Gatsby: Beyond the Lavish Parties

The theme of this fall’s Free Minds curricula asks students to consider the rights and responsibilities of citizens–a task that makes obvious sense when studying the U.S. Constitution or considering the history of voting, as students will do in the upcoming politics unit. But what does The Great Gatsby, a novel so often associated with Jazz Age excess and Jay Gatsby’s longing for Daisy Buchanan, reveal about citizenship?

Literature professor Domino Perez put the question to students, who had plenty of answers.

Erica Barlow pointed out the racist rhetoric that the brash Tom Buchanan uses to describe his “pessimistic” feelings about the future, which he has developed after reading The Rise of the Colored Empires. For Buchanan, a product of white privilege, any increase in the rights of African American or immigrant citizens signals the loss of his own.

The story’s setting in the years following World War I also comes into play for students, as it brings to mind the responsibilities of citizenship. Students noted that both Gatsby and narrator Nick Carraway fought in World War I, but the wealthier Buchanan did not. Viewed from this perspective, Gatsby explores how class can obligate some citizens and exempt others from participation in combat.

And what about Gatsby’s “self-made” claim to fame? Here students explore not only citizens’ rights and responsibilities, but also beliefs about the ideal American citizen. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel prompts students to look closely at how the self-made ideal motivates both Gatsby and Carraway and to ask how it motivates us today.

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