Friday, July 12, 2013

24: The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

"I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life." 
"In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars." 
"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 one fine morning ----
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Five years ago, I walked into my student teaching classroom while the students were taking their semester exams, my master teacher decided I seemed absurdly competent, and she put me in charge of creating two units for the following week: The Great Gatsby and Macbeth. The only problem was that I had never read either, and I had never taught outside of small chunks of time, and I had never planned a unit for a novel or play  (sure, my best friend and I had come up with an epic plan for Fahrenheit 451 in college, but that was for the Magical Dream Classroom, not real life); that is the life of an English student teacher. 

I went on a reading and planning frenzy and then started learning how to be an educator. This experience left me less than charmed with Gatsby. I thought it was overrated and I believe my common response to anyone who asked me why I didn't like the book was something like, "Maybe he was the first to write about bored rich kids, but Ellis and others have done it since in a way that's more interesting to our times." I was working at a fairly wealthy school (one of my students had a custom Louis Vuitton Hummer and another had a pink Paris Hilton-esque Mercedes and all of my students looked like they walked out of an episode of Laguna Beach) which is not the kind of school I ever wanted to work in, so it is very possible that my bitterness towards people who have lots of nice things without having to bust their ass for those nice things was being projected onto this novel. (Of course, like the characters in Gatsby, their lives weren't perfect. One student lived alone in a mansion while her father essentially lived with his much-younger-girlfriend because she wasn't really interested in step-momming a 17-year-old). 

Let's repeat the past, prove that we're a rotten crowd, and miss the longest day of the year. Please bring: voices full of money, green lights, vehicular homicide, owl eyes, and minds that will no longer romp again like the mind of God. Cardinal virtues not welcome.

And then I met a rather charming gentleman who did things like force me to recreate his favorite Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald foto while hosting parties that had the above description included in invitations. To say that he likes Gatsby is an understatement. 

I will once again be teaching The Great Gatsby, so I decided it had been long enough that it deserved a re-reading. I am so glad that I did because I had a totally different experience.  This time around I ached for Gatsby...I have spent the last four years watching some of my students' dreams get crushed, and honestly not all of them are 'good' people, but that has nothing to do with whether or not I like them and whether or not I still want them to have all the possibilities of their potential. I have so much sympathy for the rags-to-riches, for loving the idea of someone instead of the actual someone, for the dream crushing, for trying to be an idea instead of trying to be a person. With all this emotional attachment, the book  becomes this horrible roller coaster (especially because I know how it all ends) of watching people you like made terrible decisions and deal with the consequences. And watching people you hate make terrible decisions and have no consequence besides their fake fake lives and their awful marriage and their guilt.

I also can't believe that the writing didn't strike me before. I don't feel like I do a terribly great job of being able to articulate what is the difference between 'good' writing and 'bad' writing, but I do know that FSF creates these PERFECT sentences that are almost painfully good.

If you're into Gatsby at all, I highly recommend this podcast about Gatz, a play that uses every word of The Great Gatsby (it is 8 hours long). I will absolutely be having my students listen to it before we start the novel as it builds hype beautifully without spoiling anything. 

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