Glamour & Downfall in 'The Great Gatsby'

When a celebrated work of classic literature is translated to the screen, you can bet it will be one of the most anticipated films of the year. And despite less-than-enthused early reviews, Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby has garnered heightened anticipation and excitement over the past few months of lavish themed parties, soundtrack leaks and previews and even special edition fashion lines in the film’s honor.

I’ll be counting myself among those in theaters this weekend eager to see the film (though recent reviews are certainly putting my expectations in check). Although when I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, I hated it. I hated it for the glamorous slow motion free fall that it was—with no one to stop it. What I didn’t realize until years later is that I actually loved the story and the writing itself, I simply hated Nick, the narrator, who in my mind takes the passive stance of the casual observer when he could have intervened. He was intimately aware of Gatsby and Daisy’s star-crossed affair. He witnessed firsthand how their love for each other became so ingrown that it exhausted their capacity for human concern for any others. Nick may have seen the flash of warning, he may have felt moral repulse, but he kept it to himself. So when it all came crashing down, his good intent was too late.

And that’s what The Great Gatsby is: the story of a crash and burn. It’s an Icarus drama—a pompous, glittering era that knew not its own mortality and danced too close to the sun. It’s a dysfunctional love story that does not end well—with self-interested characters who slowly make their descent into a finale filled with shattered dreams, broken promises, abandonment, wasted sacrifice and death.

At its core, The Great Gatsby is a story of entropy. This is not a happy tale. Nonetheless, movie theaters nationwide will be filled tonight with eager viewers. So why do we love it so much?

Here is where some will start to talk of the nature of cautionary tales. And certainly, there is caution threaded throughout The Great Gatsby’s narrative of infidelity and excess. F. Scott Fitzgerald is careful to depict the decadence of the Jazz Age as a fast-burning flame, a volatile marvel until it burns swiftly and catastrophically out. Gatsby’s parties, swimming with champagne and fireworks, are presented not as something to be envied but something to be wary of—gaudiness taken over the edge.

But I think our gravitation toward these stories is more than a lesson in “what not to do.”

We are drawn to The Great Gatsby for the reason we love any story: because we see ourselves in it. Whether we are teetering on the brink of a grand mistake, or quickening in our rush toward rock bottom, human nature knows all too well the feeling of loss of control. We know all too well what it feels like to slip into sudden free fall.

Like Gatsby, we know the feeling of infatuation with something forbidden to us. Like Daisy, we know what it feels like to live in the tension between what is right and self-preservation. Like Nick, we know what it’s like to watch people we sincerely care about sink deeper and deeper into self-sabotage. Like Jordan—and then like Daisy—we know the thrill of driving far too fast.

We are drawn to stories of entropy because we relate to them.

For Fitzgerald especially, the trope that we write what we know could not be more revealing in his work. In his deeply confessional essay “The Crack-Up,” Fitzgerald offers this opening phrase, “Of course all life is a process of breaking down … “ Here is a man born to the working class, rocketed to riotous stardom and literary fame, swept up in a storybook romance with Zelda who would become his wife, and then caught in a downward spiral. Francis and Zelda spent lovelorn days together in Paris and Hollywood, as celebrated icons among the rich and famous. Many have called them the first American celebrity couple. But their marriage and their personal health soon deteriorated. His alcoholism grew out of control, she spent the remainder of her days in a psychiatric ward alone.

Fitzgerald knew, perhaps more deeply than most, the cost of entropy. He knew about the surge, the crash and the burn of the American dream—of fame, fortune and love all breaking down into the sharp aftermath of tragedy. And while there is no doubt he wrote as one desperate person calling out to another, I think he also hoped his readers would create a better ending for themselves.

In “The Crack-Up,” before describing his own breakdown, he wrote,

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Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation—the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.

Sure, we read and watch The Great Gatsby for its cautionary tale. We watch because we relate. But we do not watch because we “enjoy” chaos, as if we get some voyeuristic pleasure out of it. Rather, I think we watch because we can’t help but to hope. We ache for the “otherwise” Fitzgerald wrote of. We can’t help but hope for someone, some saving intervention.

Yes, the world is breaking down. Entropy is upon us. It’s inherent even in the Christian language of “The Fall,” the foundational understanding that things have all gone wrong, that paradise has been lost. We love The Great Gatsby because we ourselves are natives of a universe suspended in free fall. What happened in Eden enacted a gravity that, without intervention, will end in a crash every time.

Even so, Fitzgerland says, “Otherwise.” This, he says, is part of the “test of first-rate intelligence.” And it is also the way of intervening grace, here to break our fall.

[Editor’s Note: Our review of Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby film will come later today.]

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