If F. Scott Fitzgerald never wrote The Great Gatsby, I think I would despair of teaching.
Alright, so that might be a bit of a bold move, but no joke, I begin talking to my students about that book on the first day of school. The momentum builds with every passing month, much as it must have for Gatsby with every passing year he got closer to reconnecting with Daisy. And like Gatsby, I wax a bit obsessive. There are green M&Ms to be procured, t-shirts to be purchased (I own three), parties to be had, interrogations to be held, caution tape to be sketched across linoleum, and glorious posters to be made. This year, joy of all joys, there is a film adaptation to be viewed. One can only hope Luhrmann will be able to come even remotely close to the colossal hype that has been created for this new movie rendition of a classic American tragedy.
And perhaps the strange thing about all of this is really that the story of The Great Gatsby is not great at all. Like, it’s not a great story.
It’s such an anti-story.
Sitting in Donald Miller’s Storyline Conference this past February, I learned the key elements that go into making a good story, the kind that climbs the NY Times Bestseller lists, wins academy awards, and gets inducted into the literary cannon for all of posterity. The gist is that there must be a character who wants something (something worth wanting) and is willing to overcome many obstacles to get it. In the end, the conflicts that are endured create the meaning. The character’s life is transformed and he or she saves many lives.
In light of this, the story of Gatsby really deconstructs. The reasons, of course, are curious. And I think Fitzgerald knew exactly what he was doing. Gatsby both does and does not want something worth having, or seemingly worth having. He wants money, fame, wealth, and the security it brings. He wants his first love, Daisy. She is the embodiment of all those things he innocently and truly believes will bring him epic happiness. He certainly overcomes obstacles, poverty, a stolen inheritance, World War I battles, heartbreak, and business deals. His means for these triumphs, however, are perhaps opportunistic at best and downright dishonest and murderous at worst. He most certainly transforms. After all, Gatsby fashions “just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception [a Platonic one] he was faithful to the end.” The end. Gatsby comes to his end at the change of the seasons, from summer to fall, lounging in the pool he never used before himself, when the deranged George Wilson shoots him and then himself “and the Holocaust was complete.”
Gatsby saves no lives. In fact, he loses his own. All those dreams, all those obstacles, all those “real” books, all those “beautiful shirts,” wasted. Thirty years old, and his was a life wasted. No one comes to his funeral. His lover Daisy doesn’t even call, and Nick stands practically alone, with Gatsby’s dad, in the rain on the day he is put in the ground.
The irony of The Great Gatsby is that he was not great at all. His story was not a great one, at least not in any kind of a way that mattered. It almost seems that Fitzgerald wrote the worst kind of story about the worst kind of character to demonstrate what Americans should hope NOT to be. It is intriguing that when so many of the key elements of Gatsby go wrong from a story-telling perspective, we continue to read this legendary tale. Perhaps it’s because of all us hope for a sort of redemption for Gatsby. Perhaps, like him, we all have this “promise of life,” this “romantic readiness” that longs to get to chapter 8 and see Daisy run back across the lawn, or hydroplane across the bay, and straight back into his pink suited arms.
But, I for one, am thankful she does not. And not just because she’s “a beautiful little fool,” but because if she did, the lesson of Gatsby, the reason for the anti-story would be lost. If we are to learn what not to do from this non-great, Great Gatsby, then we must understand that life lived for wealth, materialism, even earthly love, will never satisfy. The green light (the American Dream) will always “year by year recede before us.” And if that’s our pursuit, if those things are our “following of a grail,” well, then, we will “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
And that’s why I teach this book, this anti-story. Because I need to know, and the kids need to know, and America needs to know that money, cars, parties, social class distinctions, “friends,” things, none of that is great. People will disappoint. Lovers will leave. Businesses will dry up and lights will flicker and die. That’s not the kind of story we want to tell with our lives. It’s not going to transform us in any kind of real, lasting, permanent, and redemptive kind of way. It’s not going to save anyone else’s life. In fact, it will probably just result in self-destruction.
Only the things done for eternity will matter.
I’m still toying with how to continue digesting this anti-story, how to make it real and lasting for my kids, how to use it to save many lives, how by contrast, it can make our characters greater. I’m thinking that a viewing of Tom Shadyac’s documentary I Am, might be in order. And I’m thinking some sort of reflective essay, super open-ended and as open as Gatsby is secretive may also be in order.
And I’m hoping that my kids can one day look back and narrate their own stories and say something like, “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my teacher gave me some advice, that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Your life tells a great story if it transforms you, and saves many lives. Everything else will fade away.”