On Reading Gatsby Again, With My Daughter

I was excited F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was a novel my daughter’s English class was reading this semester. Last year, when her class read my all-time favorite, To Kill a Mockingbird, she and I had wonderful discussions.

I wanted to repeat the experience.

Now, it’s been many years since I read Gatsby. I decided this time I’d read along at the same pace as the class and get the benefit of their discussions in talking with my daughter later.

As the title suggests, the novel revolves around Jay Gatsby, a mysterious character of unlimited “new” wealth who throws extravagant parties at his mansion on Long Island in the 1920s.

It’s narrated by Nick, a midwestern transplant from a wealthy, upper-class family who happens to live next to Gatsby. Through his “old money” cousin Daisy, and her husband, Tom, Nick meets and is attracted to Jordan, a cynical young woman. Through her, he learns of Gatsby’s long-ago love of Daisy and his desire to meet her again. Of course, you know nothing good can come of that.

To distill it down, it’s the tragic story of a thwarted love affair amidst the superficial society of New York in the Roaring 20s. But the themes that run through it — social and moral decay, greed, identity, self-worth, etc. — lift it beyond this. Which is why it’s taught in highschool.

Almost from the first, my daughter hated this novel and it boiled down to two things — language and characters.

The language issue surprised me. Several times she missed information because it wasn’t written in a straight-forward manner. Ok, it was published over 80 years ago and Fitzgerald’s language is a bit convoluted for kids in the 21st century. But it’s not exactly Shakespeare, right? When she told me she understood Shakespeare better than Fitzgerald, I knew she was just being stubborn.

To show society’s decline into the muck, the characters obviously couldn’t be upstanding, warm-and-fuzzy people. But I had to laugh at how they really, REALLY offended my daughter.

I knew she wouldn’t like Daisy and was waiting for the reaction. Oh, my! Daisy’s mothering skills left much to be desired and when Daisy cries into Gatsby’s shirts because they are just so beautiful, well, it sent my daughter into a rant.

She was outraged by Daisy’s hit-and-run and the lengths to which Tom was instrumental in setting up Gatsby. Then they just disappeared because they had money and could do it. They never had to face the consequences of their actions. I was pleased to see her reaction to this, since my husband and I spend a lot of time discussing just this topic with our children.

The only character she actually liked was Jordan and was stunned by her callous treatment of Nick at the end, proving she was just like the rest of them.

No, my daughter did not like The Great Gatsby. I have to say it’s not one of my favorites, either, though I find it’s an interesting study of motivations and circumstances.

What struck me on this reading was the drama Daisy creates in her life and for those around her. Maybe because I’m in the midst of it with two kids in highschool, but drama for the sake of drama is something I definitely notice a lot these days. It transcends age, social status and gender. It also drives me batty, which is why it’s the calm, sensible people I notice and tend to gravitate toward.

In the end, this wasn’t exactly an enjoyable experience because neither of us loved the novel. But our discussions of character were certainly thought-provoking and led my daughter to some keen observations that had me cheering for the next generation.

Have you read a book with a teenager, and, if so, how did it change the way you experienced it? How do you feel about rereading novels, particularly many years later? Does it change how you feel about the characters or story or do you simply notice things you missed before?

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8 comments on “On Reading Gatsby Again, With My Daughter

  1. Gatsby was the best book I read all through school. We read it in grade 11.. I wrote a whole essay on the usage of colours and the meaning behind them. For example “Daisy”, just her name a long.. A Daisy is white and pure and all things good, however, the closer you get to the centre of the flower it gets yellow which is jealousy and greed and all ‘bad’. Which looking at the character was a lot like her. It was such a beautiful story!!

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    • E.K. Carmel says:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Color usage and meaning is an interesting subject. I’ve sometimes wondered if such things are unconsciously used or carefully crafted by an author.

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  2. Gatsby is still on my to-read list so I wasn’t able to read most of your post (yet) because I don’t like to know much if anything about the books I haven’t read. 🙂

    But I’ve found there’s a tendency to “see” things differently when a book is read at a certain age or phase of life and then re-read again later. That’s why I gave The Catcher in the Rye not one, not two, but THREE chances. After reading it three times and still not liking it, I figured I could safely say I wouldn’t ever like it. So when I re-read literary fiction, my opinion of the story can and does change because I grow and change.

    As for reading with teens, I love it. They’re in a different phase of life and state of mind; thus, their perspectives are totally different than most adults, often more open and refreshing.

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    • E.K. Carmel says:

      I wish you well on your future reading of Gatsby!

      You know, Catcher in the Rye is a novel I liked as a teenager when it was a class assignment. I even bought it during one of my collecting phases as an adult. But I haven’t read it. When I look at it now, I kind of get the feeling my opinion of it may change, and then choose something else to read. Weird, huh?

      I really have enjoyed discussing novels (and movies, for that matter) with my daughter. Her tastes sometimes coincide with mine, but often she’ll have a different take on it that gives me pause. It’s always interesting, that’s for sure!

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  3. D J Mills says:

    I am amazed that both of you kept reading until the end of that book. 🙂 But I would read (and do) Shakespeare any time I have a free afternoon.

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    • E.K. Carmel says:

      Well, she had to read it for a class assignment and I didn’t want to leave her hanging, so to speak. It’s funny, there were times I was reading it, trying to visualize it through her eyes. It kept me on my toes!

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  4. Gatsby is one of those books I keep intending to get round to reading – especially now that the story will be more mainstream in pop culture (because of the film) and there’s the chance of picking up too many spoilers.

    Interesting that though the whole point is that these are superficial, difficult to like people, your daughter disliked the book for that reason. Proof that nothing’s going to satisfy everyone!

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    • E.K. Carmel says:

      It’s a small book and really doesn’t take any time to read. If you’re the type of person who prefers to read the book before the movie, go for it. They always change something and from the trailer I saw recently, I think they are definitely padding the story for the film.

      As for my daughter, LOL, we discussed the fact early on these were *supposed* to be despicable people, but it’s a tough sell to a kid these days. I don’t envy teachers trying to teach “classics.”

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