“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Finding Hope in a Fierce Little Human Tragedy (Part 1, "The Great Gatsby")

If you have not yet seen this year's The Great Gatsby, you should. Not because it is a "great film" in the weighty sense of those words, but because it's a very faithful rendering of what many still laud as the "great American novel." I saw it in the theater, reread the novel, then saw it again. I've read many reviews, some of them helpful, others far too picky about technical details. Baz Luhrmann has not messed with the story, which is rare in modern adaptations. I think that he really appreciates the themes of the book and has instructed his excellent cast accordingly. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby is just right. He captures so much of the complexity of the character (especially the endearing little boy-like aspects) that Robert Redford simply did not pull off in the 1974 version. I could say quite a bit about the other characters as well; but here, I want to focus just on Gatsby and the virtue that he embodies: hope.

The story's narrator, Nick Carraway, says that Gatsby is "the single most hopeful person" he has ever met. We can track the development of Gatsby's hope by first examining his early life. Nick learns that Gatsby grew up a poor boy in the Midwest named James Gatz. He never embraced his parents or his mean circumstances as his own, always feeling that he was destined for much more. Nick tells us,
The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that — and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
We see here that Gatsby's hope is earth-bound: it seeks only a "meretricious" beauty—one that glitters but is not gold. His is a godliness limited to the mastery of empty glamor. Freighted with such ambition, Gatsby fashions a new self that will be capable of overcoming any obstacle in service of his dream. But then, he falls in love with a mere mortal:
His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.
I was very glad to see that Baz Luhrmann included these wonderful lines of narration in his movie because they are really necessary for understanding Gatsby's motives and his flaws. His life's trajectory is redirected in the moment when he deposits all of his hopes into Daisy, particularly the realization of "a vast, vulgar, meretricious beauty." The language of "incarnation" shows that Gatsby must now accomplish "His Father's business" in and through Daisy. But by doing so, his plans are thwarted; because Daisy is a person, and therefore cannot be used as a medium for the sort of empty beauty that he pursues, unless she consents to lose her personhood. She cannot be sculpted or tailored to his exact specifications like his garden or his shirts. Therefore, Gatsby is taking a major risk, and he knows it: "I always knew it was a mistake for a man like me to fall in love," he tells Nick. He placed all of his happiness in her, but she does not consent; for whatever reason, she does not wait for him. She marries another man. Gatsby reacts by entering the world of organized crime, using his profits to build an enormous palace just across the bay from Daisy's mansion, hoping to lure her back to him with his wild and elaborate parties. In the book, when Daisy finally comes and tours the house, Nick describes Gatsby's reaction:
He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes. Sometimes, too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real. Once he nearly toppled down a flight of stairs.
The movie does not include this bit of narration in voice over, but it does give a line to Gatsby that nicely completes the same idea. Watching Daisy glide through his rooms, Gatsby says to Nick, "She makes it look so—so splendid, don't you think, old sport?" He sees her as the crowning glory of his imagined life, set like a gem at the pinnacle of his immense palace—like the queen on her rightful throne. This is the world of meretricious beauty, in which he understands her—knows her—and intends to keep her.

Before Daisy had finally graced his home with her presence, Gatsby could only imagine her as he gazed across the bay fixing his eyes on the green light glowing at the end of her dock. For years, the green light represented all of his desires. Once Daisy is at last beside him, he shows her the green light. In that moment, Nick tells us,
Possibly it had occurred to Gatsby that the colossal significance of that light had vanished forever. Now it was once again just a green light on a dock, and his count of enchanted object had diminished by one.
The fact that the light is green loads it with a plethora of symbols: envy, greed, money and other forms of mammon; and sexual desire; but this color can also represent Gatsby's great hope, like the angel dressed in green from Dante's Purgatorio. This paradox is useful to the reader/audience: green can symbolize lust which instrumentalizes persons while at the same time it can mean hope in the transcendent God with whom there is no use but instead only self-surrendering love.

Tragically, Gatsby's definition of hope never reaches that of Dante's; for within the arc of the story, he is not heading for a Christian vision. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Christian hope as
the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. The Holy Spirit . . . [is] poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life." (CCC 1817).
Gatsby did not desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life. He desired riches and splendor and placed all of his trust in himself, in going upward, for which he had to be unattached—not unattached to worldly things but unattached to persons. He then attached himself to Daisy but, in order to continue in his upward trajectory, he would have had to destroy her in the service of his vision. We see one point of a possible departure from this doomed path when Gatsby moves from measuring Daisy according to "His Father's business" to reassessing  his possessions according to her. This might signal a chance for him to get beyond a seventeen-year-old's dream of the splendor of riches. Given more time, he may have ascended to that new vantage point; but instead, a myriad of sins—his own as well as those of all of the other characters in the novel—conspires to end his life.

Imagine if Gatsby's love for Daisy had set him on a higher path had they not separated, had she not married Tom Buchanan, had he finally come to see her as Dante saw Beatrice—an image of God who could have guided him eventually to union with Him. Imagine if Daisy had been Gatsby's forerunner, like John the Baptist, paving the way to Christ. When I think about how these changes might have shaped the story, the plot starts to seem remarkably similar to that of my all-time favorite novel...

Years ago I read somewhere that the British novelist Evelyn Waugh said that his magnum opus Brideshead Revisited was written as an answer to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I have not been able to find this quotation again—which at first I found distressing; but then I realized that it doesn't matter whether or not Waugh actually claimed that, because it's just a fact that Brideshead can be read in that way, and it is even more smashingly successful when it is. We can compare the narrators, Nick and Charles, the heart-breakers, Daisy and Julia, the cuckolds Tom and Rex, and of course the complicated, lovable protagonists, Jay and Sebastian. There are countless themes in common. In fact, the more I think about this the more I wonder if Waugh may have even had a copy or at least an outline of The Great Gatsby at his elbow while he composed his absolutely gorgeous, profoundly moving answer.

I will explore this idea in Part 2 of this post. Please join me next time!


  1. Beautiful, Kathryn. I will have to see this movie and have my husband read your post beforehand. I've never liked the book Great Gatsby, but through this lens, I think we could really enjoy it and move from the meretricious beauty (which I always found so nauseating) to that which it somehow points to (as a kind of negative).

    1. Delighted, Claire! Responses like yours are exactly what I hope to achieve with this blog.

  2. Kathryn, I am just now getting around to reading this (as I was waiting to see the movie!) and you wrote about it so beautifully. I agree, Baz didn't change the story (except for that weird narration/novel writing bit... where was Nick exactly?) but oh I didn't love his methods. I was so happy to see that the story wasn't changed in the slightest. But the feel? It almost broke my heart. I'm just wrote a post about it (about to post, I just popped over here to link to yours!). Too bad we can't chat about it over some tea! Hah!

  3. Kate, I'm sorry that you were so hurt by the feel of it. If I loved the Great Gatsby as much as you do--or if Baz did the same thing to Brideshead Revisited--I would feel your pain acutely. Yes, chatting over tea would be delightful. Maybe someday!