1: Disrupting ‘The Great Gatsby’

Posted by Tricia Ebarvia

The #DisruptTexts chat on The Great Gatsby was held the week of 5/14. Click the image below to see the highlights!

In addition to the Twitter Moment, check out the brief highlights and reflection on the #DisruptTexts chat on The Great Gatsby that follow. If you have additional ideas or resources to share, please let us know!

Click image above to view highlights from the chat!

The Great Gatsby is a widely taught text. For what reasons might teachers and schools include this text in their curriculum? What is the value in teaching this text? Do you have to teach this—why?

When you think about “American Literature,” you’d be hard pressed to find a high school course that didn’t include Fitzgerald’s seminal work as a highlight. Over and over again, Gatsby appears at or near the top of lists and ranking of the greatest American novels. Certainly its place in the cultural lexicon is one reason that many teachers continue to teach the book, and for many teachers, exposure to the text seems an integral part of being “American,” especially since the novel is often alluded to in other works of literature.

But exposure and tradition (this is the way it’s always been done) can’t be the only reasons to continue teaching this novel. For teachers like Josh Thompson, the value of teaching Gatsby is in its critique of American society, particularly the American dream, “privilege, and systemic oppression.” Questions about the attitudes of the upper class and their “careless” behavior can be examined for their relevance to today. Finally, aside from its themes, Gatsby is also lauded by some as a powerful example of lyrical language and descriptive prose.


What are the drawbacks of this text? In what ways might this text be problematic related equity, representation, gender, race, power, and so on? Any specific content?

When a single text like Gatsby becomes synonymous with the “American Dream” and widely considered the greatest “American” novel, questions about its true value can and should be raised. And the problem with Gatsby is that its status is precisely one thing that can make it so problematic. After all, whose “American” dream are we talking about? For whom? The truth is that if the novel represents anything, or anyone, it’s a very small, narrow view of what it means to be American. As Stephanie Hasty reminds us, “The novel is problematic by teaching only what is there instead of pushing back against the text to talk about what isn’t there.” Who is missing? Who is marginalized? Why? And regardless of the content of the novel, Josh Thompson points out that “the Eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg might as well be a metaphor for the lens we’re forced to view the story through. The white male gaze is ever present.” Teachers can disrupt this reading by asking students to consider interpretations of the novel through a queer lens, as illustrated through criticism like “Nick Carraway is Queer and in Love with Jay Gatsby.”

Another potentially problematic issue with Gatsby is its gender dynamics. Daisy, like so many female characters in other traditionally canonical pieces (Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Crucible, among others) perpetuates “the notion of the female temptress causing the fall of man.” As Brian Melton asks, “Although Biblical in nature, can we continue to ask our female students to engage with that false narrative?” Or, really, any of our students?

Furthermore, Gatsby’s rise from “rags to riches,” however fraught it may be, may also “perpetuate the myth of meritocracy,” as Julia Torres points out. That said, Dana Huff recommends using the novel’s problematic elements as an entry into discussions about class and race (she suggests this activity from Paul Kivel to use with students). Rather than gloss over or worse, ignore, the casual racism of some of the characters, including but not limited to Tom, teachers can lean into those moments, such as when Jordan Baker comments, “We’re all white here.” Furthermore, teachers can disrupt traditional historical readings of the text that might focus solely on the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties, the romanticized flappers and speakeasies, and push back on this limited view of the time period. Social Studies teacher Jennifer Phillips, for example, points out that “what [students] don’t know about the 1920s, more often, is the nativism, the visibility of the Klu Klux Klan, the lynchings, the race riots” or “about the eugenics movement born right here in the United States.” “My students come in with this idea that the Roaring 20s was a gas. Fun, frivolous, free. But for who?” she asks. Indeed.


What are the critical conversations classrooms could make space for as we move from a “historical/traditional” lens to a “facing forward” perspective?

Again, a critical approach that works with a text like Gatsby is to ask, as Carol Jago suggests, “Who’s missing? Whose story isn’t being told here? Why do these omissions matter?” Derek Horneland pushes further, “If this is a story of the American Dream, what voices are being left out or misrepresented?” Other approaches:

  • Consider Gatsby as a novel “to teach/think about/explore identity fraud in our internet heavy times” (Lorena German)
  • Gatsby as a “passing narrative”—both racial and gender passing. (Lorena German, Andy Arcand)
  • Challenge the heternormative aspects of the texts (Derek Horneland)
  • Reading through a feminist lens: in what ways are the female characters treated? how do they exercise power or lack power?

What other fiction—novels, short stories, picture books, plays, comics, movies, etc.—might you use? What additional and/or disruptive perspectives could this offer

While there are many possibilities, a commonly cited pairing (or replacement) text is Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, both for the power to speak to the American Dream. Raisin, in particular, offers possibilities for students to think about the myths of that dream, to study the systemic forces  at work that kept many from achieving success. Jen Fall recommended the companion or alternative, Bodega Dreams, which is “loosely based on the Fitzgerald novel” and “set in East Harlem in the 80s/90s.” Other recommendations:

  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson
  • Get Out by Jordan Peele
  • Passing by Nella Larson
  • Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
  • I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez

What about non-fiction? What essays, articles, podcasts, videos, documentaries, photo essays, political cartoons, etc. might you use? How do these texts stand with or against The Great Gatsby?

The most useful non-fiction to use with Gatsby might be that which provides students with a wider sense of the time period as well as represent the experiences of those marginalized, both in the novel and during the time period. Highlights from teacher suggestions:

  • The Warmth of Other Suns
  • Between the World and Me
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross and Inequality for All
  • Nickeled and Dimed
  • “The Great Gatsby’s Jew” from Jewish Journal
  • “The Great Gatsby Curve” from The Atlantic
  • “The End of White America” from The Atlantic
  • “Gatsby-Themed Wedding Ideas that Say, ‘I didn’t read the book’” from Reductress.com
  • Obama’s 2004 DNC speech on the American Dream
  • “We Need to Talk about an Injustice” TED Talk
  • “Writer/Literary Critic Janet Savage” on the Mixed Experience podcast

Last but not least, let’s talk poetry! What poetry, including songs, could work well in a text set for The Great Gatsby?

Focus on poetry that explores similar themes or conflicts within the novel but from other viewpoints, such as:

  • Citizen by Claudine Rankine
  • “This is America” by Childish Gambino
  • Soundtrack to The Great Gatsby film, produced by Jay-Z
  • “Juicy” by Notorious BIG
  • “Children’s Story” by Black Star
  • “I, too, sing America” by Langston Hughes
  • “Let America by America Again” by Langston Hughes
  • “America” sonnet by Claude McKay
  • “American Sonnets” by Terrence Hayes

 

 

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