I spent a year of my life living as Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, after I had answered a simple newspaper ad: “Waterfront 1BR Cottage. $215 mo. Refs. Req.”
The landlord was an expatriate Polish aristocrat, regal in his every fiber. The tiny cottage was a wonder, situated on a peninsula thrust into a broad harbor on the Chesapeake Bay. The main house was gorgeous, the grounds immaculate, and the view from the boathouse pier spectacular. Massive and ancient mansions lined the harbor. I spent the year soaking in the elite culture as a quasi-insider.
This was Virginia’s version of East and West Egg, near Williamsburg, where I spent evenings sitting on the screen porch listening to the drifting sounds of parties along the river. During the week, I heard tales of local scandals kept quiet, of surreptitious relationships, and of lives spent filling the emptiness and ennui of days that no longer required actual work.
Baz Lurhmann’s film adaptation of Gatsby (opening May 10) already has been called a visual triumph that pulls back the curtain on the world of the American aristocracy. Most reviewers are tapping what Fitzgerald himself likely viewed as the story’s indictment of bored wealth, but I think the story sketches a much larger, very human story.
If you haven’t read the novel, you might want to wait to read the following, as I can’t proceed without spoiling a lot of the plot.
Jay Gatsby, the slick kajillionaire of the story, is both mysterious and charismatic. His parties are shimmering bacchanals, his wealth is breathtaking, and his pursuit of his lost love (Daisy Buchanan) is dogged. Gatsby has spent his energies attempting to rewrite his own life’s story, seeking to birth himself anew. The story arcs toward tragedy, excavating Gatsby’s history and revealing his ultimate loneliness and pathetic essence. The ashen conclusion leaves us feeling unsettled, for if the glitterati have no hope, what shall the rest of us do?
Gatsby’s gospels are easily recognizable, as they are the primary gospels of our culture.
- What is wrong with my life? I lost my soulmate. How do I make it right? I recapture him/her. Was it satisfying? Only for a time.
- What is wrong with my life? I don’t have enough money. How do I make it right? I passionately pursue wealth. Was it satisfying? There’s never enough money.
- What is wrong with my life? I am bored. How do I make this right? I pursue any and all forms of entertainment. Are they satisfying? Only until morning (or bills) comes crashing in.
These gospels always share the same resolution: Anything rooted in this world never fully satisfies.
Augustine knew these feelings personally, living as a tortured soul in a deceptively materialistic world. He knew that the mantra of material culture is always thus: “our hearts are restless. . . .” To this effect, we constantly shove stuff into our heart’s voids, constantly finding them unsatisfactory.
Fitzgerald’s Gatsby includes a metaphor for God in the infamous eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, the faded oculist shop’s sign that looks vacantly out over the Valley of Ashes that encapsulates the novel’s world. The eyes seem to symbolize the divine emptiness that has moved from authoritative to mythic but powerless. In them he saw, perhaps, the sternness of the intensely sterile faith in which he was raised. My sense is that he saw God as a fading, vestigial artifact and Christians as, therefore, hopeless. Then again, I’m pretty sure Fitzgerald saw everyone as hopeless.
Augustine, of course, extended his famous observation: “our hearts are restless until they find rest in in You.” Gatsby’s Gospels are only an unsatisfying part of the human tale; they anticipate Christ’s satisfying transcendence but lack the final, ultimate resolution. Hope can be found in You alone.
Watch Gatsby, or better yet, read the novel. Then look at your neighbors and realize that, wealthy or not, they are Gatsby, wrestling with emptiness and loneliness. And remember that the Christian Gospel compels you to reach out to them with the good news that God Himself is capable of rewriting of our lives’ stories, through His love.