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The Great Gatsby tells us the world is an empty place without faith

How will the Baz Luhrmann film, out in the UK next week, confront its existential themes?

By on Friday, 10 May 2013

Leonardo di Caprio plays Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann's new film

Leonardo di Caprio plays Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann's new film

Are you getting ready for The Great Gatsby, the latest film adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, which has already opened in America and which will open on this side of the pond next week? I myself have prepared by re-reading the book, and will most certainly be seeing the film when it arrives.

Why the excitement?

First of all, the director is Baz Luhrmann, whose Romeo + Juliet was so astonishing. Second, the cast is stellar. There is the relative newcomer Carey Mulligan, along with Leonardo di Caprio and Tobey Maguire, both of whom are first-class actors. Third, the book is, to use an overworn word which in this case is the only word that will do, iconic.

Fitzgerald is not that great a writer, and fans will probably not forgive me for saying that his other books are duds. But in Gatsby he manages to convey the atmosphere of the time; very few writers ever do this; Waugh is one, but Fitzgerald’s evocation of the lives of the rich and the less rich in the roaring Twenties (the events in the novel are set in the summer of 1922) probably creates our impression of the time as much as it describes it.

What a strange world it is, the world of the novel! The reality that the characters live in is wafer-thin, and under the brittle and glassy surface, unpleasant truths lurk. The climactic scenes both centre around dead bodies, as if this were the terrible fact from which humanity is fleeing. In the end the novel is about death, and how we can never cheat it, how it stalks us through life. There is something elemental about the world of Gatsby: on the one hand it is about all the things people want: love, power, money, renown, glamour; at the same time it is telling us that none of these things are lasting, all of them turn to dust and ashes. Gatsby’s palatial mansion on Long Island turns out to be as false as a Potemkin façade.

Gatsby is not really a religious novel, but it is, in an odd way, a moral novel, telling us about the emptiness to be found in the heart of human desire, the hollowness of life. It is close in spirit (as well as date) to T S Eliot’s famous poem The Wasteland. It may not tell us anything about religion or the life of the spirit, but it makes one thing clear. The world is an empty place, and we need some spiritual truths to make life bearable; and faith is the best refuge we have from the sterility of life and the pressing nature of death. Or so it seems to me: I wonder how the film will confront these existential themes?

  • http://www.facebook.com/alexander.luciesmith Alexander Lucie-Smith

    What a great photo! The expression on di Caprio’s face is a nice illustration of the existential angst that the novel deals in.

  • Matthew Holder

    Father, you write as entertainingly as Godfrey Winn.

    I particularly enjoyed this:
    “What a strange world it is, the world of the novel! The reality that the characters live in is wafer-thin, and under the brittle and glassy surface, unpleasant truths lurk. The climactic scenes both centre around dead bodies, as if this were the terrible fact from which humanity is fleeing. In the end the novel is about death, and how we can never cheat it, how it stalks us through life. There is something elemental about the world of Gatsby.”

  • Mustang

    Great article, Father. I am greatly looking forward to this film. I read the book back in high school and it captured my imagination.

    On a related note, what on earth does Leo Dicaprio have to do to get an Oscar in this world?? Give the man one already!

  • Sara_TMS_again

    I think it’s more of a religious novel than you give it credit for. Gatsby dies, ultimately, taking the blame for someone he loves, who has betrayed him.

    His sacrifice looks as though it is in vain- that nobody cares, basically- but the reader is left to recognise that the love for which he gave everything was the only thing that made his life real.

  • Cestius

    It is not a lack of faith as much of a lack of faith in God that makes the world ultimately empty and meaningless. You can have faith in a lot of things, some people have a great faith that there is no God.

  • Yorkshire Catholic

    Alas the lack of faith is to be seen even in the pages of the Catholic press. Yesterday i scanned the Catholic Herald looking for anything celebrating Ascension Day. There seemed to be nothing. Is this simply because you are following the instruction to celebrate it on Sunday only? If so, this is very sad.

  • Kevin

    “faith is the best refuge we have from the sterility of life and the pressing nature of death”

    That is certainly true if you have faith (which may seem circular). Others, however, may prefer the attention of people who visibly and tangibly exist – friends, relatives, “lovers” and so on – to the love of an invisible and ostensibly uncommunicative and uninvolved deity with doubtfully authentic promises of deferred bliss.

    As I see it, Catholicism is more challenging than it is consoling. We must choose to love God (who actually does exist) in spite of all the temptations to ignore Him.

  • James M

    “Gatsby dies, ultimately, taking the blame for someone he loves, who has betrayed him.”

    ## Is that religious, though ? STM it’s just good ethics, even if leavened by Christian influence. If there is no transcendent or at least numinous referent in morality, what you have is morality, not religion. It is prayer – not ethics – that is characteristic of religion, because prayer is the addressing of the heart to a, or the, numinous “other”, or “Other” – whether the cat-goddess Bast, Olympian Zeus, the numen indwelling a stone fallen from heaven, or the Holy Trinity. Not all religions are ethically concerned – those of Greece & Rome were not.

    If we can’t see the difference between religion and ethics, we can forget about any “new evangelisation”. :(

    (Disclaimer: I’ve not read the book or seen any films of it)

  • Gregory

    I recognize that for many VII represents a church less focused on sin and guilt and more focused on helping people and compassion; however, we have become empty of substance ourselves as the clarity, structure and aesthetics of the faith have been cast aside since the council. Perhaps we can recover what was lost while retaining any of the good that was gained.

  • James M

    “Is this simply because you are following the instruction to celebrate it on Sunday only?”

    ## Good guess. Now it is just another Sunday – nothing special. The bishops seem not to have realised that they were in effect abolishing it. But that is the practical effect. And they complain about secularisation ROFLOL

    And so much could have been said about this feast and its importance and why it matters & how it exalts Christ & glorifies His Father & is a work of the Holy Spirit :( – but no. This folly would sicken a dead parrot. :( The CC really has arrived – it is nearly as good at inoculating people against pesky rubbish like faith in Christ as the C of E is.

  • chrism

    I would agree with this but to say ‘his other books are duds’ is nonsence.. Tender is the Night is everyone’s tragedy of life as lived. Probably my most favourite novel.

  • $24570317

    “… the love for which he gave everything was the only thing that made his life real.”

    Yes! That’s the whole point of any life – it’s the reason why we are here.

    Fr L-S writes: ” love, power, money, renown, glamour; at the same time it is telling us that none of these things are lasting,”

    Love is stronger than death (and not only the love of or for Christ) and it’s wrong to lump it in with the rest. Love never dies.

  • AlanP

    It is very rare that a great novel makes even a moderately good film. The two are completely different mediums. From what I’ve heard, the new Gatsby film does not appeal.

  • Nesbyth

    However, the C of E does keep Ascension Day on the Thursday! Some irony here.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    Well, Fitzgerald was a Catholic, and there is both a lot of moralising in the book, and a sense of transcendence (the green light that Gatsby looks across to, his longing to be the best possible version of himself, which eventually comes to nothing).

    Does Gatsby die in vain, or not? That, to me, is more than an ethical question- because only if eternity exists does Gatsby’s sacrifice mean anything. That’s not in the book, but it can be inferred, in my view.

    I’m an Augustinian- I think ethics without God are impossible.

  • catholicblogger

    Perhaps you are missing pages 16 and 17 of the 10th May edition?

  • catholicblogger

    Perhaps you do not have pages 16 and 17 of the 10th May edition of the Catholic Herald?