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...
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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. What might have been his motivation for doing this? Is fleeing a hit-and-run consistent with the behavior she has displayed up to that point in the story?
The Role of Nick Carraway: As The Great Gatsby’s narrator, Nick is the filter through which readers receive the events of the novel. He’s mainly a passive observer, but he isn’t reluctant to interpret and render judgment on what’s happening. While he can be clever and insightful, under scrutiny some of his opinions aren’t entirely compelling—which makes him a good vehicle for introducing students to the concept of an unreliable narrator. Have them read Nick’s storytelling with a skeptical eye, and ask if they can come up with alternative interpretations for the events he describes.
- For discussion: Early in the novel, Nick calls himself “one of the few honest people I have ever known.” Yet when he breaks up with Jordan at the end, she laments that she has misjudged him, saying, “I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person.” Why does she question his honesty? Are there parts of Nick’s narrative that might be less than honest?
- For discussion: In their last moments together, Nick tells Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch of them put together.” Is his high regard for Gatsby justified? Is there anything about Nick’s own background that would predispose him to admire Gatsby and to be contemptuous of Daisy and Tom? Alternatively, might Nick’s statement be disingenuous?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Story Contains Elements of Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Class Bias: There are moments in The Great Gatsby of unmistakable prejudice. Students will almost certainly detect anti-Semitism in the caricatured portrayal of Meyer Wolfsheim, the Jewish gangster who is Gatsby’s mentor in the world of organized crime. They also may be taken aback by a moment when Nick refers two black men in a passing car as “bucks” and says, “I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.” His descriptions of white working-class characters can be similarly caricatured and unsympathetic. When Myrtle Wilson is killed, Nick is less disturbed by her death than he is worried about its ramifications for Gatsby and Daisy.
- What to do: The biases expressed in the story come through the filter of Nick, the narrator. He possesses many of the prejudices typical of someone of his station in life at this time in American history. In comparison to the blatant prejudice of characters such as Tom Buchanan, Nick’s are relatively mild. Have students explore the effect of this filtering. What does Nick pass judgment on, and what does he ignore? Why?
- What to do: Ask students to explore the biases of the characters by examining what they know of them. What views do the novel’s characters seem to hold? Where do those views come from? Is there any evidence that they will (or should) alter or expand their views? Have students consider the impact the characters’ prejudices have on the novel. To what extent does it matter that many of the wealthy white characters, such as Tom and the attendees at Gatsby’s parties, also come across as caricatures?
Nick’s Narration Is Sometimes Haughty and Obscure: Nick is prone to drawing poetic, philosophical conclusions from the novel’s events. Some of his pronouncements are likely to perplex students (and teachers as well). In the opening pages, for instance, he says about Gatsby, “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.” It’s possible to identify the general intent behind this sentence—that Gatsby was uncommonly aware of life’s possibilities—but as a conditional “if-then” statement, it doesn’t really hold together. Throughout the book, Nick makes similar statements, sometimes grandly citing classical philosophers to bolster his arguments.
- What to do: The storyline of The Great Gatsby is fairly simple. Nick’s commentaries are like touches of elaborate decoration. As much as anything, they’re there to create a mood, and they can be effective in that respect even when they don’t stand up to logical scrutiny. If students struggle with them, emphasize that the story can be understood without having to unravel Nick’s pronouncements. At the same time, it’s worthwhile to solicit interpretations from multiple students, and then see if they can come to a consensus.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Great Gatsby
While the main ideas and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving The Great Gatsby, the following suggestions represent alternative approaches that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
Focus on the novel’s narrative structure. Much of the dramatic impact of The Great Gatsby depends on the ways in which Fitzgerald chooses to conceal and reveal information. Have students examine Fitzgerald’s strategies for constructing his plot and characters. Why does he choose chapter 6 as the point to tell the story of Gatsby’s past? Why does he give such a fractured view of Gatsby and Daisy’s courtship, having Jordan describe it in limited detail in chapter 4 and Gatsby elaborate on it in chapter 8, while never giving Daisy’s perspective? What other plot and character details are strategically withheld from readers?
Focus on looking for other “American dreams” in The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby is commonly thought to epitomize the American dream. Do other characters have “American dreams” as well? Can the concept be applied to Daisy, or Wolfsheim, or Myrtle—or is it limited by gender and ethnicity? What about the other men in the novel? Do Tom and Nick and George Wilson have American dreams? If so, how do they differ from Gatsby’s?
Focus on the use of symbolism. Fitzgerald employs several prominent, memorable symbols in Gatsby, including the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ dock, the valley of ashes, and the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. What is the significance of these symbols? Beyond these conspicuous examples, are there other elements in the novel that take on symbolic meaning? More broadly, why do authors employ symbolism in works of literature?