Sometimes I wonder why we have teenagers read classics, which is a funny thing for me to wonder because I am, 99% of the time, wholeheartedly in favor of having everybody of every age read classics. I think it’s important to shape people’s minds around good, complex writing. Without any evidence to support this idea, I think it helps people become better thinkers and to be more discerning in their analysis of culture and life in general, and helps them see their lives as part of a larger story. It’s a way of traveling without spending a ton of cash or waiting for the invention of a time machine.
But sometimes, I wonder if it’s counter-productive to introduce these books too early.
When I read The Great Gatsby in high school, I didn’t see the appeal at all. I thought it was kind of pitiful that this guy was pining after this vacuous woman who lived across the bay, but that’s all I really caught from the book. The characters were old (ancient…like, thirty), and I just couldn’t relate to them at all.
Twenty-odd years later, my read on this book is much different. I found it a beautifully written, very depressing story.
It’s amazing to think that Fitzgerald was a contemporary of James Joyce and that he read Ulysses while he was writing The Great Gatsby because the styles are so different. Joyce and Fitzgerald do similar things with the intersection of reality and imagination, and in both books there are no clear good guys, but where Joyce gives the reader every single little thing that crosses his characters’ minds and leaves us to psychoanalyze them, Fitzgerald gives us a narrator who admittedly gives us only a few months’ slice of his own limited perspective—and then leaves us to psychoanalyze both the narrator and all of the other characters.
This time around, I read parts of Kathleen Parkinson’s critical study of the novel (confusingly also titled The Great Gatsby) to aid in a deeper reading of the book. Dovetailing on an idea of hers about the interplay between the imagination and reality, I find myself fixated on the idea that the American Dream is fueled by people constantly striving for what they see in their imaginations rather than being content with what they have in their real lives.
There is a scene towards the end of the book where Carraway looks out over Long Island and imagines it the way Dutch settlers might have seen it, both for what it was and for what it represented to them. Since moving to New England, I ask myself often, when the people we now know as Pilgrims figured out that they had accidentally landed far north of Virginia, which is where they’d intended to go, why didn’t they continue on south? After they spent their first devastating winter on the Massachusetts coast, why didn’t they say, “Nah. This isn’t what I’m looking for,” and try to find a more hospitable climate with fields that weren’t filled with rocks?
After reading Gatsby again, I wonder if what kept the settlers in Massachusetts was the fact that the vision they had for what could be was more real to them than the reality of disease, freezing temperatures, and starvation, just as Gatsby’s imagined possible life with Daisy is more real to him than any of the material things he’s amassed.
Of course not everyone stayed in New England. While many stayed to reshape the landscape into what they envisioned, many others—when the vision they had refused to mesh with reality—headed west into the interior of the continent.
A line of Nick’s that addresses this westward expansion struck me, too: “perhaps we [those who’d grown up in the West] possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
I wonder if, once the descendants of the European settlers moved west, the dream changed to such an extent that they couldn’t go home to the East again any more than they could feel at home in Europe. This relates to another something I’ve been wondering—why even though I can consciously recognize all manner of negatives with living in the West, I can’t seem to feel at home living in the East. Of course, I’m not great at feeling at home anywhere. I’m always imagining a different perspective, a different culture, a different view from my window that I’d have somewhere else. Is this persistent discomfort a failure of my imagination (or my accepting reality), or is it just the way that the American Dream has manifested itself in me?
These are all things I didn’t have the perspective to think about when I was fifteen years old, and it left me feeling so cold about Fitzgerald, I took more than 20 years to come back to the book. But I did come back to it. So maybe it wasn’t counter-productive to assign it to me in high school after all.