The appearance of yet another film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby provides the occasion for reflecting on what many consider the great American novel. Those who are looking for a thorough review of the movie itself will have to look elsewhere, I’m afraid. I will say only this about the movie: I think that Baz Luhrmann’s version is better than the sleepy 1974 incarnation, and I would say that Leonardo DiCaprio makes a more convincing Gatsby than Robert Redford. But I want to focus, not so much on the techniques of the filmmaker, as on the genius of the writer who gave us the story.
F. Scott Fitzgerald belonged to that famously “lost” generation of artists and writers, which included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Ford Madox Ford, and others. Having come of age during the First World War, these figures saw, in some cases at close quarters, the worst that human beings can do to one another, and they witnessed as well the complete ineffectuality of the political and religious institutions of the time to deal with the horrific crisis into which the world had stumbled. Consequently, they felt themselves adrift, without a clear moral compass; lost. Hemingway’s novels—and his own personal choices—showed one way to deal with this problem, namely, to place oneself purposely in dangerous situations so as to stir up a sense of being alive. This explains Hemingway’s interests in deep-sea fishing, big game hunting, battling Nazis, and above all, bull-fighting. Scott Fitzgerald explored another way that people coped with the spiritual emptiness of his time, and his deftest act of reportage was The Great Gatsby.
As the novel commences, we meet Tom and Daisy Buchanan, two denizens of East Egg, a town on Long Island where “old money” resides. Ensconced in a glorious mansion, wearing the most fashionable clothes, surrounded by servants, and in the company of the most “beautiful” people, Tom and Daisy are, nevertheless, utterly bored, both with themselves and their relationship. While Daisy languishes and frets, Tom is carrying on a number of illicit love affairs with women from both the upper and lower echelons of the social order. One of the more affecting scenes in the Baz Luhrmann film depicts Tom and a gaggle of his hangers-on whiling away an afternoon and evening in a rented Manhattan apartment. In the aftermath, they are all drunk, sexually sated, and obviously miserable.
Meanwhile, across the bay from the Buchanans in West Egg, is the hero of the story, ensconced in his even more glorious mansion. Gatsby wears pink suits, drives a yellow roadster, and associates with the leading politicians, culture mavens, and gangsters of the time. But the most intriguing thing about him is that, week after week, every Saturday night, he opens his spacious home for a wild party, attended by all of the glitterati of New York. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of these parties—all wild dancing, jazz music, cloche hats, sexual innuendo, and flapper dresses—is certainly one of the highlights of the book. We discover that the sole purpose of these astronomically expensive parties is to lure Daisy, with whom Gatsby had had a romantic relationship some years before. Though Daisy is a married woman, Gatsby wants to steal her from her husband. When Nick Carraway, the narrator, chides Gatsby that no one can repeat the past, the hero of the novel responds curtly, “What do you mean you can’t repeat the past? Of course you can.” Without going into any more plot details, I will simply say that this set of circumstances led to disappointment, hatred, betrayal, and finally, Gatsby’s death at the hand of a gunman.
Fitzgerald saw that, given the breakdown of traditional morality and the marginalization of God, many people in the postwar West simply surrendered themselves to wealth and pleasure. Commitment, marriage, sexual responsibility, and the cultivation of a spiritual life were seen as, at best, holdovers from the Victorian age, and at worst, the enemies of progress and pleasure. Gatsby’s parties were, we might say, the liturgies of the new religion of sensuality and materiality, frenzied dances around the golden calf. And despite his reputation as a hard-drinking sensualist, Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, was as uncompromising and morally clear-eyed as an evangelical preacher. He tells us that the displacement of God by wealth and pleasure leads, by a short route, to the corroding of the soul.
There is a burnt-out and economically depressed city that lies on Long Island in between West Egg and Manhattan, and the main characters of The Great Gatsby pass through it frequently. In fact, one of Tom Buchanan’s mistresses lives there. Fitzgerald is undoubtedly using it to symbolize the dark under-belly of the Roaring Twenties, the economic detritus of all of that conspicuous consumption. But he also uses it to make a religious point For just off the main road, there are the remains of a billboard advertising a local opthamologist. All we can see are two bespectacled eyes, but they hover over the comings and goings of all the lost souls in the story. Like all symbols in great literary works, this one is multivalent, but I think it’s fairly clear that Scott Fitzgerald wanted it, at least in part, to stand for the providential gaze of God. Though he has been pushed to the side and treated with disrespect, God still watches, and his moral judgment is still operative.
It’s a sermon still worth hearing.