Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
I recently read a classic that has been on my “to read” list for years but had never gotten around to reading: Fitzgerlad’s The Great Gatsby. I’ll be quite honest, about halfway through the book I didn’t understand why it had been made into a movie or why every one of my generation seemed to be obsessed about it. I am not saying it wasn’t a good book, and by the end, I truly saw that reason why it is on most people’s “everyone must-read” lists. But still, where are my Shakespeare and Donne fans of this generation? Yet this was not my biggest takeaway from The Great Gatsby, a book I do encourage everyone to read. There’s a reason it’s a classic. But more than that, this is a book with an underlying atmosphere that is worth considering. I closed this book with a rush of those final chapters and paragraphs only to be left with a sense of loss, sadness really, at what the world was like for the Lost Generation. Moreover, I felt all throughout the book the incessant absence of God.
Obviously, Gatsby is about the Lost Generation. This was the generation of Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemingway, Eliot, and Pound. Fitzgerald himself was one of many ex-pat American authors. As displayed in their writings and art, the Lost Generation of ex-pats wandered the world, typically in Europe and France, in search of…something. Gatsby is also about crony capitalism, the rise of progressivism, the early stages of the sexual revolution, and all the other things that led up the ugly path toward WWII and the decades that followed. Though the Roaring ’20s are often portrayed as one party after another, really the people who lived them were all trying to drown that sneaking question in the back of their minds posed in Ecclesiastes: What gives meaning? This is Fitzgerald’s wasteland. This is a world without love, without hope, without meaning.
Now I said at the beginning that God is absent in this book. Technically that is not entirely true. Technically He is included in swearing, but He is never mentioned outside of such profanity. One could say that the eyes on the billboard are a reference to God, but that is so vague I hardly find it worth mentioning. I kept searching for some reference to God throughout the entire time that I read, but He really was absent. It was odd to me, especially since most Western literature has some, even obscure, reference to Christianity. But this world Fitzgerald lived in and wrote about was a reaction to the rejection of God. It was a book devoid of hope.
Even so, you want to root for some characters, even if in a distant way. You want there to be a point of renewal, a turning point, grace, forgiveness, promise. There’s even a perfect scene at the end that could have been a reference for baptism, but instead, it was more of the same hopelessness. It was an ending, not a beginning. Though you can say that Gatsby is a manifesto against the world, there are no solutions. There is no redemption. This is a book about coveting, despair, adultery, godlessness, idolatry. I was constantly reminded of a passage from James while I read, especially as I got closer to the end.
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
~ James. 4:1-10 ~
I was just going to include a few verses, but the whole passage is necessary. I see Gatsby as a complete rejection, the mirror opposite, of what James is speaking on. This book is full of quarrels, coveting, taking, deception, pride, adultery, gluttony, and enmity with the truth. The Roaring 20’s were full of laughter and debauchery, but no one stopped to ponder, to reflect, to humble themselves. No one stopped. They kept searching for that meaning, but not having. They coveted, but did not cling to what could give them what they needed. They came to the end of it all and said, “Everything is meaningless.” They built and destroyed but found no satisfaction in it all (Ecc. 3:9-13). In truth, all I saw in this book were the stories of so many people running away from the meaninglessness of what the world had to offer and running to the same empty things, whether they knew it or not. They retreated back “to their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” instead of turning to God. It made me sad, really, to think that the whole world had been turned on its head, and in reaction to it all, the Lost Generation abandoned all they knew and hope with it.
Did they know what they were leaving for future generations? The people of this generation tried to gain the world by losing their souls. And this is really the crux of the issue. The generation portrayed in Gatsby made a world without God. Like “The Wasteland”, they saw everything as doomed to destruction, so they “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” until they met that last end (Ecc. 11:5-12:8). But yet the world kept on turning.
Fitzgerald knew this. Though he does not offer a solution as he stands and wonders at the state of the world, the character of Carraway knows that all of this is wrong. He knows this is not the way it should be, that everything these people are doing is out of self-indulgence, out of a lack of “something”, out of fear, out of searching for that unattainable thing. But he never says what it is or what to do about it. He rails against the morals of the Lost generation, but he doesn’t know how to reclaim all that they lost because all they know is what they are left with after rejecting God.
We are reminded during this season of sacrifice, death, and renewed life. That is not the message of The Great Gatsby. No, I think Fitzgerald saw the futility of his generation’s passions, but that is as far as he and others got. They wallowed in meaninglessness and indulgence in order to avoid thinking about the one thing that could have put meaning to it all: God. Fitzgerald’s book is absent of God because that generation did all it could to push God out of it all. It was a decade that led to a series of decades following a course of events with the goal of replacing God with self. And that is the real message I took away from The Great Gatsby: Don’t put into a person what should be reserved for God. And that is just what we all do.
Now that I have read the book, I know why my generation loves The Great Gatsby so much. They relate to Gatsby. They are in the same boat reaching for that same thing they can’t get because they do not ask. And they keep reaching for that false ideal until it kills them, while unbeknownst to them, the real thing they’ve been looking for, thirsting after all along is at hand. Gatsby took and coveted and killed (?) and fought. He idolized an ideal and the woman he thought he loved. But he didn’t know love, or contentment, or accomplishment, or humility. We do not know either. Gatsby and the rest of them knew none of those things because glory was given to fleeting passions in a way that should have been given to God alone. So our God is not mentioned in The Great Gatsby because many little ones were there instead. And together, they lost themselves in the flow of the decade, still wandering in the wasteland they created in rejection of the One who saved them.
Blessings to you and yours,