On Gatsby and dream crushing teenagers

I don’t think this means what you think it means.

It is spring and spring always reminds me of reading The Great Gatsby with my 11th graders. It helps now that Baz Luhrmann’s movie is coming out soon and I imagine that if I still were reading it with 11th graders we would rendezvous at the theater dressed in flapper costumes (of course I have a flapper costume!).

I have an ambivalence towards F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel that I never quite reconciled in my days of teaching teenagers. I never had to read the book in High School and the first I time I did it was in order to develop a teaching unit for my student teaching days. The Great Gatsby inspired really great lunchtime conversations among the faculty, I remember, with a particularly vicious argument about Daisy’s nature. It amused me then because I didn’t quite understand the passions involved.  The strongest I can say about the book is that I liked it, I enjoyed it, but I don’t love it. It has it’s moments. But I had, and continue to have, some trepidation about teaching it.

In the weeks leading up to what is/was inevitably termed “THE AMERICAN DREAM UNIT,” I felt a crushing sense of guilt for what I was about to do these bright young things on the cusp of launching into adulthood. Read any curriculum guide that includes Gatsby and you’ll see they do horrible things. They ask the kids to write about what their “green light” is, what their “dream” is, with no regard for how it will turn out for Gatsby. We get them hooked on this American Dream stuff and then spend weeks or more reading a book that deconstructs the lie. Ouch. I’m not even sure we explain very well what the American Dream is, in fact, and tend toward eliding the mythology.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the shared experience of reading this book with my students. The book, and I suppose some of the texts we paired with it (including the New York Times “Class Matters” series, which would be even more compelling today considering current rates of income inequality), sparked generative conversations. I agree with Kathryn Schulz that Fitzgerald’s characters are lack dimension, but this made for great fun in creating projects about the characters. Each spring my classroom would explode with amusement parks with each character symbolized by some crazy ride. I miss hearing all the creative ways the students would make that work.

I’m not sure how many dreams I crushed in framing Gatsby in terms of the myth of the American Dream. I remain ambivalent about the place of the the American Dream, what it is, and how important it is anymore. I know that I have a nostalgia for the experiences I’ve had around Gatsby: the explorations with my students, their brilliant insights, deep conversations with colleagues, Robert Redford, and now I can add Leonardo Dicaprio. I will go see the movie and groan at the Brooks Brother’s ads along with everyone else. In the end, I’m willing to just go along with it all, to get swept up in all of it: the decadence and the tragedy.

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.

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  • Comments (3)
  1. Loved this post, Andrea and it reminded me of my time teaching secondary school as well in the American Lit (perhaps Junior Year?) class. I read Gatsby in high school, hated it, and stayed clear of most Fitzgerald for the next 15 years (except when teaching). Then in the last five years or so I have circled around back to it and keep zeroing in on that ending of Gatsby and that those beautiful words, full of melancholy and regret:

    “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate [with] his capacity for wonder.”

    That is stunning prose. Spoken by a broken, disillusioned character. I see Fitzgerald’s characters as flat as well, as you mentioned, and I see that flatness as part of their pursuit. They toyed with the pulse of the superficial and were left shallow as a result (not unlike Fitzgerald himself). Lots of lessons there for students, but I truly felt as though I didn’t appreciate it as a statement of understanding (again, those last lines) until recently. It is important to believe in the Dream, American or not. But I remember crushing their spirits with that one as well. Thanks for the post!

    • Andrea Zellner
    • May 7th, 2013 11:01am

    Thank you for the thoughtful comments, Michael! Glad we could reminisce together today :)

    • Michael
    • February 22nd, 2014 10:37am


    Jeff Stanzler pointed me in the direction of your blog, which I am really enjoying, and since I am currently writing a unit for Gatsby for 10th grade students, I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts.

    Since I decided to stubbornly invent my own wheel, we are using Marxist critical theory to think about the novel. The kids will be reading Fitzgerald and Marx together, and then thinking about the dialogue that might spring up between them as they negotiate the worst aspects of Capitalist society. I’ll admit that thinking about the American Dream never really occurred to me when planning the unit; the novel seems like an ill fit for such a conceit. Gatsby is a dreamer, yes, but also (by the standards of his economic peers) a cheater and pretender to the throne. Further, his American Dream seems so limited that it cannot constitute anyone else’s dream. While Fitzgerald makes it easy to generalize about the “carelessness” of high society, Gatsby is far too idiosyncratic to represent a class of people or a class of dreams.

    That, I think, is what makes him Great: Fitzgerald realizes his inchoate ambitions, lust and love with such care that we are able to sympathize, even when the final motive for his actions remains elusive to us, and perhaps to Jay Gatsby as well.

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