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The Great Gatsby: Popular & Convoluted Representations of American Truth

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Great Gatsby is arguably the one book you are guaranteed to read if you attended any high school English class in the United States. It is hailed as the most prolific and profoundly genius American novel written to date, or at least, that’s the way it is presented in high schools around the country. I read the novel twice in my high school career, once in my junior year and once in my senior year. It seems to occupy a space of unshakeable rigidity in the national curriculum, alongside other such gems as To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet. Currently, I am in my final year at a British university, and I have been reassigned The Great Gatsby another three times throughout the course of my English Literature major. Any American literature class you take, it seems, will inherently have Fitzgerald’s book as one of the core bits of reading. I would argue, however, that while The Great Gatsby is undoubtedly an immensely important piece of 20th century American fiction, it’s repetitive and continual study in English curriculums limits space that may be otherwise occupied by more diverse and representative American writers.

He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

Just a quick refresher on The Great Gatsby: Set on the East Coast in the summer of 1922, Nick Carraway moves to West Egg in Long Island from the Midwest to take on a job as a bond salesman. His rented home is next to the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby’s, a man who no one seems to truly know very well. Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan lives across the bay from Nick, in the East Egg with her husband Tom Buchanan, and when he goes to visit them he is introduced to Jordan Baker, who tells Nick that Tom has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson who lives in “the valley of ashes” between the West Egg and New York City. Nick goes to New York for a visit with Tom and Myrtle, and they have a somewhat bizarre party in Tom’s apartment. As the summer goes on, Nick is invited to one of Gatsby’s mysterious and extravagant parties, where he meets Gatsby, who apparently recognizes him from the Great War. It becomes apparent that the only reason Gatsby lives in the West Egg is so that he can be as close as possible to Daisy, who he met when she was doing volunteer service in 1917 for soldiers headed off to war. Gatsby is still deeply in love with Daisy (or sees her as the ideal representation of all that he wants in the world).  Gatsby asks Nick to introduce him formally to Daisy, after so many years of waiting, which Nick agrees to, and Daisy and Gatsby begin an affair with each other. Tom realizes and is enraged (despite his own extramarital affair), and this rage culminates in an afternoon in the Plaza Hotel, where he confronts Daisy and Gatsby, revealing that Gatsby made his money through bootlegging and other illegal activities. Daisy recoils from Gatsby and is obviously not interested in him anymore, so Tom sends Daisy and Gatsby back home to Long Island together, while Tome, Jordan, and Nick travel back in the other car a bit later. On the way home, they discover Gatsby’s car has struck Myrtle, Tom’s mistress. Nick learns later on that it was Daisy, not Gatsby, who struck Myrtle by accident, but Gatsby takes the blame for Daisy. Myrtle’s husband is enraged, tracks down the car that struck his wife, and murders Gatsby. Nick stages a funeral for Gatsby, who almost no one attends. Nick, immensely disillusioned, breaks off all ties with New York and moves back to the Midwest.

I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

The Great Gatsby is genuinely a very good novel, both objectively and subjectively (at least I think so). It’s enjoyable to read, the characters are interesting, and Fitzgerald is more than an apt stylistic writer. There are some great themes in the novel, themes that are particularly well served for analysis at a high school level (I won’t go into them here- if you want a refresher, this is a great surface level read, and this is a bit more in-depth). It’s a good book to have under your belt. The problem is, though, there is so much more to American fiction (and the American historical reality) than The Great Gatsby, or any single book could ever account for. The weight the book has come to carry on its shoulders is monumental, and it ultimately begs the question of whether the novel can ever fully live up to the expectations that are being put on it. Rather, how can The Great Gatsby be the only book that is taught in English classes to account for the early 20th century? The curriculum is exclusionist: it excludes the works of female writers, POC writers, queer writers, poor writers,  even inherently ignores Southern writers in favour of Northern writers, and yet returns to The Great Gatsby multiple times as it searches for some fundamental American truth within it. The problem with The Great Gatsby is not the work itself; it is a strong piece of fiction, and it should be heralded as such. But it is not the only, or strongest, work of American fiction, and surely at some point, the historical narrative American schools impress upon students needs to shift to account for multiple timelines of the real American experience, and not just the middle class, white male narrative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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