The Great Gatsby and the Meretricious American Dream

4Interestingly, Fitzgerald wrote his masterpiece The Great Gatsby in 1924 when he and his family moved to France. With trans-Atlantic displacement and the author’s stage of life, having achieved reputational and monetary success, Fitzgerald was able to reflect on his experience of pursuit of the American Dream and his culture as a whole, a theme that anchors the events of the novel.

It is important to begin our discussion by considering what we mean by the American Dream. Through generations, I believe the definition has changed drastically, but here is a basic definition from Merriam-Webster.com:

“An American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; also: the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal.”

Years ago, I believe that social idea tended toward the egalitarian component by which individuals sought a comfortable life for their families and their communities. As time went on, the pursuit of “material prosperity” became the chief objective. People realized their capacity for advancement as individuals, and measured their success in terms of monetary gain, thus sacrificing communal good to outpace their neighbors and even losing sight of the motivation behind this pursuit.

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald offers great insight into the pitfalls of this pursuit. While Nick Carraway’s character offers a great study for this discussion, Jay Gatsby embodies the fall of the American Dream. We learn through Nick that Gatsby, originally James Gatz, came from humble beginnings and forged his way to success. Nick relates:

“I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people-his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God-a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that-and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.” (Fitzgerald, 98)

This passage describes Gatsby’s early conception of the American Dream. He envisioned a future version of himself, an affluent self, and discarded his past self to become this person. Through his endeavors, he remained faithful to bring this person into being. He was regimented in his plan to evolve into Jay Gatsby, creating a stringent schedule and personal goals to tailor himself into that personage (Fitzgerald, 173). He is, by all accounts, successful in becoming Gatsby and all his character entails, except for one missing piece.

As we considered last week, Daisy was part of Gatsby’s dream. Gatsby constructed the image his perfect existence, and believed that Daisy was a part of that. We discussed how she was part of his process of self-actualization, of seeking identity. Another way of looking at Daisy is to think of her as the object of Gatsby’s American Dream. After five years of separation, the two are reunited and Nick reflects on the afternoon:

1“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.” (Fitzgerald, 96)

Here we see Daisy-as Fitzgerald’s conception of the American Dream-falling short of what Gatsby believed her and his dream to be. In the end, he cannot win her. After all his toiling, Gatsby finds what he believes to be the missing part of his dream and realizes it isn’t what he imagined it to be, and was not worth the pursuit. All the fame, fortune, and success leave him feeling empty. Incomplete.

Carraway offers a stunning visual of the culmination of the American Dream. While reflecting on his experience, he considers his view of the East as the region of affluence and achievement, and how he took his own turn at pursuing that dream.

2“Even when the East excited me most . . . even then it had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg, especially, still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco . . . In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the sides, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house-the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.

“After Gatsby’s death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted my eyes’ power of correction.” (Fitzgerald, 176)

Because of Gatsby, Nick realizes how the flawed ideals of the American Dream, and gives us this memorable image to embody his realization-a woman completely drunk on success, dripping with jewels, and still, a woman who has no worth in this world because she is not known by anyone.

I think that Fitzgerald hits a powerful note with his observations. It is possible to achieve reputational and monetary success, just as he did with his literary career, but to come to the culmination of his dreams and realize how empty it all is. Every labored step on the path to glory was a waste because one can never reach the pinnacle of success. There is no fulfillment in the actualization of the American Dream.

In our culture, there is a strong push toward the individual experience, the New American Dream. Be all you can be. It’s your life, your journey-make life what you want it to be.

But what is all that you can be? Can this goal be quantified?

How can one determine what one “wants” life to be without some sort of standard to measure success by?

Here, we find our way back to one of the inherent questions of humanity. If the satisfaction level in reaching the end point discounts the journey, then he flaw must be in the motivation for the journey. Hence, what is the purpose of life?

I will not presume to answer this question with a few tidy paragraphs, but instead, turn to God’s word for direction to continue this discussion with a Christian lens.2016

Firstly, the flawed idea of the American Dream implies that our lives belong to us, that our lives are lived for our own happiness and comfort. When we commit our lives to Christ, we give up our selves. Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

When we decide to follow Christ, we relinquish authority and choose to live our days as Christ-an impossible pursuit for our selfish nature, but a goal nonetheless. Jesus is our standard, our benchmark for success in day-to-day life. God doesn’t expect us to reach the pinnacle of Christ-likeness–to do so would be impossible–but His desire for us is to live lives that are characterized by love. Love for God, and love for people.

Fitzgerald, while he did not connect the flawed American Dream with a higher calling to follow Christ, understood that his society was pursuing a goal that could never be actualized because our own satisfaction is insatiable and vapid. In our last discussion, we considered what our “green lights” were, what things we hold up in our lives as the epitome of success. Today, I would like to consider what our lives are characterized by.

When people think of you, how would they describe you?

Perhaps more importantly, what do you desire your life to be characterized by?

With these questions in mind, what steps can we take to live as Jesus lived, to show love in our daily walk? Perhaps it’s something as simple as providing an act of service for someone you encounter regularly, or praying for a friend. Maybe it’s speaking words of encouragement. Let God inspire you with new ways to share in His love, today.

Do you have an idea or question about today’s discussion? Please share your comments below to keep the discussion going!

Happy Reading, Kindred Spirits!

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The Great Gatsby and the Elusive Light

4The more Nick Carraway spends time with Jay Gatsby, the more he realizes that there is some mystery, some deeply affecting mission which drives his neighbor to abandon reason and logic in pursuit of one thing: the green light on Daisy’s dock.

When Nick first encounters Gatsby, he sees him outside the mansion at night.

“He stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.” (Fitzgerald, 20-21)

It is important to note that the first time the men meet, Gatsby is seen outside of his mansion, outside of the wealth and pomp that have defined him in West Egg. This is an uncharacteristically vulnerable moment for Gatsby. The man known for his extravagant displays of wealth, constantly surrounded by hundreds of important people, a man of mystery and poise is stripped of his material goods, alone, holding out trembling arms toward this distant green light. This image gives us a glimpse into what Gatsby is about, what he is really searching for. It also infers that his wealth and semblance of material and reputational success have little to do with it—an idea we will explore more next week.

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But what is this green light that has him transfixed?

As with any literary device, symbols such as these are up for debate. Many believe, rightfully so, that the green light represents the uncertain future. Others, that the light represents the American Dream. I do not disagree with these ideas, but I would like to explore another perspective in the following paragraphs.

For a time, I believed that the green light symbolizes Gatsby’s Idea of Daisy. He pines after this lady, this perfect woman on a pedestal of nostalgia, a person who no longer truly exists. His quest is to be reunited with her and to share the future together.

But why Daisy? Why now?

The romantic side of me would like to believe that Gatsby truly is in love with Daisy and that he has been waiting for the opportune moment to profess his intentions. The more logical side knows that there is something deeper going on here, something more engrossing than emotion and more compelling than obsession.

One layer of Gatsby’s mission is the need for power. Once jilted for his lack of wealth, he now seeks to prove his worth, both monetary and individual, by stripping Tom, Daisy’s husband, of that worth.

After Gatsby’s party, which Daisy and Tom attended, Gatsby and Nick talk about how she liked the party, her impressions, and the future. Nick relates:

“He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you.’ After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house—just as if it were five years ago.” (Fitzgerald, 109)

Certainly part of Gatsby’s reason for asking this of Daisy is to prove her love for him, but another purpose is to siphon power away from Tom. If Daisy says she never loved Tom, Gatsby can take the pride in having held her affection all those years, a position which asserts his worth above Tom’s.

We see another vulnerable moment here, when Carraway challenges Gatsby’s expectations of Daisy:

3“‘I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ I ventured. ‘You can’t repeat the past.’

“‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’

“He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

“‘I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,’ he said, nodding determinedly. ‘She’ll see.’” (Fitzgerald, 110)

This gives us such a great insight into Gatsby’s character. After all these years of things working out for him, of meeting Dan Cody and obtaining the wealth he never dreamed possible, he believes he can go back in time and fix the one thing that was broken: his relationship with Daisy.

Here, we find that deep, psychological drive behind his pursuit. It’s more than love, more than power, and more transient than wealth.

Essentially, the green light is a search for identity and self-actualization. Gatsby believes that if he can gain the love of the woman who once discarded him, he will find peace within himself. He will also have proof, through marriage, to offer the world that he is a valuable human being.

Gatsby’s story reminds me of an Old Testament hero who also had fulfillment issues surrounding relationships with women. Samson, a man blessed by God with supernatural strength, seemingly has everything he could possibly desire. With God’s power, he defeats a lion and the Philistines. But Samson has some issues as far as women are concerned.

First, Samson insists on marrying a Philistine woman, even though the Israelites were constantly at war with them. His parents asked if there was anyone else, to which Samson declares, “Get her for me, for she pleases me well.” (Judges 14: 3)

If this woman did indeed “please” Samson as he believed she would, one would imagine that he would be content in that relationship. Not so with Samson. After getting into a heated argument over a riddle, Samson gives his wife to the best man from the wedding. Then, the author of Judges makes a point of sharing that Samson visited a harlot while in Gaza, and then that he “loved a woman in the Valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.” (Judges 16:4)

We all know how well that relationship went.

Samson, in a word, seems unsettled. Despite his good standing, strength, and valor, he needs to have a woman in his life to prove something. To prove his value, his allure, or maybe to curb loneliness. Sounds familiar to Gatsby’s need—a drive for fulfillment that can never actually be realized.

People have different goals, motivations, and dreams in life, but I think we all have some variation of Gatsby’s Green Light syndrome. There is this one thing that we fixate on, believing that when we obtain it, we will find purpose or meaning or affirmation.

We can learn from Samson’s shining moment in history; his most vulnerable hour—standing in the temple of the Philistines. Hair shorn, muscles weakened, eyes gouged out, Samson is led by a boy to lean on the pillars. There, stripped of all power, Samson calls out to God, recognizing that his strength and identity is in God and glorifying Him.

“O Lord God, remember me, I pray! Strengthen me, I pray, just this once, O God, that I may with one blow take vengeance on the Philistines for my two eyes.” (Judges 16:28)

God grants Samson’s request and defeats the Philistines. This only happens when Samson recognizes his mistakes and his desperate need for God, and God responds in a mighty way.

Are you looking for meaning in material things? In prestige, or wealth, or romantic conquests? I know I’ve been all too guilty of this. But the beautiful thing is, God promises us that we will have life in Him. Romans 6:20-23 says:

“For when you were slaves of sin, you were 2016free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

What a hope we have in Christ. He gives us our identity, our purpose. We need nothing more, because there is nothing greater than that promise.

I challenge you to pray about whatever green light unsettles you in your life. Address this weakness, and talk to God about why you have these feelings. Seek wisdom from God. He loves you, and He wants you to live by His power, His strength, and most of all, in His love.

The Great Gatsby and God, the Spectator

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 11.06.31 AMScott Fitzgerald’s novel of love, obsession, and the American Dream tells the story of the Great Gatsby through the eyes of Nick Carraway. In a tumultuous summer, Carraway is swept into the drama of adultery, deception, and the rendezvous of star-crossed lovers when he moves next door to a mysterious millionaire in New York, a man once known by his cousin, Daisy. As Carraway spends more time with the elusive Jay Gatsby, he discovers that there is much more to the man than his illustrious personage, and that there is a grim fascination with wealth and comfort that pervades Long Island, even those people closest to him.

Fitzgerald uses setting and various symbols throughout the novel to illustrate themes such as class, obsession, and greed. Today, I would like to focus on one of those symbols, one which I believe speaks volumes about how Fitzgerald viewed God’s role in day-to-day life, a perspective that still pervades society today.

As you may recall, the layout of the New York landscape is described as being two eggs: East Egg and West Egg. The characters traverse these realms numerous times in the novel, often traveling between West Egg and New York. This area, called the valley of ashes, is surveyed by an oppressive billboard depicting the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. Carraway describes:

“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.” (Fitzgerald, 23-24)

As you know, reader, these eyes overlook a terrible incident later in the novel when Myrtle Wilson is run over by a car which belongs to Jay Gatsby. Though many witnesses can attest to what they saw, only the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg truly saw what happened, and the events leading up to that fateful day.

Lamenting the loss his late wife to Michaelis, a witness to the events, George Wilson considers Myrtles actions in life:

“‘I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God. I took her to the window’—with an effort he got up and walked to the rear window and leaned with his face pressed against it—’and I said “God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!”’

“Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night.

“‘God sees everything,’ repeated Wilson.

“‘That’s an advertisement,’ Michaelis assured him. Something made him turn away from the window and look back into the room. But Wilson stood there a long time, his face close to the window pane, nodding into the twilight.” (Fitzgerald, 159-160)

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 11.08.36 AMDifferent readers and literary theorists have different ideas about what the optical sign represents. In the second passage, it is clear that Fitzgerald wants the reader to make a connection between the optical sign and God, even if the idea is only coming from Wilson. That symbol provides the perfect perspective the novel gives on God: an omniscient being who sits back as a spectator to the events below.

I’m struck by this image of a distant, apathetic God, and I get the impression that this was Fitzgerald’s view, one which many after him share: God is not part of the day-to-day trivialities of human life, but watches from a distance—judges from a distance. How cold and depressing that seems to me for several reasons, all of which we find completely refuted in scripture.

First, the symbol of the optical sign as God’s presence in the world suggests that God’s purpose in creating mankind was to sit back and watch it destroy itself. We read in Genesis, after creating the earth, light and dark, creatures of all shapes and kinds, God chooses to create another being.

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26-28)

This passage is so important because it shows us firstly that we were created in His likeness—meaning His ethical, moral, intellectual likeness. We are not just like any other created thing in the universe; we are created by God with the ability to think, empathize, comprehend, question, and love. These are all actionable qualities given to us by an actionable God.

Secondly, these verses show us how active God is in our world. Apart from creating the universe itself, God creates us as imperfect but beloved creatures in His likeness, and gives us dominion over all other facets of creation.

Finally, God blesses us. In that blessing we see touches of that loving Father who wants the best for us but gives us the latitude to make our own decisions. Blessing infers goodwill, favor, and devotion, all qualities that cannot be genuine unless they are embodied in an active, present God.

The second issue with this apathetic view of God is that God is depicted as only a pair of eyes—not feet to follow, nor hands to direct, nor lips to speak wisdom, nor arms to hold us.

Doesn’t the very idea of God being distant fill you with sadness? I can’t imagine living life thinking that God doesn’t care for me deeply, that He doesn’t desire relationship with me. God shows us how much he desires relationship with us by sending His Son, God in the flesh, to the earth.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17)

We know these verses so well, but the concept, I believe, is woefully foreign to many. These verses show God in action. God coming down to earth to spread hope, to breathe life, to offer salvation. This is the reason that the symbol of God as the billboard sign is flawed: God is not static. God is not distant. God is with us.

But like Fitzgerald, many people today believe that God—if He indeed exists—only desires to watch our failures and tell us what terrible sinners we are later.

If you find yourself feeling that way, feeling that God has no desire to be part of your life, I challenge you to reconsider. God tells us in Isaiah 9:6 that with Jesus’ birth, we have hope. “For unto us a Child is born, Unto as a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” God is our Father. Our peace-giver. Our Counselor. He wants to help us through life as we seek Him in prayer, reflection, and worship. He knows we will sin, but that is simply part of the journey of life and it doesn’t define who we are or His love for us.

If you understand that God wants to be part of your daily walk, I encourage you to thank God for His Presence, and to think of someone in your life who doesn’t believe she has a loving Father. Ask God how you can be that love to her, how, in His likeness, you can walk in love.

What are your thoughts? Did you view the symbolic meaning of the optical sign differently, or perhaps connect this symbol with other scriptures? Please share your comments, ideas, and questions below!

Thanks for joining me, dear reader. Check back next week and we’ll look another symbol from The Great Gatsby—the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.

Hope to see you then, kindred spirit!

Love the Classics? Read on!

This year, I’d like to take you on a journey with me through Classic Literature. Why? Let me begin by saying this:

I love the Classics.

FullSizeRenderGrowing up, my favorite place to buy books was at thrift sales, where I could nab a 1970’s copy of Great Expectations for 25 cents. I think you’d agree, antique books are the best books. They’ve been lived in. Like a wonderful old house with floorboards that creak, the pages of old books are wrinkled with use, sometimes ripped as their reader flipped a bit too zealously in anticipation of the events to come.

Then there’s the smell.

Yes, I said it. I’m that nerdy. The smell.

The pages waft that earthy, smoky, delicious aroma and for a moment you’re transported into the past, years back when the book was first printed and the binding crinkled as it was opened for the first time. As your eyes skim those yellowed pages, they travel the same path that many a reader have traveled before. You share an experience with those readers, and you leave part of yourself in that book.

Which is also why I have a hard time giving up my books.

Books, in my romantic mind, are part of my history. I look at my bookshelves and see seasons of life. The girl who loved fairy tales. The college student compelled to read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope who actually loved *almost* every minute of it. The young woman who shed many tears in the latter pages of Jane Eyre. I remember the experience of reading them for the first time, and re-reading my copy of a beloved novel is like settling into a familiar chair that contours to my form. It’s comfortable. Comfort-ing.

My husband will tell you I have too many books. I prefer to say that I am building a lifetime of experience to bequeath to my children : )

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(And no, that is isn’t even close to all of them.)

But that doesn’t really explain why I love the Classics, just old books. Nowadays, there are “antique” copies of Danielle Steel books. (No offense to Danielle’s fans out there- she’s just not my favorite!)

The truth is, the making of Classics, by definition, is history’s way of sifting through shelves upon shelves of books and presenting future generations with a grand bookcase of The Best of the Best- the books that have withstood the test of innovation, adaptation and cultural shifts. Books that epitomize an era, that represent the ideals of a generation or a change in perspective. The Classics.

I love reading stories of ages past and realizing how much we’ve changed and, paradoxically, how little we’ve changed.

I love visiting bygone eras, immersing myself in the societies, the lifestyles, the flavors, scents, and textures of the past.

I love looking for God in those pages, seeking Truth in words written or left unformed.

All that to say, here’s what I would love to share with you:

I’d love to read the classics with you. I would love to journey through those stories with you, learn about about life and God through the study of Classic Literature.

You, dear reader- who loves to read classic literature, who may even surreptitiously smell books at bookstores, just like I do- dare I say that we are, as dear Anne Shirley would say, kindred spirits?

In the weeks to come, I’ll share weekly devotionals with you based on Classic novels, focusing on one novel for a month at a time. We’ll look at different themes, symbols, and cultural perspectives alongside scripture in order to learn about life, God, and ourselves.

What do you say? Will you join me?

You are most cordially invited to join me on our new adventure through the Classics. Let’s brew a pot of tea, find a comfortable chair, and peruse those oft-read pages.

I am thrilled to commence this venture with you, and I am eager to hear your ideas, questions, and book suggestions!

Cheers, kindred spirits. And happy reading!