For my lecture last fall on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), I decided to focus on the ways that Fitzgerald’s novel does not speak for all of its readers but also how the novel overtly challenges the myth of the American Dream. This challenging of the myth does not only occur with Gatsby. Rather, it occurs from the very beginning of the novel and throughout, as my lecture highlighted. Today, I want to briefly walk through the lecture I prepared for The Great Gatsby. (I have the slides on Google Docs.)
One of the key aspects of the novel that I wanted students to grasp was the way that the entire novel, from beginning to end, is a facade. We know that the novel is fiction, yes. However, I wanted them to understand that the narrative itself is constructed and a facade, a retelling of Gatsby’s story from a specific perspective, Nick Carraway’s. A retelling that while challenging the facades of the American Dream is also a fabricated and mediated text itself. This aspect comes into focus before the narrative even starts. Fitzgerald places an epigraph from Thomas Parke D’Invilliers at the beginning. Most epigraphs are from real-life authors, but D’Invilliers is constructed, by none other than Fitzgerald himself in This Side of Paradise. This fact foregrounds the idea of facades and constructed identities that populate the novel.
After focusing on the epigraph, I move to Gatsby’s assertion that we can repeat the past then I proceed to Nick’s famous last line, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” These two moments seem to indicate that we can return to the past; however, what past do we return to or do we strive to return to? Ben Railton argues that by striving to return the past Gatsby elides “his real history and heritage as Jay Gatz . . . because he was unable to engage with its realities, trying for mythologized falsehoods instead.” As such, Railton argues that we need to read Nick’s final line not as a hopeful longing but more “as a warning to better remember history rather than seek to repeat it.” This is something I return to near the end of the lecture.
And living in that constructed past meant entirely eliding his real history & heritage as James Gatz. Which means that if Gatsby was borne back into the past, it’s more because he was unable to engage with its realities, trying for mythologized falsehoods instead.— Ben Railton (@AmericanStudier) September 24, 2018
One of the key aspects of Railton’s argument is that Gatsby could not engage with the realities of the past, the realities that excluded him from the social circles that Daisy inhabited. I pull on this thread some by having students think about Jesmyn Ward’s and Stephanie Powell Watts’ thoughts about the novel. Ward points out “that the very social class that embodied the dream for Gatsby for himself was predicated on exclusion.” She goes on to discuss how she felt a desire to leave her “own poor beginnings,” like Gatsby, yet she was too young when she first read the novel to see that Gatsby’s “wanting is wasted from the moment he feels it.”
Like Ward, Watts points out that The Great Gatsby is one of those books that “doesn’t always love us back.” Watts discusses her own teenage years being “one of the first generation of post-integrationist southern black kids” and working at a fast food restaurant in North Carolina at sixteen. For Watts, no matter how much Gatsby’s story swept her away, she could not “help but fear that the door of the book” would quickly shut “by excluding or demeaning people of color, women, and the poor.” In the process, the book would tell Watts that she is not the target audience or even a member of the novel’s “desired audience.”
What is interesting is that this feeling of exclusion is something that novel tries to engage by critiquing the myth of the American Dream. However, it does not do a good job here because of its focus on a specific social class of characters. After addressing a couple of tenants of modernism, I move on to a discussion of how The Great Gatsby strives to critique the American Dream. The critique comes at the very beginning when Nick relates that his father told him, “Whenever you feel like critizicing any one . . . just remember that all people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” From this, we know that the novel will question what exactly the American Dream means and who benefits from it.
After highlighting Nick’s opening lines, I move on to a discussion of Nordicism and Tom Buchanon’s thoughts about the superiority of the Nordic race. I begin by setting the cultural stage for Tom’s thoughts by sharing with students the 1921 Emergency Quote Act and the 1924 Quota Act. Along with these, I share South Carolina Senator Ellison DuRant Smith’s words in support of the 1924 act:
It seems to me the point as to this measure … is that the time has arrived when we should shut the door. … Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock … and it is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries.
In the novel, Tom expressly echoes Smith’s sentiments with his reading of Goddard’s The Rise of the Colored Empires (itself a reference to Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color) and his insistence on the superiority of the Nordic race.
While Tom espouses these ideas, the novel discredits them. I proceed to show how Nick, who Tom places within his idea of the Nordic race, does not fit due to his ancestry. I also note the ways that the Carraways family history gets constructed over time to make them appear greater than they actually were. Along with this, I point out that Tom and Daisy do not fit within Tom’s Nordic structure. The only characters who even remotely fit are Gatsby himself and Nick’s Finnish maid. This is important because Tom and Daisy’s economic superiority does not come from blood or the Nordic race; rather, it occurs from the privileges they have had throughout their lives.
In the next post, I will conclude my discussion of the lecture. Stay tuned for more. Until then, what are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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