Thermodynamics and Gatsby (Of Course)

I am beginning as every English teacher I’ve ever had has told me not to—with a definition.

Entropy: the universe’s tendency towards disorder. Technically it’s a scientific term, but really, it applies to everything—bookcases, brains, and atoms alike. It’s easier to misspell a word than not (fun fact: there are 17,576 three-letter combinations, but according to Scrabble only 934 of those are actually English words). It’s easier to be messy than neat; it’s easier to forget something than to remember it. The universe as a whole tends towards disorder, and so does every individual.

In a way, entropy is kind of beautiful. I mean, it’s one of the very few consistent things in the universe, bringing chaos without discrimination. Things break, and we fix them, because that is what we do. Coldplay even wrote a song about it. Entropy is the ultimate enabler of romanticism, because for me romanticism has two parts. There’s the part where I believe that love is going to be perfect, and the part where I believe that in real life, it’s not. And putting those two pieces together means that I believe that the real-world shortcomings of love and idealism are beautiful because they emphasize our human ability to dream, be thwarted, and to then continue irrepressibly to dream once more. The real world is capable of being so beautiful because it doesn’t always work, and like negative space in a photo, it highlights the rarity of the things that do.

Maybe it’s sort of ironic that I want to believe that love is messy, because messy means difficult and painful and heart-breaking. And okay, maybe I also want to believe that someday I’ll be walking home in the rain and a really cute guy will offer to share his umbrella with me and we’ll exchange phone numbers outside my apartment and go on dates and drink coffee on the beach and be terribly, terribly happy together. But—and there is a “but”—it wouldn’t feel quite right. Entropy is an inescapable fact of life, and for love to be real it must also be subject to entropy. Messy happens sometimes, because we cannot possibly win against entropy, but messiness also proves that whatever is happening is real.

Gatsby wanted to believe that he could outwit entropy—that he could create a perfect life for himself. The green light symbolizes the perfect future that he envisioned for himself, and his belief that one day he could stretch out and grasp the light at the end of Daisy’s dock was his undoing. He thought that he could outrun entropy, and for a while he did; eventually, though, everything was smashed to pieces. I love Gatsby so much because he never really understood that entropy applied to everyone, even him. He didn’t get it. And that’s a little bit like everyone, because we all want to believe that even though entropy applies to everyone, it doesn’t have to apply to us because if we just try a little bit harder, we can beat it.

Perfection—permanent perfection—doesn’t exist, and that’s okay. It’s okay not to win.

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One thought on “Thermodynamics and Gatsby (Of Course)

  1. I love how you define romanticism: sometimes, people mistake it for perfection. But romanticism is the act of doing dumb things in the pursuit of perfection, and that makes it a paradox. Sweeeeeeet. But anyway, I had to read your two part definition of romanticism like three times just so I could nod vigorously to myself ’cause it was so cool.

    Also yes to the walking home in the rain and cute guy with umbrella thing.

    “He thought that he could outrun entropy, and for a while he did.” I LOVE GATSBY.

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