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?