Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How does "The Great Gatsby" Teach Spirituality?

Thankfully, the movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo Dicaprio was pretty faithful to the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, so I won't have to spend a whole lot of time comparing the two.  

The Great Gatsby is considered by many to be the great American novel.  I obviously wasn't alive back then, but from what I've heard, the story was a perfect example of the excess and apathetic attitude toward morals that characterized the Roaring 20's.  Actually, an interesting thing about the latest film version is that it uses a lot of modern music, like Jay-Z, for the soundtrack.  Yet, it still works because, when you stop and think about it, those mindless revelers we see aren't really that different from what we see now.  

That said, this spiritual analysis will be a little different from previous ones I've done.  God doesn't show up like He did in Bruce Almighty.  There are no Christ figures like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption.  There are no metaphors for spiritual battles like there were in The Avengers.  This one is actually notable precisely because there aren't any role models in this movie.  Christ is actually shown in this movie by the lack of his presence!  

The story is narrated by a detached observer sort of character named Nick Carraway.  He has become a very cynical man, disgusted by the world and the people in it, and he tells us why.  He had moved to New York, close to his rich cousin, Daisy Buchanan and her husband, Tom.  This rich couple has bought into the notion that they are the epitome of self-made success, and that their wealthy position is the be-all and end-all of human existence.  Yet, they are unhappy and, quite frankly, boring people.  Tom runs off and has his affairs, and Daisy has to pretend it doesn't bother her.

Also living nearby, is this man Jay Gatsby who is nothing but a legend to most.  He throws these elaborate parties at his mansion, which many show up to, yet none of them seem to know him.  We soon discover that his house and parties are all part of his elaborate plan to get Daisy back into his life, as they had had a relationship years before and Gatsby never forgot about her.

He sees Nick as an opportunity to get to Daisy and asks Nick to invite Daisy to tea.  Nick has some issues with setting them up, as well he should, seeing as how Daisy is married, but he does it.  And they slowly start to have a relationship again.

Tom, of course, is none too happy when he finds out, mainly because he feels that Gatsby is beneath them because Tom was born wealthy.  The thing that really makes you angry in this scene is that Tom still tries to excuse his own adultery even while berating Daisy for hers.  He then sends Daisy home with Gatsby in his car as a final insult because he figures Gatsby isn't a real threat. Unfortunately, Gatsby lets Daisy drive on the way home and she accidentally kills Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson.  Tom lets Gatsby take the fall and even goes so far as to let Myrtle's husband, George, believe that Gatsby is her "other man."  A crazed George finds Gatsby later and shoots him before turning the gun on himself.

If I had to pick one emotion to describe this story it would be simply this:  emptiness.  Tom and Daisy seem to have everything a person could want, yet they are truly unhappy people who don't seem to care at all for others, including each other.  

Early in the film, Tom and Nick attend a party where people are mindlessly drinking and carousing, but it's not meant to be a glamorous scene like it would be in other movies of this nature.  We can see that these people are truly devoid of any real life and they don't have any meaning in what they do.  Their listlessness is a symbol of a greater underlying pointlessness to their existence.  Many would think what they do is all fun and games, but it doesn't really make them happy.

Gatsby has also bought into the materialistic lies of the world.  We learn during the course of the movie that he comes from a poor family, so he spends his life trying to become wealthy and become somebody that a rich girl like Daisy would consider worthy.  Unfortunately, he owes much of  his success to some very shady business dealings.  

At a certain point in the movie, he confides to Nick that even though he seems like he has it all, he truly feels empty.  He worked his whole life trying to get something and realized it was nothing at all.  It could be argued that Gatsby's longing goes deeper than just Daisy, and what he really wants back is the innocence he had back before he made so many compromises.  Nick, though, tells Gatsby that "They're a rotten crowd.  You're worth the whole d--n bunch put together."  He's partially right.  Even though Gatsby's actions he's taken in his life are far from honorable, he doesn't naturally feel the way the rest do.  He's simply bought into their lies and is now feeling the pain from them.  Nick is the only true friend he has by the end of the story, as nobody else but him cares to show up for Gatsby's funeral.  All the people at his parties were only fair weather supporters and mooches.  None of them were truly friends.

By that point, Tom and Daisy have slipped away to avoid all the trouble.  As Nick says, "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."  Thus, Nick's disgust with the whole situation is complete.

Obviously, the story depicts much bad behavior from all the characters.  Even Nick isn't completely innocent by story's end, as he knew the truth about Myrtle's death, but stayed quiet about it.  But the story doesn't set out to glorify or condone these negative elements.  They're clearly there to show the consequences and emptiness of living the lives depicted here.  And F. Scott Fitzgerald knows that of which he speaks.  He too lived a life of partying and drinking like the people depicted here, and he was one of the most unhappy authors I know of.

Probably the most overtly spiritual element of the story is a billboard in one part of the town that advertises a medicine from a Dr. TJ Eckleburg.  The sign is mostly consumed by the doctor's large eyes.  These eyes are present when a lot of the bad things were happening, from Tom's secret rendezvous with Myrtle, to Myrtle's death.  It doesn't take much symbolic imagination to figure out Whose eyes those are supposed to be.  Nick even describes them once as being like the "eyes of God."  This is an important and somewhat frightening reminder that even though these people (and the ones in the world around us) may seem to be free of moral conscience, God is still watching the whole situation unfold and he knows every action they take.  And their sins are starting to find them out.

Obviously, the story is no Bible lesson.  It shows our society's problems but doesn't really offer any solutions, other than to try to distance yourself as far from the corruption as possible, like Nick does.  As Christians, though, I think we know where the solution to our emptiness lies.  The story tells us it doesn't come from money, possessions, parties, drinking, or sexual flings.  So, what then?  I think you know.  The eyes watching all of our actions belong the same One who wants to fill that void inside.

If you're a non-Christian reading this, I would strongly urge you to think long and hard on this.

1 comment:

  1. Love it! Great writing skills, cousin. I appreciate how you help people see Christ in everything.