The Great Gatsby should be brought back into the English curriculum

The Great Gatsby is not just an ill-fitting classic. The novel is slim and elegant, therefore short enough to convince students that it’s worth reading.

Photo Illustration: Aarushi Bahadur

The Great Gatsby is not just an ill-fitting classic. The novel is slim and elegant, therefore short enough to convince students that it’s worth reading.

It’s a quiet sort of August mid-morning – flat sunlight, ’bit tepid, breakfast at ten, you know the type – when I get the email with the 2022-23 year booklist. And I immediately scroll down to English 10, because it’s my self-imposed duty to be the first to know what we’re reading this year. The only book I’m certain about (because I’ve checked, I’ve pestered my very patient and considerate former English teacher, I’ve seen the book just about everywhere) is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic The Great Gatsby. And it’s not there.

I’d read it once, in seventh or eighth grade, liked it, thought I could maybe wring it a little harder this time, and then find it a nice place in my bookshelf to settle and grow weary and freckled with dust motes. But it’s not anywhere in sight, so I reread the email once, then again to make sure, and then search up and read the Goodreads reviews on the two books I’m unfamiliar with. Then I think three things. First, Where did it go? Second, Why is it gone? And third, I knew I should’ve gotten myself a secondhand copy.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, by extension, The Great Gatsby, is undoubtedly tied to Saint Paul Academy, whether today’s students like it or not. Fitzgerald was born in Saint Paul, left, moved back again after his father lost his job at Procter & Gamble, but managed to maintain a comfortable middle-class lifestyle thanks to his mother’s inheritance. It was during this time – around 1908, with the shadow of his father’s newfound alcoholism at home – that Fitzgerald enrolled in the formerly all-boys Saint Paul Academy. It was there he wrote and published his first story, a detective story, in the school newspaper when he was 13. However, he didn’t stay at school very long. Apparently indifferent as a student, in every subject save English, he was expelled on the grounds of poor grades. Perhaps his desire for recognition matched by lack of popularity (which plagued him at his other schools) played into his ostensible apathy.

It’s remarkable to me that his footsteps seem to linger persistently in the school, though it goes without notice much of the time. Not literally so; I can’t imagine we’re walking the same paths as the author did a century ago, since Old Main, so aptly named, is the only remnant of the old building at 155 Western Avenue (where a statue of young Fitzgerald now sits, head tilted up towards the sky) in use any longer, and who knows how many times that has been refloored. What I refer to is the wonder I first felt upon discovering the Randolph Campus fourth-floor room paneled with murals of philosophers where a plaque helpfully explains that Fitzgerald had once sat there in the company of friends, reading aloud his stories, the rush I got when I learned SPA still has young Fitzgerald’s school records, the quiet curiosity and wild rumors I was met with last year when I inquired about why Fitzgerald was expelled (My favorite? Someone told me they thought he’d been expelled for punching another student off campus. Factually incorrect, but a winner in terms of entertainment value.)
So if it’s incontestable Fitzgerald is tied to Saint Paul Academy’s legacy, regardless of how much he did or didn’t enjoy his three years spent at the school, why is Gatsby going?

I’m going to state my case plainly: I don’t think Gatsby should be removed. Look, I know Gatsby is problematic. What old novel isn’t? Yes, antisemitism, racism, and sexism are prominent in the biases of certain characters, but that’s to be expected, since the novel is a product of its era, and Fitzgerald was a white, middle-class male. That is exactly what you’d anticipate and be aware of when picking up the book. This is not something to be celebrated, but to be examined and learned from; heck, change one of the major assignments to be a whole essay about everything that hasn’t aged well. Not every essay has to be about the repeating motifs of the green light or the leering eyes of T.J. Eckleberg. I understand that thinking critically needn’t be the only way of learning, but this is far from the reality of the curriculum – as we move towards more diverse literary lenses, being able to explore the contrast between new and old values can provide more insight than simply delving into one or the other.

The Great Gatsby is not just an ill-fitting classic. The novel is slim and elegant, therefore short enough to convince students that it’s worth reading. It’s an excellent conversation starter on social class, wealth, idealism, and romanticism. It is a novel that deals with relevant themes, has detailed motifs and symbolism, pulls on literary devices, and exemplifies prose of the early twentieth century. It does not glorify its era, it critiques it. Gatsby is the epitome of a novel worth thinking thoughtfully and intentionally about.

History repeats itself. We fight over the same conflicts, play over the same political battlescapes. The world of Gatsby is not so dissimilar to the one we live in today. In the present and in the past the same wars wage: presidents seek to reduce taxes and increase tariffs, debates about the legalization of drugs proliferate, and women push for rights in a shifting social landscape. In Gatsby’s century our own echoes: at the epoch of an era of success and materialism, the concept of the American Dream shimmers and fades; we hover in a world in which the economy trumps integrity and the young challenge hypocrisy, which Fitzgerald writes with a compelling awareness. Any novel that can capture a generation is a novel to remember. Armed with this knowledge, that Gatsby is no more a work of the past than we are, we can finally understand the relevance of Gatsby’s closing sentence: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”