Recently I bought a copy of The Great Gatsby at a thrift store. I found it, with a smeared strip of masking tape marring the front cover, for a mere $3. This fit nicely into the vow of simplicity my family and I recently undertook when we joined a Christian order among the poor. You see, we have been trying hard to untangle ourselves from all that has brought us meaning and distraction before. We are trying to eat more vegetables, take long walks on the cracked sidewalk, write our thoughts into paper-filled journals (instead of wide-open screens). We are busying constraining ourselves again, after years of accruing breathlessly. We now put maddening amounts of thought into every purchase, holiday, leisure activity, weighing the costs and benefits in ever widening circles that go out beyond the needs of just our small and conflicted family. We are young, we are in love, and we are poor.
I re-read Gatsby in two sittings, and was both annoyed and bemused to discover that the pages between page 110 and page 140 had simply vanished from the paper spine of my copy many years ago. It seemed fitting, however, for me to read my damaged copy, the decades since my first reading while still a teenager filling in a few blanks. But really, I didn’t need those pages to tell me what everyone already knows—everyone loves a good tale of excess, of rich people behaving badly. At least, most people do.
I read what pages I had hungry for insight, meaning, and a clue as to why after all these years the book had left such a stale taste in my mouth. I am newly interested in the book, of course, because of a movie trailer I saw for the film of the same name. Like most people, I found the promise of a Moulin-Rouge inspired romp (with Jay-Z on the beatz) entrancing. But underneath the curiosity and the sharp stabs of excitement, was a lingering sense of revulsion. There was something I couldn’t put my finger on about that old Gatsby. So I bought the book in a moldy old store, bound and determined to dig deep into my dislike.
The flashes come quickly. I hate Daisy. From the moment when her child is introduced (2 years old, asleep), and then subsequently abandoned for the rest of the novel, I am angry. I too have a child at home, a perfect tangle of arms and legs whose will and verve make me long for bedtime and then miss fiercely as soon as she falls peacefully asleep. Daisy dismisses the story of her child with mere sentence in her “intoxicating voice”, glossing past the great fracturing of self that is motherhood, allowing me to know in my bones what Nick Carroway, the narrator of the novel, tells us so much later: Daisy, and her husband, and indeed nearly every character in the book, are careless people.
This is only the beginning. I continue to read, and I am confused (and not just by the missing pages). Why do we eagerly ingest the stories of these utterly careless people? Why are we invested in the lives of people who placed bets on the wrong horses, people who let themselves get carried away by singular dreams, who were unable to find something larger than themselves to grab ahold of. They, the careless rich, leave us with nothing but beautiful, empty houses to comprehend the significance of, while we sit on our own, rather shabby, couches.
Our culture is fascinated with Gatsby and his ilk, I think, because we don’t quite believe it is true. We don’t believe that people can really be that silly, or stupid, or so laser focused on the wrong fount of happiness to their very death and destruction. But the stories of the beautiful, the powerful, and always the rich, have been told to us since the beginning, and we have been loathe to take note of the endings. We don’t like to believe that being careless is sinful, but it is.
“Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your reward.”
Just like in Gatsby, we all feel like the narrators in our own life–the honest, removed Nick Carroway to the hot messes that are Gatsby, Daisy, and the rest. We like to believe we can see it all, be a part of it all, pursue life, liberty, and happiness above all else, and leave the party unscathed. We distance ourselves, unwilling to admit how complicit we really are. We like to distance ourselves from Scripture, for we can’t possibly be the rich that the Bible speaks so direly of, can’t possibly be the ones, as Jeremiah 2 puts it, digging shallow, broken wells for ourselves while the true water waits patiently to be drunk.
Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your reward. The empty wells of a satiated society contain only two drinks; one is bitter, and one sedates. Fitzgerald shows us both, drunk in great quantity in turn, allowing us to see the cracked and gilded cisterns of wealth, the allure and horror within. And horror is an appropriate response to the themes in The Great Gatsby—the great self-absorption that allows us to both worship and destroy each other. The tale of excess, which we read and watch and judge, is not so different from our reality.
If I was at one of Gatsby’s parties, who would I be? Someone of no consequence, I am sure, a rumpled imposter smoothing her dress in a corner, someone who wants the golden lights of the party to shine on me without staining me, someone who wants the blessings of the life without any of the woes.
We aren’t as distanced as we would like to be; perhaps Gatsby is more real than any of us would like to admit. We too are immersed in a system, just like Daisy, drunk on “youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves.” In the current world-wide quest for more, people are being abandoned, oppressed, and even subject to violence. And no matter which way you slice it, we would more likely to be the party goers in Gatsby’s world. The truth is, there are no untouched narrators in our world of excess and thirst; we have all been touched by the temporal pursuits of happiness. As loathe as I am to admit it, I am much more like Daisy than not, sitting fresh in her many clothes, “gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.” Daisy, the worst villain of the story, simply because of her refusal to take accountability for her actions. Her malaise, her excess, and her more violent sins are all bound up together, held by the common thread of never finding the fount of everlasting water. Fitzgerald takes the words of Jesus, and shows us their conclusion: the rewards of wealth are temporary, and actually exclude people from experiencing the full measures of joy that the kingdom of God came to bring.
I close the book, I look at my daughter asleep. In my simple apartment, on my crowded, complex street, I want to be full. I want to believe The Great Gatsby, to know in my bones that there is so much woe in pursuing only the happiness of you and yours, of placing yourself high above the lives of everyone around you.
And I also want to believe that the converse is true, just like the Bible tells us. Blessed are the poor, for they shall see God.
Give me eyes to see. For the lights of the party are so bright, and so blinding to all that is good and true in the world.