A couple of months ago, one of my friend texted me. She’s a high school English teacher in Texas, and though she is every bit as qualified as (if not more qualified than) I am when it comes to the pedagogy of teaching English and literature, she often comes to me when she needs help solving a problem with literature or connecting with her students. I appreciate that she values my opinion, and I’ve always valued the conversations we have about books and teaching and life in general.
The theme of this conversation was her displeasure with teaching The Great Gatsby. I personally have never taught Gatsby; I’ve only taught English at the middle school level, but I can imagine what drudgery it could be from year to year. The students she teaches are not very different from the students I have been teaching for the past ten years. The nouveau riche lifestyle of the New York elite described by F. Scott Fitzgerald is not something many of my students could even begin to connect with without a lot of scaffolding. It would take a lot of front loading and relevantizing (I’m positive this is a word) in a way that many students would lose interest before they even cracked the cover.
And then working through the language, explaining the ideaology of the spoiled elite, and making sure you harp over the symbolism of that green light so that when those students are 36 years old and remember nothing else about the book, they remember the green light (trust me, it happens. It’s a tale as old as time. Most of the people who where in my AP English class only remember the green light and that there was a character named Daisy. I’ve now exhausted the list of things remembered from Gatsby.) And while I’m confident my friend teaches this book very well and addresses the important themes, and works very hard to make this book something more than just some fleeting book in the lives of her students that only crops up as a recovered memory when they think of the color green, she felt it was time for a change.
Her biggest problem with The Great Gatsby is just how limited an experience it represents. And it was this conversation that inspired this series of blog posts to replace our current required reading lists. Currently, required reading lists do represent a very narrow range of perspectives.
Specifically, a large proportion of traditionally assigned required reading is written by old, dead, white guys. Today’s students are having trouble connecting with outdated, antiquated texts, and it’s not the fault of the teachers or the students. I know that often, people not associated with education are quick to blame the broken school system (it is broken, but not for the reasons they list) and under-qualified teachers for students struggling with academic concepts. But that’s simply not the case.
So what has caused the disconnect between today’s students and The Great Gatsby? To answer that, we must first contextualize The Great Gatsby, break down the major themes the book, and address some of the overarching reasons why Gatsby is still used in classrooms across America today.
History of The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby, often called The Great American Novel, was first published in 1925 and was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Often considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Fitzgerald did not achieve widespread commercial or critical success—as we know it today—until after his death. He did achieve fame with his novel This Side of Paradise, which addressed themes of self-discovery, disillusionment, egotism, and the emptiness of money—themes he would pursue in much of his writing, as they seemed topical and appropriate to him and his Jazz Age contemporaries.
According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, This Side of Paradise, with its look into the moral battles of the young, brought Fitzgerald prestige, as well as wealth, and eventually led to their becoming essentially “the prince and princes of their generation.” This type of social obligation heavily impacted his future writing, as evidenced in The Beautiful and the Damned, which tells the story of a young, beautiful couple who waste away the best years of their lives waiting for an inheritance that comes far too late for them to enjoy it in the way they had planned.
To gat away from the social pressures of being flapper royalty, the Fitzgeralds moved their family to France where they lived as expatriates with a group of other likeminded Americans. It was in France that Fitzgerald completed The Great Gatsby. Compared to This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned, Gatsby was a commercial failure. According to Fitzgerald’s records, he only earned around $2,000 from the sales of the book. He attributed the failure to two large issues. The first, he held, was the critics of his time period did not understand his intended message. The second was that women were the target audience for novels at the time, and he said of his own work that there were no admirable female characters in The Great Gatsby.
A close inspection at Fitzgerald’s life reveals many similarities between the writer and his characters in Gatsby. Nick Carraway—the narrator and protagonist—is a Midwesterner who is Ivy League educated, just like Fitzgerald. While Fitzgerald—who was 19 at the time—was in school at Princeton, he met and fell deeply in love with 16-year-old socialite Ginevra King, but her family discouraged Fitzgerald’s courting her. Her father went so far as to tell Fitzgerald “poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” This would serves as Fitzgerald’s inspiration for Daisy Buchanan and the complicated nature of Gatsby’s devotion to her.
Which leads me into a synopsis of The Great Gatsby. (If you want to avoid spoilers, skip this section, because, well… they’re there.)
Synopsis of The Great Gatsby
In Spring 1922, Nick Carraway—the narrator of The Great Gatsby—moves to Long Island for work where he rents a house in West Egg. His neighbor, Jay Gatsby owns a large estate and hosts all kinds of fancy parties. One day, Nick has dinner with his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, who lives in the upscale, old-money town of East Egg. Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan—whom Nick knew when they were both students at Yale—and the couple has recently moved into a mansion across the bay from Gatsby’s manor. Nick meets Daisy’s friend Jordan who reveals that Tom has a mistress named Myrtle Wilson, and that Myrtle lives in a veritable dump. Nick also notices Gatsby standing alone outside, staring at the green light across the bay (see I told you that green light was important.)
A few days later, Nick goes with Tom into New York City. Along the way, they stop at a garage owned by George Wilson and his wife Myrtle (what a tangled web F. Scott Fitzgerald weaves). Myrtle joins them on their trip into the city and they continue on to an apartment that Tom keeps in the City specifically for his affair with Myrtle. Guests arrive at this apartment and a party starts, but then Myrtle mentions Daisy to Tom, he goes blind with rage and hits her, breaking her nose. Sometime later, Nick attends a party at Gatsby’s manor where he knows nobody and drinks too much. Gatsby finally approaches him and mentions that they served in WWI together. Gatsby tries to make nice with Nick, and when Nick leaves, he notices how Gatsby is watching him. Gatsby spends a lot of time trying to impress Nick after this and finally Jordan reveals that Gatsby is in love with Daisy, but while he was deployed, she married Tom.
Gatsby uses his friendship with Nick to get close to Daisy again and the two begin having an affair. Things spiral after this and everybody’s unhappy (we’re all shocked, right?) Tom reveals to Daisy that Gatsby made his fortune by bootlegging alcohol (it is the Jazz Age after all) and Daisy decides to stay with the honest (?) Tom. Tom tells Gatsby to drive Daisy home after that, as kind of a final power move, but on the way, they hit and kill Myrtle Wilson with the car. Gatsby reveals to Nick that it was Daisy who was driving, but that he’s going to take the blame so she won’t have to deal with the repercussions. George, Myrtle’s husband, shoots and kills Gatsby and then dies by suicide. The book closes with Nick deciding that none of them were suited for that kind of life, and staring at the green light coming from Daisy’s dock.
So there. Now you don’t have to read the book, if you never read it. (But you should read it. It is good.)
Commonly Taught Themes in The Great Gatsby
- The Pursuit of the American Dream
- Society and Class
- Gender Relations
- Memory and the Past
- The Pursuit of Love
I feel like it is an understatement to say that in the almost 100 years since Gatsby was published, nearly every one of these themes and ideals has changed drastically. The social conscious has changed tremendously, and the way we address these topics has changed so much, that the way they are addressed in The Great Gatsby are almost irrelevant to the wide majority of American students.
Gatsby makes it clear that the pursuit of the American Dream involves amassing wealth to create a comfortable existence for oneself. Jay Gatsby works as an illegal bootlegger in order to get rich quickly. But I would argue that today, The American Dream isn’t about amassing wealth so much as attaining success and having opportunities. In most Jazz Age writing, The American Dream was something that was reserved for mediocre white guys—something I would hardly call inspirational. Today it’s a term that addresses a much wider spectrum and dreams and dreamers.
Which leads me to my nomination to replace The Great Gatsby. To teach today’s students about The American Dream, I would substitute Gatsby with a personal favorite book of mine, Behold the Dreamers by Imobolo Mbue.
In many ways, Behold the Dreamers is the perfect substitute. (Totally anecdotally, I even think the cover is almost as iconic as that familiar Gatsby cover that has haunted many a high school student.)
From Wikipedia (it’s accurate, I swear): “The novel opens in fall 2007 with the interview of an immigrant from Cameroon, Jende Jonga, who is hoping to be hired as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive. Jonga’s job allows him to pay his wife’s college tuition and send money back home until the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers threatens both families. Jende Jonga is also seeking permanent residency through a false asylum request.”
In the same way that Jay Gatsby symbolically stared at the green light on Daisy’s dock—thinking on all he had, yet all the things he could could never have—the Jonga family are impossibly close to the security they want, but are still so far from achieving. Jende exists on the fringes of Clark Edwards’ life, watching but never participating, merely more than a casual observer into a world he knows he is not made for—much as Nick Carraway muses at the end of Gatsby. Behold the Dreamers deals with class relations in America in a much heavier and more real way than Gatsby could ever.
That’s not to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald did not face plenty adversity in his life. He worked hard to reach financial security (and eventually beyond), but that does not compare with the immigrant experience in America, which Mbue can speak to directly, as an immigrant from Cameroon. Behold the Dreamers also adds a layer of complexity by further discussing race. In Gatsby, race issues are addressed in a very 1920s way. Tom makes a comment about his racial superiority as he is Nordic, and he refers to a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires. A lot emphasis is place on a fear of immigrants from Europe, especially on the heels of WWI.
In Behold the Dreamers, there is an absolutely heartbreaking scene in which Neni, a Cameroonian immigrant, is working as a housekeeper temporarily for the same family that her husband chauffeurs. One day, Neni discovers Cindy, the matriarch of the wealthy family, unconscious on a bed, pill bottles and an empty wine glass strewn about her. Neni ponders why a wealthy, beautiful woman would have any need to take drugs. She also wonders what she should do; if she touches Cindy and Cindy dies, will she be implicated somehow?
In the end, she wakes Cindy, bathes her and feeds her, and listens to Cindy’s troubled story.
“I came from a poor family. A very, very poor family.”
“Me, too, madam — ”
Cindy shook her head. “No, you don’t understand,” she said. “Being poor for you in Africa is fine. Most of you are poor over there. The same of it, it’s not as bad for you.”
Neni closed her eyes and nodded as if she completely understood and agreed.Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue
There is so much depth to this small interaction. There is so much to teach students about, but also that I feel students will connect with this text without getting bogged down in the language and the symbolism of everything, and in the verbosity of Fitzgerald. There’s something about the simplicity of the language combined with the complexity of the themes and the storytelling in Behold the Dreamers that I cannot imagine a better alternative for this text.
Nearly every popular theme from Gatsby is addressed in Behold the Dreamers. From the Jongas pursuit of their American Dream—Jende working hard to get Neni into Pharmacy school and to provide a stable life for their son Liomi—to Clark Edwards own pursuit with Lehman Brothers and his amassing of wealth as seen in the traditional view of The American Dream. Gender relations, dissatisfaction, isolation—every one of the themes you would want to discuss is write there, on the pages, in modern language, and from the voice of somebody so different than today’s students are typically exposed to.
A quick Google search reveals that I’m not the only person to have this idea–not only to replace Gatsby, but to replace it with Behold the Dreamers. While I was not influenced by Electric Lit’s post “‘The Great Gatsby’ Is Fired”, I would be remiss not to mention their post, as well as their other selections. It would appear my friend and I are not alone in wanting to update and edit modern required reading lists.
None of this is to say The Great Gatsby is bad. I don’t believe for a second that it is. I just believe that Times are changing; our reading lists should too. It’s not that we should abandon the old. We should be ushering in the new. It’s time we welcome new perspectives, new voices, with open arms. It’s time we stretch ourselves–and our reading lists–a little, and we expose ourselves–and especially our students–to something more.
So what required reading book would you replace? Will it be on the chopping block next? Only time will tell.