So Much More Than a High School Assignment
“What Foul Dust Floated in the Wake of His Dreams”
Without fail, everyone in high school is assigned The Great Gatsby, and almost without exception, everyone hates it, or at least, fails to appreciate it. My youngest son and I were discussing this subject months ago, and I agreed with him that this particular book is wasted on someone in high school. I mean, I realize the idealism of trying to introduce the young mind to F. Scott Fitzgerald. At one time, I, too, believed that this was a worthy exercise.
But as they say, time is a great teacher. Gatsby is not a character who can be appreciated by youth, certainly not by an egocentric youth whose only concern is the world that rotates around his axis. Now I know that there is a contingent out there who will argue vociferously that that in itself is the very reason that Gatsby should appeal to a 17-year-old boy: because Gatsby never grew up and the world seemingly revolves around him. But Gatsby never grew up only in the sense that his love for Daisy has never aged and the world that revolves around him is completely superficial. But everything else that happens in the novel is moving in real time, leaving Gatsby behind.
I was remembering that particular passage in The Great Gatsby when Nick remembers Gatsby looking across the water at the blinking green light: “I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out Daisy’s light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city” (chapter 9).
“The Colossal Vitality of His Illusion”
I don’t remember how many times I have read Gatsby, or what new things I find each time I read it. I loved the original movie with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. They were perfectly cast—Farrow with her breathless voice and wide eyes, and Redford with his impossible good looks in his ice cream suits. It was a case of the book being brought to the screen perfectly, with Sam Waterson as narrator Nick Carraway.
I suppose I am reminded of Gatsby for many reasons this cold afternoon: the time in which it was set—the 20’s immediately before the Great Depression, when things were still seemingly golden, but the veneer was starting to wear off. Fitzgerald’s narrative reveals characters who are so out of touch with their surroundings that they fail to notice the suffering of others. They fail to stop for a dying woman or to care that she was run down in the road like a dog. All that matters is Daisy’s suffering, which is superficial. Only Nick notices because only Nick has a real job, works for a living, and has any sense of connection with the rest of the world. In the book, only Nick is actually invited to Gatsby’s party. Everyone else just drops in as they please, which in itself is very telling. Nick is mired in reality. He is the touchstone.
As the book closes, Daisy and Tom move on, careless of what they have left in their wake: Tom’s mistress Myrtle Wilson is dead because of Daisy. Gatsby is dead, killed by George Wilson, spurred on by Tom. But the Buchanan’s take their little girl and their servants and their money and move on, as if life is a mess to be taken care of by the less fortunate: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (chapter 9):
“A New World Material Without Being Real”
In high school, a sophomore or junior will probably take something like this away from the book’s plot: Gatsby made a lot of money and had great parties but still didn’t get his woman, so he must have been pretty lame. (I know, I’m being very simplistic.) But will they see the Buchanans as AIG, Shearson Lehman, and all of the other people on Wall Street? Daisy and Tom are the people who continued to collect multi-million dollar golden parachutes and head off to Cabo as thousands and thousands of people watched their retirement funds decrease in worth by 60 and 70 percent. In essence, the Buchanans are part of the $700 billion bailout package; you have to wonder what their cut will be, because undoubtedly, people like Tom and Daisy will come out on top.
Can a 16-year-old have an appreciation for George Wilson as a metaphor for Addie Polk, who, at 90 years old, shot herself in the chest rather than be evicted from her house? After all, all George Wilson wanted was a better life for himself and his wife. After George lost Myrtle, he had nothing to live for, so he killed the person who he thought was responsible for ruining his life, and then he shot himself. Addie Polk is recovering in the hospital, and her mortgage will be forgiven, but at what price the human heart?
And then there are the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, always looming on the side of the road. He seems to be watching, but just how effective is he? He sees Myrtle’s death. He sees Daisy fleeing the scene. He sees everything that happens in the Valley of Ashes, that long stretch between the Eggs, where nothing prospers. But he does nothing. He is impotent because he is only a symbol. We know about impotent symbols. Oh, I’d say Dr. Eckleburg is about as effective as Congress and W. in their oversight of what was happening in the years leading up to this massive economic meltdown?
Which leaves Nick Carraway and Gatsby. I tend to think of the American people as Gatsby for the most part: looking for that green light, that signal that everything is essentially okay, never realizing that perhaps, the good days are in the past for now. Gatsby so wanted to believe that he could throw parties and buy new shirts and have great meals, and not have to answer to his past as Jay Gatz. But in the end, that’s who he was.
The only one standing was Nick Carraway, and he was left with the mess. Nick was always the smart one. He didn’t overindulge. He wasn’t taken in by Daisy’s cousin Jordan, even though she was beautiful and sensual. In the end, Nick was a changed man, not the innocent who entered the lives at the beginning of the story, yet he still grasps a tenuous kind of hope that things will get better:
“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—tomorrow 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” (chapter 9)
So who does Nick represent? The American people when all of this is over? The American People who voted for Barack Obama hoping for change, for better things to come. I suppose that we’ll just have to wait and see.
“The Incarnation was Complete”
When I began this entry, I really wasn’t certain where I was going. I just knew that The Great Gatsby was on my mind, and as I continued to write, the connections to real-time events just fell into place. It’s odd how that happens sometimes: two seemingly disparate subjects meeting and connecting. Maybe it has something to do with that String Theory that I’m trying to wrap my head around, but I have to admit that physics is just beyond the edge of my relative intelligence, so we aren’t going there today.
The Great Gatsby remains one of my favorite classic reads, as do most of Fitzgerald’s works. I also find the whole Zelda Fitzgerald story incredibly intriguing, but I’ll save that for another time. But Gatsby himself is such a tragic portrait of a man, and I am only half kidding when I say that high school students cannot appreciate this story. More, it’s a matter of how much they want to put into the book in order to get something out of it. But as with many stories, the reveal does increase significantly with time.
Let me close with this wonderful passage from Chapter 6, one that I missed on the first few readings:
“He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
Man, if only I had created the phrase “ghostly heart.” More later. Peace.