I read The Great Gatsby recently, partly because it’s one of those books I’ve always thought I should read and partly because the local Barnes & Noble has a poster hanging in the coffee shop.
I thought it would be a bigger book given the exalted position it holds in the annals of American literature. I figured it had to be at least four hundred pages. It’s barely more than a short story. I also thought I knew the essentials of the story because I had seen the movie. Well I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down and watched the movie whole from beginning to end. But I thought I had the basics of it. It turns out that there are major plot points that I didn’t know about. Maybe they’re in the movie. I need to watch the whole thing.
Gatsby feels dated. It feels like a template for many other romantic stories of lost love we have encountered over the years. Maybe it is. Maybe this story has been repeated many times in many different forms. Or maybe there’s more to it than the simple facts. That’s the thing about Gatsby. That’s why it’s held its value for so many years. I imagine that literature professors love it. ‘Your assignment for the weekend is to read The Great Gatsby and be prepared to discuss it in class on Tuesday.’ That’s the thing about Gatsby. It is so discussable.
I’ll try not to give away those plot points on the off chance you haven’t read the book. What I will talk about is that underlying meaning of the story, at least the meaning I got from it.
The setup is this: Gatsby is rich. He gives lavish parties. Nobody knows where his money came from. He spends all his time pining for his lost love Daisy who lives across the bay with her husband. The back story comes out over the course of time. He was a boy living in poverty who determined to make something of himself. In his travels he met Daisy and fell in love with her and she with him. He went away to the war, found himself in the right place at the right time and got rich and successful. Daisy, not hearing from him, moved on to someone else and married.
What started all this? What drives it? Gatsby was a boy who yearned for something, something he didn’t have. Was it money? Was it success? Was it respect? He thought so. He began to strive for all of these and he was getting somewhere. Slowly. Then he met Daisy. Maybe she was the thing he was looking for. Having Daisy would validate his life, would satisfy the yearning. And he had her. She loved him. But alas, he knew he did not deserve her.
So he left for the war. Maybe there he would find success, would make himself worthy of Daisy’s love. And he did. The irony is that he did not earn it. It was handed to him. He got lucky. He came back rich and successful, worthy finally of Daisy’s love. But Daisy in her passive waiting for something to fill her void had grown weary of waiting and married someone else.
So this is about two people who are seeking to fill an emptiness. Gatsby, having nothing seeks fame, fortune, respect, the girl everyone wants. He seems to want it all but he really seeks the one thing that will make him something in his own eyes. He finds fame, fortune, respect but it turns out they don’t do it. They don’t satisfy. He must have the girl. There must be something, someone who will satisfy, will validate.
Daisy on the other hand has it all. Money, respect, the adoration of countless young men. But none of them fill the emptiness. So she drifts from one to another, falling in and out of love, passively accepting, heading for a life of empty boredom.
Really everyone in this limited cast of characters has the same problem. Striving for acceptance, showing off, not satisfied with what they have or trying desperately to keep what little they do have. Like the rest of us. We get it. We have it. We lose it. And none of it matters because there is only One who will satisfy. The one person who will fill up the hole in us. Only one who will not only be enough but will take all the other stuff and make them better. As long as we insist on searching for the things of this world that will satisfy we will be disappointed. We will seek and find and grow weary and move on. Or we will decide there is no satisfaction and suffer defeat, insignificance, and boredom for the rest of our lives.
The thing about Jesus is that He makes it all better, more joyful, more fulfilling. Even when we are not doing ‘Jesus’ stuff we find more in what we do. He is the salt, the flavor, the active ingredient that is missing from our lives.