Try rereading The Great Gatsby through a new lens. It?s a crazy journey.
Who is The Great Gatsby really about? Spoiler: It?s really about Nick.
I?ve been teaching The Great Gatsby for well over a decade and I am telling you that the novel is not about Gatsby. It is about Nick. And, I will be happy to argue the topic with anyone.
How I came to this determination concerns the reading of The Great Gatsby. The title of the story, The Great Gatsby, suggests that the Gatsby is similar to a magician. Gatsby does resemble a magician, but F. Scott Fitzgerald is the real illusionist. His magic is subtly knitted throughout his words. The Great Gatsby is truly a dynamic novel. It constantly changes based on the particular lens the reader is using when reading. To demonstrate this aspect of the novel, I will refer to a lesson I teach my seniors when examining The Great Gatsby. I like to call it the ?lever lesson,? and it will show you that novel is not all that it appears.
Hi all. Before I get to the lever lesson, you can click here to read my next article about Gatsby and play the Gatsby video game.
The Lever-Lesson –
Colleague teacher (joking) ? Hey Dave, the boss wants to see you. Something about teaching pulling the level in The Great Gatsby and that you should take your stuff (meaning I would be fired).
Me (realizing the joke) ? Ha. Ha. I?m sure that she didn?t say that.
Colleague ? I don?t know. She seems pretty pissed.
Once a year, I look forward to teaching the ?lever lesson.? It?s not so much that I enjoy teaching phallic symbols to high school students. I think teaching the ?lever lesson? gives me satisfaction because it makes me feel I am teaching something unique, something that I had to work for, that I developed on my own through years of discovery.
What Is the ?Lever Lesson??
Basically, it is a lesson on The Great Gatsby in which I show the class a magic trick, the book itself, The Great Gatsby. (the ?great? in The Great Gatsby conveys that the character Gatsby is some type of magician) I call it the lever lesson because the focus on ?the lever,? a phallic symbol, draws the most ?oooos? and ?aahhhs? from my students (the lesson isn?t just about a lever though).
What is magic? Teller from Penn & Teller fame in a Smithsonian Magazine article writes, ?Magic?s about understanding ? and then manipulating ? how viewers digest the sensory information.? So, we will be looking at how Fitzgerald manipulates his readers? senses, making readers place their attention in one area while significant action is occurring elsewhere.
In the Youtube video ?How Magicians Trick Your Brain: The Psychology of Magic,? created by Digg, magician Jonathan Hsu presents three methods magicians use to create illusion, attention control, misdirection and simulation.
F. Scott Fitzgerald uses some of the same techniques as magicians.
For the sake of the discussion, we will focus on attention control and misdirection.
First, I ask my class if they believe Nick is morally good. Most students say yes. They recognize that Nick has become sick of New Yorkers? immorality.
The question simulates Fitzgerald?s own attempt at misdirection as he makes readers believe Nick?s moral goodness. Here are a couple of examples out of many that illustrate Fitzgerald?s method.
From the beginning of the novel. Nick explains how he wishes everyone would be moral.From the end of chapter 3. Nick comes out and says, hey, I?m ?honest.?
Such examples guide my students to believe that Nick leads a principled life.
Then, I highlight the numerous affairs in which Nick has been involved, starting with Nick?s affair with Mr. McKee at the end of chapter 2. Yes, Nick is fairly active in the story. The pulling of the lever, which Nick is open to while the elevator boy is not, contains figurative language convincing the near entirety of my students that Nick is gay (well, bi-sexual).
This is how I convince them.
What actually happened here?
This is the end of Chapter 2. Notice that Mr. McKee is only in his underwear in bed with Nick viewing him. It?s possible that the ?great portfolio? is a phallic symbol. Some readers, however, might disagree. In an interesting discussion thread from Goodreads titled, ?Is Nick Carroway gay?? I found that readers viewed sections of the book in dramatically different ways. When considering the above scene, one contributor wrote,
From the Goodreads thread. To many, Nick?s homosexual tryst is unbelievable.
Time Is Important
It?s a good point, one which I did take into account for my lesson. For this reason, I then ask students about the time. Students notice that Nick is waiting for the 4 a.m. train. They also notice that Nick and Mr. McKee leave Tom and Myrtle?s apartment close to 12 midnight. If Mr. McKee?s apartment is right below Tom and Myrtle?s, then there are probably at least three unaccounted for hours with Mr. McKee. Let?s say that it took an hour to get to Penn Station. Two plus hours is a lot of time for Nick to tuck Mr. McKee in.
Is There Really just Sexual Innuendo?
From the Goodreads thread.
This is another good point. I realize that the bed scene is not enough to make a strong argument. So, I go back one page with students, back to the ?lever? scene.
Yep. This is the ?lever scene.? What do you think is going on?
Fitzgerald uses figurative language to point out Nick?s willingness to have a sexual encounter with Mr. McKee. Fitzgerald does this through the actions of the elevator boy. Having the elevator boy reject Mr. McKee?s lever touching allows readers to see that Nick?s acceptance (?All right,? I agreed, ?I?ll be glad to.?) is evidence that Nick has interest in the sexual activity. Why else put the ?lever? scene in the novel. It doesn?t do any other work. And, Fitzgerald is a writer who is attentive to what he puts on paper. Notice, his careful description of time throughout the chapter.
Fitzgerald?s Attention Control and Misdirection: How the Magic Fools Us
Consider the magician Fitzgerald?s approach. Right before the McKee scene, Fitzgerald places the readers focus on a much more emotionally stirring scene, when Tom punches Myrtle.
This scene makes many of my students gasp. No wonder readers don?t focus as much on what comes after.
Fitzgerald is using attention control here. The reader?s attention is put on the breaking of Myrtle?s nose. Readers then simply glance over Nick?s affair with Mr. McKee. How do I know this? I know because I did it myself the first few times I read The Great Gatsby. I needed another teacher to point out the importance of the figurative language before I stopped neglecting the ?lever? scene in my readings of the novel.
Nick and His Other Affairs, Yes, I Said Affairs (Plural)
You might be thinking, ?OK. Even if I believe that Nick is gay, why does it matter??
From the Goodreads thread.
Another good point. I explain this line of thinking to my students after going over the ?lever? scene. But it is important in connection to Nick?s other amorous relationships. We?ll put Nick?s relationship with Jordan Baker aside for now as we can?t be sure if Nick was actively in a relationship with Jordan during the McKee affair. However, what about Nick?s ?tangle back home?? Oh yes, Nick had been writing love letters (he signed the letters ?Love, Nick,?) to a girl back in the midwest. Maybe you think it is OK since he, technically, might not have been dating Jordan yet. But the letter writing had been going on during the time period of the Mr. McKee affair. Doesn?t seem fair to this girl ?back home.?
There?s a Girl from Jersey City in The Great Gatsby? When Did This Happen?
It?s a tricky issue. It happens. But what about the girl from New Jersey? Yes, there?s more.
I passed over this passage so many times.
The affair with the girl from Jersey City had to occur while Nick was still writing love letters to the girl in the midwest. The Jersey City affair also must have overlapped the Mr. McKee affair as well since the McKee affair happened ?a few days before the Fourth of July? and the Jersey City affair ended sometime in July. All of this time, Nick?s relationship with Jordan Baker could have overlapped all of these affairs / relationships.
Again, The Great Fitzgerald uses attention control and misdirection in these instances. In fact, it took me years of reading the novel and teaching it as well to realize that Nick had an affair with a girl from Jersey City, concurrently writing love letters to an old flame in the midwest. But, I?m an English teacher. Why wouldn?t I see these important aspects of Nick?s character? Let?s take a look.
First, the readers? attention is brought to an intriguing part of the plot before the affair with the Jersey Girl is mentioned. The readers? interest is pushed toward Gatsby?s story after Jordan Baker comes back from a meeting with Gatsby in which an incredible revelation is brought to life.
Wouldn’t readers be interested in the ?amazing? Gatsby story?
Reading such an ?amazing? part of the plot misdirects readers from anything revealing about Nick?s character. Readers only want to know about the Gatsby revelation.
Why would a reader such as myself read over the love letter scene without giving it a second thought for so many years and so many reads? Attention control and misdirection. Before the mention of the letters, Fitzgerald presents readers with the interest-provoking scene in which Jordan says it ?takes two to make an accident.?
This is actually an extremely important metaphor in the story. We also get an indication of Jordan?s feelings for Nick. I would think romance aficionados would be hooked.
After reading this part, readers are misdirected to think that the few lines coming after can?t possibly be as important as Jordan telling Nick, ?That?s why I like you.?
Why Nick?s Sexuality Matters
So, it only really matters that Nick is gay because it shines light on all of Nick?s affairs throughout the course of the novel. Being gay is not immoral. You can even say having a fling is not immoral. However, I think most people would agree that having multiple affairs overlapping each other while those in the affairs have no knowledge of one another is not fair or moral.
You might think ?Nobody was hurt though.? I address this in the last part of the ?lever? lesson. In Nick?s last meeting with Jordan, the former couple discuss their breakup.
We are never told what the ?wrong guess? is. Time to use inference skills.
It?s obvious that Jordan is hurt in this instance. Readers see that part of Jordan?s mistake is her ?wrong guess? that Nick was an ?honest, straightforward person.? But, what precisely was the ?wrong guess?? Not being ?STRAIGHTforward? had something to do with it. Well, you might not believe Fitzgerald intended for Nick to be bisexual or that Nick?s sexual orientation had something to do with the breakup. However, it does appear that Nick?s not being honest with Jordan about all of his affairs / relationships was a major reason for the breakup and Jordan?s displeasure with how events transpired.
What Does This All Have to Do with Our Reading Experience?
From the Goodreads thread.
Yes. This is one of the reasons the novel is so great. The Great Gatsby is alive. It is always changing for us the readers, becoming something different as we mature as people and readers. We find out that Nick is not as moral as he makes us believe. Then, if read over again, The Great Gatsby can be seen as Nick?s attempt at dealing with his own psychological issues, not Gatsby?s attempt to renew a romantic relationship.
It?s seems as if part of Nick wants to play around sexually with others. It also seems that his ego does not want him to be hurt for his seemingly socially unacceptable actions. Therefore, Nick?s ego balances Nick?s id and superego by making the narrator believe that he is this wholesome, ?honest? person who is fed up with the immoral behavior seen in New York.
What Do You the Reader Get Out of It?
How does this new approach to reading The Great Gatsby benefit us? As I tell my students, how do we, as humans, know that we are not going through the same process as Nick. Maybe we experience it at a different level or in a different way. Maybe we all look at our circumstances in life and focus on what is good while ignoring things we deem potentially pernicious. Maybe a heartfelt discourse with ourselves will show us how much influence our ego actually wields.
It does matter that Nick is bisexual. It is critical to the reader?s journey to determine who Nick actually is. And, he is not who he says he is, not even close.
It also matters that The Great Gatsby is really about Nick. If readers can view the story at a deeper level, then the novel is no longer just a romantic tragedy. It is a novel putting our species on full display. Our perception is flawed, causing a constant mental battle, a continuous struggle over what we crave and what society says is appropriate. So, we too, as Nick says ?beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.? (the last line of The Great Gatsby)
Hey. Keep the discussion going. Want to know what you think. I love talking Gatsby.