out first in Hemingway’s narration, specially in what the old man experiences, such as his repeated carrying of the boat’s mast and his fall with it (Hemingway, 26, 121) in a Passion-like manner (John 19:17), and the constant references to his injured hands. Moreover, the whole adventure of the old man parallels Christ’s death and third-day resurrection: the old fisherman (whom his younger protégé has denied just as Peter denied Jesus [Luke 22:34]) drifts in the sea for three days, his reputation, luck, and spirit dead already, while struggling with the fish (Hemingway, 124); he suffers and struggles physically and psychologically through those days (similar to Jesus’s descent to hell); later, he fights the sharks that come from the dark depths to eat away his precious fish (somehow equating the sharks to the demons Jesus had to confront); and finally, the old man comes back to the shore to be received by the other fishermen and his protégé as a hero, before secluding himself in his shack where only the boy follows him (Hemingway, 121). Hemingway thus frames the entire novella as a depiction of Christian suffering, with the old man’s obsession about the wholesome Joe DiMaggio serving him as a motivational and moral beacon that trumps prayers—becoming a “what would Joe DiMaggio do?” (Hemingway, 68).

Joe DiMaggio’s figure, however, carries also a meaning for the “Hemingway Code,” for he personifies perseverance and success, both which the old man embodies through his catching of the fish. Actually, because of the fight that the fish puts up, the old man starts calling it “his brother” (Hemingway, 95), while also reaffirming his self-determination to defeat the fish in their challenge (for one “must be proud of [one’s] enemy” [Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 226]). The old man, faithful to the “Hemingway Code,” not only takes on the challenge of catching the fish, but he also is willing to get killed in the process (“to live dangerously” [Nietzsche, 229]), summarizing his whole attitude towards life in the phrase “I’ll fight them until I die.” (Hemingway, 115).

Yet, the strongest and clearest evidence of Nietzschean influence in Hemingway’s work comes from the sea itself rather than any of the human characters, for both ways in which Hemingway describes the sea (29-30) resemble depictions of life according to Nietzsche: the “feminine…something that gave or withheld great favours” and that can be wicked and wild (Hemingway, 30), which matches Nietzsche’s account of how “life is a woman” (236); and the “masculine…a contestant…even an enemy” (Hemingway, 30)—a life “more stormy than the sea” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 231). Either perspective, however, invites to appreciate the sea, to “love life and all deep seas” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 146).

Ultimately, Fitzgerald and Hemingway suggest through their novellas that sacrifice and self-determination mean more than ideals from opposing philosophies—they conform the contemporary Western understanding of heroic: “at the same time one’s highest suffering and one’s highest hope” (Nietzsche, 226).

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Kessinger Publishing, 1924.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1952.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Nietzsche Reader. Ed. Pearson, Keith Ansell; Large, Duncan. Blackwell Publishing., 2006.
—. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. London: Penguin Classics, 2003.

12/09/2009, Dallas, TX.

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