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  • Writer's pictureRachel Beck

Old and New Ideals in The Great Gatsby

Q3 question for AP Lit 2019

“It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That’s where

the mischief starts. That’s where everything starts unravelling.”

Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which a character holds an “ideal view of the world.” Then write an essay in which you analyze the character’s idealism and its positive or negative consequences. Explain how the author’s portrayal of this idealism illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole.

Idealism: Old and New Ideals in The Great Gatsby

In my courses, I discuss the ideal of the American Dream and where this idealism originates. For this last Q3 question on the AP Lit test (2019), imagine if you had started your introduction with John Winthrop’s idea of “a city on the hill” and the Puritan notion that Americans will be the “New Israelites” or the “chosen ones.” It’s an idea that has stood the test of time. You see it everywhere but probably don’t notice it because it’s rarely questioned. But the next time you see a meme that justifies a political policy on the weight of an Old Testament verse, you’ll see what I mean.

There were many American novels you could have chosen to demonstrate this point (and British as well, Jude and Obscure and the ideal of religion and education in Victorian society would have been brilliant, but I’m still working on that course); nonetheless, I think this prompt had the Great Gatsby written all over it. You could have made the argument that this country was built on the idealism of God’s providence, along with man’s projection of himself onto God, which was the proclamation that gave settlers the divine right over other people’s property. In Harold Bloom’s American Religion, he claims that “...the American Christ is more American than he is Christ.” This idea of God’s providence is what I believe lead to the ideal of the American Dream (This would be my claim).

Mind you, I’m not interested in discussing politics-- it’s not my job to tell you what to think. Rather, my job is to get you to think about what may have been on Fitzgerald's mind when he came up with the concept of the Great Gatsby so that you can make a claim (an argument) followed by a brilliant analysis. For example, what did he mean by Nick saying he felt himself to be “a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler” merely by his authority to give someone directions? Then, perhaps you could lead into Gatsby’s “platonic conception of himself.” Fitzgerald says, “He was a son of God-- a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that-- and he must be about His Father’s business…”

“Literature is the question minus the answer,” so don’t be afraid to take a risk in your claim/thesis. The higher-thinking the claim, the deeper the analysis, and the overall more persuasive essay, which is what makes a 9 (highest score).

One way to approach analysis is to analyze by contrast-- juxtaposition. In my course, I mention Fitzgerald's concept of double vision: “the ability to hold two opposing views in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” For example, his prose can be tantalizing even when morally condemning the subject. In other words, you criticize yet at the same time romanticize. For example, there is a contrast, a dark side of idealism and the American Dream in the Great Gatsby we see it in “The Valley of Ashes.” The Valley of Ashes is set between West Egg and New York, and it is where the working-class live. The Valley of Ashes is easily juxtaposed against Daisy and Tom’s world, a reflection of the realism of progress-- the effects of industrialization. This is where Myrtle is killed by Gatsby’s car (a symbol of the American Dream). Fitzgerald describes her as being torn open, her breast “swinging loose like a flap.” Later Nick thinks about how the Dutch sailors must have held their breath on the sight of this “green breast” of opportunity.

Notice the juxtaposition of old money and new money and how each contributed to two stark differences in ideals. Tom’s old money and Gatsby's new money. Tom points out to Gatsby that they are not equal and never will be-- new money will never be accepted by those of old money. He sneers at Gatsby’s underhanded methods of making his wealth, ridicules Gatsby’s new car, calling it a “circus wagon;” yet Tom, in his superiority doesn’t recognize that he himself did nothing special to earn his wealth or social status-- he was simply born into wealth.

Wilson, by contrast was an individual born into poverty. Wilson too has the hope of the American Dream. He owns his own mechanics shop where there is a vivid image of a Ford in Wilson’s garage, no doubt another great American symbol of the American Dream, but it is “a dust-covered, wreck of the Ford.” For Wilson, the dream never materializes, for Gatsby the dream is exaggerated and triumphant, except for that “foul dust” that “floated in the wake of his dreams.” Wilson and Gatsby die while Tom and Daisy escape with impunity from any involvement: “They were reckless, people, Daisy and Tom, they smashed things up and then retreated to their money.”

Tom’s ideals are threatened by change. He chides women for running around and going to parties while he is unapologetically having an affair (Sound familiar?). After, confronting Daisy and Gatsby, he bursts out with “Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” Wow, where’d that come from? This is what Tom means when he says “civilization is going to pieces,” a statement prompted by his reading of “The Rise of the Coloured Empire” by Goddard. For Tom, the American Dream is a threat-- equal opportunity threatens his aristractic, civilization, his ideals. In Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen makes a connection between race and Industrialization: “When the first steam engine was constructed, the roads of the races of the world parted, and we have never found one another since.”

These are all just examples of how you could approach the topic. I go more in depth with these approaches in the course on The Great Gatsby on Udemy. I also offer a feminist approach which would be an entirely different but equally appropriate essay, still focused on ideals, still working through the prompt.

A key part of every Q3 prompt is to demonstrate the meaning of the work as a whole within your response. In this case, you would need to bring up how his father proudly wanders around Gatsby’s house, admiring his material accomplishments, forgetting that his son abandoned and denied him while building his fantasy life, and ignoring the fact that building it took some illegal and deceptive “mischief” along the way, eventually leading to his death. Sarah Vowell has pointed out, his son may be dead but at least he died in a “fantasy pool.” All is repaired and forgivable because the accomplishment is evident and all-important. Just like Tom’s “physical accomplishments” the ideal becomes a wasted illusion, a superficial existence-- a wasteland.

So how is this reading relevant today? Let’s go back to the original AP prompt: “It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That’s where the mischief starts. That’s where everything starts unravelling.” Over the last nine years of teaching English, I have witnessed the gradual effects of idealizing standardized testing, which promotes standardized learning and standardized thinking. The STAAR Test has mislead many Doctorate and Master degreed Administrators to adopt the belief that spending time on novels, such as this one, is a waste of time. Elite Literary Book Group is here to refute that claim, along with this one: “We only teach literature so we can teach the skills.” I wonder what authors like Mark Twain, George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald and every single self-respecting author in the world for that matter, would make of such a claim from these new educational leaders.

As new methods of educating panders to superficial, engaging, and exciting ways around reading “boring” classics, let us not forget that it comes with a price, a price that society will pay for and is already paying for. Let us remember that authors do not pour their blood, sweat and tears (and lives in some cases) because they care about skills or future students making “gallery walks.” Joseph Campbell would ask at this point: “Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?” Obviously, the author’s purpose (which is also a tested learning standard) has more to do with caring about humanity than honing skills. In the end, it may be the only thing that can save humanity, which is the true purpose of education. But what do our legislators care about as they continue to industrialize education? Where do they fit into this drama? Who would they be in the Great Gatsby? They certainly would not be in the Valley of Ashes because that is where the teachers are dwelling. But, I’ll leave that for you to figure out and remember when you start voting soon. As for the Elite Literary Book Group, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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