05. The Dogged Gatsby

Mr. Dame despised having desks for dancing partners. His gangly ineptitude was troublesome enough for him, but every desk had two left feet. Rather than ruminate on how his Paper-Returning Rumba was expressing itself as a Handout Hokey-Pokey, he attempted to augment the performance with a bit of chatter.

“I’d just like to thank you for these,” he announced to the class in general, “as most of them were pretty good — and the marks reflect that. Sofia,” he added with slightly more direction, “I gave your essay to Principal Apple to show how well we’re doing. I hope that’s okay with you?”

Sofia didn’t bother looking up from Twilight of the Elites to wave her hand with nonchalant dismissiveness. Her posture made it quite clear that not having her work engagingly critiqued was normal for her, and that, other than that perpetual disappointment, the fate of the work was then irrelevant to her. Mr. Dame had not expected such a lack of response, but as he handed back another paper he realized that a student like Sofia would’ve had a dozen years’ worth of work sent to the principal’s office regardless of her teachers’ abilities. By sending Sofia’s work to Principal Apple, Mr. Dame had only demonstrated that he wasn’t actively sabotaging his students, not that he had any redeeming qualities as an instructor. He winced as he returned the final essay.

“Principal Apple doesn’t really want essays,” said Ken grimly, “she demands sacrifices of flesh!”

“Um,” said Mr. Dame, quite jarred out of his concern for his place in Sofia’s educational opportunities, “…thanks for the advice?”

“I recommend a bucket of KFC,” Ken added helpfully.

“Does KFC even count as flesh?” Diane whispered to Christie.

“It counts as gross,” Christie replied.

Papers returned, Mr. Dame returned to the front of the class and picked up The Great Gatsby, and paused. He stared down at the copy of the book, dog-eared and sticky-tab-noted in his hands. Everybody seemed to agree that it was the epitome of the Great American Novel, but he had to confess that he just didn’t understand how they had come to that conclusion. Despite that, it was now time to discuss everybody else’s conclusion with his students in the hopes that they might be able to feign enough understanding of it to persuade Principal Apple that he wasn’t a wholly inadequate literature teacher. Mr. Dame decided that he should at least be grateful that he was merely unprepared to profess the Great American Novel; if it had been the Great Japanese Novel, he was certain the ensuing discussion would bring great shame upon his ancestors.

“So at the end of chapter 2,” Mr. Dame began, selecting a point of action, “Tom attacks Myrtle, his mistress. Why is that?”

Most of the class gave him the confused look of teenagers incapable of believing “he’s an abusive bastard” wasn’t the answer, but Joey launched into an exuberant diatribe. “It’s totally the symbolism of bourgeois oppression of the proletariat. Class warfare from the top down. As soon as Myrtle dared to speak truth to power and name an oppressor whose power she couldn’t touch, she became a marked target.”

Jenny appeared perplexed by this interpretation. “But he had just bought her a dog. And isn’t class warfare when poor people want more things from the rich?”

“Warfare isn’t the right word. When proletarians go after specific rich people, the rich treat it like class terrorism,” Heidi interjected.

“But the dog?”

“Well when the rich are actually fu– screwing the poor, that’s more like class imperialism,” Heidi concluded. “Tom is kind of like the US. And Daisy was like Hawaii — nice climate and economically valuable. Then there’s Myrtle with a similar climate but in economic shambles: that’d be the Philippines. Now if the Philippines tries to make trouble for Hawaii, how do you think the US is going to react to that?”

“Um, yeah,” said Mr. Dame, uncertain of where the analogy was going to stop.

Sofia didn’t even look up from what she was doing to toss him a lifeline: “Myrtle’s role as mistress made her an outsider to Tom’s idea of domestic tranquility, so her insistence on criticizing Tom’s domestic tranquility was taken and responded to as a threat by Tom. Who has serious control issues. But, believing himself to be an alpha male, regards nothing amiss or unnatural in Myrtle’s acquiescing hypergamy…”

“What kind of dog was it?” Jacob whispered at Heidi.

“Airedale mutt,” Heidi whispered back. After a pause she added “I’ve heard most dogs are.”

“Odd,” muttered Jacob under his breath, “since German Shepherds were popular after the world war, what with Rin Tin Tin and all.”

“Yeah, but the Airedale mutt reflects how common and tawdry Myrtle is to Tom.”

“Ah, gotcha.”

“Yes, thank you,” said Mr. Dame, interjecting himself into what was certain to become an wavering discussion of evolved human sexuality of questionable appropriateness — the word “hypergamy” was just promiscuous enough to consistently swing one troublesome way. Sofia shrugged at the interruption, but Joey was livid at the turn the discussion had taken.

“God, you’re so literal,” Joey spat. “Don’t you care about the symbolism or imagery at all?”

Sofia looked up and replied, “It’s liter-ature. Sometimes it’s supposed to be taken liter-ally.”

“And I suppose you think the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg were just an advertisement and not a symbol of the narrator’s omniscience of everything that followed?” Joey pursued, thankfully demonstrating a grasp of what was going to be one of the test questions.

“Yes,” Sofia replied coolly turning the majority of her attention back to her preferred reading material. “Fitzgerald makes it quite clear later in the book: deranged people deprived of personal agency look for symbolism where rational people see advertisements.”

Joey opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by Sofia’s casually appended “See also: Michael Shermer on false pattern recognition, 2010” and settled for gnawing on his lower lip instead. Mr. Dame suppressed a wince at a point in the curriculum so smartly missed.

As the silence began to settle, Sandy piped up. “It could be both. Taken from an agnostic perspective, the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg could have been the perspective of God at one point in time but, as Fitzgerald describes, there’s nothing behind them anymore.” Sofia shrugged slightly and nodded without looking up. Joey stopped gnawing.

“Yes, thank you,” said Mr. Dame, seeing an opportunity to steer the discussion in the teacherly fashion that was expected of him. “So, um,” Mr. Dame checked his notes, “let’s re-frame the story a bit. Near the end, Nick says that he was actually telling a story about the West, not the East after all. What did he mean by that?”

“He’s realized that his whole story is about people leaving their own territory to take from other people — like the West has made a habit of doing with our crypto-fascist imperialism,” contributed Joey, ignoring the eye-rolling of his peers.

“But… is that really Nick’s perspective?” Mr. Dame suggested.

Jacob lit on this point. “No,” he replied, “he’d fought in World War 1. When he came home, he moved east to New York to become part of the powerful conservative institutions he believed were there. But instead he finds Jay and Tom and all manner of other people who gravitated towards the east, but weren’t actually part of it. So he concludes that he must’ve told a story about something else.”

“But he’d never been west. None of them had. The thought of California never occurred to them,” mused Brett out loud.

Mr. Dame raised an eyebrow; this line of thinking was going in an unexpected direction.

“Not everybody learns from their mistakes,” Sofia explained to Brett while staring vaguely at Joey, “and in this case I might speculate that when Nick found that the east didn’t match what he expected of the east, he re-defined it as west despite having no firmer ground on which to do so than the ground that made him think it was east in the first place.”

“But if Nick didn’t find the east in the east, what did he find?” asked Mr. Dame, trying to twist the discussion back into comprehension of the words that the students had allegedly read.

“Not California,” sniped Jacob with a nod to Brett.

“Just because New York didn’t meet his expectations didn’t make it something other than New York. It just meant his expectations were wrong,” Heidi spelled out, hitting one point but missing the other.

This gave Joey a new topic to rail on: “And by expecting that his expectations of New York were the defining properties of New York, he shows himself to be a brazen narcissist. Really, isn’t that the real reason he can’t stand the parties? Because they have nothing to do with him?”

Mr. Dame swung his cognitive bucket against the swelling tide of short attention spans: “But Nick was a bond trader in New York in the roaring 20’s! He had it made! If that wasn’t what he was looking for, what could Nick have done differently to find the New York he actually was looking for?”

“He might have gone to work, had some clients, traded some bonds?” suggested Jenny. “I had forgotten that he was supposed to be a bond trader until you mentioned it just now. I thought he must be a journalist or something.”

Diane nodded her assent. Mr. Dame gritted his teeth gently to resist a face-palming urge. How difficult could it possibly be to accept that Nick Carraway was a bond trader just like he said he was? he wondered. How could it be that all of these advanced students could read and not comprehend what they read?

“That doesn’t actually matter because that’s not what the book is about,” interjected Christie with granite confidence. “The book is really about Gatsby and Tom and Daisy. Nick, and his career choices, and his inability to accept the New Yorkiness of New York, is on outside of the central conflict, looking in. Nick’s actions — or, more commonly, lack of actions — have no distinct effect on the story he’s telling. I liked that it wasn’t a story about the stock market. Anyway, the point of Nick’s not-New York claim is that he realizes that there’s a disconnect between the experience he documents and what others might experience so he doesn’t want to disillusion others in their pursuits. That’s what he means.”

“Good,” said Mr. Dame conclusively. “Now, getting back to Joey’s point about the parties, what was the point of Gatsby’s parties?”

“He’s trying to attract Daisy with them,” answered Jenny.

“And it gives Fitzgerald an excuse to introduce Gatsby, who is actually pretty reclusive,” added Ken.

Heidi quickly found a relevant passage in the book before suggesting “And it gives Nick a chance to set himself apart from the not-quite-invited ‘guests’ that ‘conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks.’ Nick’s lack of appreciation for party-goers is evidence of his good manners, not a defect in his personality.”

“He’s still a bankster,” mumbled Joey sullenly.

“Taking a wider view than that, Nick catalogs the destruction caused by the people who did not merit an invitation which is subsequently cleaned up by working-class servants, only to have the destruction unleashed again at the next party,” said Sofia, building on her friend’s point. “This pattern of destruction and repair appears again when Tom — who got his money by nepotism rather than any personal merit — unleashes destruction in the form of George Wilson against Gatsby, leaving Nick to do the servant’s job of cleaning up and arranging the funeral.”

Mr. Dame was stuck for what to say about that. He rubbed his chin and stared briefly at his shoe. “Um, yeah. That’s really good; you should probably write that down. But let’s take a moment to focus on Gatsby while he’s still alive. He seems to call everybody ‘Old Sport’ — what’s up with that?”

Joey continued his train of thought without noticing the tracks had changed at all. “Well when you’re a brazen narcissist like he is, other people’s names don’t matter. They can all be ‘Old Sport’ because they’re all interchangeable to the narrative of your life.”

Mr. Dame tried to speak but Jenny cut him off. “Or maybe when you’re as passionately devoted to somebody” — “Monomaniacally,” Ken offered from across the room — “anybody who isn’t the focus of your passion is less important? I don’t think he ever calls Daisy ‘Old Sport,’ does he?”

“Isn’t is possible that he’s just trying to be genial, to win friends and influence people?” Mr. Dame asked weakly.

“Not successfully, Mr. Dame,” Jacob replied with a sympathetic smile. “As Mr. Carnegie pointed out, people respond to their names more favorably than whatever else you might call them.”

That was a fair point. Even though Carnegie’s book wouldn’t be published until a decade later, human psychology wouldn’t suddenly change in the meantime. Mr. Dame tried a different line of thought. “So if he’s not optimally genial, then does anybody have a guess as to what Gatsby’s dark secret is?”

The class stared at him with a questioning silence. “More dark and secret than his organized crime connections which were the source of all his money?” asked Heidi disbelieving that such an obvious question could be asked in an Advanced Placement class.

“Yeah,” Mr. Dame expounded, “there’s the garden slander about him killing a man, and Nick recalls it when Gatsby gets a super-dark expression at the end of his confrontation with Tom.” His eyes moved across the class. “Where did that darkness come from?”

Heidi continued to stare at Mr. Dame in disbelief. “He’d served in WWI, gotten promoted to Major, been decorated for valor — of course he killed somebody. Probably several people. With machine guns.”

“Bah, they didn’t count as people,” sneered Joey, “they were the Other, existing only to be killed so that the world would be safe for democracy. Because we have to kill the opposition so that democracy is safe.” The awkward honesty underlying the brazen assessment shocked the class into noisy disagreement. Joey looked surprised and somewhat delighted; for all of the verbal grenades he tossed, few exploded into discussion.

Sandy projected her voice over the din “Does anybody know how many bad guys Indiana Jones killed?” The class quieted down, thinking back to what they could remember about the cultural icon. “And how many people?” she said with a cunning grin, sliding her point home like a stiletto in the cognitive back. The students looked uneasily at each other, uncomfortable with the new thought that Nazis might somehow qualify as people too.

Jacob broke the silence. “Wait a second… where was Mr. Fitzgerald while World War I was going on?”

Ken surreptitiously glanced under his desk. “Uh, he was in college and then he enlisted just before the end of the war. It doesn’t look like he saw any action.”

“So he couldn’t have disagreed with the propaganda enough to be a pacifist,” Heidi surmised.

“And then in his writing, there’s this strange distinction between killing, you know, those dirty Huns to make the world safe for democracy, and — gasp! — killing a man.” said Sandy, wrapping her point back to the source material.

“Okay, but what about his dark secret?” Mr. Dame persisted.

“His dark secret,” replied Sofia flatly without taking her eyes from her book, “is that the man he killed was Colonel Kurtz.” Mr. Dame had to suppress a chuckle while the rest of the class wondered what they’d missed in that exchange. “But really,” Sofia continued, “if Fitzgerald thought that the soldiers who saw serious combat didn’t come back with PTSD — even if they didn’t call it PTSD back then — then I’m not sure how we’re supposed to figure out some other dark secret which is merely implied.”

Sandy shrugged off that point of view. “I think that Gatsby’s dark secret is that when he looks at his life, he doesn’t see his life anymore. He sees a house of cards, a shell game put together to get the attention of a girl. For all he has done, doesn’t he ask Nick ‘What was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do?’ Doesn’t he tell his gardener to not drain the pool because — even in the most stifling of heat — he hadn’t used it all summer? His dark secret is that he doesn’t want anything he has, doesn’t feel that he’s accomplished anything for what he’s done. And the darkness that comes over him in his confrontation with Tom is his realization that as long as his goal is unachieved, he’ll keep on doing whatever it takes to continue his pursuit — except that he’s not even certain that it’s his pursuit because he doesn’t fully accept that he’s doing these things.”

The class looked confused. Mr. Dame smiled gently, having finally gotten something that sounded like a fully correct answer. “Could you clarify on that a bit?” he prompted.

Sandy toyed with her pencil case before thoughtfully summarizing: “Gatsby only sees the value of doing anything great if it gets him closer to Daisy. Once he gets Daisy, he stops caring about anything and is content to just talk. To this end, he pretty much disowns anything he did and any actions he took when he has Daisy and can talk about… I’m not really sure what he’d talk about then. I mean, if he’s not doing these great things with her… then what is he doing with her?”

Mr. Dame feigned a shrug. Because some things just aren’t worth doing if you’re only doing them for yourself his mind whispered at him but when it’s not just yourself, you no longer have the time or money or focus to pursue it anymore.

“Gatsby is the dog,” Diane announced suddenly, snapping Mr. Dame’s attention back to his classroom. Her peers stared. “Well, a good dog does whatever its master wants it to. And if a dog is given a command to ‘speak,’ it speaks — or barks, whatever — but the dog treats that as an action, just like ‘fetch’ or ‘roll over.’ Gatsby feels like he’s been out lone-wolfing it to commands that no master has given and he’s just looking to get back to his forever home. He wants to get back to a point where he’s pleasing a master.”

Ken and Heidi tried to suppress smirks and were presumably almost as successful as suppressing visions of a leather-clad dominatrix Daisy. Mr. Dame noticed Sofia’s gaze transit from one to the other, then looked to Sandy who nodded her assent. “That seems reasonable,” he said, “But why is that a dark secret?”

“Half of it is because of what it makes him capable of,” continued Sandy, “and the other half is his trying to avoid admitting that that’s what and who he is. Because if he admits it, if he comes out and admits that he’s really nothing but a dog, then he can’t ever earn Daisy’s respect — which would, of course, be the end of him. And that’s why he reacts to Tom the way he does. It’s not what Tom says that affects him, but rather the realization, the fear, that if what Tom says affects his relationship with Daisy, then what Tom has said and how Tom is able to portray him has undone him.”

“Is that going to be on the test?” asked Ken.

“Yeah, probably,” nodded Mr. Dame. “Earlier in the book, when talking about becoming Jay Gatsby, Nick says that Jay was a ‘son of God.’ Do you think there was some foreshadowing there? Some symbolism?”

Joey was eagerly nodding his assent, but Brett shook his head: “He was floating in his pool when Wilson shot him — not really in the same league as walking on water.”

“If you’re looking for symbolism, you’d need to bind it to a mythological cliche,” advised Sofia, “like the great man being wounded in the leg — like Ulysses was — so that they survive, but can’t rely exclusively on brute-forcing their way to greatness in the future.”

“Besides,” added Sandy, “Daisy was back with Tom, as Nick realized she would be back in Chapter 1. Gatsby was effectively nothing at that point. His realization that he’d not used his pool all summer was his his realization that he was beginning his descent.”

“Once the pain goes away,” husked Diane with the resignation Gatsby might’ve felt, “that’s when the real battle starts. Depression. Boredom. You feel so low you’ll want to top yourself.” Mr. Dame gave the girl a worried glance. She brightened immediately, dismissing her mood with “Oh, it’s from a movie.”

“Are you saying that Gatsby would’ve killed himself?”

“Wilson certainly did,” observed Ken.

“But Wilson didn’t have any friends,” whined Joey as Mr. Dame wished that anybody else in the classroom had observed that.

“Neither did Gatsby,” replied Heidi. “He had parties — there’s a difference, which is what Nick calls out when nobody shows up to the funeral.” Joey nodded concessionally to this distinction.

Mr. Dame’s feet squirmed in his shoes as he struggled to retain composure: yes, social support was important, but did it really have to be him extolling its virtues to a classroom of overly-intellectual teenagers? His eyes nervously scanned the room as he lost track of voices following the train of thought — that one would die alone, that one would be rationally talked into it by the impending bleakness of the future, that one would go after a painful break-up… He shook head trying to clear the macabre images from his eyes. “Um, right, sorry,” he said as he noticed the conversation stopped and the students were staring at him. “Can we get back to Nick for a moment? Other than doubting his employment, how do we feel about him? He seems like a straight-shooting…” — Worst choice of words, ever. — “Um. Honest. Guy. Yeah.”

“He’s still a bankster,” reiterated Joey.

“But he’s the narrator. If we don’t trust him to be sincere with us, then why are we reading the book?” asked Christie. “I think we kind of have to trust him as a pre-condition of choosing to read.”

“Really?” asked Jenny. “I mean, I know Nick claimed he was honest, but he’s also totally complicit in infidelity and illegal activity and even vehicular manslaughter. He can’t even attend a garden party without having to pretend to like people he despises. While he may be the authority on what he wrote, I think that’s more because we can’t get other perspectives than his actual level of honesty.” The class stared at Jenny, surprised by her clarity on this point. “I mean,” she added, “rule zero of going on a blind date is that the guy is highballing his height and income, and lowballing his weight and age. When he’s providing the numbers, you should start by disbelieving them.” Several of the girls nodded in acknowledgement of this point.

“But The Great Gatsby wasn’t about Nick, it was about Gatsby and Tom and Daisy,” Christie persisted. “As an outsider, can’t we trust him to objectively tell their story — if not his own, and probably not Jordan’s, either.”

Some of the class agreed to this but Jacob had doubts. “Jenny just railed off a bunch of dishonesties, on top of which he’s got a dubious work ethic despite claiming to be wholly devoted to his burgeoning new career. I don’t think this guy can get through a day, much less a chapter, without lying. When it’s that much of a second-nature to him, I don’t know that we can trust him to tell Gatsby’s story — which, it must be noted, also got airbrushed, embellished, and restored, as a good servant would after it got destroyed by a too-wild party,” he concluded with a nod to Sofia. The tide of peer support sloshed towards Jacob.

“But what are the consequences to us as readers if we choose to disbelieve Nick?” asked Mr. Dame, hoping for the sake of their reading comprehension scores that they might see the error of their ways.

“This is a work of fiction — any consequences of it are based on our conscious decisions to accept or reject positions that the author, not necessarily narrator, sets out,” said Sofia, mildly annoyed with the baiting of the question.

“Besides,” equivocated Sandy, “just because he’s a liar doesn’t mean he can’t tell an enjoyable story.”

“His story features mass infidelity, murder, suicide, vehicular homicide — along with fleeing the scene of a crime — and a whole lot of people he generally disdains,” recounted Heidi. “Did I miss the enjoyable part in the drunken debauchery or something?”

“Okay, so I’m sensing a lack of support for poor Nick here,” mused Mr. Dame, “Is it possible that you’ve got some latent loathing of Nick on account of the current-and-ongoing financial crisis which is totally unwarranted for his character? Because he is a, uh, ‘bankster’?”

“All this has happened before, and it will all happen again,” Ken said, introducing eternal recursion with a flippancy that may as well have quoted Peter Pan, “so no, we’re generally past that: we’ve already covered that Nick’s fictional job was almost anti-relevant to the book and has almost certainly been replaced by a computer today. We dislike Nick,” he concluded, “because we were assigned the task of reading his self-oblivious complaints about how other people are fakes.”

The waves of cognitive acceptance bobbed the heads of the students up and down in general assent to Ken’s analysis. Staring at the sea of faces Mr. Dame suddenly realized exactly why The Great Gatsby was on the curriculum, but was lost for words.