*Posted by Winston Hottman
I’m one of those people who cannot see a movie first if there is a book behind it. And so in preparation of the theater release of The Great Gatsby, I decided to pick up the classic by F. Scott Fitzgerald and give it a read. Written in 1925, in the middle of the “Roaring Twenties,” the book essentially tells the story of a group of American aristocrats trying to deal with the fact that they can’t have what they want…and failing miserably at it. Of course, there’s more depth to it than that; in fact, a lot more depth.
Like any good piece of literature, The Great Gatsby is also a reflection on the wider human experience. Far from a commentary on a few isolated individuals, the book speaks to all of us as it exposes and wrestles with the struggles that we all share, whether rich or poor, powerful or disenfranchised. It tells us about ourselves and the ways we relate to the world around us.
The theme that connects us to the book, in my opinion, is the illusiveness of hope. Each of the characters, in different ways and in different situations, experience a wide gulf between their aspirations and their realized experiences, between what they imagine for themselves and what their lives are really like. Like the bay running between East Egg and West Egg that separates Gatsby from his beloved Daisy, a vast distance between our ideas of how our lives should be and how they really are confronts each of us.
For the characters of the book, satisfaction is sought in a constant cycle of aspiration and disappointment, of busy pursuit followed by the fatigue of unrequited passion. Full of drunkenness, reveling, and marital affairs, the book displays humanity in its delusional grasping for something that does not exist. As hard as we try to convince ourselves otherwise or try to ignore our predicament, the truth is that our experiences will always fall short of what we want them to be.
Following Gatsby’s long-awaited reunion with Daisy, the books raconteur comments:
As I went over to say goodbye I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.
It’s an experience to which we can all relate. The sense of bewilderment is an ever present stain on every celebration we enjoy. The world is not the way it is. Those around us, even those we love the most, are not as they should be. And we fall desperately short of who we should be.
I appreciate the book for its brutal honesty. In a culture that tries to smother its hollowness with frivolity and superficial entertainment, the book forces us to be honest about the human condition. I imagine the movie will resonate strongly for this reason.
The book, however, ends without hope. It leads us part of the way, but doesn’t take us quite where we need to go. And yet, at moments it seems to hint at it. In particular I was struck by the language used to describe a kiss between Gatsby and Daisy:
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.
The religious language of the paragraph is explicit. It signifies directly that there is something more significant about this scene, and indeed the entire book, than a simple, individual love story. When I read it for the first time, I immediately thought of the lyrics of a Christian song and its verbal parallels to the paragraph above:
And we are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes,
If His grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.
And Heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest,
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets,
When I think about, the way…
Not that Fitzgerald believed in the incarnation of Christ (I don’t know if he did or not), but like the Christian song, the satisfaction of human longing is described as the wedding of the transcendent to the perishable, the place where Heaven and Earth kiss; perhaps, the place where a star signified the one who would retune our disharmonious world.