Pat Brothwell learns how a new generation interprets his literary favorite.
I’m going to let you know right away that The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books, particularly as a teacher of 11th grade American Literature. I like it because I enjoy the way Fitzgerald writes and I appreciate how relevant this story of what constitutes the American dream and subtle exploration of class, money and celebrity culture still is 88 years later. It’s also one of my favorite books to teach. Year after year it seems to be the book students get into the most. It’s a classic piece of literature that gives them what they want: beautiful people, flaunted wealth, bootlegging, parties and vehicular manslaughter. It’s the best of both worlds.
Because of this I’m something of a Jay Gatsby apologist. I’ve always considered him to be one of literature’s most sympathetic characters, a victim of his surroundings who, for whatever reason, couldn’t see that he actually was a decent guy who didn’t need the validation of a bunch of shallow assholes who couldn’t care less what happened to him, which is why I always argue with students who say that their favorite part is the “love story.”
It’s because of this that I was particularly pleased with Carey Mulligan’s recent portrayal of Daisy Buchannan as a vapid, Kardashianesque socialite who might care for poor Jay Gatz on a superficial level but ultimately just see in him a diversion. I try to point out to students that the story is much more a tragedy than a love story and that Gatsby loves the idea of what Daisy represents more than Daisy herself.
The last time I taught this thought, some students raised an interesting point. They didn’t find Gatsby’s quest for the green light romantic or pathetic. They found it creepy and questioned whether Daisy had herself a stalker. Putting aside the fact that I think Daisy might enjoy having a stalker, they made a decent point. When Gatsby met Daisy he was just a private in the army. It was because of her that he got involved in organized crime and amassed his fortune, and he purchased his behemoth of a home specifically because it was across the bay from the mansion Daisy shared with her husband, Tom.
Gatsby threw his infamous parties specifically hoping that Daisy would take notice and stop by. He must have spent millions trying to win her attention and didn’t appear to have any other love interests. What’s more is that he expected Daisy to run away with him, specifically because he did all those things for her.
The students argued that he kept relenting, even when it was apparent that Daisy didn’t want him. I pointed out that he never forced himself on Daisy, he never stood outside her window, and moreover he was putting himself in a situation for her to notice him. He didn’t want to make the first move. It’s not healthy, but might not be stalking. Furthermore, I pointed out, Gatsby was a victim of his times. He grew up in an era when men pursued women. This was a time when no meant yes and society would have told him, especially the high society that he was so desperate to infiltrate, that the way to win a lady was with elaborate dates and gifts. Women didn’t approach men, which was why Daisy’s friend, the golfer Jordan Baker, was so confusing and somewhat frightening to Gatsby’s neighbor Nick.
But as much as a Gatsby apologist as I am, I couldn’t refute their argument that if Gatsby lived today, what he’d be doing would be completely creepy and inappropriate. I think the only thing that saves Gatsby is the fact that it’s 1922.
While I never thought about Gatsby being a stalker, I’ll admit to watching other films and thinking to myself, “well he’s coming on a little strong.” It’s always confused me but then again I’m a supremely proud asshole that would rather be chased than chase someone. If nothing else, that explains why I’m single.
My personal shortcomings aside, when you think about it, a lot of the male leads in television shows, books and movies could have some stalker-like qualities. While I just made the statement that Jay Gatsby would not elicit the same amounts of sympathy if he appeared in 2013, we’re still producing works were the same sort of behavior is deemed romantic.
What about The Notebook (yes I’m admitting to watching The Notebook, no I’m not saying it’s in the same league as Gatsby)? At the risk of generalizing, almost every girl I know has watched this multiple times and positively swoons at the relationship being portrayed. The male protagonist approaches his future-wife and he promptly gets shot down. Over the course of their courtship he routinely shows up where she will be and even goads her into their first date by threatening to hurt himself if she doesn’t agree. It’s done in a joking manner, but still and while this scene occurs in the 1930’s, the book the film is based off was published in 1996.
And let’s not give guys all the credit, Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods follows her ex-boyfriend across the country to law school in Legally Blonde. While said boyfriend is begging her to take him back in the end and portrayed as an all-around jackass, she’s the plucky heroine who decided to apply to law school just to be with him and turns up at all the same parties and classes.
If this happened in real life to you, wouldn’t you be alarmed? I would, but then again I’ve never been stalked by a woman that looks like Reese Witherspoon. I’d wonder if the girls swooning over The Notebook’s Noah Calhoun would be reacting the same if he were portrayed by an actor without Ryan Gosling’s dimples, abs or sex appeal. And in that same vein would more of us raise a question about Jay Gatsby if he were living in a shack, didn’t have a hydroplane at his disposal or wasn’t portrayed in film by the likes of Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio? Are we more complacent about stalking if they stalker has money or a cute butt or drool inducing cleavage?
I’m not really sure, and as I’ve already expressed I’m not really sure I’m ready to say Gatsby’s a stalker. But it disproves the theory that this upcoming generation can’t start an interesting dialogue (I’ll try and forget about the student last week who asked me what a Joe Biden is).
It also raises some interesting questions about what popular entertainment defines as romantic and what we’re willing to accept as such. I’m not really one to blame people’s actions on media, but this particular problem, if you want to brand it as such, goes much deeper than that. While we may want to chide a young boy, for example, for sending an uninterested girl a card a day for fifty days, as creepy, there’s too many examples, in both popular entertainment and the literary canon, that show him he’s romantic. We see over and over that it’s our responsibility to win over a love interest. It might seem outdated, but as I’ve established, still occurring.
Jay Gatsby was under that impression. He thought he needed to do whatever it took to win the girl. Call it stalking or call it unrequited love, it’s a debate, like Gatsby himself, that’s still relevant today.