Boats Against the Current

GreatGatsbyThumbby Deana Chadwell    11/17/13
Sometimes – awful times – our stupidity, our misbehavior, our misjudgment goes too far and any available second chance loses patience and stomps off down the road, leaving us stranded in the ditch of our own error. Judas Iscariot ended up in such a hole, realizing too late that he had betrayed the Son of God; or Othello who smothered his beautiful, young wife and discovered her innocence just minutes later; or Charles Dickens’ Pip, who recognized his love for Biddy only after she had married Joe. Sometimes we sleep too long – both personally and nationally.[pullquote]Fitzgerald understood the power of the American Dream and he understood, because he lived the decadence himself, what damage the prosperity would do to us and how difficult it would be to regain our innocence.[/pullquote]

In 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, one of THE American novels. Gatsby, though a lush and lovely story, is about that horrible moment when we awake and realize it’s all over. Jay Gatsby, the handsome hero, represents us all – the American Dreamers, filled with unbridled optimism as he gazed longingly at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. And Daisy, a “rare and meretricious beauty” whose voice “sounded like money” represents that most exciting of purely human hopes, the American Dream – the anything’s-possible confidence that came with the confluence of a new continent and a new paradigm. All the closed doors were opened and Gatsby could almost touch her just across the bay, Gatsby, who was single-minded, amoral, and certain his powers of imagination were great enough to turn back the calendar. In 1925 Fitzgerald could see the flaws in the Dream. Now, 88 years later, those flaws are killing us. Consider the last page of the book:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning —— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Fitzgerald understood the power of the American Dream and he understood, because he lived the decadence himself, what damage the prosperity would do to us and how difficult it would be to regain our innocence. Perhaps he was right; like Gatsby we have an almost impossible task. Gatsby wanted Daisy, the American Dream, but she was married to terrible wealth – to Tom Buchannan, a faithless, “brute of a man” who spent his life “playing polo and being rich….”

The Dream has become like that – a desire, not for success and fulfillment, but for superiority, for always-existing or easily acquired wealth, wealth that’s worth cruelty and the careless, narcissistic use of others. It didn’t start that way, but here we are, almost permanently in the ditch.

Part of the progressive movement, I believe, is a wild, left-veering overcorrection from the drunk driving of the Dream, an understandable hatred for the Tom Buchannans of this country, but those yanking the steering wheel leftward are just as ruthless, as deceptive, as arrogant as Tom. That has all who are paying attention grabbing at the wheel to right it.

Can we get back on course? I don’t know. Gatsby had to erase five years of Daisy’s marriage – that didn’t go so well. We have an even bigger task: we have to undo two generations of failing education and thriving propaganda; we have to resuscitate our constitution, and disentangle government from our private and our business lives and resurrect our economy; we have to straighten out our foreign affairs and get control of the Islamists around us; and we must stop flirting with Myrtle Wilson.[pullquote]We must retrace our moral steps. We cannot continue assuming that we can lie, steal, cheat, and indulge every pleasure center our brain cells have concocted and still keep this car on the road. [/pullquote]

We must retrace our moral steps. We cannot continue assuming that we can lie, steal, cheat, and indulge every pleasure center our brain cells have concocted and still keep this car on the road. We cannot continue to ignore the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg who stared down off his tattered billboard onto the sins and corruption of the Jazz Age; “the eyes of God” George Wilson called them. The eyes of God are watching no matter how many lawsuits the atheists file, and pretending otherwise isn’t going help. Gatsby lived a lie – as Owl Eyes (another God-figure) discovered in Gatsby’s priceless library; the books were still uncut, and they didn’t get him Daisy.

It won’t work for us either. We can’t live a lie (as our dear leader is beginning to grasp) – we can’t correct the steering with our eyes closed. Just down the road, beyond that bend to the right, is a new American Dream – an America with a thriving economy, an America that has learned its lesson and is well aware of the steep cliff on the left side of the road. The new America out there is swimming in energy and innovation, able to educate and lead its children to be everything they can be. Up ahead could be an America that straightens out its course and sees clearly the eyes of God watching over us and showing us the way – science is already in the process of undoing the damage its Darwinian errors have cost us. It could happen.

Tomorrow, will we “run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning – ”

Or are we “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?”
Deana Chadwell blogs at • (1483 views)

Deana Chadwell

About Deana Chadwell

I have spent my life teaching young people how to read and write and appreciate the wonder of words. I have worked with high school students and currently teach writing at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. I have spent more than forty years studying the Bible, theology, and apologetics and that finds its way into my writing whether I'm blogging about my experiences or my opinions. I have two and a half moldering novels, stacks of essays, hundreds of poems, some which have won state and national prizes. All that writing -- and more keeps popping up -- needs a home with a big plate glass window; it needs air; it needs a conversation. I am also an artist who works with cloth, yarn, beads, gourds, polymer clay, paint, and photography. And I make soap.
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13 Responses to Boats Against the Current

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Your essay certainly makes me want to read the book. 🙂


    Actually, Deana, as much as I love The Great Gatsby, (and yes, you should give it a read, Brad), I always thought Fitzgerald’s criticism of America was way off base. You remember that Gatsby made his money bootlegging and through stolen bonds (we infer from a phone call Nick Carraway receives) – apparently Fitzgerald did not understand the moral difference between getting rich that way and making money as men like Henry Ford and George Westinghouse had done. This is the same mistake our modern Left – “all property is theft” “you didn’t build that” – still makes routinely.

    Fitzgerald definitely had socialist leanings, but at least he was more honest about his motives than today’s Progressives: “the smoldering envy of the peasant” I believe he called it. He resented the fact that the rich man could get the girl the poor man couldn’t (this actually happened to Fitzgerald, of course, marking him for life). But rich men have more options in life than poor ones – that’s why people want to be rich. Progressives hate the rich for having more than they do; in short, they envy them.

    Now the Tom Buchanans of this world are a destructive lot, but it should be kept in mind that they’re destructive because of their moral failings, not because they’re rich. We should also remember that Buchanan was the scion of a wealthy family and not a self-made man (Carraway tells us that the way he spent money during their college days was something of a scandal). Progressives may hate Tom Buchanan, but if so they hate him for his wealth and not his moral lapses, and however much they hate the Tom Buchanans of this world, they hate the Sam Waltons more, for the latter serve as a dangerous reminder that wealth must be created – a notion the Progressive dare not admit. Allow it to be more than a mere accident of birth that controls the distribution of wealth in a free society, and all their redistributionist schemes are revealed for the mean attempt to cut down the talented, the brilliant, and the hard-working that they are. One of Ayn Rand’s more dead-on observations was that collectivists “hate the good for being the good”, and that’s what we’re dealing with here.

    The real American Dream was always about the possibilities of life under the kind of freedom – that is, freedom from government – that had never existed anywhere else in human history. It was never only about getting rich, although the fact that the poor can rise up to the heights of wealth is certain a part of the dream. I think it’s a great pity Fitzgerald didn’t understand that, although he certainly understood what it was to have a great, Romantic dream, and in the best of his work he portrays the horrifying disillusionment that follows when the dream proves unattainable with a skill no other writer of his generation could match – and that perhaps no one has ever quite matched before or since.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I’m trolling around right now for my next book, Nik. I’m not sure that I’m in the mood for a romantic novel, but I’ll keep this one in mind.

      • faba calculo says:

        Never really thought of the GG as a romantic. Yes, it has that element, but it’s far more a tragedy, at least insofar as I remember the book, which it’s been a while since I read.

        Still, many people call it the greatest novel in the English language (though Moby Dick usually gets that nod), so it’s a shame to not have read it.

  3. Nahalkides — I thoroughly agree with your assessment of Fitzgerald’s perspective, especially given the fact that Daisy = Zelda, the woman he had to get rich to win. There’s an autobiographical facet to the story that can’t be ignored. But Gatsby is one of the few books in this world that has taken on a life of its own.

    I usually take great issue with the deconstructionist view that discounts both author and the milieu in which he was writing, but Gatsby — the character — lives and breathes and far outshines anything Fitzgerald conjured up out his own messed up existence. Gatsby even rises above all his shady dealings and questionable past — his single-minded devotion surpasses the tawdry fact that that devotion is to someone else’s wife.

    Brad — you won’t rue an evening or two spent listening to Nick Carraway narrate this wonderful story. Don’t see the recent movie — bad casting. The old movie is, however, about as close to the novel as a movie can get. For what that’s worth. dc

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Thanks, Deana. I may be running out of excuses not to read this. I found it available online at 🙂

    • Kung Fu Zu says:

      OK, it’s been a couple of decades or so, since I read the book.

      But my recollection of the meaning I took from the book was that Gatsby was so embarrassed by his roots and past actions that he created a new life to erase his past and convince others, that he was something other than what he was. And he began to believe his own lie. Part of this lie was his pursuit of an ideal (Daisy) which was false.

      In the end, he was undone by the belief in his own lie and pursuit of a false ideal. Dust.

      • Yes, to a certain extent, but the purpose of a really great book always goes way beyond the individual characters — those characters become, each in his or her own way, representatives of something important about human nature in its most universal sense. I always used to counsel my students to avoid thinking about the characters as if they were real people we were just gossiping about, but were instead, and in reality, figments of the writer’s imagination, each carrying his own message, asking his own universal question. Oh dear, I’ve slipped into lecture mode. Sorry about that.

        • Kung Fu Zu says:

          “but the purpose of a really great book always goes way beyond the individual characters — those characters become, each in his or her own way, representatives of something important about human nature in its most universal sense”

          True enough, but the protagonist is generally the center around which everything revolves. For example, as I recall it, Gatsby, the shifty character who had made his fortune by dishonest means, was the most honorable and upright character in the book. Was he simply fooled by the conventions of a society which was corrupt? I think this probably does touch the way Fitzgerald saw much of humanity.

          Anyway, I downloaded “The Side of Paradise” recently and will see what I think of that book.


            This Side of Paradise was interesting in its way, and for a time enjoyed a vogue as the “youth” novel of its day, before being displaced by more modern examples such as The Catcher in the Rye. Prepare to be amazed at the gulf between it and Gatsby – it’s amazing how far Fitzgerald had come in the 5 years separating the two.

  4. Bruce Price says:

    Great Gatsby is a remarkable phenomenon. It might always be on the Top 10 list. Fitzgerald submerges the plot in a dense jungle of prose. I thought the recent movie version captured this lushness. It sounds crazy but you can read this book and not be sure what exactly has happened.
    Fitzgerald merges a story about the American Dream with a romantic quest, and makes them seem all the same thing. It’s also interesting that Gatsby the character contains a whole range of traits and tendencies. In other words, Fitzgerald set it up so you could like Gatsby or dislike him and think you had good reasons for doing so. And that split carries over into people’s reactions to the movie versions.

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