photo by emdot
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me a piece of advice I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
Each April that found me in front of a classroom full of high school juniors, I began my introductory lecture on The Great Gatsby by reciting that first line of the novel. That wasn't the real hook, of course.
As an adult, I might be eager to hear what this thought-provoking advice might have been, but when you're sixteen and the sky outside the window is thick with blue and there are baseball games and prom politics to occupy your thoughts, and you can smell the first faint hints of freedom on the breeze which animates the branches of the trees in the courtyard into arms waving invitations to escape . . . well, a fictional father's advice given to his fictional son nearly a century ago is utter snoozeville.
The first year that I taught Gatsby, I stumbled into what would later become my hook by complete accident. I was talking to my favorite class of juniors that year, and I tended to be more conversational with them. Somehow, before I knew what I was saying, I was telling them this:
The first time I read The Great Gatsby, I was a junior in high school. Just like you. I read it, and although I understood the story, I kind of didn't get it. I was a junior in college when I read it the second time and that time, I completely got it. Why didn't I get it when I was sixteen? As it just so happens, when I read it that first time when I was sixteen, I was dating a boy who would eventually break my heart. He would be, in fact, the only real heartbreak of my life. By the time I read it again in college, I understood Gatsby on a much deeper level because I knew what it was to have my heart broken.
In order to understand Gatsby, you have to have had your heart broken. At least once.
By the time I got to the part about heartbreak, the room usually got very quiet, and the eyes of all of those sixteen year-old girls (and usually half of the boys) were unblinkingly set on me. Sixteen year-olds may not know much about life yet, but unrequited love, heartaches and heartbreaks, and longing so intense you think you might actually lay down and die - this is a language in which they are fluent. The ones who were willing to get caught up, I reeled in - hook, line, and sinker.And now here we are. I'm digging around in the library in my mind, considering the question - "What book captured your heart? Tell about why the first book you loved is the first book you loved." *
photo by dan taylor
Oh, certainly there are amazing, incredible books from the realms of young adult literature that I absolutely loved first. Bridge to Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows, To Kill a Mockingbird. I very nearly wrote this on Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret. Gatsby, however, marks a time when I crossed from literature for young adults to literature for grown-ups, and that may be one of the reasons I love it. And truly, no character, no author, no story has captured my heart the way Gatsby did all those years ago.
When I read Gatsby later as an English major in college, I had matured to a point of understanding that while the story of Jay Gatsby is, yes, about love and longing, the complexities run far greater than that. There are volumes and tomes devoted to the dissection of The Great Gatsby, defending and attacking its status as The Great American Novel, and I could never write anything that would compete even minutely with scholarly analysis.
I'll stick with what I know - this little heart of mine.
It's hard to pin down whom I love more - Gatsby or Fitzgerald himself.
The brilliant way Fitzgerald crafts the story of Jay and Daisy, of Tom and Myrtle and Nick and Jordan and George and the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg invites me back to give Gatsby a quick re-read every April. His prose is so classically American - crisp but poetic, luxurious yet restrained. Gorgeous writing makes my heart beat faster.
Oh, look! I just found a favorite passage, the one in which Fitzgerald allows a glimpse of what it was to experience Jay Gatsby:
He smiled understandingly - much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced - or seemed to face - the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you just so far as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
Mmmm-hmmmm. That's nice writing.
Just flipping through my own well-marked, much-loved copy, I am reminded that Gatsby offers page after page of testimony to the exquisite power of storytelling. I am also reminded of lines from the story that I have internalized and say to myself on occasion - the private jokes of a consummate literature geek:
Daisy beckoning her daughter - "The bles-sed pre-cious," she crooned, holding out her arms. "Come to your own mother that loves you." (I can't tell you how many times I've said that to one of my girls. I'm an odd cat, I'll admit that.)
Daisy, amidst the heaps of Jay's shirts - "They're such beautiful shirts . . . It makes me sad because I don't think I've ever seen such - such beautiful shirts before." (Poor Kyle. He has to be brought in on my little private enjoyances of Gatsby. He did know that I was this way when he married me though, old chap.)
Alright. I could wear out your patience (too late?) with beloved Gatsby lines.
But I haven't yet even gotten to tell you why I love Jay Gatsby.
Jay, Jay, Jay. Where do I even start? In Jay Gatsby, I find a soul-friend. This unsurpassed idealist nods knowingly at the unyielding idealistic bend of my own nature. For Jay Gatsby, it was not entirely out of the realm of reason to construct an entire persona around a vision he believed would win him the heart and companionship of Daisy Fay Buchanan. I might not have ever constructed a whole life story around half-truths and supposition, but I do know a thing or two about carefully constructing a facade to meet the expectations of others.
Oh, poor Jay Gatsby. Standing in the darkness with trembling arms outstretched, reaching toward the green light at the end of the Buchanan's dock across the bay, giving flesh and bone to every extraordinary dream that was over before it began. Jay Gatsby, whose hope would not be buoyed even on the last day of his life, is one of the few characters from American literature that I fully, truly, undeniably understand.
And what is perhaps the most endearing quality of The Great Gatsby is that while the narrative itself is wholly American, it is at the same time unquestionably universal. Each of us, on some level, knows that despite our best efforts to elude our beginnings, there are aspects of the past from which we cannot escape. We don't get to choose how our stories begin, and though we row tirelessly forward in an effort to determine the course of our life's story, still there is that past, always tethering us to our first breath.
All of this is brilliantly captured in one masterful sentence which Fitzgerald uses to bring Gatsby's story to a powerful end:
photo of Fitzgerald's grave by rpongsaj
And so it is Gatsby, Gatsby have I loved.
* This is written as a response to writing prompt #2 in Mama Kat's weekly Writer's Workshop. Read more responses from each of the prompts in this week's Writer's Workshop.