“I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
For years and years, I didn’t like The Great Gatsby. I think I prided myself on not liking The Great Gatsby: first off, there can be something fun in saying “huh!” about the treasure an English teacher offers you (that’s why I try to avoid saying “I love this book” to my classes; although I love lots of books, so I usually mess that up), and secondly, I didn’t think I felt Gatsby’s aching need for money, fame, and a ‘perfect life.’ He wanted the parties that leave a mountain of pulped oranges: he wanted a wife who turned everyone’s jealous head, and then went home with him in a whisper of innocence to a bed of open desire. And (I said; I lied) there wasn’t a part of me that wanted that.
Today I was talking with a student, and she snuck up on me: she didn’t talk about Gatsby, but about his “love” Daisy, who wishes once that her daughter would grow up to be a “beautiful little fool.” Thinking about that, my student said, “I can understand the wish. It would make things so much easier, at least for a little while.” A few minutes later she added, “Oh, I hate Daisy.” Listening to her, I felt her courage: the courage to include herself in the story. The courage to see a shortcoming and, instead of distancing herself with the simple “That’s bad,” admit out loud the more honest, “That’s me. That’s a part of me.”
Without that courage, I was safe–or seemed so. Without that courage I saw Gatsby’s failings, and judged him–perhaps pitied him–before turning away. Without that courage I didn’t learn much from him. In order to change things, we need to understand where we are, who we are. The truth is, there’s part of me that responds to the myth of Daisy, as horrible as it is. There’s a part of me that wants what Gatsby wants, even though it destroys him. Until I realize that, any plan I have is based upon a lie (the lie of my own perfection), and it will crumble.
I still have my problems with The Great Gatsby, but I feel something in it now. It is a book full of people who are almost great: people who should be wonderful, who should be kind, who should build so much. And instead, misguided, lost, hurt, competitive, afraid, alone, they build empty castles that fall apart. Perhaps what I’m really learning as I go back to the book is compassion for all those breaking people. It feels nice to admit that I am one of them. And perhaps, as with mosaics and stained glass, we can start making something wonderful with the pieces.