Last week I reread The Great Gatsby for the first time since a summer vacation in high school. With the buzz about the upcoming film (out this Friday), I wanted to revisit what I vaguely remembered to be a good but sad story.
In my first go, I was simply excited to read a grown-up book with grown-up language, but left, in the end, disheartened by Gatsby’s loss of his pearl of great price: Daisy. A few years under the bridge, and in my second reading I fixed upon a different motif. In a word: Desire.
Gatsby grew up a sentimentalist of the worst kind, possessed by large ambitions and “colossal vitality.” When he met Daisy at a young age, he placed the full burden of his infinite desire on a single woman. There is a scene in which he pauses before committing all to her, when he knows that if he “forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. . . . Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” Separated by war, she marries another, and he spends his years building up an ever more godlike image of her in his mind, which no person could possibly live up to.
The story is in some way about every man, for every man is a dreamer of what once was and what might be. Deep within, each of us awaits a certain “something” we cannot name, something to make life great and full and beautiful. There is a sort of promise life offers, however unclear, which we’re still waiting to discover. Some call the culprit Beauty, which stirs us and awakens our relentless restlessness. C.S. Lewis puts it best in a sermon:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
But it is not only momentous occasions—hearing some music for the first time or falling in love at a young age—which aggravate our secret yearning. Life itself has done so from the start: The most restless residents of humankind are children, and they happen to be the most indomitable of all dreamers, expecting so much magic from a life which is, at bottom, mortal.
Or is it? For it is precisely this expectation which Christ addresses in the fishermen of Galilee. From this perspective, his invitation to leave everything and follow him doesn’t come off as demanding as we might think. Perhaps in that moment he leaned in with one of Gatsby’s reassuring smiles and whispered, “Because whatever it is you’re looking for, old sport . . . we both know you haven’t found it yet.”
Years later, Gatsby moves to Daisy’s neighborhood, spending his summer evenings throwing ostentatious parties for the denizens of 1920s Long Island in hopes that she might wander into his life again. They do meet, but the affair is short-lived. She fails to live up to his image of her, and after an ensuing series of tragic events, she returns to her husband and Gatsby is shot dead in his swimming pool. Yet we are told that “Gatsby turned out all right in the end,” and certainly not because all but three characters show for his rainy funeral. Perhaps it was well with him because it was good for his earthly kingdom to crumble to pieces. That morning he shouldered his swimming raft, the narrator tells us, with a new spring in his step, again set free to seek something great.
All of our art, all our stories, are an exercise in this longing. We may call it nostalgia or whatever word we’d like, but we’re looking for a fullness we haven’t fully found yet. The Fitzgeralds’ own real-life fairytale turned foul. Scott had met his own Southern belle in Alabama and fought desperately to win her. Their marriage proved disastrous. A youth squandered with riotous living in France, a spree of infidelities, and soon Zelda lost her mind. The last words of the novel are likewise the epitaph on their common grave: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly to the past.”
Scott Fitzgerald and Gatsby both fought to “change the past,” but that is precisely what Christ alone can achieve for us. Christ himself is our true “past,” our origin, come to find us and call us back home. If we don’t find him in this life, someone to answer and to bear our desire, then we run the same risk as this sad couple: their desire destroyed them in the end. They are buried together in the Catholic graveyard of Old St. Mary’s in Rockville, Maryland, just thirty minutes north of Washington. We should pray for them and for all who have yet to find the object of their endless searching.