One of my former colleagues used to say that all high school students love The Great Gatsby, although he claimed that most of them love it for “the wrong reasons.” He’s right about the love. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel elicits more passionately positive reactions from a wider variety of adolescent readers than any other novel I’ve taught. Now, dozens of former students have told me that they are planning to rush out and see the new Baz Luhrman film version as soon as it’s released. They’re all curious about whether Luhrmann’s whiz-bang, 3D, Jay-Z-soundtracked update can possibly provide an accurate reflection of the story they found themselves so deeply invested in when they read it in eleventh grade.
My colleague never really explained to me what the wrong reasons for loving Gatsby might be, but I’ve spent some time puzzling over what he meant. I suspect that he was referring to the tendency among adolescents to assume that every book ever written is not-so-secretly about them–and that if it isn’t, it ought to be. At heart, they all want to be Gatsbys, or, perhaps more aptly, Nick Carraways. Perhaps one “right” way to love the book is to admire its prose while ruefully acknowledging the truth of the rather mundane tragedy at its heart: people are selfish, and while the very rich may not be differently selfish from you and me, they have the means at their disposal to sweep away what is inconvenient to them. To seek an uncomplicated version of yourself in Gatsby is solipsistic, the kind of response one might expect from an immature reader. But I think many of my students love the novel because they identify in some way with Nick’s crisis of conscience. Some of them, at least, want to learn how to be less selfish in a world that tends to reward selfishness.
Nick is Gatsby’s narrator and Gatsby’s biographer, observer, and apologist, and I believe that what high-school students are really responding to in Fitzgerald’s novel, when they respond, is something particular about his voice. When I taught high school English, I used to teach Gatsby every spring. Each time we began reading the novel in class, I asked my students about the benefits and perils of first-person narration. In some classes, just getting to the idea of first-person was a struggle. In others, the students were already rushing bravely on to the pros and cons of this type of narrative voice before I got the words “first-person” out of my mouth. Most of my students also eventually realized that the virtues of first-person narration—its immediacy, and the sense that you are seeing the world through someone else’s eyes—are also its drawbacks, because a first-person narrator is deeply and inherently subjective and therefore potentially untrustworthy.
Fitzgerald opens Gatsby with a reflection from Nick on some “advice” that he received from his father “in [his] younger and more vulnerable years”: when you’re inclined to criticize other people, be aware that “‘all the people in the world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.’” The advice is self-congratulatory, even smug, as befits the upper-bourgeois Midwestern hardware magnate it purports to come from. Because he has taken this fatherly counsel to heart, Nick says, he is “inclined to reserve all judgments,” and then goes on to pass fairly stringent judgment on every character he mentions throughout the novel (with the possible exception of Gatsby himself). Does this make him an unreliable narrator? Do we believe anything he says, after he opens with this patently false statement, or can we conclude that he is only unreliable in the sense that we are all unreliable narrators of our own stories?
On the next page, Nick notes that “[r]eserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.” He is setting up the framework for the history he is about to relate, suggesting that something so traumatic happened to him during his time in the East that his faith in his father’s advice and in his own willingness to suspend judgment “has a limit”:
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction…If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.
High school students who love The Great Gatsby don’t yet know that they feel this strong affinity for the book and its characters in part because they are themselves still largely romantic, hopeful, and moral beings. They are capable of reserving judgment—or more accurately of revising judgment—and vulnerable to immense, crushing disappointment at the hands of those who turn out to be lesser people than they had hoped.
In the passage above, Nick is talking about moral and personal disappointment so deep that it makes him want to retreat back to a kind of inflexible discipline reminiscent of his days in the Army during the First World War. He has observed—and in his own way participated in—the myriad excesses of the Jazz Age. His sadness, however, is rooted not in those experiences but in the timeless failings of other human beings. Only Gatsby receives Nick’s forgiveness, sympathy, and admiration, even though Gatsby is a liar, a crook, and a fraud. For Nick, Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” and willingness to believe in his own reinvention and his fatally romantic dream transcend both Nick’s initial skepticism and Gatsby’s epic shortcomings. Many of my high school students would have liked to think of themselves as cynical, jaded, world-weary beings, but they weren’t, yet, and their ability to lose themselves in Gatsby showed it.
Last spring, one of my students told me that she and her friends saw the same types that they encountered every day at school in Gatsby—that they, in her words, “pasted other people’s heads onto the characters” and watched them acting out familiar dramas. My students were not, of course, throwing vast and elaborate parties (not on Gatsby’s scale, in any case) or running each others’ illicit lovers over in their cars and then speeding off. I’m fairly certain we would have had an assembly about that. Nor are they inventing false histories as elaborate as Gatsby’s for themselves in order to win the affections of elusive others. But they can understand and recognize the underlying human causes that lead the novel’s characters to do these things. Infidelity and betrayal; carelessness and amorality; anxiety about whether we will be found wanting in some crucial way and fear of being found out—these states of being are familiar both to me and to them. As an adult, I now know that they are also relatively finite, or at least survivable, but that makes them no less powerful.
Adults—especially adults who have never been teachers—can be both disgusted by and dismissive about the way in which my students relate this novel and all novels back to themselves. Such attitudes are further evidence of the narcissism of the current generation, they assume, conveniently forgetting their own. When people my age find out that I used to teach high school and now teach college, their reaction is often distressingly like the reaction of our grandparents’ generation to that terrible loud rock and roll music. “The kids today,” they sigh, and then eagerly ask me to describe the awfulness of my teenaged charges. They’re spoiled, ignorant, and superficial, aren’t they? Worse than we were? My invariable response is no, that they’re actually quite a lot like us; they have iPhones, yes, but that doesn’t make them alien beings.
While it’s true that a few of my students have shown the potential to become terrible people, they weren’t, yet, when I knew them. Even the most unpleasant of them, I hope, might still get away from any limited and limiting circumstances that have held them back and become better, broader, more thoughtful, and more imaginative. Unlike Nick, I don’t pretend to reserve judgment. Like him, I continue to believe, perhaps against all reason, that my initial judgments and prejudices can be wrong, that people can change—and that they should want to do so. I may be watching the new film version of The Great Gatsby from behind slightly parted fingers, as befits a (relative) purist regarding literary adaptations, but I too will be looking to see whether Baz Luhmann’s new Nick still speaks for me.
Megan Stephan: Accidental Role Model