Gatsby Madness and The Millennials: Another Lost Generation?

I was sure I would hate it. Almost one hundred percent sure. But I went and saw “The Great Gatsby” anyhow. Mostly to figure out what all the fuss was about. Or, more specifically, to figure out what all the fuss among twenty-somethings was about.

Over the past few weeks, my “under-30” friends have been talking incessantly about the film. They’ve thrown grand 1920’s themed parties and dressed up like flappers before heading out to see the movie. Afterwards, they’ve raved about it.

Considering most of my friends over 30 couldn’t stand the film, that struck me as odd. Why the divide? Was this an instance of taste improving with age or was there something about this particular film that embodied the experience of Millennials, something that Generation X-ers and Baby Boomers missed?

After seeing the film, my answer is, “A little of both.”

A Review In Brief

First things first. The critics who panned the film weren’t entirely wrong. A masterpiece “The Great Gatsby” is not.

For starters, the narrative device used to frame the story—Nick Carraway writing a book about Gatsby from a mental home—was pedantic, heavy-handed, and way beyond Toby McGuire’s emotional range. “Exposition for idiots” was how I described it afterwards. And even that might not be giving enough credit to the idiots, whom I’m pretty sure didn’t need to be explicitly told that the 1920s were a time when life was fast and loose, given that the next two hours were devoted to demonstrating that fact.

Then, there was the acting. Imagine a Gatsby, Nick, and Daisy as rendered by P.G. Wodehouse and a decent college theatre department. Now say a prayer for poor F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose book deserved a much better cast than it got.

All that being said, I didn’t hate the movie. I actually enjoyed it. It was beautiful to watch, overwhelmingly faithful to the book, and the soundtrack, which fused 1920s Jazz with the stylings of Jay-Z, totally worked. Seriously. I can’t believe I’m saying that either. But it did.

In fact, it did more than work. Jay-Z’s music bridged a century, making audible the connections between the world of 1922 and the world of 2013, connections that so many twenty-somethings, wittingly or unwittingly, seem to see.

A Tale of Two Worlds

The film, like the book, shows a world powered by greed, electrified by sex, and running like hell from grief. That world doesn’t want to remember the trenches of Verdun or the shores of Gallipoli. It doesn’t want to ask why millions of young men had to die or what good came from their deaths. By 1922, all searches for meaning in the madness of World War I had come back empty. So people stopped searching. Instead they started grasping—at pleasure, at excitement, at anything that promised to distract them from the wounds they bore within them.

“The Great Gatsby” makes that world incarnate. It also makes incarnate an age of unprecedented wealth, of clothes and cars and cheap electricity. In 1922, almost everything could be had for a price. The age of the consumer had begun, and along with it, the growing belief among the middle class that luxury could be had without work.

At the center of that world, embodying it all, stands Gatsby, a romantic, a dreamer, a man who thinks himself “the son of God” and who believes his destiny is to climb as high as the stars, always moving upwards, capable of anything, even repeating the past.

How could that not speak to twenty-somethings?

Today’s under-30 crowd has grown up in an age of endless war—wars in deserts abroad and in the culture at home. Those wars have left many of them wounded, in soul if not body. Those same wars also have left Millennials cynical about politics and cynical about love. Irony is the spirit of the age.

With all those wounds and all that cynicism, the Millennials know, far too young, what it is to run from grief, drink away confusion, and settle for sex when real love can’t be found.  They’ve been to the parties and danced the dances. Or they’ve watched their friends dance them. They also know, in a way T.S. Eliot couldn’t have fathomed, what it means to be “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

Likewise, today’s twenty-somethings know excess. Forget the Lost Generation. No generation before the Millennials has had as much or had it so quickly. They have never known a world without Amazon One-Click or iTunes. They have lived the whole of their existence as consumers, swimming in a sea of stuff.

Last but not least, like Gatsby, Millennials want to shine. In fact, as a generation, they believe they were made to shine. No demographic in the world scores as high on the narcissism index (yes, that’s a real thing) as Millennials. What Gatsby came by naturally has been instilled in them through the instant fame promised by Reality TV, and two decades of “I am special” curricula in schools.

In sum, Gatsby’s world is our world…albeit with fewer smart phones and better clothes.

Accordingly, whether they’re wounded or witnesses to wounds, consumers or critics of consumerism, dreamers who believe in love or skeptics grown cynical from disappointed love, there’s something in “The Great Gatsby” to which just about every Millennial can relate. It’s the story of their generation, almost as much as it is the story of their great-great grandparents’ generation, albeit in a more elegant package (which itself is another reason for its appeal—most Millennials only regular encounter with elegance being a MacBook Pro).

The Witness of Gatsby

The connections between the two ages is a connection easily made. No question about that. There is a question, however, about what lesson Millennials are drawing from the movie.

Do they walk away believing as the narrator does, that Gatsby was a tragic hero, a true romantic, the most hopeful man in the world? Do they see greatness in his aspirations to shoot through life like a star ablaze? Do they aim to follow his path?

Or do they see the truth of it all?

The truth is that Gatsby wasn’t hopeful: He was delusional. He manufactured a life, and he manufactured a love, fabricating an identity for himself just as he fabricated an ideal woman from his memories of a real woman. He created a false picture of their love in his mind, then refused to see the reality before his eyes—the reality of her littleness and betrayal—because it wasn’t what he wanted to see.

Everything Gatsby’s age promised, everything Gatsby sought, disappointed in the end. Wealth, Power. Pleasure. Romance. All that burning and blazing came to nothing, a nothing encapsulated by the bullet which pierced Gatsby’s chest.

The reason for that end, as my friend Chris said to me afterwards, is this: “Pretentions to divinity always end in death.”

You see, we are called to greatness, each and every one of us. We are called to be sons and daughters of God. That instinct—in Gatsby, in Millennials, in anyone—isn’t wrong. But power, wealth, and fame don’t make a person great. Love does that—love for God and love for one another. Likewise, we’re not born sons and daughters of God. We’re made that way by baptism. It’s a gift, not a given.

If we assume the gift without realizing how gracious it is, and then pursue greatness by trying to blaze through the sky on an ever-upward trajectory, we will crash and burn. There will be no life. There will be only death.

If it’s life we want, then it’s love we need to pursue—not the type of self-seeking, self-satisfied love the world glorifies, not the type of love which looks to another human person for meaning and fulfillment—but love which denies itself for the sake of the other and which knows true fulfillment and meaning can be found in only one Person, Jesus Christ.

The way to that love is narrow, not wide. It’s easy to blaze through the sky. It’s difficult to lay oneself low, to be little and humble and meek, to seek to serve rather than be served, to affirm rather than be affirmed. There’s scant glamor in that way, but in the end, it’s the only way worth taking.

Gatsby never saw that. He was a fool. Fitzgerald saw some of it. He at least knew Gatsby was a fool. He knew the whole spirit of his age, a spirit in which he nevertheless fully imbibed, had it all wrong. But he didn’t know how to get it right.

We do. The Church has handed it to us on a platter. We just have to live it. And we have to help others live it too. For parents, for siblings and friends, as well as for those working in youth and young adult ministry, the popularity among Millennials of “The Great Gatsby”—the longing of so many young people for greatness and love, beauty and healing, poetry and transcendence—stands as a lesson in who the Millenial generation is, what they want, and what they need.

It’s also a reminder that the Millennial Generation hasn’t become another Lost Generation just yet.

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Categories:Culture Youth

13 thoughts on “Gatsby Madness and The Millennials: Another Lost Generation?

  1. Emily says:

    Thank you, Emily, for this masterful critique of The Great Gatsby and the Millennial culture. As a member of the Millennials, I can attest to the depth and accuracy of your piece. I find that many of my peers are truly longing for lasting satisfaction, for peace, for happiness, for Him. It is then incumbent upon the Faithful of my generation to live out the Faith truthfully and with great joy! In living out the Faith, we act as instruments for Holy Spirit to enlighten the spiritually sleeping of my generation. As you noted, we are all called to greatness, and as we, the Faithful, live out our daily lives as examples of Christ’s love, we will help others to see the lasting peace, love, and joy only He can offer. As I reflect on my generation, I remember The Confessions. “My heart is restless until I rest in Thee.”

  2. SMK says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Emily. As a high school Religion teacher, I see it every day in my students. They are going crazy for this movie (and love the roaring 20′s as a time period). I used this article as a jumping off point of a very fruitful class discussion today.

    1. So glad to hear it was helpful in class. Thanks for letting me know!

  3. Veronica says:

    I just don’t understand the point of this article at all. My son is a millennial and he is one of the brightest and well rounded individuals that I know. I thank god for him everyday.

    1. Quanah says:

      Thank God, indeed, for your son. He is the exception, not the norm. Hence, the point of the article.

    2. Morgan says:

      Veronica, I don’t think Emily meant that every single Millennial 20-something has this attitude or world-view, it’s simply an over-reaching attitude of that generation. I myself am also a Millennial and take no offense to Emily’s writing. While I am well rounded, sensitive, empathetic, and non-narcissistic, I can surely see the characteristics which Emily writes about in my peers.
      I would bet that if you asked your son if he knows people his age who resemble the attitude Emily portrays, he would give you a resounding “yes”. Because he isn’t one of those people doesn’t mean that they don’t exist…you obviously raised him right if he didn’t turn out like that! :)

  4. Fred says:

    I tend to think that the 20 something’s love this book and movie, because of being overhyped by people like John Green of the Nerd Fighters on Youtube. He has a huge following there and he loves this book and raves about it and whatever he says typically his followers end up following. They couldn’t wait for this movie to come out.

  5. Teep Schlachter says:

    Awesome commentary, Emily. The tone you end with is just the right one. I see the blindness to the culture of death from teenagers and twenty somethings every day, but I also see what you do . . . that there really is a desire for that true greatness, if they only knew what it was or how to get it. The theological and natural virtues are hard sells in the instant gratification of the culture of death, but there are, thankfully, plenty of young men and women who will eat it up if only we can give them more!!!!!

  6. Chris says:

    This is an excellently written commentary on our times, this generation, and a movie.

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