Existential Fitz: Existential Thought in the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald

As is the case with most self-expression, F. Scott Fitzgerald used his writing in an attempt to make sense of the world and to share that understanding with his audience. However, most of the conclusions that Fitzgerald reached dismiss meaning rather than reveal it; he seems to have discovered human existence to be meaningless and absurd, with no obvious purpose or absolute truth to be found. While Existentialist writers later found this to be an ultimately liberating realization, Fitzgerald never became comfortable with it.

Fitzgerald was not born into wealth, yet the two loves of his life, Ginevra King and Zelda Sayre, were both from rich families, and his economic standing was an obstacle in both relationships.[1] As a result, material wealth is the motivation for many of Fitzgerald’s characters, particularly in The Great Gatsby and some of his earlier works; however, that dream is largely criticized and eventually dismissed.

Fitzgerald presents capitalism as a destructive force that dominates and distorts the way that people living within it view reality. Lower class individuals are led to feel inferior to the upper class, which is a position that capitalism supports through the more opulent and privileged lifestyle that it grants its rich. Myrtle Wilson is both literally and figuratively run over by capitalism in The Great Gatsby, and her husband’s life is dominated and destroyed in much the same way. Tom Buchanan, one of the privileged rich, is seen as somehow more valuable than George Wilson; in order to spend time with him, Myrtle accepts being treated as inferior, to the point that she endures Tom Buchanan’s lies and physical abuse- this despite the fact that her husband, a relatively poor man, adores her. Tom’s only real attractive quality is his money, but as Karl Marx wrote, “I am ugly, but I can buy the most beautiful woman for myself. Consequently, I am not ugly, for the effect of my ugliness, its power to repel, is annulled by money….Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their opposites?” [2]

Matters are even worse for George Wilson, whose marriage has been destroyed by Myrtle’s materialism. “He was his wife’s man and not his own,” yet he could not appease her need for an opulent lifestyle. Myrtle did love George for a while; it was not until she discovered George’s economic situation that she began to resent him. Fitzgerald further develops George as a victim by having him refer to a large billboard and remark that “God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me but you can’t fool god.” George’s destruction is the result of capitalism, the artificial hierarchy that had, at least symbolically, become his god.

In “The Rich Boy,” Fitzgerald presents his basic view of the rich:

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you are born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.”

Ross Posnock points out that ”in capitalism social relations acquire a commodified character, as people become objects for each other, sized up as commodities to be bought or sold.” At the center of Jay Gatsby’s dreams of material wealth is Daisy Buchanan, whose magnetism is financial more than anything. Posnock continues: “Gatsby finds Daisy ‘the first ‘nice’ girl he had ever known,’ ‘excitingly desirable,’ whereas his earlier experiences were with women he was ‘contemptuous of’ ‘since they spoiled him’.” [2] Particularly attractive to Gatsby is Daisy’s voice, which is “full of money.” Most importantly, Daisy is someone that society had initially made impossible for him to attain, making her all the more desirable; as Gatsby eventually reveals to Nick about his time spent with Daisy prior to resuming his military service, “he [Gatsby] took Daisy one still October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand.” Daisy could not love Gatsby if she knew of his relative poverty, as it is his wealth that wins her over; she gives in to his advances very quickly after being awed by the extravagance of his material possessions. At the novel’s conclusion, Daisy belongs to, and has always belonged to, the highest bidder, as her interests are, just like Gatsby’s, strictly material. Daisy’s only real value to Gatsby was as a status symbol that could have potentially placed him above those to whom he had at one time been made to feel inferior. Gatsby could never be happy with the “love” that Daisy professed to him until she was completely his; Nick notes that “He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you.’”

When Braddock Washington, the richest man in the world, is about to lose his home in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” he calmly marches onto an open field with one of his largest diamonds and begins to offer a bribe to God. He offers this diamond “not in suppliance, but in pride,” believing himself to be an equal to God. He thought that “God was made in man’s image, so it had been said. He must have His price.” Fitzgerald makes it clear that wealth, and any other form of competition that would seem to make one man more valuable than another, cannot do so in reality. A person cannot become more than human, and to presume it to be possible can only serve to keep people apart that may have found some degree of happiness with one another otherwise, as it almost did for Scott and Zelda and almost does for many of Fitzgerald’s characters, including George and Myrtle Wilson, Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan or some genuinely nice woman, and Anson and Paula in “The Rich Boy.”

While Fitzgerald points out that capitalism can be divisive and destructive, he does not imply that the ‘american dream’ of material success is an impossibility. Gatsby is able to attain it, as are several other characters in Fitzgerald’s work.

Don't look for any of these ideas in Baz Luhrmann's 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby.  They've all been removed to make the movie- I don't know- less smart.
Don't look for any of these ideas in Baz Luhrmann's 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. They've all been removed to make the movie- I don't know- less smart.

Once Jay Gatsby has won Daisy’s affection, he realizes that he has not gained perfection, but instead that “his count of enchanted objects had diminished by one,” and that the green light on the dock that had represented the unattainable rich girl was “again a green light on a dock.” In the end, he is left with nothing, and the results of his life are obvious by the attendance at his funeral; there was his father, and there was Nick.

Similarly, in the short story “Emotional Bankruptcy,” thrilling love affairs have become a commodified experience for Josephine; she is “an egotist who played not for popularity but for individual men.” She wishes to be the center of attention, the woman that every man wants, and with her final conquest of Captain Edward Dicer she has her wish. And yet, when the moment arrives, at the conclusion of the first kiss, she comes to a surprising realization: “I feel nothing at all.” There is no longer anything special about the moment; she is the object of every man’s desire, and she does have her choice of any man that she wants, but she realizes that she is not really better off as a result. Both Josephine and Gatsby achieve their materialistic and/or competitive goals to supposedly prove themselves better than the people around them, yet both discover that their new found superiority does not result in any greater happiness. Amory Blain seems to have this knowledge before putting forth any tremendous effort, as he undermines himself in his attempts for success in This Side of Paradise; Fitzgerald writes that “it was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being,” indicating that, while Amory wanted to know he was capable of attaining a position of apparent superiority, he may have on some level realized it to be ultimately useless.

Early in The Great Gatsby Nick mentions that Daisy and Jordan Baker have “impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire,” indicating that they have already acquired or been given everything that they value, in this case material wealth, and therefore desire nothing and have nothing to live for. For Fitzgerald, material wealth is not an illusory life’s goal because it is not attainable, but rather because it is; if we could reach the ideal, then there would be nothing left to look forward to or to work towards, and we would then have nothing left to live for.

In his Existential essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus uses the Greek mythological character as a metaphor for the human condition. Sisyphus has been sentenced by the god to, for all of eternity, push a rock up a mountain, only to see the rock tumble back down again. The plight of the main character in the short story “The Long Way Out” is a direct parallel to that of Sisyphus; a schizophrenic woman whose husband dies in a car accident shortly before he is to come and take her away continues to prepare for his arrival day after day. Sergio Perosa, whose comment can be applied to both scenarios, remarks that “either she does not realize what has happened, or she does not want to accept the evidence; or, better still, she prefers her fiction to the crude rules of reality. In any case, in the end her long wait becomes the effective symbol of a condition that can be defined as ‘existential.’ Life is nothing but waiting and silent suffering, so it is sufficient for the writer to represent the endless routine of a meaningless act to convey his sense of the drama of existence.” [3]

The fictional worlds that Fitzgerald created are meaningless and absurd; while people do have motivations for their actions, there are events that people have no control over and that, in a larger sense, happen for no reason. There is no reason why some people, like Jay Gatsby, should be born into poverty, while others, like Tom and Daisy Buchanan, are born into affluence. There is no meaning in or reason behind the deaths of people like Dick Humbird, Myrtle Wilson, Jay Gatsby, Abe North, and the husband in “The Long Distance,” yet almost all of the characters in these stories are in some way affected by them. Most importantly, there is no reason why, in reality, Zelda Fitzgerald should be schizophrenic.

As early as his first novel, Fitzgerald indicates a lack of faith in god, as Amory Blaine is unable to find meaning in religion in This Side of Paradise. Eleanor goes as far as to state “there is no God, not even a definite abstract goodness; so it’s all got to be worked out for the individual, by the individual.” While Amory refuses to endorse this idea, he later realizes that he “had loved himself in Eleanor, so now what he hated was only a mirror.” After escaping without any real punishment for his sins in “Absolution,” Rudolph Miller realizes that “an invisible line had been crossed, and he had become aware of his isolation- aware that it applied not only to those moments when he was Blatchford Sarnemington but that it applied to all his inner life.” Fitzgerald and his characters are faced with a world where, if there is a god, he certainly is not taking an active role in people’s lives.

In his soul searching autobiographical essay “The Crack Up,” Fitzgerald wrote that “I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to ‘succeed.’” Even in a world where everything that a person accomplishes will eventually be destroyed in some way, either by time, society, or death, people must still find meaning to fill their days.

Existentialism presents the possibility of what Camus refers to as an absurd hero- a person who ignores the values of his society in order to live the life that he wants to live, who is a hero because he has chosen his own path and his own struggle and has followed that path in spite of what the world around him would have him do. This seems to be the only type of hero possible in Fitzgerald’s world; as he writes in This Side of Paradise, he has been born into a generation that had “grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man mistaken….” Meaning in life must therefore be self-constructed; for Sisyphus, it was “his scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life,” and a life lived accordingly, that both resulted in his punishment and allowed him to continually overcome it.

While Fitzgerald and his characters never seem satisfied with their lives, they do seem to be able to find some solace in relationships. At the end of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” he writes, “Let us love for a while, for a year or so, you and me. That’s a form of divine drunkenness that we can all try.” Amory Blaine notes that everything in his life is “a poor substitute” for Rosalind; the hope of the widowed schizophrenic in ”The Long Distance” rested on her husband; and even Gatsby was happy while pursuing Daisy, and the conclusion of his story may have been different if he had fallen in love for more honorable reasons. In the short story “Babylon Revisited,” Charlie “wanted his child, and nothing was much good now, beside that fact.”

Fitzgerald may have found meaning in his own marriage. In “Babylon Revisited,” written before Zelda was hospitalized for good, Charlie “believed in character; he wanted to…trust in character again as the eternally valuable element. Everything else wore out.” After Zelda was permanently hospitalized, Fitzgerald recorded in “The Crack-Up” that “there was to be no more giving of myself- all giving was to be outlawed henceforth under a new name, and that name was Waste,’ indicating a loss of faith in humanity and a disenchantment with life in general. Relationships are not things to be acquired and to then be forgotten about; they are just the sort of lifelong struggle Fitzgerald prescribes. Unfortunately, his most important relationship ended with his wife’s schizophrenia.

In a letter to his daughter, Fitzgerald defined what he referred to as the wise and tragic sense of life, writing that “life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.” [4] Both Fitzgerald and his main characters are eventually able to break away from the values of society, within which material wealth was, at least in his view, given top priority; however, they are never able to do what Monsignor Darcy refers to as “the next thing” in This Side of Paradise and determine what will, for them, constitute a fulfilling lifelong struggle and to then live their lives accordingly. Fitzgerald may have understood what contentment could be composed of, writing that “the present was the thing- work to do and someone to love,” but that contentment continually eluded him.


1. Lehan, Richard D. F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Craft of Fiction. London: Southern Illinois University, 1966.

2. Posnock, Ross. “A New World, Material Without Being Real: Fitzgerald’s Critique of Capitalism in The Great Gatsby.” Critical Essays on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Ed. Scott Donaldson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

3. Perosa, Sergio. The Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Michigan: Scribner’s, 1965.

4. Kazin, Alfred, Ed. F.Scott Fitzgerald: The Man and His Work. Cleveland: World 1951.

This is a research paper that I wrote as a college senior; I still consider it one of the best things I’ve ever written, so I wanted to share it with anyone that might be interested.


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