My AP students took an essay test on Thursday and Friday over their analysis of The Great Gatsby, and I was pretty proud of it. They received six prompts, and had to choose two to write essays on. I actually started grading some of the essays as the students turned them in (apparently this is the “trick” – you aren’t supposed to wait until 5 PM on Sunday with your stack of 82 essays before you start grading), and I must admit, it’s a significantly different experience grading writing of honors students than grading the regular track classes.
I’m finally watching the most recent version of The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio, and enjoying a mug of tea while I finish grading their essays. I’ve heard varying reviews, but I think this new version very accurately captures the spirit of the novel, even if it takes some artistic liberties (for example, no where in the book is Nick Carraway in rehab).
As I watch and read essays, I am filled with a profound sense of sadness…while my questions were rigorous and required some analytical thinking, I think I have failed many of my students in my attempt to help them develop appreciation for a great work of literature.
Because my own understanding of the story was very shallow (I first read it in high school, then reread it over the summer before teaching it), I think I transferred much of that onto my students. In their essays, my students describe Tom Buchanan as an ungrateful jerk for messing around with Myrtle when he has a hot wife at home; they describe Daisy as shallow and conceited for ignoring her daughter, believing everyone was in love with her, and for refusing to leave Tom for a man who clearly loved her more. Nick is an inconsistent narrator, and Fitzgerald apparently hates women (technically the commentary we read describes his views as “objectifying,”but apparently many of my students believe that is a synonym for “misogynist”).
What they (and I) missed is the depth of the characters and the tragedy of the story. The tragedy is not the deaths at the end – this was mentioned briefly in the New York Times original book review, and I missed it when we read it in class. The violence is not the murders. To me, the tragedy is in the love between Gatsby and Daisy that was cut short, and could never truly be rekindled. The violence was in Gatsby’s obsession with trying to win Daisy that he literally gave his life to get that love back. My students argued that Gatsby was hedonistic because he only cared about his own dream and not about having friends or anything else. But really, he was totally and completely, destructively, selfless: everything he did was for Daisy. When Nick tells Gatsby that he can’t repeat the past, Gatsby looks at him and, without a trace of humor, says, “Of course you can, old sport.”