In which a teacher prods a class to cast a cold eye on an American Dream
OK, kids, so it’s my understanding that Ms. Anthony and Mr. Kiedis and all the English teachers are doing The Great Gatsby in your English classes.
—We haven’t finished it yet.
Right. But you’re all at least underway, right? Anybody less than halfway done? Good.
OK, then. I want to put a proposition up on the board.
—So here you go again, Mr. K. Violating department boundaries. I think there should be a fine for that kind of thing.
Maybe so, Emily. But I was born to be wild this way. OK, so here’s my proposition:
JAY GATSBY IS A PATHETIC FRAUD.
—He makes up his identity. Gatsby pretends to be something he’s not.
So you think he’s a fraud and pathetic, Adam?
—No. Because even though Gatsby makes things up Nick Carraway admires his hope and his ambition.
Well that’s what Nick thinks, Ethan. That’s what you think, too?”
—He was definitely a fraud. But I’m not sure about pathetic. He did questionable things on the way up, but the fact that he was striving for something—he might not be pathetic.
—Oh no, he’s definitely pathetic and a fraud. He got where he was through fraudulence, cheating and going around the law—
That’s fraud in the legal sense of the term. A crime.
—Yes, and he’s pathetic in the desperation with which he wants Daisy Buchanan.
Okay. But let’s step back. When you’re confronted with a statement like “Jay Gatsby is a pathetic fraud,” what’s the first thing you should do?
Good, Jonquil. You’ve got to define your terms. Now let’s go back to the easier part of this: Is Jay Gatsby a fraud?”
—Because he pretends to be someone he’s not.
That’s right, Kylie. Some of the facts are reasonably clear: the man who calls himself Jay Gatsby was actually born James Gatz. He makes inaccurate factual statements about his background (among them that he lived in San Francisco, which he describes as “the Middle West”), and so on. There are other, unverifiable claims he makes that we can regard with some suspicion, but in any event there is no empirical doubt—the man says things that aren’t true, ipso facto he is a fraud. Correct?
—I’m not so sure.
Why the doubt, Ethan?
—Well, I’m thinking about it. When James Gatz said he was Jay Gatsby, he kinda became that person. He followed all the rules of the person he invented. It’s like my cousin’s name is Eduardo, but everyone knows him as Nate.
—Hey, what can I say. I have a weird family.
So when Gatsby describes himself as “an Oxford man,” he’s saying something that’s factually accurate—he did go to Oxford—just not in the way people customarily think of it, getting an undergraduate degree and the like.
—Yeah. Kinda like that.
—They’re all a bunch of frauds.
Really? How so?
—Daisy is pretending to be a faithful wife; Myrtle is pretending to be belong in the world of Tom, with whom she’s having an affair, Jordan is pretending . . . .
—that she cares about anyone but herself?
Of course by that standard, we’re probably all frauds.
—The point about Gatsby is that he seems to have a kind of higher purpose. That’s why Nick admires him.
Okay. You understand my real point here, which is less about whether Gatsby is or isn’t a fraud, and more about having a clear standard by which you measure the term. Now let’s move on to a term I suspect is a little less clear: pathetic. What does it mean to be pathetic?”
—Lame. That’s a word that comes to mind.
—To get to a desperation point. To stoop to a certain point.
I guess it’s time for me to share my secret dream with you. My secret dream is, well—my secret dream is that I really think I can make it in the NBA. I want to become a professional basketball player.
I mean, yeah, sure, it’s a long shot. Yes, I’ll have to lose a few pounds, work out a little harder. And yes, I’m not all that tall. But if I’m willing to work at it, and give it everything I’ve got, I mean, why not? I can do this! I mean, this is America, right?
So: Am I pathetic?”
—No. You’re not pathetic.”
Why not, Kylie?
—Because I think that having dreams is never pathetic.
Even my dream of playing in the NBA?
—No matter how unattainable dreams may be.
Wait a second. Are you suggesting my dream is unattainable?
I’m going to pretend I don’t hear all your laughter.
—Striving for a dream is never pathetic. Even if it’s unattainable. That may be hard for a person to deal with in the end, but it’s not pathetic. Gatsby realizes that his dream is never what he made it out to be, but—
Are you saying Gatsby’s dream is also unattainable?
—Well, he kind of got her, at least at first. But what I mean is that dreams and goals are what make life . . . .
—I think you should quite while you’re behind, Kylie.
Dreams are vicious things, Kylie, are they not?
—No. You have to keep pushing. You have to deal with the pain of it, and maybe have a new dream. Because that’s how you keep going, how you keep going forward.
Jonah, you’re a basketball fan. Do you endorse my dream of making it in the NBA? You think I should do it?”
—Sure. Why not.
Wow. I can’t tell who’s more cruel. Kyle for encouraging me, or you for your indifferent shrug.
—I’m not cruel!
—If you’re striving to better yourself, that’s fine, she says. But if you start closing off other avenues – like if you quit your day job and waste all this money training—
What are you implying, Sadie?
—Well, obviously you can’t make it in the NBA.
Oh really? Well what if I’m a Kylie kind of guy and insist on it? That makes me pathetic?
—In my opinion, yes.
—Because you’re throwing away what you have for the sake of something that’s never going to happen.
How does what you’re saying apply to Gatsby?
—He wants to repeat the past, he wants to take back those five years he lost. Gatsby wants Daisy not to have married, not to have had a daughter, not to have never had feelings for her husband Tom. That’s impossible. And insisting on it is pathetic.
—Actually, it’s the other characters in the book who strike me as more pathetic.”
Really, Em? How so?”
—They’re so bored with themselves. They don’t know what to do.
Why is that pathetic? I mean, maybe it’s obnoxious, or just unattractive. But pathetic?
—I think it’s pathetic, I guess, because they don’t have dreams.
How about that, Emily the romantic.
—I’m just full of surprises, Mr. K.
All right then. So here’s our Spark Notes summary of The Great Gatsby: “It’s a book about desperately pathetic frauds, of whom Gatsby is the least pathetic and fraudulent.”
—I just don’t see him as a pathetic fraud, she says. Actually, I think he’s kind of a tragic hero.
Well now, that’s a term we haven’t heard in this discussion. Tragic hero? How so?
—Well, because of stuff that people like Kylie and Emily have been saying. He has something and he works hard toward it. He’s like the most developed character in the book. I think we’re putting far too much emphasis on the attainability of the dream in deciding whether it’s pathetic or not. Actually, I think Gatsby was successful on a lot of levels. He imagined a life, he lived it out, he gained a lot of respect.
Well, yes. That’s true. But those are means, not ends. You’re saying that if I lose twenty pounds, improve my jump shot, maybe improve my sense of athletic fashion, I’m not pathetic, even if I don’t make it to the NBA, right?”
—Right. Because you’ve moved toward your goal.
—As long as you don’t let it define your life.
All right. I’ll buy that. But let me ask you this: To what degree does the goal itself matter? Maybe it’s not pathetic to devote, or even lose, your life in a quest for world peace or to defeat racism. But Gatsby had a dream of winning the heart of Daisy. Here I gotta ask: Daisy? Like me in the NBA, no? More to the point: What kind of dream is Daisy? I’ll tell you what makes Gatsby pathetic: It’s that Daisy is what he wants! “Oh the shirts! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such beautiful shirts before! Isn’t she the epitome of a shallow person?
—I think you’re really underestimating how hard it is to be Daisy. She’s living in a very sexist world.
—Well it’s not like Gatsby is exactly a brilliant thinker either.
Right. Like that list of his. Like “Be Nicer to Parents.” Now there’s a moron for you.”
—Daisy represents everything that Gatsby wants, she’s saying. It’s the house, the pool, the status.
So Gatsby objectifies her? She’s a status symbol
Unlike all of you, who when you fall in love are actually in love with the authentic person, not some notion of what they appear to be.
—Well, that’s what he does, seeing her as the missing piece to a puzzle.
But that’s pretty shallow, isn’t it, Ethan?
—I guess so.
I mean, you wouldn’t make a mistake like that, now would you, Kylie?
—I guess not.
I guess not, too. I’m also guessing that talking about this stuff isn’t a pathetic bid for relevance on my part, a failed effort to make my class meaningful in your lives. Turns out it’s easy to be one, even when you’re not striving to make it to the NBA.
—Well, if it makes you feel any better, Mr. K., I don’t think you’re fraudulent either.
You don’t think so, huh, Em?
—I’ve got faith in you.