Recently, in the News, Mr. Aron Ravin critiqued F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and its inclusion within high school curricula across the country. Mr. Ravin argued that Fitzgerald’s novel paints a myopically pessimistic view of American life and the common people. He is right. However, it is precisely this that makes “Gatsby” worth reading. It is the flaws of the characters and the book’s thematic pessimism which make it important as a Great “American” novel, and not a pedestrian piece of fiction.
It is true that there are few genuine characters who can (or should) be empathized with in the novel. Conversely, it is also the case that readers can empathize with nearly all of the characters, at least in part. Take the scene where Nick Carraway tells Jay Gatsby to run away after Gatsby informs Nick that he will go to jail to protect Daisy from punishment. Consider Nick’s resolve to leave New York in disgust after Gatsby’s death while still longing to remain with the woman he loves. All reveal complex reactions to show how the mixed loyalties of the modern age cause internal anxiety with tragic external ramifications. There are no Atticus Finches in “Gatsby”, but there are no Bob Ewell’s either. This is a positive good for high schoolers to engage with. American culture is largely bereft of tragedy, need we abandon one of the few great American tragic novels?
There is a broader point to be made about the place of “The Great Gatsby” within American English courses, and whether F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck or Mark Twain should be taught at all. American literature is peculiar in that it has a canon of great works but no single defining piece of writing. This is a crucial dynamic, and its absence has constantly shadowed American literature. Virgil employs the very best of Latin syntax in his seminal work, the “Aeneid.” It is the absolute apogee of Latin literature, even in light of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Italian literature is defined by Dante, and his works have undeniable influence on Italian literature even to this day. “Don Quixote” is a Spanish masterpiece.
America, in contrast, has a loose canon that is rarely fully agreed upon. At best, nearly every list includes “Moby Dick,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Grapes of Wrath” and “Invisible Man.” Within this canon of great American novels, “The Great Gatsby” stands as but one of many great works, and it cannot be understood without reading it within that lineage.
Both before and after “Gatsby,” much of the canonical American literature is predicated upon the ideals of freedom and “the Unknown.” In earlier works, this theme took physical form, be it the white whale in “Moby Dick” or Mark Twain’s Mississippi River. This same theme of the free and unknown frontier appears in “The Last of the Mohicans,” another classic work of American fiction. In this way, “Gatsby” is a watershed moment in literature. What Fitzgerald does is deconstruct the previous longing(s) for what is unknown and the freeing effect of the frontier by showing it as a faint light, a mere illusion we have created. Fitzgerald replaces an exterior longing for freedom with an interior one that meaningfully breaks from previous American frontier pieces or bildungsromans.
The ennui of Fitzgerald’s novel is overwhelming at times. Mr. Ravin has every right to dislike Fitzgerald stylistically or take umbrage at his messaging about the futility of the American Dream. But his writing undeniably shaped the literary landscape, and his writings poignantly show the unrequited desires of modernity. The antidote to Fitzgerald’s pessimism is not to take his novel off of high school bookshelves, but to incorporate his writings into a larger body of work and emphasize his importance within the development of American literature.
It is true that giving ninth graders “Moby Dick,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Great Gatsby” all at once would be overwhelming. Having a curriculum that shows clear virtuous role models is important. Mr. Ravin and I agree that “To Kill a Mockingbird” should be widely read. However, the fault in high school literature curricula does not stem from reading too much Fitzgerald and others but, in reality, not reading enough of them. Rather than ignoring “Gatsby,” as Mr. Ravin recently argued, we need to give young adults the tools to help them better understand it. Otherwise, we may fall prey to the very naivete the book warns us about.
SEAN-MICHAEL PIGEON is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at email@example.com.