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.

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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!