I had not read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “The Great Gatsby,” since high school. My only lingering memory had to do with a green light at the end of a dock on the other side of a bay. Thus, with the advent of another cinema effort, I decided the time had come to read the book again.
Typical of a noteworthy author, Fitzgerald teases the reader with plot-line riddles which keep us involved with the story. He also inserts well-stated asides which invite thought. When Nick Carraway, the narrator, discovered he could give directions to a stranger in his new home town (New York City), he philosophized: “And as I walked on I was lonely no longer. I was a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler.”
Overall, I suppose, the reader could conclude that the book presents a shabby and disillusioned picture of life in the fast lane in the “roaring twenties.” Yet, that picture is developed on parallel tracks in the life of a mysterious man of wealth, Jay Gatsby, and the Middle Western transplant, Nick Carraway. As the story progresses I see what seem to me to be noteworthy parallels leading to an overarching theme.
- Both Nick and Gatsby come from the Middle West. A place which Nick describes as “the ragged edge of the universe.”
- Both Nick and Gatsby have been lured by the East. For Nick the lure was simply that of gainful employment and the experience of the life not afforded by his family home. For Gatsby, however, it was the place where he invested all his energies to satisfy a missed dream. Everything about him was “east” including the wealthy home of Daisy Buchanan, across the bay, in the community of East Bank. It was at the end of the dock of her home where the little green light beckoned him as he stood alone in the darkness and scanned the shoreline.
- Both men settled in the less-fashionable community of West Egg. Nick’s house was “an eyesore;” but Gatsby’s house was a “colossal” mansion.
- Both of them were affected by the same characters in the dark moral soup of the story. In fact, all of the central characters had roots in the American west. Nick reflects, “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
- The difference in the fates of Nick and Gatsby may be seen in that the Mid Western atmosphere did not leave Nick whereas it may never have been a part of Gatsby’s character. Early on in the narrative, Nick tells us, “Gatsby...represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.”
- In the case of Gatsby, the east proved to be the place where he “paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.” In the case of Nick, he himself tells us, “So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home.”
While the book affords many talking points, it is in this draw of “back home” where I find the overarching theme for the central talking point – the message of going back to your roots to find what you thought you would find somewhere else. Nick reflects at the end of his narrative, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” That certainly would appeal to the nostalgia of the disillusioned man. It also speaks to the gravitational pull of Christians to the memories of their early walk with Christ. There is something about the atmosphere of memory which pulls us and becomes merged with Truth in our thinking. Thus, Nick reflects not on the real values of home but the memories of “coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time.”
God always calls his wandering children back to Truth. He rarely calls us back to places or things. “Neither in this mountain nor yet in Jerusalem,” Jesus said to a disillusioned woman at a well. Indeed, one could write a credible account of the emptiness of seeking satisfaction in the town or the church of one’s past. I would suggest it can be argued that Gatsby’s relentless pursuit of his dream was an effort to reclaim something from his past which had become an idol.
Someone has said of idolatry that it may be recognized by three symptoms:
- Are you willing to sin to get it?
- Are you willing to sin to keep it?
- Are you willing to sin if you can’t have it?
What we are willing to do to reclaim our memories, keep them or resent being unable to have them, exposes the fact that even nostalgia can become an idol; and more often than not, that idolatry has to do with an atmosphere rather than with Truth.
While all Truth is atmospheric as well as propositional in character, not all atmosphere is Truth and not all propositions are correct. “The Great Gatsby” is an excellent platform to examine the idolatry of atmosphere apart from propositional Truth. Jesus has freed us to delight in the atmosphere of Truth without regard to geography, time in history or cultural approval. He has also freed us to dream dreams which transcend personal “satisfactions” of the moment and embrace the big picture of His sovereign narrative for the ages. We look longingly, not at a little green light at the end of someone’s dock, but at the cross, the empty tomb and the glorious return of the One who is able to keep that which we have committed into his care.