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Teaching Approaches

Gatsby and the American Dream: Jay Gatsby is often identified as an embodiment of the American dream, which carries connotations both good and bad. As a young man he started with nothing and, through determination and ambition, achieved great wealth. The narrator, Nick Carraway, admires Gatsby but also recognizes the superficiality of his dreams, saying that he was in “the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty,” and that he had devoted his life to fulfilling an ideal he had conjured up as a naive seventeen-year-old boy. Gatsby’s goal, at least in broad terms, is to achieve the life of wealth and privilege that Tom and Daisy were born into. His method for getting there doesn’t seem to concern him. He never shows any compunction about being involved in organized crime— and Nick doesn’t judge him negatively because of it. 

  • For discussion: What is the American dream? In what ways does Gatsby fulfill it, and in what ways doesn’t he? 
  • For discussion: How does Daisy factor into Gatsby’s ambitions? Is his love for her an obstacle to achieving the American dream, or would winning her hand be the dream’s ultimate fulfillment? 
  • For discussion: Does The Great Gatsby portray the American dream more as reality or illusion? Is the novel ultimately a criticism or an endorsement of the dream? 

Portrayal of the Roaring ‘20s and the Jazz Age: One of the things that makes The Great Gatsby engaging is the nuanced way in which it captures a fascinating moment in American history. Ideally, you can time the reading of the novel to coincide with your students’ study of the 1920s in history class. Regardless of whether that’s feasible, it’s worthwhile to devote time to studying the major social issues of the day, some of which are addressed in the history section of this guide. Strategies you can use include showing documentary videos about the era (such as segments from the Ken Burns series on Prohibition), and having students work in small groups to research and present information to the class about topics such as the Volstead Act, women’s suffrage, flappers, and the concept of “the Jazz Age.” 

  • For discussion: Based on the evidence in the novel, which segments of society appear to have felt the most impact from the changes of the Roaring ‘20s? Are the changes good or bad? How so? 
  • For discussion: How does the book’s portrayal of the era compare with what students have learned about it from historical accounts? 
  • For discussion: What similarities, if any, are there between the Roaring ‘20s and the present day? Which cultural changes during the ‘20s proved lasting? 

Daisy Buchanan, Victim and Villain: The plot of The Great Gatsby revolves around the character of Daisy. All of Gatsby’s actions are ultimately motivated by his love for her; her decision to stay with Tom is the novel’s crucial turning point; and when she accidentally kills Myrtle, and thus precipitates the deaths of Gatsby and George Wilson, she becomes the story’s villain. She’s also The Great Gatsby’s most complex and enigmatic character, by turns wise and naive, abused and abusive, loving and heartless. Students are likely to feel some sympathy for her plight. She’s objectified by Tom and Gatsby—and, to a lesser extent, Nick—all of whom are enthralled by the sound of her voice without having much regard for what she’s actually saying. In the end, it’s her silence that turns her character sinister. Gatsby dies while awaiting a call from her that never comes, and as she disappears following Gatsby’s death, Nick condemns her “vast carelessness,” a phrase that takes on the weight of a moral censure. 

  • For discussion: In the scene at the Plaza Hotel where Daisy is forced to choose between Gatsby and Tom, why does she decide to stay with Tom? Given the circumstances, was it the right choice for her? 
  • For discussion: By having Daisy hit and kill Myrtle and not admit to it, Fitzgerald chooses to portray her in a harshly negative light....

(The entire section is 1,773 words.)