The green light beckons on the horizon, the arms of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby outstretched towards it, reaching, reaching, until it fades away like the last warm kiss of summer.
*contains basic spoilers common to most other reviews of the book*
I understand why so many love The Great Gatsby: the writing’s vitality, vividness and rare wit carries an irresistible charm, the characters positively leaping off the pages, the insights of the narrator keen: splicing motives, revealing nuance, plumbing irony. But I also understand why so many are disgusted or disturbed by The Great Gatsby. The plot hinges on two extra-marital affairs and all of the characters are willing participants in a lifestyle with appalling characteristics. To understand the story’s rich themes and startling insights one must simultaneously step back to view the story as a whole and lay aside preoccupation with or squeamish shock over the main plot point to probe deeper into the characters’ motives and try to understand why they make the choices they do and examine the message the author is conveying.
Personally, I fell in love with the book and here’s four reasons why I think it’s a good read:
1) The writing is exquisite.
*sigh* I wish more people thought so deeply about the people, places, sounds and sights around them.
But of course, great writing alone does not merit a book’s reading:
2) It reveals deeper motivations for the character’s actions than we are first inclined to perceive and yet does so without wallowing in the characters’ immorality which is representative of the entire era.
Adultery is the central plot element and this may make some uncomfortable, but because the story is told from Nick’s perspective there are no explicit scenes between Daisy and Gatsby described, only a single, bold public kiss and circumstantially implied intimacy (i.e. Nick going to his home after dinner at Gatsby’s house, leaving Daisy without a ride home). The content is illicit, but not explicit which makes the book a better alternative to other books and films grappling with the same themes but that do so at the expense of purity and conscience.
Ultimately, it’s not Daisy that Gatsby wants or vice versa but something more fundamental to human nature and more profound, paraded in our day as the “great American Dream”.
The American Dream is the ability to become “whoever you want”, to rebirth yourself and forge a different future. Yet is self-re-creation really possible? Can you undo the marks of your birth? Can you really create for yourself a new identity? And if you succeed will it bring you the happiness you desire?
Daisy became for Gatsby the token of success. If he won her heart and hand, her approval, her confirmation of his perceived nobility, his entrance into upper class society was sealed, his distasteful and unsatisfactory past swept away.
3) It vividly captures an era, portraying both the glamor and hidden shadows of the “roaring 20’s”.
4) It tracks the moral decline of the century. How did we go from a culture predominantly marked by firm convictions and high moral standards to the rampant, normalized and widely-accepted immorality we see today?
The Great Gatsby vividly captures the philosophical post-modern landscape of the last century marked by apparent progress that ultimately leaves everybody off worse than they began.
“…four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn into a house–the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.” (pg. 176)
There is something missing, something lost, that everyone is desperate to regain, drowning out its loss in noise, drink and endless party, conjuring up a facade of happiness and purpose to mask the inner despair. This is personified in the character of Daisy Buchanan whom Gatsby sets his life’s hope and quest on but is ultimately destroyed by. In the end, she is revealed to be like the flickering green lantern on their dock that Nick first saw Gatsby reaching out to: intangible, unreachable and obscured by a mist.
In the pursuit of re-creation, Gatsby not only fails to obtain the new identity he seeks but also loses the identity he once had. He is neither within nor without. The self-made man of fortune who changed his name, residence and social status to win the heart of the aristocratic woman of his dreams finds in the end that the transformation can never be complete. The bold and inspiring “American Dream” cannot deliver what it promised. It cannot make a peasant into a man of noble birth. Despite everything Gatsby did, he could not make himself acceptable in their eyes, he could not become one of them.
But they, as it turns out, are no better than him, their social graces, wealth and sophistication a glittering facade for the corruption within. The object of Gatsby’s dream, as well as the manner of its pursuit, proved to be ignoble and self-corroding.
The discerning Christian reader will easily pick up on what is missing–or rather who is missing. Despite Daisy’s husband, Tom’s frequent invocation of God’s name, God is starkly and utterly absent in the landscape of The Great Gatsby–the irreverent use of God’s name serving as a jolting reminder. To not know God is tragic indeed but how much more to have forgotten Him? –To have a memory of Him, a name clinging to your every-day speech, yet it be meaningless?
Between West Egg and New York is a valley of ashes, a by-product of the decade’s industrial extravagance and unrestrained pursuit of pleasure. Overlooking that valley is the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg:
“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic–their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rainy brood on over the solemn dumping ground.” (pg. 24)
In the book’s climax a jilted and now bereaved husband, half-delusioned, but in other ways the most sane character in the whole book, turns to the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg and imagines they are the all-seeing eyes of God Almighty Himself.
“I spoke to her,” he muttered, after a long silence. “I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God. I took her to the window”–with an effort he got up and walked to the rear window and leaned with his face pressed against it–and I said, “God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!”
Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night.
“God sees everything,” repeated Wilson.
“That’s an advertisement,” Michaelis assured him. Something made him turn away from the window and look back into the room.” (Pg. 159-160)
The thought of all-seeing eyes watching over the ashes of corruption unnerved Wilson’s friend even though he believed the eyes to be nothing but an outdated billboard.
Wilson grasped at a forgotten memory–at a substance that was no longer there. Some will say that the lost substance is God Himself, but I counter that it is faith in God that was lost.
Without it, we will all go chasing after our own green lanterns.
The Great Gatsby ends with unfulfilled longing, a groundless yet undaunted hope that somewhere, out there–perhaps just beyond the next hill–lies the something that was lost that will restore to mankind meaning, purpose, and identity.
Francis Schaeffer describes this irrational “faith” as a leap into the “upper story”, a place where real faith is lost and anything else will do to fill its place. This is how a rejection of God leads to mysticism. Faith must always have an object. We have faith in God’s promises, the outcome is certain because God has guaranteed it. Faith without a guarantor is mere wishful thinking.
“…only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room.” (pg. 134)
The glory of the Gospel is that what was lost can be regained. “From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring.” God is there and He is Not Silent. The forgotten Voice is there and He has spoken. He has sworn by Himself that He will free both His saints and the earth from the bondage of corruption.
Yes, we must be born again, but no man can re-birth himself. It is only by the Spirit of God that a man can be born again. Our Father in Heaven adopts the lowly of the earth and exalts them to sonship in the family of God, where the distasteful past is truly gone, where we are never cast out.
I would highly recommend The Great Gatsby but only for mature readers, who won’t be distracted with or disturbed by the presence of adultery and profanity and be able to appreciate the themes the book is communicating and understand where the Gospel intersects with the paradoxically, optimistic fatalism of its ending.
This is not a review or endorsement of The Great Gatsby movie which I have not seen. World magazine has published an excellent review of the movie for those interested.
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