Saturday, September 21, 2013

Thoughts on Reading "The Great Gatsby" For, Like, the Millionth Time


Visual aids in my classroom, circa 2010.



I had to re-read The Great Gatsby for my literary criticism class this year, which I thought was amusing. I taught the book for three years when I was a teacher at the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, and there is probably no text with which I am more familiar.
Here's a poster I made of Gatsby's New York.

In order to guarantee that every student read this book and got as much enjoyment out of it as possible, I allowed them to listen to the entire audio book (read by Tim Robbins!) during class time. Consequently, every spring I would undergo a Gatsby regimen that consisted of listening to this text being read to me five times each day. I have entire passages of this book memorized (in Tim Robbins's sleepy voice, natch.)

We also watched the terrible 1974 film version a lot. (Witness this putrid trailer for an idea of how bad it is.) And when our class set of books was getting ragged, I held a Gatsby book drive, which was a big success.

What I'm trying to say is that if there's one book I know really well, it's The Great Gatsby.

Here are some observations I made after re-reading it this summer, after not having touched it for a year and a half. I didn't realize these things, even though I've read it so many damn times.
  • This is one of the most beautifully written novels I have ever read. Fitzgerald's prose can stop your pulse. I once read an article from a music writer who stated that he listens to The Replacements' Tim once a year to remind himself of what genius is. I think he should also read chapter one of Gatsby
  • Tom lies to Myrtle about Daisy's religion. One sentence I never understood was from the party scene in chapter two. Catherine, Myrtle's sister, says of Daisy, "She's a Catholic and they don't believe in divorce." But we know Daisy is not a Catholic. What gives?  Well, this is a lie that Tom fed to Myrtle to discourage her from ever expecting him to divorce his wife, Daisy. If we weren't already convinced that Tom was a creep (and that Myrtle was a dummy), this did it for us. 
  • Gastby gave up Walter Chase. In the catastrophic scene in the hotel room near the end of the novel, the reader learns that Gatsby is indeed a bootlegger and allowed some guy named Walter Chase to take the fall for Gatsby's crimes. I thought this was just a plot device to let us know that, yes, Gatsby admits to his criminal activity. But it also shows that he is not above sacrificing an acquaintance to save his own skin, and this sets us up for Wolfsheim's refusal to appear at Gatsby's funeral. 
  • Gatsby, in addition to being a bootlegger, also sells phony bonds. After Gatsby's death, Nick receives a phone call stating,  "The picked him up when he handed the bonds over the counter." This seems trivial on the surface, but sets up the Gatsby/Nick dyad that informs the whole book. Nick is the idealistic bond salesman trying to make a buck in the big city; Gastby is the criminal who sells fake bonds on the side to supplement his illicit income. It makes sense. 
  • Tom and Daisy kill one another's lovers. Daisy mows down Myrtle in the car, and Tom gives George Wilson the information that leads to Gatsby's death. This annihilation fits in perfectly with the pessimistic view of romantic love that the book presents and may seem obvious to most readers. But I never realized it.
Gatsby. Read it again.


Source Cited:

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Print.




2 comments:

  1. I've been doing the same thing for years, too, but not with Gatsby alas. I tried to watch the 1974 trailer but didn't even make it to the two minute mark. Awful, just awful. I didn't see the new movie version, but the trailer was certainly much better.

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    1. Yeah, that movie is awful. It's not even fun to mock Mia Farrow's hysterical overacting; it's just too terrible. I still haven't seen the Luhrmann Gatsby, and I have no plans to do so. I hate this country.

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