Ethics in Gatsby: An Examination of American Values (The Great Gatsby as a Business Ethics Inquiry)
by Tony McAdams

For some time a small but growing number of professors have employed fiction in studying ethics. Perhaps the most prominent exponent of that approach is the child psychiatrist Robert Coles of Harvard who argues that stories engage readers and stir “the moral imagination” in a manner that cannot be matched by other materials. Coles has employed  The Great Gatsby at Harvard to examine ethics. A letter he received from a former Harvard Business School student suggests the power of literature to capture our moral attention:

All of my friends are talking about Ivan Boesky. They want to know what made him tick. I want to know, too. But yesterday, as we talked, 1 realized that I did know—as much, probably, as anyone will ever know. I’d read The Great Gatsby, and suddenly, as I sat there, in a Wall Street restaurant, Jay Gatsby came to my mind, and our long discussions of what Gatsby is meant to tell us about ourselves. I told my buddies: go get The Great Gatsby, read it, think about it, and then we can talk some more about Boesky (Coles, 1987, p. 14).

For the past two semesters I have experimented with The Great Gatsby in our required, upper division Legal and SocialEnvironment of Business course. The preliminary response has been encouraging, and on that basis I am detailing here an approach to Gatsby as, in part, an expression of Fitzgerald’s doubts about America’s moral direction…


Our first ethics inquiry is an exploration of the book’s central characters as moral commentaries. In so doing, we introduce the key figures while beginning to treat Gatsby as an examination of American values…

1. Liars. We simply proceed through the principal characters and examine their moral “images.” For example, I argue that each character is a “liar” in some fundamental sense. We then talk about Tom Buchanan and his mistress, Daisy’s failure to reveal her role in Myrtle Wilson’s death, Gatsby’s life as a lie and an illusion, and so on. Broadly, we note the characters’ cavalier attitudes toward the truth. Nick sets that tone early in the book in commenting on Jordan’s dishonesty:

It made no difference to me. Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply—I was casually sorry, and then I forgot

At that point, I acquaint the students with some studies attempting to measure the current incidence of lying in America including one poll reporting the remarkable finding that 91 percent of those surveyed admit to “lying regularly” although only 36 percent admit to telling “serious lies” (Patterson, 1991).

2.  Nick’s moral growth. Professor David Parker, in commenting on The Great Gatsby, raises the issue of Nick’s moral growth from an inexperienced, complacent midwesterner to a much wiser, more mature man who, after his time in the East, had acquired an understanding of the complexity of humanity (1986, pp. 35-39).

Early on, we learn of Nick’s traditional prescriptions for life. He recalls his father’s advice chat “a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.” Even after returning home from the East, Nick admits to wanting the world “at a sort of moral attention forever.” During his first visit to Tom and Daisy Buchanan, his priggish, rule-bound view of life comes to the fore when he learns that Tom is taking a call from his mistress:

To a certain temperament the situation might have seemed intriguing—my own instinct was to telephone immediately for the police.

Later, Nick admits to being “slow-thinking and full of interior rules.” As we proceed through the story, however, Nick begins to sense the complexity in others and in life generally. He comes to admire a man, Gatsby, who breaks all of the rules. He comes to look at life from a variety of viewpoints in keeping with the remarkable array of personalities he had encountered on his sojourn East. Toward the end of the story, as he leaves Jordan behind, Nick acknowledges a new sense of perspective in his moral life.

Jordan: I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride.

Nick: I’m thirty, I said. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.

Clearly, Nick is confused after his Gatsby experience. He wants to cling to the rules of his midwestern youth, but he senses that life provides more complexity than his rules suggested. Nick’s moral floundering thus provides an apt point of entry for examining contemporary theories of moral development. I rely on the work of noted developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1981) as well as his critics and admirers, but others could be used. Kohlberg built an empirically based theory in which he identified six universal and progressively higher stages of moral development that depended in good part on age (at least up to the early twenties) and education:

Nick’s unambiguous rule orientation as he heads East stands in clear contrast with the confusion he feels as he prepares his return to the Midwest. Nick seems to be virtually the embodiment of Kohlberg’s conception of moral growth as he gains increased moral maturity via the intellectual dissonance that leads to moral adjustments…

3. Gatsby and a life of illusion. Jay Gatsby is a boorish fraud. He is adolescent in love. He makes use of others for his selfish purposes. His entire adult life is a lie. Nonetheless, we like and even admire Gatsby. As Nick says to Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd... . You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Still Nick goes on to note his disapproval of Gatsby “from beginning to end.” Why … do we admire Gatsby? Of course, Gatsby exhibits great charm. In an important sense, he is the embodiment of the American Dream. He has faith in life. However, the theme that we dwell upon is Gatsby’s zealous commitment to his cause: Daisy. However foolish that choice of causes may be, we admire Gatsby. That is so, I believe, because Gatsby has been true to himself or at least to his invented self. We admire him for taking a path that, in his case, seems to rise to the level of a moral conviction; that is, an absolute commitment to his personally conceived vision of life.

To illustrate that theme, I remind students of the famous passage in Hamlet (Act I, Scene 3) where Polonius advises his departing son, Laertes:

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;

This above all: to thine own self be true. (emphasis added)

We then spend some time talking about the utility and limitations of that single line, “To thine own self be true,” as an ethical standard by which to guide one’s professional and personal lives.

4.  Tom and Daisy. We do not dwell upon these two rather transparent figures. We note that they are careless, shallow people living in eternal moral adolescence. Tom and Daisy serve  as  personifications  of the  doubts  that  Fitzgerald seemed to  be feeling about the wealthy  world that he yearned for and yet criticized.

Of course, Daisy does display some redeeming features. She is intelligent and charming. She shares Gatsby’s romantic sensibilities. And at times, she seems to be aware of the shallow quality of her own life. Consider her account to Nick of her daughter’s birth:

Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. “All right,” 1 said, “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that is the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

Scholar Mary McCay argues that Daisy represents something of the emptiness of life for the many women of that era who really had no role of their own (1983, p. 311). Indeed, Fitzgerald regularly rebuked Zelda for what he took to be her empty values and underachievement.

American Values

1. Wealth and class. Clearly, in considerable part, The Great Gatsby is a commentary on the themes of wealth and class in America of the Roaring ’20s. For example, Gatsby thinks of Daisy as a sort of icon of wealth:

Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.

In one of the more famous and clever lines in American literature, Gatsby says of Daisy, “Her voice is full of money.” And as Professor Milton Stern reminds us, Daisy “belongs to the highest bidder” (1970, p. 165).

Fitzgerald himself, while drawn to the pleasures of high society, apparently was troubled by what he took to be the unfairness of a culture marked by great divisions of wealth. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald had sought a “golden girl,” a young Chicago socialite named Ginevra King. King, however,married a wealthy suitor. Fitzgerald later sought to marry Zelda, but she put him off on the grounds that his prospects were uncertain. Fitzgerald then published his first novel, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald and Zelda married, and eventually Ginevra and Zelda served as “models” for Daisy. Class divisions in America became a central theme in Fitzgerald’s thinking and writing:

“That was always my experience,” he wrote near the end of his life, “a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy’s school; a poor boy in a rich man’s club at Princeton… I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works.” He told a friend that “the whole idea of Gatsby is the unfairness of a poor young man not being able to marry a girl with money. This theme comes up again and again because I lived it” (Stern, 1970, p. 164).

We then look briefly at the United States of the 1920s, the Jazz Age, and the conspicuous affluence of the upper class of the time. In that context, we investigate the issue of wealth in contemporary America… Thus Gatsby becomes a helpful vehicle for examining whether dramatic inequalities in wealth constitute a moral issue.

2. The American Dream. The gleaming possibilities, both spiritual and material, in a youthful, potent, exuberant America are central to Gatsby. However, as scholar Marius Bewley (1954) argues, Gatsby is also the story of the withering of that American Dream in a dissolute era.

The roots of the American Dream seem particularly to lie in the movement westward with its accompanying optimism and faith in humanity’s inherent goodness. At the same time, the American Dream is also a product of our historical pursuit of spiritual progress and liberty. The Dream has taken on new dimensions for changing times, but its core, as we passed through the remarkable entrepreneurial/industrial successes of the nineteenth century, resided increasingly in material abundance. Professor Charles Sanford argues that doubts about the emergent materialist Dream have become a staple of American letters:

The main theme in American literature during the twentieth century has been … America’s abandonment of the security and innocence of an earlier day through some essentially sinful act, an act most frequently associated with industrialism and the commercial ethic (1961, p. 255).

What is Gatsby’s dream? We remember that Gatsby “invented” himself. Hence, he and his vision are the expressionof his dream. We catch glimpses of that dream via his heroic, ultimately foolish, quest for Daisy, and we find it embellished in Fitzgerald’s picture of Gatsby: his youth, his beauty, his faith in life, his capacity for wonder, his romantic commitment, his idealism; indeed, his very capacity to dream. Fitzgerald seems to be suggesting that the American Dream lies in the limitless possibilities in being human while warning of the risks in losing sight of those possibilities in the glare of wealth and its accoutrements.

Hence, The Great Gatsby simultaneously depicts both the allure of wealth and moral disapproval of the sometimes empty, corrupt, unsatisfying lives of those who achieve wealth (Hearn, 1977). Fitzgerald evidences this tension in his characterizations of Tom and Daisy, on the one hand, and Gatsby on the other. The Buchanans’ materialist American Dream is at least as authentic as Gatsby’s romantic version, but Tom and Daisy’s spiritual corruption denies the American soul, while Gatsby’s idealism affirms it (Bewley, pp. 243-6).

Gatsby should not be read as a yearning for some imagined, Edenic, pre-commercial past that needs only to be recaptured. Rather Fitzgerald mourns the loss of possibilities. Bewley explains:

The Great Gatsby is an exploration of the American Dream as it exists in a corrupt period, and it is an attempt to determine that concealed boundary that divides the reality from the illusions. The illusions seem more real than the reality itself. Embodied in the subordinate characters in the novel, they threaten to invade the whole of the picture. On the other hand, the reality is embodied in Gatsby, and as opposed to the hard, tangible illusions, the reality is a thing of the spirit, a promise rather than the possession of a vision, a faith in the half-glimpsed, but hardly understood, possibilities of life (pp. 224-5).

Scholar Letha Audhuy (1980) provides further support for this “Dream corrupted by materialism” analysis. She points to the picture of emptiness and sterility in life that was the theme of T.S. Eliot’s great work “The Waste Land” (a poem Fitzgerald very much admired)…

A Trio of Reservations

In closing I am obliged to note a trio of important reservations regarding the narrative approach to moral education. First, this suggested use of stories risks a charge of indoctrination in that one is necessarily teaching a particular content and probably a particular point of view thus violating the neutrality that we normally seek in moral education. Presumably, some element of indoctrination is virtually unavoidable. My inclination has been to willfully and openly take a pointed position and endeavor to counterbalance it with an equally pointed rebuttal. Specifically, our discussion of Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s questions about America’s direction follow an aggressive defense of the free market vision of Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, et al.

Secondly, we must simply remind ourselves that we are dealing with fiction. The characters and themes are constructs reflecting the author’s world view, the nature of the times, the state of knowledge in that era, and so on. In this case, Fitzgerald drew, as noted, upon his own experiences and acquaintances in building his story. His values, his sense of the direction of America, his interpretation of the economic climate of the Jazz Age—these forces and manymore are at work in this book. Obviously, The Great Gatsby cannot be understood to be an effort at an objective depiction of the reality of America in the Twenties. Gatsby can, however, be understood to be a provocative instrument for raising a variety of enduring ethics/values themes so long as we recognize that we are doing so via the mediating influence of a particular author in a particular time and place.

Finally, while stories have always been a staple of moral development efforts we have never been sure that they really do much good. We still do not have definitive evidence although recent scholarly developments provide encouragement. As noted, my students have responded quite affirmatively to Gatsby as a moral lesson, but whether that satisfaction translates to improved moral insight or moral decision making is simply unknown.


Published in Journal of Business Elixirs magazine vol. 12 (1993), pp. 653-80. Text scanned from Readings on "The Great Gatsby", ed. by Katie DeKoster (San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998).