30 April 2013
Chasing down dreams
"We all seem to have an inbuilt longing for something transcendent." by Sophie Lister
Classics become classics for a reason. In the case of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby – a mainstay of must-read lists and school syllabuses everywhere – there are several reasons. The genius of the writing itself is widely recognised, and the story certainly scratched a cultural itch in the years after it was published, when its ideas were vindicated by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. But Fitzgerald's tale of a mysterious man with a secret past and an unattainable dream also has something more far-reaching to say.
This year, a new film version from Baz Luhrman (the distinctive director behind Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge!) is set to hit screens. Tobey Maguire is Nick Carraway, a young graduate and First World War veteran who moves to Long Island in New York. His neighbour is Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a millionaire who lives in a mansion and holds extravagant parties. Drawn deeper into the man's glamorous world, Carraway begins to uncover what makes him tick.
Gatsby is infatuated with Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), an old flame whom he is desperate to win over again. But she is now married to the rich, philandering Tom (Joel Edgerton), and is perhaps too comfortable in her privileged life to know what she really wants. Carraway grows steadily more disillusioned as Gatsby and Daisy start an ill-fated affair, and the glittering façade of Long Island life begins to peel away.
Fitzgerald, like his characters, was part of a young generation that felt it had been betrayed by the moral values and structures of the pre-war world. With boundaries of all kinds blurred, and wartime austerity left behind, the culture embraced decadence and hedonism. The American Dream – the idea that any individual could strive to elevate themselves into a better, happier life – was boiled down to its materialistic elements, and eagerly pursued.
This dream is represented in the story by Daisy, who seems to offer Gatsby a world of irresistible possibilities, while always remaining just out of his reach. Fitzgerald was writing about the same realisation that would, many years and two global economic crises later, fuel the Occupy movement: the American Dream's promise is hollow. Most people can never attain the wealth and status which it seems to offer, and even for those who do, it won't truly satisfy.
Significantly, the problem isn't just that events conspire to keep Daisy and Gatsby apart. We realise that far from being the idealised memory he's worshipped for years, she's just an ordinary human being, as inadequate and flawed as anybody else. Gatsby has tried to build his dream on sand.
The story reveals, not just the hard-learned truth that this kind of 'good life' can't fulfil us, but a haunting fear that nothing else can. Like Gatsby, we all seem to have an inbuilt longing for something transcendent– for lasting beauty, and true love. The Great Gatsby concludes that we'll always be reaching after these things, but somehow never quite grasping them, our efforts going against the current of reality. The weight of our aspirations will remain, as Fitzgerald describes Gatsby's great dream, a "rock…founded securely on a fairy's wing".
Fulfilment of these deeply-felt desires can only be possible if there's something reality which is capable of meeting them. For Fitzgerald, who had left behind his Catholic upbringing for atheism, belief in such transcendence could make no logical sense. Influenced by Nietzsche, the author seems to have intended Gatsby's tragedy to be symbolic of the bigger human story. We might delude ourselves that bigger and better things lie ahead, but we're all destined, ultimately, for disappointment.
Or are we? CS Lewis, wrestling with the same questions a few decades later, came to a very different conclusion. His answer has become an often-cited argument for the existence of a God who offers true satisfaction, and a solid foundation on which to build all of our hopes. "Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists," Lewis wrote. "If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world."
The Great Gatsby is released on 17 May.