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The Preachings of F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby

The appearance of yet another film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby provides the occasion for reflecting on what many consider the great American novel.

Those who are looking for a thorough review of the movie itself will have to look elsewhere, I’m afraid. I will say only this about the movie: I think that Baz Luhrmann’s version is better than the sleepy 1974 incarnation, and I would say that Leonardo DiCaprio makes a more convincing Gatsby than Robert Redford. But I want to focus, not so much on the techniques of the filmmaker, as on the genius of the writer who gave us the story.

F. Scott Fitzgerald belonged to that famously “lost” generation of artists and writers, which included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Ford Madox Ford, and others. Having come of age during the First World War, these figures saw, in some cases at close quarters, the worst that human beings can do to one another, and they witnessed as well the complete ineffectuality of the political and religious institutions of the time to deal with the horrific crisis into which the world had stumbled. Consequently, they felt themselves adrift, without a clear moral compass; lost. Hemingway’s novels—and his own personal choices—showed one way to deal with this problem, namely, to place oneself purposely in dangerous situations so as to stir up a sense of being alive. This explains Hemingway’s interests in deep-sea fishing, big game hunting, battling Nazis, and above all, bull-fighting. Scott Fitzgerald explored another way that people coped with the spiritual emptiness of his time, and his deftest act of reportage was The Great Gatsby.

As the novel commences, we meet Tom and Daisy Buchanan, two denizens of East Egg, a town on Long Island where “old money” resides. Ensconced in a glorious mansion, wearing the most fashionable clothes, surrounded by servants, and in the company of the most “beautiful” people, Tom and Daisy are, nevertheless, utterly bored, both with themselves and their relationship. While Daisy languishes and frets, Tom is carrying on a number of illicit love affairs with women from both the upper and lower echelons of the social order. One of the more affecting scenes in the Baz Luhrmann film depicts Tom and a gaggle of his hangers-on whiling away an afternoon and evening in a rented Manhattan apartment. In the aftermath, they are all drunk, sexually sated, and obviously miserable.

Meanwhile, across the bay from the Buchanans in West Egg, is the hero of the story, ensconced in his even more glorious mansion. Gatsby wears pink suits, drives a yellow roadster, and associates with the leading politicians, culture mavens, and gangsters of the time. But the most intriguing thing about him is that, week after week, every Saturday night, he opens his spacious home for a wild party, attended by all of the glitterati of New York. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of these parties—all wild dancing, jazz music, cloche hats, sexual innuendo, and flapper dresses—is certainly one of the highlights of the book. We discover that the sole purpose of these astronomically expensive parties is to lure Daisy, with whom Gatsby had had a romantic relationship some years before. Though Daisy is a married woman, Gatsby wants to steal her from her husband. When Nick Carraway, the narrator, chides Gatsby that no one can repeat the past, the hero of the novel responds curtly, “What do you mean you can’t repeat the past? Of course you can.” Without going into any more plot details, I will simply say that this set of circumstances led to disappointment, hatred, betrayal, and finally, Gatsby’s death at the hand of a gunman.

Fitzgerald saw that, given the breakdown of traditional morality and the marginalization of God, many people in the postwar West simply surrendered themselves to wealth and pleasure. Commitment, marriage, sexual responsibility, and the cultivation of a spiritual life were seen as, at best, holdovers from the Victorian age, and at worst, the enemies of progress and pleasure. Gatsby’s parties were, we might say, the liturgies of the new religion of sensuality and materiality, frenzied dances around the golden calf. And despite his reputation as a hard-drinking sensualist, Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, was as uncompromising and morally clear-eyed as an evangelical preacher. He tells us that the displacement of God by wealth and pleasure leads, by a short route, to the corroding of the soul.

There is a burnt-out and economically depressed city that lies on Long Island in between West Egg and Manhattan, and the main characters of The Great Gatsby pass through it frequently. In fact, one of Tom Buchanan’s mistresses lives there. Fitzgerald is undoubtedly using it to symbolize the dark under-belly of the Roaring Twenties, the economic detritus of all of that conspicuous consumption. But he also uses it to make a religious point. For just off the main road, there are the remains of a billboard advertising a local ophthalmologist. All we can see are two bespectacled eyes, but they hover over the comings and goings of all the lost souls in the story. Like all symbols in great literary works, this one is multivalent, but I think it’s fairly clear that Scott Fitzgerald wanted it, at least in part, to stand for the providential gaze of God.  Though he has been pushed to the side and treated with disrespect, God still watches, and his moral judgment is still operative.

It’s a sermon still worth hearing.
 
 
Originally appeared at Word on Fire. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Patsonic)

Bishop Robert Barron

Written by

Bishop Robert Barron is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is an acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian. He’s America’s first podcasting priest and one of the world’s most innovative teachers of Catholicism. His global, non-profit media ministry called Word On Fire reaches millions of people by utilizing new media to draw people into or back to the Faith. Bishop Barron is also the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, 10-part documentary series and study program about the Catholic Faith. He is the author of several books including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 2008); The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis, 2002); and Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image, 2011). Find more of his writing and videos at WordOnFire.org.

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  • BenS

    There's precious little here for me to respond to as most of it seems a film review and I've never read the book or seen the films.

    Without going into any more plot details, I will simply say that this set of circumstances led to disappointment, hatred, betrayal, and finally, Gatsby’s death at the hand of a gunman.

    And now it seems I don't need to. Thanks for that.

    Anyway, I can address some of the observations made...

    Fitzgerald saw that, given the breakdown of traditional morality and the marginalization of God, many people in the postwar West simply surrendered themselves to wealth and pleasure. Commitment, marriage, sexual responsibility, and the cultivation of a spiritual life were seen as, at best, holdovers from the Victorian age, and at worst, the enemies of progress and pleasure.

    I think I'd probably agree with the notion that the last three stated there (marriage, sexual responsibility and cultivation of spiritual life) - at least in the way I'm presuming the OP means them and thus at the risk of strawmanning - are in the way of progress and pleasure.

    Marriage is definitely in the way of some pleasures, if it's adhered to. It might bring pleasures of its own, but it's certainly prohibitive of other pleasures, that of multiple sexual partners. I don't think that can even be argued against. It's self evident.

    Sexual responsibility is the one I'm in danger of strawmanning. I consider sexual responsibility to consist of safe sex (using contraception, awareness of STIs, not having sex whilst piloting a space shuttle) and consensual sex. I would imagine that the definition of the OP would also include no sex outside marriage, no bum love, no contraception, no same gender partners etc. THAT definition is certainly in the way of progress and pleasure - that of equal rights and pleasures for homosexuals. Not to mention no sex outside marriage self-evidently limiting pleasure as above.

    The cultivation of a spiritual life means nothing as man hasn't been shown to have a spirit. If something else is meant (a morally good life, a humble life, a moderate life) use those words instead. I'm not going to cultivate a spiritual life any more than I would cultivate a low-thetan life or cultivate a life free from bad auras.

    Commitment is an enemy of progress? I think the OP is using a definition that I'm not, here. Progress couldn't really occur if no-one had any obligation to uphold their side of any deals struck. If commitment in relationships is meant then it's repeated needlessley with 'marriage'. Marriage is just a commitment.

    As for the description of the book, I would simply remind people to bear in mind that it's fiction and represents the author's view on the world, not the actual world.

    One of the more affecting scenes in the Baz Luhrmann film depicts Tom and a gaggle of his hangers-on whiling away an afternoon and evening in a rented Manhattan apartment. In the aftermath, they are all drunk, sexually sated, and obviously miserable.

    'Obviously miserable' because that's how the author wrote it. I have had many, many outstanding parties where I've ended up drunk, sexually sated and thoroughly happy with my lot. I'm really doing just fine without god and marriage and all that, regardless of how fervently people want to believe I'm secretly miserable inside.

    • Randy Gritter

      This why you have to read the book. The author is painting a picture of the world and yes it is just his opinion. Yet he hopes by his art to make his picture ring true. If you dismiss it without reading it that seems a bit unfair. What precisely do you find unreal about F Scott Fitzgerald's world? You can't say because you have not read it. All you know is you disagree with his conclusion so there must be something unrealistic about how he gets there.

      • BenS

        I can say what I find unreal about the conclusion as stated in the OP quite easily. If someone wrote a book and then the OP posted an article that the flying elephants portrayed within support the reasonability of worshipping god I can quite easily point out that flying elephants are not real because... they're not. I don't have to read the book to make that observation.

        And I haven't dismissed the work, because I haven't read it. I've dismissed the conclusions inferred in the OP - that people who have wild drunken parties and what he considers illicit sex are unhappy and thus those things make people unhappy. I can do this because I've read the OP. I made no comment on the original work.

        If I was unclear what I was addressing in my post then I hope to have been more expressive here. Have I cleared that up?

        • Jon Hawkins

          Your own personal thoughts and experiences don't define what is the truth, though. That kind of makes you sound like an existentialist and that philosophy is wrought with paradox.

          Though you may be perfectly happy striving to obtain all sensual pleasure possible now, someday you will wonder if there is more to life than sex and booze (if you haven't already).

          The world offers many finite pleasures that bring finite happiness. God offers infinite love that leads to infinite joy.

          • BenS

            Your own personal thoughts and experiences don't define what is the truth, though.

            Never said they did. They help determine certain subjective truths, though. My own experience is that I am (excepting certain rare circumstances) happier with a beer in my hand and a Welsh gymnast bouncing up and down on my cock than I am with just the beer. That's the truth.

            Though you may be perfectly happy striving to obtain all sensual pleasure possible now, someday you will wonder if there is more to life than sex and booze (if you haven't already).

            This is an entirely expected misrepresentation of my position. I do not strive to obtain all physical pleasure now. I strive to obtain some. I do not believe the only things in life are sex and booze. I also like cheesecake.

            The world offers many finite pleasures that bring finite happiness. God offers infinite love that leads to infinite joy.

            There's already a fella on here who regularly uses one of my two favourite phrases. I shall deploy it now and doff my cap in his general direction.

            Got evidence?

          • Michael Murray

            Nominated for best post award. Or it would be if there was one.

            I hope the gymnast gets a beer as well though. Otherwise it seems a bit unfair.

          • BenS

            Thank you. :)

            (She had Lambrini. I like 'em classy.)

          • Erick Chastain

            You say you're happy with booze and sex alone.

            Got evidence?

          • severalspeciesof

            Just ask the gymnast...

          • Susan

            I hope you're not asking for photos.

          • Erick Chastain

            No photos please! Just evidence relevant to the claim or its generality as applied to other humans.

          • severalspeciesof

            In all seriousness though, BenS never said beer and sex alone, he also said cheesecake... (OK, not so serious afterall)

          • BenS

            You are quite right, thank you for pointing that out - that helps reassure me that I wasn't being vague in my claims. :)

            Still, perhaps the man has a point regarding evidence so let's look at the actual claim and see what we have.

            I said:

            My own experience is that I am (excepting certain rare circumstances) happier with a beer in my hand and a Welsh gymnast bouncing up and down on my cock than I am with just the beer. That's the truth.

            So, I'm happier with the attentions of the gymnast and holding a beer than I am with just the beer. Now, evidence.

            Firstly, there are my own direct accounts of the situation. I can confirm I was happier. This is quite subjective, though.

            Then, there's objective evidence. Analysis of my demeanour by uninvolved observers. It can be confirmed that when I have a pint in my hand, I normally have a smile. Assuming this is an indication of my happiness level as it is in other human animals then it's not a stretch to conclude that I'm happier with a beer and being ridden like there were Indians in hot pursuit because I have a huge grin on my face.

            To support this, besides the gymnast, there are several other eyewitnesses. It was THAT kind of a party. They also didn't wait decades to write down their accounts unlike SOME 'eyewitness' accounts, I believe they were tweeting in real time, thus giving their accounts further value as they didn't have time to collude, misremember or embellish the story. They all confirm that I certainly looked like I was enjoying myself.

            But... we hold ourselves to higher standards, do we not! We are scientists - even if some of us are amateur ones! The scientific method is key and what do we hold in great regard? That the results are.... repeatable!

            Yes, I shall once again have to go to bat with a Welsh gymnast and holding a beer in my hand - in the name of science!

            To which end, in order to measure this properly and remove any eyewitness bias, does anyone here have access to an MRI machine?

            I think to prevent her banging her head a lot (and the confusion of having two brains in the MRI) she's going to have to assume a very low slung reverse cowgirl position. Now, she's flexible so should be able to manage this but I am at risk here of painfully bending an important part of my anatomy. Still, in pushing the boundaries of human understanding, sometimes sacrifices must be made. It's the cross I shall have to bear (where DOES that phrase come from?).

            So, my friends, let us assuage the doubting Thomases! Bring me a beer, a gymnast, an MRI machine and let us do science!

          • BenS

            You say you're happy with booze and sex alone.

            I'm going to have to insist that you show me exactly where I said that or retract your comment. And in future, do me the courtesy of not blatantly misrepresenting my position - especially when I clearly stated:

            I do not believe the only things in life are sex and booze.

            Please familiarise yourself with Rule 3 in the Commenting Rules & Tips. If a morally bereft, baby-eating atheist can do his best to follow the rules, I'm sure you can too.

            Shame to get serious again. We were having such fun!

          • Erick Chastain

            hey, sorry for misreading what you wrote. My bad. You said happiness did come from drunken parties. My experience has been the opposite (after too many of them on my part).

            Anyway, I think that atheists are genuinely good people and not baby eaters. I mean, look at F. Scott Fitzgerald.

  • AshleyWB

    "Fitzgerald saw that, given the breakdown of traditional morality and the marginalization of God, many people in the postwar West simply surrendered themselves to wealth and pleasure. Commitment, marriage, sexual responsibility, and the cultivation of a spiritual life were seen as, at best, holdovers from the Victorian age, and at worst, the enemies of progress and pleasure."

    People have always given themselves over to wealth and pleasure. It happened in ancient Egypt, in Rome at its zenith, and it happened in the glorious Victorian age. Popes gave themselves over to wealth and pleasure when Christian Europe was at its peak. One of the blunders Christians make in probably every era but certainly today is the unevidenced belief that we live in a time of especially noteworthy moral decay. We don't. In fact, we've made worldwide progress in fighting hunger, reducing violence, and building more just and equitable societies while excluding fewer people from participation in those societies.

    The world is not perfect and likely never will be. Corporate and government power pose great dangers, marketers are better than ever at manipulating human weakness, and we continue to foolishly ignore environmental threats. But while depravity, selfishness, and pride will always be with us, so will sacrifice, loyalty, and compassion.

    I will not be manipulated into belief by Christian despair. This is a time for hope.

    • BenS

      One of the blunders Christians make in probably every era but certainly
      today is the unevidenced belief that we live in a time of especially
      noteworthy moral decay. We don't.

      It's virtually a truism that every generation considers the one before it restrictive and behind the times and the one after it a bunch of tearaways taking society to hell in a handbasket.

      • AshleyWB

        Yea, exactly. And people seem particularly adept at avoiding data about the state of the world.

      • primenumbers

        I remember on my teaching course one of the lecturers read out a report on pupils and how bad they were behaving. The report sounded like it was contemporary, but was actually ancient Roman or Greek - I wish I had the reference for it!

        • AshleyWB

          That would be a blast to read!

    • Dcn Harbey Santiago

      Hi Ashley,

      >> In fact, we've made worldwide progress in fighting hunger, reducing
      violence, and building more just and equitable societies while excluding
      fewer people from participation in those societies.

      When you say "We", who are you talking about, specifically?

      "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
      Deacon Harbey

      • BenS

        I shan't answer for Ashley, but I would say humanity in general. Sure, there are some holdovers who want to exclude, say, marriage from homosexuals or women from important positions but thankfully, they're on the way out.

        The general trend the world over has been towards greater justice, greater inclusion, more equal rights and more equality in general. Some places suffer localised slippage but I think they're in the minority.

        We (in humanity) have still got a long way to go, though.

        • Dcn Harbey Santiago

          Ben,

          Please see my edit to Ashley, you answered before I was done.

          "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
          Deacon Harbey

          • BenS

            Harbey,

            I'm afraid I can't tell when you're done if you're going to go back and edit what you posted after I've read it... :p

            Anyway, my answer - as above - stands. Humanity in general has worked and trended towards eliminating hunger and reducing violence, albeit with some localised slippage.

          • Dcn Harbey Santiago

            " Humanity in general has worked and trended towards eliminating hunger and reducing violence"

            WOW that's a lot of people!

            This statement implies a general consensus of a large part of this group. The problem is that hunger and violence are caused largely by this "Humanity" you mention.

            So I'm afraid that "Humanity in general" is to...general. In fact it sounds to much like a platitude (IMHO). Perhaps you could be more specific? (If you can not its OK, I don't claim to have all the answers either).

            "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
            Deacon Harbey

          • BenS

            This statement implies a general consensus of a large part of this group.

            It might, perhaps, imply it but it doesn't require it. It only requires the movers and shakers to implement the changes and then people will generally fall in line as they become acclimated / better educated.

            Take racism. When the bulk of the population of a country has no problem with racism then how is change effected so minorities aren't discriminated against? When one woman stands up on a bus? Through the gradual acclimation of society to new experiences? When the law is passed and the population either adhere or get punished?

            If human beings in general do not stand quietly by whilst another human being starves then 'humanity in general' is not too general. I don't need to list the name of every person who has ever done a charitable act.

            However, if you want me to provide a list then fine. Me. There might have been others but I didn't get their names.

          • Dcn Harbey Santiago

            Hi Ben,

            "However, if you want me to provide a list then fine. Me. There might have been others but I didn't get their names."

            You answered my question, Thanks!

            "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
            Deacon Harbey Santiago

          • AshleyWB

            Consensus is not required, as BenS pointed out. Another aspect of that beyond the ones he mentioned is the steady improvement of the systems that underpin society, such as systems of food delivery. Many people today live with the belief that society is crumbling and that civilization is headed toward collapse, but the reality is that our everyday systems tend to become more robust over time and better able to handle crisis. This has been extended, for example, to places which traditionally have experienced frequent famine. Food support networks in Africa are much more developed and far better able to handle crop failures and other disasters than they were even thirty years ago.

            These are not platitudes, DHS, they're empirical facts, and they are the result of the slow expansion of proven infrastructure to areas that have lacked it.

            Even situations which we rightly object to, such as the ridiculously low wages that Apple's subcontractors pay their workers to make iPhones, represent progress over even lower wages and more degrading work. So we should be careful when tossing around moral condemnations that our idealism, whether Christian or progressive, isn't actually something worse.

          • BenS

            Another aspect of that beyond the ones he mentioned is the steady improvement of the systems that underpin society, such as systems of food delivery.

            Systems (& technology) is such an massively relevant one I can't believe I missed it!

            Agriculture. Irrigation. Crop rotation. Division of labour. Assembly lines. Refrigeration. Hub and spoke logistic networks.

            I feel like it should be put in some kind of a Batman-esque action bubble like 'Kerpow!'.

          • AshleyWB

            I see your Kerpow! and raise you a Zlonk!.

          • Michael Murray

            What has progress done for us !

          • severalspeciesof

            DHS, You just might be interested in Stevin Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" It's a well researched and written book dealing with the idea that we think we live in an age that is getting worse, but that thought is wrong...

      • AshleyWB

        See the reply by BenS.

    • Josh

      Here's a Christian who didn't fit the mold:

      The world is not going anywhere…it is not going to the Brave New World which Mr. Aldous Huxley described with detestation, any more than to the New Utopia which Mr. H. G. Wells described with delight. The world is what the saints and the prophets saw it was; it is not merely getting better or merely getting worse; there is one thing that the world does; it wobbles. Left to itself, it does not get anywhere; though if helped by real reformers of the right religion and philosophy, it may get better in many respects, and sometimes for considerable periods. But in itself it is not a progress; it is not even a process; it is the fashion of this world that passeth away. Life in itself is not a ladder; it is a see-saw.

      --GKC

      • AshleyWB

        Chesterton failed to fit or at least squirmed out of a quite a few molds, I think. I don't think I've ever read this quote in context, but it seems a bit more pessimistic or perhaps fatalistic about the world than his efforts in economic philosophy would suggest. Of course, he was probably more concerned with eternity, so maybe I'm just misreading it.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Here's a question for atheists who have read the book or at least seen one of the film versions: What do you think about Fitzgerald's moral vision? How would you assess the behavior of the various characters?

    • What do you think about Fitzgerald's moral vision?

      You know this is a work of fiction, right?

      • Kevin Aldrich

        Yes. Fitzgerald is the author. The novel portrays or reveals his or at least "a" moral vision through the characters and their actions.

    • jmcg1213

      "I've found atheists to be quite interested in morality."
      And I've found atheists to be quite interested in the convolution of morality.

      • Susan

        >I've found atheists to be quite interested in the convolution of morality

        Can you give me some examples?

        First, it would be useful if you explained what you mean when you say "morality"?

  • Corylus

    I have read the book.. What I took away from it was simple enjoyment of the wonderful prose more than anything else. It is nice to remember it again, so thank you, Robert, for this piece.

    In terms of the 'Great American Novel', yes, it does have to qualify. Sigh, it might be helpful if those attempting to write one of these at the moment reread Fitzgerald in order to remember that less can be more. There does seem to me a bit of 'trying too hard' going on with some modern literary American authors.

    Anyway,

    “He tells us that the displacement of God by wealth and pleasure leads, by a short route, to the corroding of the soul.”

    I don't see this is the take home message of the book, not least because Tom and Daisy have many things missing from their lives other than an obvious adherence to any religion. I can think of two missing things: the lack of which can easily lead to despair.

    The first is simple care for the welfare of other people.

    “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . .” (Chapter 9).

    Second, they show a dreadful lack in that they have little curiosity about the world and its workings. For example, Daisy sees the world as dreadful for the silly reason below:

    "You see I think everything's terrible anyhow," she went on in a convinced way. "Everybody thinks so--the most advanced people. And I know.
    I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything." Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom's, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. "Sophisticated--God, I'm sophisticated!" (Chapter one).

    Daft little girl. Seeing everything and doing everything is impossible, not least for we have such a finite time to both experience and to learn.

    As you can lack care and curiosity both with and without religion - and can find yourself in a pickle either way - I don't think it is justified to frame this work as a sermon.

    What about the eyes though?

    I would not read too much into that image. Eyes were depicted prominently in the famous front cover of the first edition and seem apposite due to the narration of the tale by a (relatively) impartial observer.