Set in the early 1920s in New York City and Long Island, the novel is about the transformation of North Dakota farm boy James Gatz into Jay Gatsby––a nobody seeking to become a somebody, to win the heart of socialite Daisy Buchanan, a girl whose voice “full of money” seduced him completely. Gatsby achieves enormous wealth in the belief that he can change the past and win Daisy’s love.
The beauty of the book’s language, the enduring personality types it explores, and its ability to make readers feel hopeful despite all evidence to the contrary still speak to the dreamers among us.
Placing It in ContextGatsby is first on the reading list for my Survey of American Literature class. We begin with historical context. On the whiteboard I write:
- A mentally impaired U.S. president is being propped up by a secret White House insider.
- A U.S. president seeks a decrease in income taxes and an increase in tariffs and is plagued by revelations of his associates’ misconduct.
- A cultural moment in which the moral debate about the consequences of addiction leads to changes in federal drug legislation.
- The demand for women’s rights leads to political upheaval and social change.
They are surprised to learn these details describe the 1920s social and political landscape: President Woodrow Wilson’s stroke and final 18 months in office, President Warren G. Harding’s policies and the Teapot Dome scandal, alcohol prohibition, and women’s suffrage. As students confront history’s repetition of itself, the meaning of the novel’s last line becomes clear: “So we beat on boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The Power of NamingBy the time the class reviews chapter four, our discussion heads in another direction. “What do the names of Gatsby’s guests tell you about his parties?” I ask. Out of all the Leeches, Swetts, Dancies, Whitebaits, Flinks, Hammerheads, Ferrets, Belchers, and Smirkes, not one does my students find memorable. “Why not?”
“We don’t pay attention to last names anymore,” one student said.
“All the names in my phone are first names only. The only name that matters is your username or handle.”
A girl from Nigeria wondered, “Did Africans even have surnames before colonialism?”
A Chinese student observed, “We don’t have many different surnames in China, Mrs. Holmes. Most people’s last names are very common.”
We look at a digital version of a 1920s New York social register, a book that records “the full names and addresses of members of prominent families grouped together, the clubs to which they belong, and the marriages and deaths” of each person. Out of 30 students, only four had last names that matched those on the register. I ask what conclusions we can draw.
“Gatsby never had a chance to be with Daisy,” one student said. “His name was totally made up.”
“Like my first name is,” an African American girl said.
“Or if your father is an anonymous sperm donor, and you don’t even know your last name,” another student added.
“But wasn’t his very name what brought Gatsby into existence?” I ask. “Isn’t there power in naming? Can you remember someone who doesn’t have a name?”
When Virtual Replaces VirtueWe finish our discussion with novelist Jesmyn Ward’s New York Times essay “Jay Gatsby: A Dreamer Doomed to Be Excluded.” Students see her point that Gatsby never had a chance, that the social class he was seeking to join “was predicated on exclusion.” But they don’t care. Their fascination with privilege still trumps the cultural mandate to condemn it.
This generation of high school students, a risk-averse group, many of whom do not even have driver’s licenses, are less fascinated by Fitzgerald’s automobile trope, which was connected to/intertwined with socioeconomic status; for teenagers, smartphones have replaced them as the primary identifier of that status. They do, however, relate to Gatsby’s obsession with wealth and social status. The idea of the dream is irresistible, and the power of belief is as seductive today as it has always been in America. We don’t want the truth; we prefer virtual reality. So, the class discusses what happens to a nation when virtual replaces virtue.
“Well,” said one student, “a virtuous existence is hard, and life in a virtual reality is easier.”
“Does that mean your generation is less tolerant of struggle?” I ask. “In so many ways Gatsby is a ‘false’ person, but he did accomplish some very real things. How many of you could create for yourself what he created for Daisy?”
“Some of us feel that we are creating something real in our virtual lives, Mrs. Holmes,” another student responded. “Ordinary life is no longer exciting enough, just as it wasn’t for Gatsby. That is what we have in common with James Gatz.”
To end our discussion of Gatsby, the students write about self-transformation as a continuing theme in American life. One student quoted the rapper Drake, “I want the money, money and the cars, cars and the clothes,” but then went on to observe that economic transformation is only a stepping-stone to a more important social transcendence. Another discussed how science has proven that evolution is constant; change is programmed into all human nature. An exchange student from China explained how the uncertainty and danger of transformation is part of its appeal, while a student in the speech and debate club commented that the First Amendment is what makes social transformation possible.
Gatsby’s EchoThroughout the remainder of the school year, Gatsby surfaces in our study of other literature. For The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, we discuss Hester Prynne’s hopes and fears for her daughter Pearl, and students think of Daisy’s wish for her daughter to be a “beautiful fool.” Parental expectation is still a great force in modern culture as the class sees in Sandra Cisneros’ “Only Daughter” and Lewis Sawaquat’s “For My Indian Daughter.” We also consider how societies determine value. For instance, which is more precious: the $350,000 pearl necklace Tom Buchanan gives Daisy or Pearl’s future?
We compare Tom and Daisy’s carelessness, their smashing up of things, to the carefulness of Huck Finn and of the cook, captain, correspondent, and oiler in Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire leads us to ponder who is a more sympathetic character: the play’s Blanche DuBois or Daisy. Since students tend to dislike qualities in both women—Daisy’s hypocrisy and ingratitude, Blanche’s snobbery and promiscuity—it’s not an easy question. We also return to the paradox of why we like Gatsby, a fraud, a criminal, and a romantic.
This past spring, I revisited the question of Gatsby’s relevance. A student said it helped him understand that “being a good person might not be as black and white as it is made out to be.” Isn’t grappling with this kind of complexity the goal of all great literature?