The last time I read The Great Gatsby was in 10th grade. We had to read it. This book did not go the way of some other books I had to read in high school (The Red Badge of Courageis one example that comes to mind): books which I read merely because I had to, and have not retained one single word of. I remember Gatsby. There are a couple others I remember as well – A Tale of Two Cities is another – but Gatsby is the main one.
I was always a huge reader. So being introduced to great books was not a daunting prospect. I was also an advanced reader. I read Oliver Twistat the age of 10. I read All the President’s Men at the age of 11. And understood it. In looking back, even I can recognize that that last example makes me seem a bit loony. But I loved that book then, and I love it now.
Anyway: other books I was forced to read in high school, books which ended up changing my life, books I still own to this day:
So. Prelude over.
I just picked up The Great Gatsby again and read it in three days. (It felt much much longer in high school. But it’s a tiny book in actuality!) I was shocked and moved by how much I had remembered. The huge eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleberg … I remember the intense class discussion about what those eyes symbolize. The green light at the end of the dock, obviously. And there were parts that I actually remembered word for word, because of how, exactly, Mr. Crothers (my teacher) taught the book.
I remember the huge discussion about the following part of the book:
Suddenly she threw the cigarette and the burning match on the carpet.
“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now — isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once — but I loved you too.”
Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed.
“You loved me too?” he repeated.
I remember Mr. Crothers pointing out that section to us, and talking about how that was the snap in Gatsby, that was the dream dying in Gatsby, that was the inner conflict of the entire book encapsulated in two sentences:
Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed. “You loved me too?” he repeated.
Fitzgerald does not describe the snap. He does not have to. Fitzgerald does not talk about Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, his fantasy of Daisy, at least not in that pivotal moment. All he does, all he does, is tell us that Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed. And in that moment, a man’s dream dies.
I would have missed that, in high school, if Mr. Crothers hadn’t dwelt on it so specifically, and it all came back rushing back when I re-read it.
In re-visiting Gatsby, Mr. Crothers – my 10th grade English teacher – has been so much on my mind. I might say that Mr. Crothers was the best teacher I have ever had. Period. He taught me how to write. Or at least: I could write, but he taught me how to write a paper. A good clean proper paper. Plain and simple. And you know how he taught me? I wrote a paper in his class. I got a D. My first D in my whole life. Panic ensued. Deep depression. Writer’s block. I wrote another paper. I got a D+. A D+??? I had always SHONE in writing. I had always been used as an example for the rest of the class. A D+? I totally lost my bearings. I forgot how to write. It was terrible. I realized how much I had to learn. I could write creatively. I could write short stories. But a paper on a book? Setting up my thoughts? Backing up my points? No idea what I was doing. I kept plugging away. Horrified the entire time. Next paper: C-. Holy shit. A C-?? Next paper: I got a straight C. It was a very proud moment. And with every paper, agonizingly, I got better and better and better. Until finally, light broke through, and I was able to construct a damn paper. It’s a skill. I wrote consistently A-level papers in college directly because of what Mr. Crothers taught me. I totally credit him.
Mr. Crothers, if he read this post [Update: Oh my God! He did! He commented below!!], he would say: “Sheila, where’s the thesis statement??”
Let me get back to Gatsby and my thoughts on reading that book again.
I had forgotten its stature, I guess. I had forgotten how superb it was. Or: if I remembered it, it was in a taken-for-granted kind of way. Like: “Oh yeah, that’s a great book. One of the best books of the 20th century. Whatever.” I had forgotten the level of the accomplishment. I read it when I was 15. I grew up in a book-heavy house. I knew that Gatsby was important, but you know, I had no perspective. Now I do. In reading it again, I truly get it.
Also, it was funny: I remembered my teenage self reading it, and I remembered having emotional responses to it. As I read it again this past time, I had emotional responses as well … but it was interesting to see how they had changed, shifted.
When I read it at age 15, I was completely on the side of Nick, the narrator: the relatively innocent and honest bystander, looking on at the decadence of Daisy and Jordan and Gatsby, trying not to judge (like he says on the first page of the book), and trying to come out of the situation unscathed. But by the end of the book, Nick is changed. And so are we, whether we like it or not.
I read it through Nick’s eyes as a kid. I felt the same way he did.
But now, reading it as a grown woman, with a couple of failed love affairs in my rear view mirror, I found myself entering the story through the eyes of Gatsby. I could see myself in parts of him. I understood him. I understand carrying a torch, infusing everything with significance, poetry, import, choosing the dream-world over reality.
It is only NOW, after reading it from an adult perspective, that I can truly understand why the book is seen as such an epic human tragedy. An American tragedy.
Now I understand. Now I understand.
Those first pages are so extraordinary, so exquisitely written, they cannot be improved upon.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that any intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.
And after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. 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 — Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament” — it was 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. No — Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
Reading that makes me want to put down my pen forever.
Finished it on the bus this morning, and spent the rest of my commute acknowledging the ghost of Fitzgerald in my mind, over and over and over:
You’re amazing, what a book, man you can write, just beautiful, unbelievable, your words live, your characters live, you’re amazing you’re amazing you’re amazing …
until the bus pulled into the fumey garage of the Port Authority and I got off and began my prosaic day.