Like everyone in the American public school system (presumably) I read The Great Gatsby for the first time in High School. Now that I teach said High School I had my Juniors read it, and we just wrapped it up yesterday. Most of them hate it, but I hated everything back then too, so that’s probably normal. We all know that story. If you count the concurrent readings that I did, out loud, in class, I have now read The Great Gatsby five times. Not bad!
In The Great Gatsby Nick Carraway (our narrator) moves to West Egg, next to the mansion of Jay Gatsby, the don of parties most fabulous. Nick spends time with his cousin Daisy, her horrible husband Tom Buchanan, and their pal, Jordan Baker. Also Daisy and Tom have a daughter, her name is Pammy, by the way, and she’s barely mentioned. Tom is openly having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, who is a nag, and who has beat down her husband George Wilson. Daisy stops caring about this when she starts her own affair with Gatsby, because they knew each other five years before, and also Gatsby has joined an organized crime syndicate to win her away from Tom. That always works. Of course Daisy doesn’t know that last part, and when it comes to light she runs back into Tom’s arms and over Tom’s mistress (with Gatsby’s car no less). Tom then blames Gatsby for the crime and (at least gently) encourages Wilson to kill Gatsby, which he does, before committing suicide. If only Gatsby hadn’t replaced all his servants with mafia foot soldiers this wouldn’t have happened. Daisy and Tom leave town before they even find out Gatsby is dead and Nick breaks it off with Jordan because now shallow people gross him out.
The thing is that it’s not really clear if Nick ever really likes Gatsby per se, at the end (Chapter 8) he says that he “disapproved of him from beginning to end,” but Nick is unarguably better mannered than the rest of them. He also knows Jordan cheats at golf, but says early on that dishonesty isn’t a deal breaker because old fashioned version of b- words be crazy. Seriously. He’s like “Broads, amirite?” When Gatsby tries to break Tom and Daisy up in a super public way Tom is like “Um, Daisy knows I have mistresses all the time and she doesn’t care because we’re crazy rich in a classy way, unlike you. Let’s go Daisy!” and she’s like “M’kay! Also Gatsby can you die for this murder? KTHXBI!” Later Tom tells Nick, “I totally cried about Myrtle dying, bro,” but even though Nick comes down on the “careless” couple in the narration he doesn’t shatter their lives like he could if he would just out Daisy as the driver of the death car. Why doesn’t he? This is why I’m not convinced that he really liked Gatsby or really hates the Buchanans, he does grow throughout the story, sure, but it’s not enough. I demand more growth!
Then there’s what I like to call “casual racism.” It’s when a text is like, “Hey here’s some racism! It’s not important to the plot, I’m just … throwing it out there for you. Racism.” There’s so much, by the way, and I didn’t remember it because there wasn’t Urban Dictionary in 1995 so I didn’t know what a “buck” was, maybe I thought a deer was riding in the car that Nick and Tom see in Chapter 2. Nope. Turns out that’s not what that word means at all and it’s used in the context of Nick thinking: “Golly! Rich black people! Now I have seen eve-ry-thing!” There are plenty of the other super antiquated racist slang terms in the novel, though Jewish people get directly slammed the most. There are five (5) pages devoted to how Mr. Wolfsheim’s nose is so big Nick can’t see around it. Also ,he’s a gangster and his secretary is a “Jewess” … this is a word? I censored the book when I read it out loud, by the way, which I feel is appropriate.
Even still I root for Gatsby and part of me wants to keep the tradition of teaching it alive, but only part of me. The book grew on me toward the end, as the distracting racism dips off for a bit, and even though I know there’s no way that Gatsby will live or end up with Daisy, I begin hoping for it again. By the end Gatsby has given everything up that is of value – his honor, his safety, having real friends – all to get the money he needs to buy the love of Daisy, for whom money is the Alpha and Omega of her world. Gatsby is willing to die for her while she runs away and never says “thank you” – Nick calls her and Tom “careless people” which is a lovely way to put it.
The way women are treated in the novel is fascinating. All of the women – Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker, Myrtle Wilson, even the super minor character Ella Kay, are written as deeply dishonest people. Jordan cheats at golf and will only date people who are stupid (according to Nick) because she always wants to have the upper hand. I really identifying with Jordan, and she was my favorite character as a teenager, too. Ella Kay gets on a yacht with Dan Cody and the next day Dan is dead and Gatsby is written out of the will. Myrtle Wilson has an affair with Tom so she can move up in the world; a serious miscalculation on her part, it must be said. Finally Daisy, not because she cheats on Tom, but because at the beginning of the text she says that when Pammy was born she wept when she heard it was a girl, because the best thing any woman can (hope to) be is a “beautiful little fool.” This implies that Daisy’s vapid character, with a voice that Nick always calls “thrilling” (dude, it’s your cousin), is an act, maintained by Daisy to keep her position of ‘high society wife’ secure.
Some people find this sexist, but I call it brilliant. I don’t know if Fitzgerald meant to call attention to this, but upper class women could not hold jobs in the 20s, that was strictly for lower-class women. All of these women – Jordan, Daisy, Ella, and Myrtle – are highly motivated to better themselves financially, and the only path to that for upper class (or for Myrtle, aspiring upper class) women is manipulation. Ella, it is implied, murdered Dan Cody for his millions, and she is a successful foil to Myrtle’s failed attempt to get Tom’s money by giving him everything he wants.
Myrtle Wilson, George Wilson, and Jay Gatsby don’t walk out of the narrative because they are not legitimately upper class people. Fitzgerald showed how the rich eat up the poor while violently illustrating that social mobility is America is an illusion. Also the color yellow/gold and the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg are just some examples of Fitzgerald’s deft use of symbolism, which I always appreciate.
So what do you think? Do the pros of The Great Gatsby outweigh the cons? Add to the cons list that all of my students whined that the book was nothing like the DiCaprio movie. Well no kidding.