We can all remember that moment when, in high school, the teacher plops the "assigned reading" list on your desk and you groan as the same old warhorses are trotted out to pasture once again.
We can also remember the moment when our eyes first met the iconic cover of a slim novel bearing Francis Cugat's illustration of a woman's disembodied eyes and lips, hovering over a city gleaming with gold.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a novel that has become the bain of high-schoolers nationwide, and for good reason. What once was a simple, beautiful novel has now become an over-analyzed symbol of "The American Dream." Instead of reveling in the dramatic and suspenseful storyline, we were forced to watch for the "colors" of the novel and answer simple questions that any first-time reader will see as ancillary and superfluous.
The danger of any great novel being ingested in high school is the fact that, no matter how fetching the characters are and how tight the drama is, they will always be drowned out by the overwhelming stench of teenage apathy. Many great novels have fallen prey to this phenomenon, analyzed to death and pointlessly prodded until every stone has been turned.
In its very essence, Gatsby is a perfect slice of noir, perhaps even pulp crime. In a style of writing that would eventually find its home in the works of Dashiell Hammett and his "children" Mickey Spillane and James M. Cain, Fitzgerald lays out the characters, the motives, and the crime in a world indicative of the moment. Though Fitzgerald's language is more high-brow than the pulp masters, the plot is essentially a murder mystery/tortured romance.
If we were to force high schoolers to pick apart Spillane's Mike Hammer series or even Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, we would find that these timeless stories would lose their luster and the essence of "the mystery" would be torn asunder.
Gatsby's characters were borne of noir, the archetypes lined up like ducks in a row:
Jay Gatsby, the mysterious anti-hero who will do anything to get the girl.
Nick Carraway, the sidekick who will defend his compatriot to the grave.
Jordan Baker, the golf champion with a dirty secret and an even dirtier mind.
Daisy Buchanan, the pretty little thing who follows the smell of cash like a bloodhound.
Tom Buchanan, the cuckolded husband with a dame in the city.
Myrtle Wilson, the poor bimbo with a fetish for strong men.
and George Wilson, the husband driven to the edge.
You see, it practically writes itself!
But, year after year, teenagers are subjected to writing down the five reasons why Gatsby's American Dream is a fraud and identify what the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg represent. (Helpful Hint: They're not Bette Davis's Eyes. My apologies to Kim Carnes.)
Now, I'm not one to suggest that no novels should be studied in high school, but I do think that instructors need to re-examine the ways in which they ingratiate their students into the world of the tome. I've said it before and I'll say it again: worksheets and multip-choice exams on novel-length books are an exercise in futility. Not only will the work become a chore, but the fact is that students are far more likely to read the Cliff Notes than the actual novel! What does that say for the ultimate end of this exasperating exercise? In fact, if you search "Cliff Notes" on Google, what's the first result that comes up?
How will we ever hope to enjoy a novel when we can't even bother to read it?
I'm not a high school educator, but I am an avid and enthusiastic reader (in no part thanks to my tenure during high school, I might add!) I believe there are other avenues to explore when it comes to delving into these novels besides the old "worksheets, test, and the movie" routine.
To fully love Gatsby, you need to see it, not through the eyes of a student looking for symbolism, but through the eyes of the era and genre. Revel in the superficiality and the murderous, greedy population of the New York of the Roaring 20's. Don't search for the color of Daisy's dress, create the colors of the generation in your own mind.
I would suggest, no matter what age you are, to delve back into this novel and rediscover it outside of the classrooms of the murky past. Enjoy the journey, the blood, the sinew, and the mayhem of these destructive, ravenously sexy human beings as you are now. Throw away the worksheets and Freudian analyses and see Gatsby for what it is: a pulp crime novel.
When it comes to Gatsby, you most certainly can, and should, "relive the past."
**Please stay tuned to my blog next Tuesday, as I continue this series of analyses on The Great Gatsby!**
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