Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Great Gatsby: Sin, Secrets and the Valley of Ashes


“God sees everything.”

So George Wilson cries in The Great Gatsby—both in the book and the movie. But here, God’s unblinking gaze is embodied, with a somewhat ironic tone, in the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, three-foot-tall spectacled orbs set eerily in an old billboard that presides over the Valley of Ashes.

The Great Gatsby is a fantastic book and just an OK movie. It’s not Moulin Rouge (Director Baz Luhrmann’s best film to date) and while it stays pretty faithful to the book, it strips away a lot of the nuance and ambiguity and irony that makes F. Scott Fitzgerald classic so, well, great.

But the Luhrmann film does do a few things really well.

First, it really brings to life what I’d imagine to be the frenetic pace and surging decadence of the 1920s: Today, if you’d see a bunch of women in flapper outfits sipping champagne and dancing to jazz, the scene would look pretty quaint—not outrageously daring as it probably seemed at the time. Infusing these scenes with some well-placed rap music gives these scenes a harder edge.

Second, it really emphasizes the story’s spiritual themes. Because even though The Great Gatsby takes place at a time when many folks—including its main characters—were jettisoning Victorian morality with a hearty Cheerio, good fellow, we see that we still are beholden (at least in the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg) to an eternal, unshakeable standard of right and wrong. No matter how times change, no matter how rich you may be, you still will be held, in the very end, responsible for your actions.

It’s only in the Valley of Ashes that we truly see this. It’s not a pretty place, as Fitzgerald makes clear:

This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. … The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.

But it is a “real” place—something that perhaps can’t be said for the manicured, moneyed perfection of East and (to a lesser extent) West Egg. It’s spawned by the residue of New York City itself. And one must pass through the Valley—under the watchful eyes of Dr. Eckleburg—to leave the Eggs and get to the city.

That’s pretty interesting because, for the most part, New York is where everything really exciting happens. That’s where Nick attends his first party with Tom and his mistress. It’s where he goes to the speakeasy with Nick and meets Meyer Wolfsheim. It’s where Tom and Gatsby have their climactic showdown over Daisy: Indeed, Fitzgerald painfully shoved them out of their digs in East Egg and into New York because that showdown seemed more appropriate there.

Why? I think it’s because New York is, in Gatsby, synonymous with energy and Freudian Id and sin. East Egg feels, in Gatsby’s world, a little like a cynic’s view of church: Neat and pretty and a bit false, brushing over sin and desire and temptation with a high gloss. The sin of the city rarely makes inroads into East Egg, and then only rarely, by phone (when Tom’s mistress Myrtle calls the house, for instance). Sure, Gatsby’s parties in West Egg are lively and hedonistic—a beachhead for the city’s glamour and sin. But that serves to emphasize just how much Gatsby is a man of two worlds—at home in New York, but trying desperately to fit into Daisy’s prim existence in the ‘burbs. Gatsby takes on a gleam of celebrity in part because, in some ways, he doesn’t belong in the Eggs. He stands out.

But even Gatsby’s parties don’t have that queasy, drunken energy that New York seems to exude. The Seven Deadly Sins—all of them—flourish here in both the book and the movie. Seriously: You can make a checklist and tick ‘em off.

I think the Eggs and the City serve as a macrocosm of the lives many of us live. At church, at work, even with our families sometimes, we try to put on a pleasing, proper face. And yet so many of us, to varying degrees, find temptation and sin roiling underneath the veneer, and we look for every opportunity to cast aside our pretty pretentions and embrace our baser desires.

But (back to Gatsby) to get from one to the other, we must pass through the Valley of Ashes—a place just filthy with not just ash, but biblical allusions. We’re reminded of the Pslamist’s Valley of the Shadow of Death. We may recall Jeremiah 31:40: “The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown …” It’s interesting to note that the word Gehenna, sometimes used synonymously with hell in the Bible, was also a valley outside Jerusalem where people burned trash—and was filled with ashes, naturally. Check out this verse from Matthew:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Matt. 10:28)

Those who’ve read the book or seen the movie know that a pretty awful thing happens in the Valley of Ashes—Gatsby’s own Gehenna. Moreover, everyone who passes from the respectable Eggs to the sordid, sinful City must pass through the valley, to be seen by the blue eyes of God/Dr. Eckleburg. And while temporal justice falls unevenly in The Great Gatsby, both the book and the movie suggest that eternal judgment is still to come.  

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