In light of The Great Gatsby coming out on DVD tomorrow, I thought I’d offer several-months-old thoughts on the movie.
SPOILER ALERT: This is a discussion of one of the main themes of The Great Gatsby. As such, significant plot points will be revealed. You have been warned.
For those of you who only read SparkNotes in high school, The Great Gatsby (both the movie and the book) follows the wanna-be writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he moves to New York City in 1922, an era of loose morals, glittering jazz, bootleg kingpins, and soaring stocks. Wanting to hit it big in the stock market, Nick moves next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and across the bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her adulterous, Old Money husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).
Jay Gatsby is a mystery. Every weekend he opens up his castle in West Egg to the most powerful and influential—New York politicians, Broadway actors, silent-screen stars, and gangsters. Few have ever seen him. Some theorize he doesn’t even exist. Nick is drawn into this puzzle as he receives an official invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties—the only one ever to have gotten one. The two meet and become friends.
During the course of their friendship, Gatsby reveals to Nick that he’s in love with Daisy and has been for five years. He lost her when he was shipped out to fight in the war. During that time, Daisy got married to Tom. Now, Gatsby has come to win her back. Every move he made for the past five years has been about winning Daisy’s heart. Every party. Every dollar earned. All with a picture of Daisy in his mind.
All Gatsby asks of his new friend is that he invite cousin Daisy to tea. Nick obliges and begins a journey to find out that maybe money really can’t buy everything.
According to Rotten Tomatoes, the jury is split on the movie, almost 50/50. Some think it was a spectacular film in its own way but others believe it falls far short of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original masterpiece.
I did like the movie although I don’t think I would buy the DVD. Going into the theater I placed my expectations on hold because I knew it was impossible to fully capture the essence of the novel and display it on screen. I thought DiCaprio hit his part out of the park. I really can’t imagine anyone else as Gatsby anymore. Content-wise, I could have done with less sexual content in the movie. There’s sexual sin in the book but it’s implied and not displayed for all to see.
All that said, I actually couldn’t stop thinking about the movie for weeks because The Great Gatsby was one of the most honest movies I’ve ever seen. Most movies (and other media) paint this idea or picture of life that’s idealistic, unrealistic, and actually quite delusional. In real life, there are consequences, there aren’t always happy endings, and sin never pays. Regardless of it’s potential downfalls as art, The Great Gatsby echoes the book of Ecclesiastes—that life is meaningless under the curse. Here are some quick takeaways about the meaninglessness displayed.
** In case you didn’t see the first spoiler warning, this is your last chance to turn back! **
THE MEANINGLESSNESS OF WEALTH / EXCESS
Life was plush in New York for the few super-rich. Their parties that would seem over-the-top even today. The movie shows all the glitz and glamor of the age. It’s bright, loud, looks great, and looks fun. Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom have no want in the world.
Fast cars. Massive houses. Dozens of servants. Decadent meals. Parties over-flowing with every luxury. These people are living the life.
And they’re miserable.
No amount of money or possessions brings any of these characters lasting satisfaction. They’re always searching for the next thing. All the parties in the world can’t bring them happiness. In the middle of a party, Nick even asks, “What is this all for then?” The question goes unanswered. It hangs there. Empty.
Throughout the story there’s a general feeling that Gatsby’s wealth is fake—all veneer and no substance. In the book, Nick even discovers that the shelves are filled with empty book covers, designed to give the impression that they are real. Underneath the surface of it all, the money is not truly real—we find out later it’s actually mobster money—and it’s not going to last.
Gatsby has thousands of “friends” who stick around only because they get to partake in his massive celebrations. But after Gatsby dies, no one shows up to his funeral except Nick. All Gatsby’s possessions are seized by his mobster “friends.” Gatsby’s wealth could do nothing for him. It was meaningless.
THE MEANINGLESSNESS OF PLEASURE
Not only was life plush for the characters of The Great Gatsby but it was also full of pleasure. Although it takes place during the Prohibition, Nick comments that it actually made alcohol cheaper. The alcohol definitely flows like the River Jordan in this movie. Nick constantly gets “roaring drunk” every chance he gets. The parties all end with people passed out on the floor.
People also search for pleasure through sex. Burlesque dancers fill the party stages. The drunken party-goers engage in sensual activity. And the most significant is Tom and his notorious penchant for adultery. Gatsby and Daisy also have sex and try to rekindle old love.
Once again, all the pleasure in the world cannot bring these people satisfaction. In fact, most of the pleasure they strove after ended up bringing them pain. By the end of the story, Nick is diagnosed as “morbidly alcoholic,” Tom’s mistress is dead, Gatsby is dead, and all the parties amounted to nothing. It too was meaningless.
THE MEANINGLESSNESS OF LIFE
The tone of life’s meaninglessness in the movie is a lot less than in the book, but you can still see it. Life is not all it’s cracked up to be. Tom lives in the shadow of his past athletic glories. Daisy lives with the burden of lost innocence and lost love. Nick never achieves his goal of hitting it big in the stock market, and this is after already abandoning a dream to be a writer. Gatsby is abandoned because of Daisy’s carelessness and murdered for a crime he didn’t commit.
They all receive great pain. For those who died, the world kept on turning as if nothing happened. There are no heroes in this story. No matter how hard Gatsby tried, he could not repeat the past. He dedicated everything to his dream of Daisy. Instead, he achieved nothing. It too was meaningless.
So now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you, I want to let you know that there is hope. The most redeeming thing about Jay Gatsby is his ability to hope at almost delusional levels. Nick says about Gatsby, “He was the most hopeful people I’ve ever met.”
Gatsby’s hope was that he’d be able to recapture the time he had with Daisy five years earlier. This was his dream—his obsession—and he sacrificed everything to reach out for it. In the midst of all the meaninglessness of life, Gatsby found something to hope for.
His dream failed him but it does show something about the human heart. We need to hope for something. We were designed to hope. That’s the only thing that can keep us going when faced with what life throws our way.
Since we were created to hope that means there is something out, or someone, who can satisfy that hope. His name is Jesus. He is the source of everlasting pleasure. He is the only One who can bring our life meaning. He is the only One who can bring real life. He is the hope the human heart longs for.