American money

Opinion | Ross Douthat on ‘The Great Gatsby’

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Suppose I told you a story about a handsome young charlatan who amassed a fortune as the front for a criminal enterprise, set up a fake identity and bought himself a certain kind of celebrity and then dazzled and seduced another man’s wife and nearly persuaded her to run away with him.

Who would you imagine to be the innocent victim, even the martyr, in the story? Maybe the married woman, maybe her cuckolded husband. Probably not the criminal and fraud. Unless, that is, you recognize this opening as a summary of “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about the innocence of the mountebank and his martyrdom at the hands of the wealthy married couple he tries to come between.

This reversal is part of what makes “Gatsby” such an essential American text. Its main character’s arc unites two conflicting aspects of our national identity — our commercial wealth and our naïve idealism, our material aspirations and our sense of ourselves as God’s elect — through the idea that innocence resides in the person on the make, while possession and inheritance are suspect, dubious, corrupt.

The basic contrasts of innocence and sophistication, naïveté and worldliness are constant American cultural leitmotifs. But Fitzgerald’s novel is particularly important for the way it makes the pursuit of even illegally obtained money into a terrain of innocence, where purity of intention covers a multitude of sins.

Listen to Ross Douthat
narrate an excerpt from
“The Great Gatsby.”


In so doing, it effects a partial reconciliation between America’s Christian heritage, with its deep skepticism about the possibility of serving God and Mammon, and America’s boundless opportunities for getting rich. In “Gatsby,” money is clearly corrupting once you have it, because the having imbues you with the “vast carelessness” of Tom and Daisy Buchanan or the cold-eyed manipulative spirit of the men who use Gatsby as their front. But the initial getting of money is another matter. While you’re on the rise, you can keep your innocence, as long as you’re chasing some version of Fitzgerald’s “orgastic future,” some imperishable vision or earthly analogue to paradise. It’s why they call it the American dream.

It’s also why we love our real-life Gatsbys, both while they’re rising and especially once they fall. This is the one thing Fitzgerald’s novel gets slightly wrong about America: When everything falls apart for Gatsby, he ends up abandoned, his celebrity collapses, and his funeral is all but unvisited. But in reality the only thing that fascinates us more than the young and wealthy visionary who’s secretly a bunkum artist is a young and wealthy visionary who rises steeply and then still more swiftly falls.

Think of Sam Bankman-Fried or Elizabeth Holmes; the plunge from grace gets even more attention than the ride up, as long as the person seems to have the essential Gatsbyan quality, the mix of self-belief and naïveté, that we recognize as fundamentally our own. (Whereas when the con itself seems too clinical, there isn’t the same intoxication in the fall. Thus Holmes and Bankman-Fried are icons, whereas Bernie Madoff was just a villain.)

“If he’d of lived he’d of been a great man,” Gatsby’s father says before the funeral. But in dying young, Gatsby achieved the secret goal of all Americans: to get rich while remaining citizens of Eden, innocents till the last.

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