While we are at school we are made to study texts that we did not choose. As both student and teacher alike I have encountered novels, plays and poetry that I have despised to the point of once burying a novel in my back garden. Happily, I have more often found a gem that sits proudly in a sacred place forevermore on my shelf rather than being relegated to the compost.
In 1996 I was shackled to a desk and force-fed a tale of the distant and, to me, irrelevant 1920s. A land of flappers, prohibition and openly racist millionaires. The characters of old New York had no redeeming features to me and to be honest I did not even finish reading it. I, rather ironically, felt the novel was a car crash of storytelling and couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to follow the exploits of someone that called everyone ‘old sport’ far too often.
This year I am set to teach The Great Gatsby for the seventh time and not because I am eeking out some sort of masochistic vengeance on my students. I look back on my own final year of secondary education and desperately want to grab that young upstart by the scruff of the neck and tell him that he is missing out on something that he will not have a chance to reconnect with for another 13 years.
Continuing my admissions of guilt I will confess that when I inherited a Year 11 Literature class, already assigned their text list for the year, I shuddered at the thought of Gatsby and his hollow parties and pink suits creeping upon me as Term 4 drew closer. In fact I avoided reading the novel and instead picked up a graphic novel adaptation of the text by Melbourne artist Nicki Greenberg. Her depiction of Fitzgerald’s characters as sea creatures and grotesque monsters fit perfectly with my original impressions and I had forgotten the text so didn’t immediately realise that she was largely replicating all of the prose frame by frame. Thank God for Nicki and her sea-horse depiction of Jay Gatsby because she hooked me on the whole Jazz Age scene and on Nick’s narration of that fateful summer.
I did, I am sure you will be relieved to finally hear, read the actual novel prior to beginning classes and in each subsequent year have revelled in re-reading each of the nine chapters slowly, occasionally doing the voices of the characters in my head.
Narrator, Nick Carraway, may be unreliable and his insights may be tainted with an idealised view, and possible love, of the titular Gatsby but I can excuse his irritating tendency to gloss over the juiciest moments because Nick is like me: a bystander and watcher of people. He is a conduit to the world of the old-money Buchannan’s, Wolfsheim the bootlegger, the snooty but alluring Jordan Baker and parties that I would be too anxious to even think of going to. I am most definitely not, on the other hand, Gatsby. I am neither suave nor successful. I hope I am not Tom and my voice, while deep and caramelly, is certainly not full of money as Daisy’s is. No, I am Nick.
Nick can see through the layers of artifice to the real person within. He doesn’t do very much with this insight but he does have it. Nick doesn’t want to be like his family, he wants to reinvent himself but struggles to do so because he discovers the world is a heartless place. Nick casts judgment from afar while professing that he is non-judgemental. Yes, I am Nick.
Like Nick, I learnt a lot from Jay Gatsby. After one of his elaborate but unfulfilling parties Nick warns Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past,” to which Gatsby incredulously replies, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” My return to this wonderful novel proves both fictional heroes are right after all. I returned to the past and rather than repeat my failed reading I stood at the end of Fitzgerald’s literary pier and will be forever enamoured of the distant light it casts. Gladly, unlike Gatsby, I need not beat on against the current, I have attained my ambition and can see no end to teaching The Great Gatsby.