Somehow, I got to my senior year of college without ever reading The Great Gatsby.
So, last Christmas, I picked it up. I soon found myself in an obsessive F. Scott Fitzgerald kick in which I read everything of his that I could get my hands on. He’s brilliant.
Sunday night I saw the Baz Luhrmann film. I had low expectations going in, but I enjoyed the spectacle and the costumes and especially the soundtrack. My main problem with it was that it sidestepped the point of the book.
“You can’t repeat the past,” Nick (Tobey MacGuire) says.
“Of course you can,” insists Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. “Of course you can.”
Luhrmann’s film goes on to insist that no, you can’t. But the above exchange–although lifted from the novel–does not capture F. Scott’s main point.
The tragedy of Gatsby’s obsessive longing for Daisy Buchanan is not so much about the hopelessness of rekindling a past happiness. The Great Gatsby is tragic because it is about a man trying to capture an ideal that was never there, and that he can never find.
The Preacher & the Man from West Egg
In the trenches of World War I, Jay Gatsby built a world around his girl. She became his everything. When he came back from the war and learned that she had married someone else, he needed to believe that she never loved her husband at all. He needed to believe that he could win her back and make all his dreams come true. He fashioned a life around her empty space. He earned a huge fortune and had everything a man could ever hope for in this life: friends, popularity, wealth, women, alcohol, notoriety, success. He was the Ultimate Man—he was Solomon. But it was all nothing—all he wanted was a woman.
And then he gets her back. Nick helps. It’s all so nice. And we allow ourselves to root for him, even though Daisy is married. We want him to be happy, and after all, her husband Tom is an adulterous brute. When he breaks his mistress’ nose in the film, it is a faraway, slow motion shot—hardly noticed. When I read that scene, I remember it disturbed me so much I had to put the book down. Tom is easy to hate, Gatsby is easy to sympathize with, and we want Daisy to be our pretty, charming heroine. But it all goes sour in that hot Plaza room, and the disastrous drive back to East Egg. The tragedy of Gatsby unfolds, and the book closes with the famous line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The book of Ecclesiastes was written by a man who had everything. He was a genius, a sage, a ruler, a woman’s man, a man’s man, a soldier, a tycoon, a king. He was the Gatsby of his day, only not of New York City, but of the whole world. He wrote Ecclesiastes as a record of his attempts to be happy. He was full of ideas. Maybe money would do it. Or work. Or women. He writes about each new experiment, and how each fell flat. “All is vanity–chasing after wind.”
Fire, Freshness, and the New Jazz Age
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to men and women in a decadent era. The 1920′s were marked by the overwhelming success of the American Dream–a time when everyone had money, and the vapidity of the upper-class strata led to an entire generation dancing on the brink of dissolution. Himself part and parcel of the alcoholic revelry of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald also became–somehow–its prophetic voice.
His day is reminiscent of our own. We, too, are a rich and decadent culture. For example, despite Presidential scandals and epic unrest in North Korea and the Middle East, one of today’s top news stories on the top news website in our nation concerns a new tourist attraction outside Atlantic City: a $35 million, 40,000-square-foot complex named “Margaritaville” after the 3-cord, 208-word Jimmy Buffet drinking song–which, by the way, is the most lucrative in music history (“I blew out my flip-flop, Stepped on a pop-top, Cut my heel had to cruise on back home, But there’s booze in the blender, And soon it will render, That frozen concoction that helps me hang on”). It is all quite reminiscent of the frivolous America of 1925. Our culture, too, is drowning in vapidity. If Fitzgerald had been born in 1984 instead of 1896, he could still have written a Gatsby set in 2013 New York.
Even in the midst of this decadence and the loss of spirituality and meaning, Fitzgerald reminded his readers that God was still watching–symbolized by the great blue eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg on the billboard presiding over the valley of ashes.
Still today, as in every day, men and women seek significance and peace. Solomon wanted it, Jay Gatsby wanted it, we want it.
Gatsby put all his hopes on a woman. Far from being noble, it was a selfish act. No human being–not even Daisy Buchanan–could bear the burden of his eternal happiness. And Gatsby himself realized it, the very afternoon of his anticipated reunion:
As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.
Our local drive-in — best place to watch a summer movie!
Even the world admits, to varying degrees, that money can’t buy happiness, that parties and high living will leave us empty, that alcohol is a treacherous friend. The one fairy tale we allow ourselves to believe is that true love can make us happy. The right woman, the right man, will answer all our self-doubts and give us purpose. We hold this hope close to our hearts both inside and outside the church. Yet even this hope turned sour for Gatsby. Even this hope betrayed him.
Perhaps Baz Luhrmann did not want to look to closely at this. He preferred the cautionary “you can’t repeat the past” moral of the story to the truly bleak outlook of F. Scott, which pointed to a future equally blighted and hopeless. Jay Gatsby may represent hope in director Luhrmann’s world, but a closer look reveals that his is a deluded hope. In the end of the film he is happy, yes, because he thinks his love his calling him, he thinks that all his dreams are coming true. But instead he takes a bullet for a crime that was hers, and the voice on the other end of the line was not even Daisy’s. He died without knowing this, and we are glad that he dies happy. But the fact is, he dies deluded.
“‘We know not what we shall be;’ but we may be sure we shall be more, not less, than we were on earth. Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like penciled lines on flat paper.
If they vanish in the risen life, they will only vanish as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape, not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun.”
-C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
There is a hope: a great hope that sustains the soul, a hope that redeems the past, that promises a future, a hope with its eyes wide open. This hope is found in Christ, who conquered the grave, who saved Solomon, who receives the Gatsbys and Daisys and Nicks and Toms and Myrtles of this world to Himself. For all of us are wandering sheep, looking for a way to get by without our shepherd, and all of us are–in our various and sundry and infinitely creative ways–building dream palaces and swallowing the pills of our own lies, chasing after winds, crashed over and over again against the shores of the world. Delusion is utterly necessary for the man or woman without Christ. He cannot live in the real world. He cannot survive it.
Christ is reality. He is the hope that does not disappoint. He is the light that shines across the shore and grows only brighter and more brilliant with time.