MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Tuesday, June 4th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. And it’s that time when we make our Classic Book of the Month recommendation.
For that we turn to our trusty book reviewer, Emily Whitten. Good morning, Emily!
EMILY WHITTEN, REVIEWER: Morning, Mary!
REICHARD: What’s on tap this month?
WHITTEN: I thought we could revisit a book many of us read in high school. My version has a dark blue cover with two mysterious eyes staring out at you. If that doesn’t ring a bell, you might remember the narrator, Nick Carraway, and his “charming” cousin Daisy—and of course, the man in love with Daisy—Jay Gatsby. He was originally known as James Gatz, but eventually he earns the title The Great Gatsby.
REICHARD: Ah, yes. By F. Scott Fitzgerald. I think I may have read that back in high school.
WHITTEN: What did you think?
REICHARD: Truth? I remember the movie with Robert Redford in it more than I remember the book.
WHITTEN: [Laugh] Yeah, when I read it as a teenager, I don’t know that the book made a “great” impression on me either. And while we’re talking about that, I don’t always agree with author John Green, but I got a kick out of one of his vlog reviews of the book. In this clip, he imagines a discussion between teenage John Green and adult John Green:
AUDIO: Mr. Green, I hate everything about this stupid collection of first world problems passing for a novel, but my hatred of that Willa Catherine loser Daisy Buchanan burns with the fire of a thousand suns. Uhh, me from the past. You’re not supposed to like Daisy Buchanan in the same uncomplicated way you like, say, cupcakes…
So, Mary, these characters definitely aren’t sticky sweet like cupcakes. But I agree with adult John Green in that clip. You can learn to appreciate The Great Gatsby if you’re willing to put some thought into it.
REICHARD: Why don’t you tell us about some of the book’s redeeming qualities?
WHITTEN: Sure. Now I know we are short for time and a lot of people have already read the story, let’s skip right to the last sentence: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
I learned a lot about the book recently from a 2018 Close Reads Podcast. Over several weeks, host David Kern and regular guest Angelina Stanford applied a thoughtful Christian worldview to The Great Gatsby—as did their guest, Andrew Adams of the Center for Lit. He had this to say:
AUDIO: The whole last sentence is the key to the novel, right? But the boats against the current part speaks to the futility of Gatsby’s dream and American striving and of the impulse and desire to create something for ourselves in the future. But the last half of that sentence, ‘born back ceaselessly into the past,’ suggests that what we’re really looking for is already behind us. It’s from a previous generation. It’s the certainties and the foundation that we came from that are the only sure foundation for where we’re going. And the fact that we’ve rejected them is the problem.
So, Mary, Adams points out two important things. First, Gatsby’s story is about the futility or failure of the American dream. Second, he and other characters experience futility because in some important ways, America turned from her Christian heritage. Framing it that way actually lead Angelina Stanford to make this comment:
AUDIO: The ending of the book makes me feel like this is a deeply conservative book in the real meaning of conservative.
REICHARD: A “deeply conservative” book…That’s definitely a different take than I’ve heard before. Does that resonate with what we know about the author?
WHITTEN: I don’t know a ton about his political or religious views. One thing I did learn, recently though from an A&E Biography. Fitzgerald did seem to draw a lot from his life in his writing. So, for instance, when Fitzgerald wrote about Gatby’s wild parties in the 1920s, he knew about that lifestyle personally.
AUDIO: America was riding high and so were the Fitzgeralds. It was a time of extravagance and self-indulgence. Scott called it the Jazz Age and was hailed as its king. And Zelda was crowned queen of the flappers. They were the toast of the town. No party was complete without this glamorous pair. Supremely confident and often inebriated, their crazy exploits are legendary. Like the time they rode on a taxi down 5th Avenue and danced on tables at the Waldorf hotel.
Fitzgerald actually wrote The Great Gatsby a little later in life—after he saw the “futility” of the party life. His wife whom he loved deeply had had an affair, so some of that pain may be on display in the book.
As for Fitzgerald’s views on Christianity, he does reference God and Christianity often in this book. In that Close Reads podcast, Angelina Stanford says his writing fits in with the moral and spiritual despair of many writers in the post-World War I period.
AUDIO: The scene with Wilson and his friend, where his friend keeps saying, ‘Don’t you have a church? Shouldn’t you have a priest?’ [may need to cut a few hard to understand words here]…So, so heavy. So many writers do the same thing. George Orwell has a very similar scene in 1984 where he shows once the character says ‘No, I don’t have a church, I don’t believe in all of that,’ then they have no way to cope with what they’re going through.
REICHARD: Those are sobering thoughts. As we head into our own roaring 20s, the 2020s, how should we read The Great Gatsby today?
WHITTEN: Gatsby provokes great questions, such as: What is the American Dream? How does it fall short? And how can we find our true identity in the modern world? These questions might be more pressing now than in Fitzgerald’s day.
I’m in a stage of life trying to raise kids and just survive day to day. So I found it helpful to read Gatsby in one hand and Ecclesiastes in the other. The author of Ecclesiastes acknowledges the vanity of life, at least in the short run, but he never completely loses sight of God as our creator and judge. He’s the truly great one. And that’s what I want to savor.
REICHARD: That’s definitely better than cupcakes. Thanks so much for this recommendation today, Emily.
WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary. Happy reading.
REICHARD: Today, Emily recommended The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. If you visit worldandeverything.org and look up this particular segment, you’ll find links to some of the resources we mentioned today.