All About Books: Sharon Bishop

Sharon Bishop is a retired English teacher from Henderson Nebraska.

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Teaching The Great Gatsby

The hallway was crowded with students pulling books out of their lockers and darting off to the next class.  I was not paying much attention to the chatter until I heard one boy say, “I have 5 motifs; how many do you have?”  The reply: “Only 4 – but I have 8 symbols!”  I realized they were discussing the research they were doing for an analytical paper over the novel The Great Gatsby.

In the 1990’s I taught this novel to seniors in a college prep class. I chose it because it is a favorite novel of my own; also it is a short novel that could be read twice and lent itself well to the writing of an analytical research paper.

I wondered if seniors in a small, rural town would identify with the setting: Long Island in the 1920’s with huge mansions and cars of a bygone era but Fitzgerald’s masterful description moved my student readers seamlessly into this environment.

The events of the novel are told in flashback by the narrator Nick Carraway and there are many foreshadowings of the end of the novel scattered throughout. So I asked students to read the novel through and then we would begin our discussion and then they would read it again.

Their search for symbols and motifs led them to countless examples.  When we read research about Fitzgerald’s use of water, they revisited the novel and were astounded when the water motif seemed to tumble off of the pages.  They searched for symbols and found them in abundance: Daisy’s pearls, Gatsby’s shirts and many others.  This work became both an exercise in thinking analytically and bringing them back to the novel for second and third reads.  At some point in this work, a successful novel begins to imbed itself into its readers.

With some guidance from me and with the help of our research, we identified the major theme of the American Dream.  Gatsby is a self-made man, a product of the American Dream that teaches a person can become whatever he or she wants to be.  But Gatsby is betrayed by that dream, built on money and a desire to return to the past.  Fitzgerald believed that the American Dream promised much more than it delivered.  His classic final sentence of the novel, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” is full of pessimism, hardly the way one wants seniors about to leave high school to feel!

In the end, my students discovered that the novel is more than a tale of the Jazz Age.  It is a serious discussion of the American Dream, as applicable to my student readers in the 1990’s as it was in the 1920’s.

One student who loved the novel in high school has continued to revisit it. Matt tells me that this is the 20th year since he read it as my student and he rereads it every year.  He has even named his dog Gatsby.  For him, the novel is “like a fine wine, becoming more complex with age.”

As a mature reader, Matt’s favorite line from the novel is this: “And his count of enchanted objects was reduced one by one.”  Matt recognizes, as does Nick in the novel, that this is “true of many dreams.”

Fitzgerald wrote of The Great Gatsby: “I wanted to write something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.”  I believe that he did just that and I am grateful that many of my students agreed and came along on a journey into a beautiful literary work that was new to them each year.


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