I was just taken back to 11th grade, talking about Jay Gatsby with a group of AP students.
For a long time, Jay Gatsby was the literary character I identified with most, which is probably not a good thing, but I think explains a lot about who I was when I was in high school and the beginning of college: Someone who was constantly reaching for that green light, whatever the green light was to me (like Gatsby, it usually involved a love interest and trying to be something I’m not). But I first encountered Gatsby in my 11th grade AP English class, so I feel like I’m either regressing or have come full circle.
“I just don’t get why he’s still after Daisy even though she’s clearly not the perfect wife and she’s not that great a person,” a student said.
It’s really difficult to give someone up once you’ve turned them into an ideal. It’s difficult to give someone up in general, but let’s be honest with ourselves: There’s not a time where we’re not at risk of idolizing the people we might fall in love with. We don’t know everything about the person, so it’s easy to think the best of them, and then, when we are aware of the Truth of them, what can we say? The ideal is easier to embrace, and to pretend.
But Gatsby’s ideal version of Daisy could be hurting her just as much as it’s hurting him. There aren’t many characters in The Great Gatsby who don’t hurt each other, and as much as the narrator, Nick, seems exempt from this rule, he’s also relatively unreliable: Alcohol and grief can make good editors of the memory for all of us, and I don’t think the reflective Nick Carraway gets away from that. Part of the story involves the fact that all these people do is take and hurt and take from each other, until there’s nothing left. Gatsby dies and the only people at his funeral are his father and Nick. We don’t know if Myrtle Wilson has even that much, all things considered. Daisy still ends up with Tom, who is still a philandering husband. Everything is just as bad for the characters at the end of the novel as at the beginning—or, possibly, worse.
So I think about Gatsby and I get kind of sad. I think about Nick Carraway, too, and that strange moment with the photographer—what happened? Why put that in there? I’m not saying that Nick Carraway might be a little in love with men, but his girlfriend—can we even call Jordan that?—is a female golfer and Nick has all the sympathy in the world for a guy like Gatsby who, sometimes, is really not that good a person. Prohibition and violating it involved, a lot of times, murder. There’s no guarantee that Gatsby, a man who would have fought during the First World War, would be opposed to killing to get what he wants. But this is all conjecture, and besides his shady dealings in acquiring the alcohol and money he uses to fund his parties and impress Daisy, we don’t have enough evidence that his involvement was anything more than trafficking liquor. Then again, even if he did do more, would Nick have said so? Nick Carraway, for all of his attempts to keep Gatsby human, still idealizes the man.
Where does a student take the information from The Great Gatsby and put it down into a formulated response to an essay question vague enough to apply to any work of literature? It’s difficult to say, since this student admitted that a lot of times being in the AP class feels a lot like knowing that people must be speaking English, but not actually being able to understand what they’re saying, as if it’s in a different language. There’s not a lot that hasn’t already been said about The Great Gatsby in some paper or essay written by some student (high school, undergrad, or otherwise) at some point in time. It’s one of those books that everyone ends up having to write about. So hopefully, whatever this student writes, if not original, makes sense.
It’s just incredibly strange for me to be brought back to the place where I used to be and try to explain why it matters to students. It’s strange for me to look at Gatsby again after a few years, suddenly and unexpectedly, and to be able to greet him as an old friend, and to be able to say, “Hey, you were wrong, it is time to forget the girl and move on with your life—but man, I still feel so sorry about it.”