In case you're unfamiliar with the story, here's a link to a good synopsis.
Charles Ryder is a far more developed character than is Nick Carraway, the narrator of Gatsby. In fact, Charles becomes the central character of the story; like Dante in the Commedia, Charles the Narrator illuminates for us Charles the Pilgrim. Sebastian is a kind of Virgil for the first half of the novel who is then replaced by Julia as a type of Beatrice. Charles describes Sebastian as a "forerunner" (as John the Baptist was for Jesus) for his love for Julia. But then Julia becomes a forerunner for his love for God. The journey to that point involves many detours as thwarted passions obstruct the path. Charles like Gatsby grasps at a woman for the fulfillment of all of his hope. Juxtapose in your mind the climax of each of these stories: the scene in the Plaza Hotel when Gatsby realizes that Daisy is not entirely his and that he does not understand her set against the scene at the fountain when Charles realizes the same thing about Julia. The falling action splits into different directions, however. Unlike Daisy's betrayal of Gatsby, Julia's severing with Charles is an occasion of grace; for her intentions are not at all selfish. As she realizes that their affair must now come to an end and she must give up the one thing she wants so much, she explains,
The worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from His mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without Him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw today there was one thing unforgivable, [...] the bad thing that I'm not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God's.Both Charles and Julia are brokenhearted. Yet is that very brokenness that allows God to come in. Julia relinquishes her earthly aspiration to happiness through love with Charles for the sake of a true happiness that will last for all eternity. And her prayer that Charles may someday understand is not only answered, but transcended as he eventually follows her lead. Following the Catechism's definition of hope, they learn to place their trust in Christ's promises rather than our fallen world, relying not on their own strength but on the help of the Holy Spirit: "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful" (Hebrews 10:23).
Gatsby never reaches this catharsis as Daisy remains his "rival good" to the last moment. I've argued that it is because Gatsby mislays his hope that he comes to such a tragic end. What so many people find deeply unsatisfying about Fitzgerald's novel is that it doesn't suggest to the reader a better alternative. It asks questions without answering them—not only Gatsby's questions, but the perennial questions of mankind: what is it all for? this longing? this ambition? where am I going? why? We can imagine the green light as a pulsing question mark, keeping time with our beating hearts as we live each day. The trouble with this light is that it is a fixed point on the same horizontal plane as this world below. It is not above us, calling us up and out of ourselves. Therefore, it can never actually fulfill us. As St. Augustine said in the beginning of his Confessions, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."
We can get a very good idea of how Brideshead functions as an answer to Gatsby by situating their final scenes next to one another. Fitzgerald's novel ends,
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.Waugh ends with Charles kneeling and praying in the chapel:
Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.Both Fitzgerald and Waugh conclude their great works by having us gaze upon a light and then inviting us to meditate on the past and it's place in our lives. Fitzgerald leaves us with a seasick, Sisyphean feeling while Waugh lifts us into the Communion of Saints.
I've often been puzzled by the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald said of himself that he was "a moralist at heart" and that he wanted to "preach at people." What was it that he was trying to teach them? Where did he hope to lead them? To the "eyes of God" in the advertisement overlooking the Valley of Ashes? These eyes are described as watching in the sense of judging, but it is not clear that this is a loving gaze that invites His poor sons and daughters back to Him. I can imagine that Waugh might have closed The Great Gatsby, set it by, and thought, "I can do better than that." Waugh lived at the same time as Fitzgerald, saw many of the same things, had many of the same influences, struggled with the same issues; but after becoming a devout Catholic Waugh the satirist set out to write a novel that, he stated explicitly, is "about God" and is therefore "a work of theology." The image of God that we are given in Brideshead is taken from G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories:
"I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."God calls us to Him, catches us up like the Good Shepherd that He is. His judging stare gives way to a smiling embrace like the father of the Prodigal Son. And in exchange for our hope, He gives us his peace. In Waugh's novel, Charles and Julia misplace their hope at various points throughout their lives and they all suffer mightily for it. But thanks to their cooperation with God's grace, they transcend earthly delights and come to know the joy of awaiting heaven. The final sentence of Brideshead Revisited shows this subtly but beautifully as Charles is said to be "looking unusually cheerful today."
The Great Gatsby has just been released on Blu-Ray and DVD. I invite you the watch it and appreciate it for the faithful retelling that it is and ask yourself what it means for this story to be "the classic American tale". Then, find somewhere the 1981 mini-series of Brideshead Revisited, which is the most perfect transference of a book to film ever. (Yes, it's quite long but, whatever you do, do NOT watch the shorter version that came out a few years ago. It turned Waugh in his grave. Here's how.) Look: Breaking Bad might be over by the time you read this. Downton Abbey doesn't start again until January. Mad Men comes later in the spring. So for three whole months, you probably have nothing to watch. It is the perfect time to embark upon eleven hours of greatness in manageable installments just as it was originally aired. Maybe you have already done this. Maybe you're like me and you've seen the whole thing six times. But I'll be revisiting it myself bearing in mind it's relationship to Gatsby, and I'm sure the experience will be a rewarding one. Care to join me? I'd love for you to share your insights and comments.
***Next topic: Breaking Bad & Flannery O'Connor.