by Erika Koss
This was the question my friends and I asked, repeatedly, back in 1990, when we were required to read The Great Gatsby in our 9th grade English class. I was 14 years old. And how often does this question continue to be asked, by teenagers who continue to be informed that this short 1925 novel is “the” great American novel, that this is Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, that the reaching and searching and despair of all the novel’s characters reflect, not only American experience way back so long ago in the Roaring ’20s, but that it reflects us, still.
At times I feel ambivalence toward such force-feeding of literature to teenagers, partly because I was a bookworm who never required the prompting of a teacher to read. My literary hunger always left me wanting more.
My older son, however, is not this kid, despite his passion for the arts. Now 14 years old, his reading of novels must be compulsory, or I suspect he wouldn’t read them at all. Over the years, my attempt to bribe him to read my favorite childhood novels has failed. Where the Red Fern Grows. Treasure Island. The Power of One. The saving grace has been his excellent English teachers who had the good sense to assign novels (The Outsiders, To Kill a Mockingbird) that, however much he didn’t want to read then initially, have now become two of his favorite books. This, and the fact that he will read non-fiction and plays without pressure from his book-loving mother. Still, I can’t help but hope that someday he’ll want to read some of my favorite novels. The Count of Monte Cristo. Cry, the Beloved Country. The Age of Innocence.
Until then, there’s Gatsby, and, thanks to Baz Luhrmann, my son wants to see the movie. But of course, I think he must first read the novel—I gave him his own copy last week—then I’ll take him to the film, which I still haven’t seen. Despite all the buzz, I’ve been avoiding the reviews, purposefully.
Still, I’m somehow slightly nervous about taking my beloved too-quickly-approaching-15-year-old son to see the film of a novel that moves me with as much force as much as Gatsby. So much of this has to do with the shirt scene.
You remember: Gatsby and Daisy’s first kiss led him to “wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath.” Later, he left for the war, and Daisy married Tom Buchanan. After Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway, happens to move to the house next to Gatsby’s, Nick agrees to orchestrate a meeting between the past lovers that begins in his sitting room and ends in Gatsby’s home. As the once-impoverished Jay Gatsby takes the love-of-his-life, the former southern belle, on a tour of his mansion, they end up in his room, with her holding his shirts, weeping:
“‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.’”
This was the scene of the novel that messed up my teenage view of The Great Gatsby. At 14, I was so frustrated with this book that I remember once throwing it across the room. Who cares if Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes are symbols for God or any other kind of transient, sarcastic Deity, who watches us from a billboard? Why make such a big deal about a green light on some far-away dock? And why in the world was Daisy crying over shirts? Who would describe such shirts as “beautiful” anyway? How superficial is that?
Later I realized: My anger at this proposed “greatest of all American novels” had nothing to do with Fitzgerald, or even my English teacher. I misread the shirt scene, because at 14 years old, I had not experienced love or what it means to be broken-hearted, and not just any kind of love or broken-heartedness, but the kind that radically shapes your worldview, your sense of yourself in such a worldview, and everything that comes after it. I had not yet been shattered by regret, despair, or anxiety as a result of such choices.
After surviving such regret, despair, and anxiety – after two such broken hearts in the last decade – I found myself returning to Gatsby. There I found solace, the kind that often comes through the arts, and through the greatest of books. I realized that Gatsby’s “romantic readiness,” his “extraordinary gift of hope,” was indeed not a fault. I could sympathize with Daisy, who made the choices before her at the time, not knowing that Gatsby would indeed return to her without any loss of limbs or love. That both characters can’t “get over” their past reflects their humanity. Or at least, it reflects mine. Sometimes, it’s not quite possible to “grin and bear it” and just find someone else. Gatsby knew what he wanted, and he went after her, wholeheartedly. That he died in the end reflects the tragedy that the novel is. The history of every broken heart is in this story, even as every misshapen love story has so often to do with ill-fated timing.
So if Luhrmann nails the shirt scene, I will, very likely, also weep. My son won’t understand why, and that is okay. How could he? I’m not even expecting him to love the novel, at least for now. But what I am expecting is that, like me, he’ll remember the moments, the symbols, and the feelings. He’ll remember that his mother gave him a book she loved. He’ll later remember that we went to see the film, which he may enjoy much more than the book right now, which is just fine.
Either way, he’ll have these memories of Gatsby as something to return to someone when he’s an adult, after his innocence is lost, his faith shattered, his heart broken. Perhaps he will turn to Gatsby in such anger, despite sorrow, or merely for entertainment – but no matter what the reason, Gatsby – the novel – will be there. Maybe he’ll find solace there, as his mother has found. And maybe this will be enough for him to keep as he beats on against the current, toward his own dreams, toward the Green Light.A native Californian, Erika Koss was formerly the Director of of the Fitzgerald Literary Conference in Rockville, Maryland, where, for seven years, she lived less than one mile from F. Scott’s and Zelda’s graves. She worked at the National Endowment for the Arts on the founding creative teams for Poetry Out Loud and The Big Read (where The Great Gatsby was one of the first four books). She now works at Northeastern University as an Assistant Dean in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. She lives near Boston with her two sons. The Great Gatsby character map is from here.