Scott 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)
Different 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!