Monday, January 13, 2014
Jazz Age January: The Great Gatsby
NOTE: There are spoilers!!!
Jazz Age January, sponsored by Leah at Books Speak Volumes, left me with so many books and authors from which to choose. After starting a couple different books, I ended up back where I had originally started...The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I couldn't resist.
I know GG was big in 2013 with the movie remake, but I don't know that people pay attention to the story itself sometimes when they are so busy analyzing the making of the movie. So I figured I would bring my teacher perspective on this well known classic. At the heart of The Great Gatsby is the search for the American Dream. Gatsby is not the only character who has a dream, but it is his dream we watch unfold on center stage through the narration of the starstruck, naïve Nick Carraway.
Gatsby lives in the biggest mansion on Long Island's West Egg. He drives custom made cars and throws lavish parties that border on distasteful. Anyone and everyone wants their names connected to Gatsby, yet, besides the fact that money talks, no one really knows why that is or who he is. Despite being "richer than God," it becomes apparent that Gatsby is searching. He does not attend his own parties and no one seems to know from where he hails; however, among the sea of famous and wealthy, he is soon asking little ole Nick for the favor of meeting Nick's married cousin, Daisy Buchanan, at tea.
In the following sections of the story, the dream comes stumbling forth. Daisy Buchanan is Gatsby's dream and, like any dream, needs funding. He was a poor boy who met her as a soldier going off to war. They fell in love and promised to marry when he returned. However, Daisy grew up accustomed to anything money can buy. By her early 20s she herself says she has done everything and been everywhere. Life without money has bored her and yet she cannot fathom living without everything at her fingertips. Gatsby knows he cannot have her without such support...he needs a fortune fast. The best way to make a fast fortune in the Roaring 20s? Mob connections and bootlegging, of course. And just like that Gatsby sets out to "repeat the past." Nick describes Gatsby's desperate attempts to woo and marry Daisy as a way in which Gatsby "wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was."
Daisy is more than happy with a fling, but is not willing to go through the social ringer of divorce, not to mention the fact that she detests the West Egg, new money culture. She loves Gatsby for what he once represented. Through a series of unfortunate events, Gatsby ends up dead and his funeral empty of any mourners except Nick and Gatsby's father.
When I ask my students why Gatsby's dream fails, they usually tell me "because he died." On the surface this may seem sensible. So I ask them, "If I accomplish every dream I have, does that mean I'm immortal? No, I'm going to die someday regardless of accomplishing my dreams or not. So, why does Gatsby's dream fail?" This is the crux of The Great Gatsby...what is F. Scott Fitzgerald trying to tell us? Surely we know better than to say he doesn't want us to dream?!
The only thing left to do is look at the dream itself. Is Gatsby's dream logical/sensible? No. Does he allow for obstacles? No. Is his dream dependent on situations out of his control? Yes. In short, Gatsby's dream is full of impossibilities. As Nick tells him, "you can't repeat the past." You cannot force another person to follow your dream. Daisy is her own being with a life that moved on during the war years and after, when Gatsby didn't return. Nick puts his finger on it when he says, “There must have been moments...when Daisy tumbled short of his [Gatsby's] dreams -- not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It [the illusion/dream] had gone beyond her, beyond everything. 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.”
Gatsby was never chasing the woman he loved in all her faults and glory...he was chasing a figment of her that he had built up in his imagination. Reality crashes the pedestal upon which Daisy sits in his mind and Gatsby, faithful to his dream until the end, goes down with it. Fitzgerald is not against dreaming, but realizes the human tendency to wear rose colored glasses.
Does this seem farfetched or unlikely? Fitzgerald is in good company if you consider Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men along the same exact lines. Sometimes it's life that gets in the way and sometimes it's the dreamer him/herself. My students read all three and they accuse me of depressing them and crushing their dreams by the end of the unit. I tell them it is my pleasure to ensure their dreams are well thought out from the start. I mean what else are books good for, if not to learn from?
Have you read The Great Gatsby? If you've only seen the movie, you should read the book!