What Is Love?

Period 5 throws passionate effort into debating the sincerity of Gatsby's love for Daisy.

“He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy… One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other…”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“So, we’re going to have to prove that what looks like love from Gatsby isn’t actually love. And that’s going to take some reading.”

The serious declaration floats across the classroom to me, from where one half of a debate team prepares their argument for tomorrow’s debate. I’m briefly amused by the novel discovery, that preparing a literary argument “takes some reading.” This is our second debate regarding literature, and in my opinion the more interesting of the two.

Resolution: Jay Gatsby loves Daisy Buchanan.

For those unfamiliar with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this won’t make much sense. Suffice it to say that these two characters pursue relationship after a long separation, and all that results is jarring disappointment, a reflection on the American Dream of wealth and happiness that manages both cynicism and pity in the same breath. Today, laying aside all questions of the viability of the Dream or moral relativism–both topics that have occupied much of our time lately–we return to  a more basic question. Did he really love her at all?

I hear snatches of interesting discussion from both sides. The pros consider Gatsby’s sacrifices, the extent to which everything he becomes is with Daisy in mind. I hear them wonder aloud if it will be strong or weak evidence to point out the many times he says he loves her in the book, before concluding that it’s weak. Talk is cheap, but look at what he does! From the cons across the room, I hear “He’s just in love with the idea of her, the past her. He doesn’t even know her now” or, the most striking, “He’s just obsessed with her. He’s romantic, but romance doesn’t always mean love.”

This makes me smile, given the romantic excitability of our students in general, these kids who plan elaborate, proposal-strength “askings” to the Christmas Banquet and gamely buy one another candy grams and singing valentines every February 14th. They are the ones who arrived in my classroom on Valentine’s Day, found it full of flowers, and prodded me with teasing giggles until they learned where all the flowers came from. They like romance.

And yet they aren’t captured by it. In their discussions, I hear a healthy critical note, an eagerness to test these emotions for truth. I think of the proverbial admonition to “guard your hearts,” hear them guarding against the too-easy sweetness they read here. Oh, it’s romantic, they admit, that moment when Gatsby stretches out his arms to the faintly glowing light across the water, lit by the woman of his dreams. It’s lovely, but we’ll settle for nothing less than truth.

This impresses me. When I was sixteen, I read The Great Gatsby with teenaged giddiness, rather guiltily aware that I’d been tricked into siding with an adulterous relationship. I thought the story was tragic, but tragic like Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed, it’s-not-anyone’s-fault kind of tragedy. It took me until adulthood to see the fatal flaws, the hamartia that draws all the characters to their fated ends. I’m impressed to see, already, the serious readiness of my students to squint past the shows of love and look for the heart of it, the substance that is, in the end, what matters.

In their confidence and maturity, they reflect the great security of growing up knowing God, the source of love, and testing all feeling against His great standard. We know sacrificial love, the love of a Creator towards his masterpieces, the saving love of Christ.

Then does Gatsby love Daisy? Probably not.

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One thought on “What Is Love?

  1. Kristi-

    I loved your thoughts on Gatsby. I never really liked the book when I read it as a younger person. I remember seeing the Robert Redford movie version years ago and not liking the story much better. I recently saw the new version with Leonardo DiCaprio and didn’t like that either. I know it’s a classic, and there is a lot of allegory in it, but the central story is the “love” story between Gatsby and Daisy, and that is distasteful. Not love at all. You came to the right conclusion.

    By the way, I went to SPU with your parents, and you might know my daughter, Megan. I’ll be praying for you as you live and work in Germany.

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