Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan star in a scene from the movie The Great Gatsby. It’s the latest film version of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. CNS photo/Warner Bros.

There is no escaping moral judgment

By  Fr. Robert Barron, Catholic Register Special
  • June 1, 2013

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.

Fitzgerald belonged to that famously “lost” generation of artists and writers, which included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and others. Having come of age during the First World War, they saw the worst that human beings can do to one another and witnessed the complete ineffectuality of political and religious institutions to deal with the horrific crisis. Consequently, they felt adrift, without a clear moral compass, lost.

Hemingway’s novels — and his own personal choices — showed one way to deal with this problem was to place oneself purposely in dangerous situations to stir up a sense of being alive. This explains Hemingway’s interest in deep-sea fishing, big-game hunting, battling Nazis and above all, bull fighting. Fitzgerald explored another way that people coped with spiritual emptiness, 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 carries on a number of illicit love affairs with women from both the upper and lower echelons of the social order. Meanwhile, across the bay in West Egg, the hero of the story is ensconced in an even more glorious mansion.

Gatsby wears pink suits, drives a yellow roadster and associates with politicians, culture mavens and gangsters. But the most intriguing thing about him is that every Saturday night he opens his spacious home for a wild party, attended by all of the glitterati of New York. 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. Gatsby wants to steal her from her husband. When Nick Carraway, the narrator, chides Gatsby that no one can repeat the past, he responds curtly, “What do you mean you can’t repeat the past? Of course you can.” This set of circumstances led to disappointment, hatred, betrayal and, finally, Gatsby’s death.

Fitzgerald saw that amid the breakdown of traditional morality and the marginalization of God, many people in the postwar West 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 the liturgies of the new religion of sensuality and materiality. Despite his reputation as a hard-drinking sensualist, Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, was as uncompromising and as morally clear-eyed as an evangelical preacher. He tells us that the displacement of God by wealth and pleasure leads to the corroding of the soul.

There is a burnt-out and economically depressed city that lies between West Egg and Manhattan, and the main characters of The Great Gatsby pass through it frequently. 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 are the remains of a billboard advertising a local opthamologist. All we can see are two bespectacled eyes that hover over 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 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.

(Fr. Barron is the founder of the global ministry “Word on Fire,” the creator of the award winning documentary series Catholicism and is the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago.)

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