I did not understand The Great Gatsby in high school. A good friend of mine didn't. A stranger who was reading it at the coffee shop that I work at, shortly after I had just re-read the book, did not get it when he was assigned to read it in middle school (I know this because he told me when I complimented him on his taste). This should not surprise. High school students hardly understand themselves, much less literature.
And Gatsby is deceptively simple literature. Until the end it is lacking in incident; when I first read it I hated it and dismissed it as "150 pages of exposition and 30 pages of plot." This observation in itself is not wrong, but it is sort of missing the point (a result of high schoolers' lack of understanding). The real "action" is confined to the book's "climax," yes, but that is 1) as it should be, and 2) just fine, because it is such a fine payoff of everything that precedes it: Gatsby's desire for Daisy, Tom's almost violent need to control everything, the affair happening under George Wilson's nose, even the Dr. Eckleburg billboard's stare, all converge in the end with a vengeance. The narrative's construction is eminently sound.
I suspect part of my lack of understanding stemmed from the book's adult sensibility. In the first place, the storytelling itself is dependent on the reader having a grasp of a great many things that most adolescents just don't think about. While the attentive students might know Prohibition was law in the early part of the century and that there was a World War I--if only because its more famous sequel requires an antecedent--I wager few would know the significance of New Haven or the geography of Manhattan and greater New York. Not understanding these and trying to make sense of the characters and their actions would be like watching an animated movie without the backgrounds.
Yet even with only these figures to watch, the teenage reader is apt to only pay attention to what is going on, not how it’s being done. This happens, I think, for two reasons. The first is the mechanistic idea of storytelling elementary English classes cultivate in their students; one could go through high school thinking that opening, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement are all that matter in a story. The second reason has to do with the teens themselves. At a time in life when everything seems like a personal crisis, alcohol is consumed solely for inebriation, and sexual encounters are awkward and often short-lived, how else can one look at storytelling but with the most stark and functional expectations?
This means, of course, that in waiting for something sexy to happen in what is mostly a subdued narrative, young first-time readers miss entirely the delicious prose that is the book’s real treat. I am lucky enough that on first reading the phrase “Finnish wisdom” stuck in my mind long after I had read it (I eventually forgot where it had come from, even though I still remembered the phrase). The full sentence, which delighted me when I came upon it again seven or eight years later:
I had a dog, at least I had him for a few days until he ran away, and an old Dodge and a Finnish woman who made my bed and cooked breakfast and muttered Finnish wisdom to herself over the electric stove.
Though no other sentence has stuck with me as this has—and I cannot guess why it did except for the originality in its construction; I doubt that before or since I had or have seen the words ‘Finnish’ and ‘wisdom’ put side-by-side—there are hundreds like it throughout, at least one a page, enough that every few sentences I would chuckle in the manner of one who can’t quite believe he keeps being surprised. It’s seduction, whereas high schoolers only know of hitting-on.
Here’s another gem:
My own house was an eye-sore, but it was a small eye-sore and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn and the consoling proximity of millionaires—all for eighty dollars a month.
She laughed again, as if she had said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was a way she had. She hinted in a murmur that the surname of the balancing girl was Baker. (I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming.)
And one more. This one’s a goodie:
As I went over to say goodbye I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.
‘The consoling proximity of millionaires,’ ‘colossal vitality;’ these words and phrases are like fine liquor, to be swished around, the flavor savored, not chugged as fast as possible until they’re gone. They are so intoxicating because we can so easily recognize the sentiments behind them. Anyone well into their adult years knows the satisfaction of scoring a good place to live, knows any number of charming characters, and certainly is familiar the way one can idealize one’s loves, especially in their absence. Small wonder that a sixteen or seventeen year-old, so few in years and experiences, should be utterly unable to relate.
Yes, the Great Gatsby is best enjoyed with a mature, discerning eye for detail, yet it remains best that it be first assigned, as it is, to those ill-equipped to fully appreciate it. Primary education, for those who bother to care at all, are a formative time, and the entire reason for a K-12 schooling is to teach to our youth the most critical knowledge, that we expect our adults to know even without the benefit of college. As bad as the Shakespeare industry can be, his plays are required reading because of their cultural significance. Fitzgerald has hardly such defenders to rescue him from a bad high school experience as old Will, but if we are to so exalt him in the American literary canon as the critics and the culture have, then even a bad first exposure is better than none at all. More readings—and more understanding readings—will come from an early exposure, good or ill, that will at the very least plant the seeds for subsequent growth. So it was for the critics; so for me, my friend, and the man in the coffee shop; and so will it be, I suspect for others to follow.