My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Accepting that clichés are such because they’re true, I’ll refrain from paying The Great Gatsby the usual accolades, let my rating speak for itself and merely list a few observations about the book.
Gatsby is pretty much a standard part of the high school curriculum, but it’s an odd book to give high school students. As perfectly as Fitzgerald captures a man’s struggle to hold on possibilities that may just have slipped through his fingertips, this aspect of life and aging has no appeal for someone just beginning to romp in the passions of his or her own youth. At best, high school students can appreciate Fitzgerald’s themes in an abstract way, get examples of good writing style, and perhaps receive the seeds of something that will bloom then they themselves are borne back into the past and come upon the memory of reading The Great Gatsby.
Even if the sum of what students get out of the book is Fitzgerald’s prose, it’s still a fantastic example of good English style. The sentences are all well constructed and even when Nick Carraway goes off the rails in his descriptions we sense that it’s because of his unexpressed Romanticism and his hunger for a passionate life. It may not be great writing per se, but it is great characterization. Furthermore, Fitzgerald managed to write almost an entire novel out of what James Joyce might call epiphanies: little bits of dialogue or description that capture some startlingly raw nuance of human experience (The difference is that Fitzgerald weaves them seamlessly into a story that’s easy to follow while Joyce, being the avant-garde, presented his epiphanies in a chaotic hodgepodge that resembles day to day human experience but which is was much more difficult to follow).
But while the writing of The Great Gatsby is easy to follow and appreciate, it’s more difficult to care about the characters. As a fifteen year old it was agonizing to read Gatsby’s circuitous attempts to reconnect with Daisy. I didn’t appreciate the social constraints that he tried to respect and circumvent. The American archetypes with whom I’d been raised, the spitting cowboys and ball players, were rebellious, freedom loving types who escaped the pernicious structures of wealth and power, not appeasers and social climbers. Secondly, authors often create literary drama by having people fighting against such constraints with violence or direct, coercive action—think about Macbeth usurping the throne or Dmitri Karamazov physically striking his father—but most of what Gatsby does is show up, spend money entertaining people he may or may not like, and request that his neighbor ask his old flame to tea. Third, Gatsby may spend gobs of money and throw gigantic parties, but that’s much more appealing as a fantasy than as drama.
Put all these three together and you come to one conclusion: Fitzgerald anchors a superficial age by showing us Gatsby’s impossible dream—that he wants to be wealthy and all that means, but his only means to obtaining that wealth (bootlegging) precludes him from being a part of the club—but it requires a leap for the reader to find this sympathy, a leap which may be beyond most 15 year olds. Certainly at that age I found that Shakespeare and The Brothers Karamazov’s emotions were more immediately accessible and gripping.
And yet there is something terrible and honest about those social constraints, and the fact that Fitzgerald writes of them so baldly. America is ostensibly about social equality, and yet the social strata in Yale, East Egg, and so on are very much as manifest today as they were then. So I come back to the question that I started with: what is the idea of making high schoolers read Gatsby? It is possible that The Great Gatsby is a convenient collocation of both great writing and a work of art that can give insight into a bygone age and our own? It is possible that educators are telling students to value their youth, to realize that it will some day be gone and that the avenues which seem so plentiful and easy will one day be closed. It’s possible that the book challenges them by giving something so far beyond their experience that they must use their imaginations to sympathize with it. But really, the cynical side of me says, assigning The Great Gatsby is a message to any aspiring Nick Carraways (ie, shy, retiring writers) out there:
Man up, kid, and be ready for some kicks in the teeth. The good part?—once in a while someone will be able to describe those kicks in a way that gives you art, an obscure solace.