The Great Gatsby stalks me from one high school language arts class to the next. In St. Helens, he prowls through the junior classrooms and in Scappoose, his story resounds with the freshmen.
This disparity in curriculum gave me pause.
After all, I’ve taught students between the ages of twelve and eighteen for many years. There is a huge difference in the analytical abilities of freshmen (fourteen or fifteen-year-olds) and juniors (sixteen and seventeen-year-olds). Can Gatsby’s theme and content bridge this gap? Will freshmen understand the depth of Fitzgerald’s message in the same way juniors do?
The proof is in the pudding. And I won’t be around to see the end product.
In the freshmen classroom, the project due at the end of the reading is a theme timeline.
This is an art-heavy project. Students will identify the (a) theme of the book and create a timeline of events that support that theme. As I talked about in a recent post about theme, it must be evidence-based using words from the text rather than experience-based.
If these students can prove their interpretation with sufficient text examples, they will have nailed a theme. I believe there are many, but Nick Carroway does a fair job of stating an obvious one in the first paragraph of the novel.
You can’t judge a person because you don’t know what they’ve been through.
Everyone judges Gatsby as a successful and wealthy man who loves throwing parties. He’s affable and generous, and everyone is happy to take part in his excess but none of them show up to pay respects at his funeral.
So what sort of person was Jay Gatsby really? I’m not sure we really know. A poor man who sought his big break and found it, but all the success in the world couldn’t overcome his insecurities. His life ended before he could reap the benefit of finding true love with Daisy.
The juniors are focusing on the symbolism in Fitzgerald’s classic novel. There is plenty to be found.
The one chapter I read with these students had several symbolic things in it, but many of the students missed their significance. Even when I stopped and asked leading questions, they blanked out.
I fear the teachers will be disappointed at the outcome of this assignment.
Like theme, symbolism is one of those things that gets emphasized in high school (and college) literature classes. Symbols can be subject to interpretation. I spoke more about that in this post about Blue Being Blue.
In my mind, symbols take more time to recognize. The harder you have to look for one, the more unlikely it is to be one. When analyzing a novel, only obvious symbols should be considered (as far as I’m concerned).
I believe symbolisim requires deeper reflection on a text, so perhaps the varied focus of the curricula explains things. The choice of this text for students at different intellectual stages of development might make sense in this case.
No one argues the state of The Great Gatsby as a classic. It should certainly be part of a robust literary education.
Or should it?
As an author, I rarely give thought to symbolism in my writing and thought of theme is something done during revisions. Since I write genre fiction, that’s to be expected. Nothing I write will be considered a classic. No one will teach my short stories or novellas in their English class.
I’m sort of glad about this. Even speaking to readers about my books can be disheartening if they don’t “get” what I wanted to say. The thought of some English teacher claiming the technology in the follow up novel to “The Demon Was Me” represented evil as much as the demons makes me cringe.
Mostly because I didn’t even want my demons to represent evil. They were being trying to survive, and the way they did it destroyed regular people. Can you see a deeper truth in this? One that might be important for young adults (the intended audience) to understand?
I think students in today’s classrooms would be more engaged if more contemporary novels were taught in classrooms. My experience teaching a group of middle school students Hunger Games proves this point. They were low readers, many with language disabilities, so they missed much about theme and symbolism, but they could plot out the story and relate the character arc of Katniss Everdeen. Doesn’t appreciation of story have a place in a language arts classroom?
Fitzgerald is a notable wordsmith. His descriptions are lovely and borderline purple prose. Since he puts so much of himself into a story, readers feel intimate with the characters. But most of his stories are lacking on plot.
Maybe teaching one literary classic per year would suffice in high school English classes. Introduce reluctant readers (which most young people are these days because…technology) to a few masters. Let the assignments practice important life skills: like disseminating essential information and conveying ideas with clarity.
Because how often have you needed to identify a theme or recognize symbolism in your day-to-day life? It’s nice to want kids to broaden their horizons and look outside the box for beauty, but if they can’t balance their checkbook or hold down a job, does that truly matter?
What classics do you believe are essential for every young American to read? What skills should be taught in language arts classes?