The Great Gatsby. It’s come up a lot lately, partly because I had my eleventh grade honors class finish out the year by reading it, and mostly because the new movie just came out. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so the purpose of this post is not to offer any kind of critique or review. But I have read and taught the book, multiple times. Each time, there is one theme the students can clearly identify: Money can’t buy happiness.
I completely agree with Fitzgerald on this one. I think he nailed it when he wrote about all these rich people pursuing wealth and love and social status and ultimately ending up dissatisfied (or worse, dead!). It was true in the 1920s, and it’s still true today – money can’t buy happiness, although we still go on living like it can.
But Fitzgerald missed something huge in his novel. He makes the negative point that money can’t buy happiness, but he never brings up the positive. The characters all end up disillusioned, dissatisfied, or dead. The story does not have a happy ending, and honestly, it really can’t.
When I teach this book, at different points I have the students give advice or make predictions about what will happen. Usually they advise several of the characters to just get divorced and go with the person they really love. But would that solve anything, really? And do the characters really “love” that other person, or will it just make them happy for the present? On the other hand, if the characters just stick with their marriages, they won’t necessarily be happy either, because they don’t really love the people they’re with. It’s kind of a lose-lose situation. There is no way for the book to have a good ending.
No way, that is, without Christ. And this is what Fitzgerald missed in his writing, and, I’m afraid, in his life. Because no marriage can truly work as it should and no person can truly be happy in life apart from Christ. As humans, we are all selfish, sinful people – a recipe for disaster and destroyed lives, like we see in The Great Gatsby. But just recognizing our sinfulness and hopelessness is only half the picture. If that is all we see, we’ll go through life feeling like we do when we get to the end of Gatsby, a little let-down, disappointed, and confused. We’ll go through life wondering what the answer really is. If money can’t buy happiness, where can it be found? And we’ll pursue power or pleasure or relationships, only to find that none of them bring true happiness either.
But thankfully, God wrote a book that tells us the whole story. It reveals not only our sinfulness, but also His amazing plan of redemption. It tells us where true happiness can be found – in dying to self and letting Christ live through us. It explains that there is more to life than just this world and its fleeting pleasures. That is a book worth reading.
And those truths are what Fitzgerald missed. There can be a happy ending, but not through our own efforts. Only when we realize how sinful and hopeless we are and turn our lives over to Christ can we have any hope of true happiness. But when we do, we find that His promise to give abundant life is more true than we could have ever dreamed.