Monday, May 4, 2009

Jay's way

In which a teacher prods a class to cast a cold eye on an American Dream

The Felix Chronicles, #21


I point to the file I've just clicked open on the Smart Board. It's a document in bold type, consisting of nothing but those five words. “What do you think, folks? Is Gatsby a pathetic fraud?”

"Absolutely," say Roy without hesitation.

"He is not!" says Kim.

“He makes up his identity,” Roy says. “Gatsby pretends to be something he’s not.”

"So you think he's a fraud, Roy," I say. "And pathetic?"

Roy is nodding his assent when Jason jumps in.“No,” he says. “Because even though Gatsby makes things up Nick Carraway admires his hope and his ambition.”

“Well that’s what Nick thinks,” I say. “That’s what Jason thinks, too?”

He nods. “Yes, I do.”

Becky weighs in. “He was definitely a fraud, she says. But I’m not sure about pathetic. He did questionable things on the way up, but the fact that he was striving for something – he might not be pathetic.”

“Oh no, he’s definitely pathetic and a fraud, says Nate. "He got where he was through fraudulence, cheating and going around the law –”

I interrupt: “That’s fraud in the legal sense of the term. A crime.”

“Yes, he continues, and he’s pathetic in the desperation with which he wants Daisy Buchanan."

"Okay. But let’s step back,” I say. “When you’re confronted with a statement like 'Jay Gatsby is a pathetic fraud,' what’s the first thing you should do?”

A moment of silence. I don’t expect an instant answer – actually, I’ll feel better if it emerges after a moment of consideration – but I’ve been hammering at this point long enough in our papers and our discussions to expect at least some clarity on this point.

I hear an indistinct female voice. “Define.” A little tentative, but at least it’s an assertion, not a question.

“Right,” I say emphatically. “You’ve got to define your terms. Now let’s go back to the easier part of this: Is Jay Gatsby a fraud?”

A chorus of voices: “Yes.”


“Because he pretends to be someone he’s not,” Ellen says. I note that at least some of the facts are reasonably clear: the man who calls himself Jay Gatsby was actually born James Gatz, he makes inaccurate factual statements about his background (among them that he lived in San Francisco, which he describes as “the Middle West”), and so on. There are other, unverifiable claims he makes that we can regard with some suspicion, but in any event there is no empirical doubt – the man says things that aren’t true, ipso facto (I slip in a little vocabulary building here) he is a fraud. Right?

I’m expecting, even inviting, a challenge, but I don’t expect it to come from Nate. I’m not so sure, he says.

“Wait a second – didn’t you just say he was both pathetic and a fraud?”

“Well, I’m thinking about it,” he says. Noting Ellen’s observation that he created a character for himself, Nate notes that when James Gatz adopted the identity of Jay Gatsby, he invented that person and became that person. He followed all the rules of the person he invented.

“So,” I say by way of offering an example, when Gatsby describes himself as “an Oxford man,” he’s saying something that’s factually accurate – he did go to Oxford – just not in the way people customarily think of it, getting an undergraduate degree and the like.


Joey jumps in. “They’re all a bunch of frauds.”

Really? How so?

“Daisy is pretending to be a faithful wife; Myrtle is pretending to be belong in the world of Tom, with whom she’s having an affair, Jordan is pretending . . . .”

“ . . . that she cares about anyone but herself?” I offer. Joey nods. We all get the point.

“Of course,” I say after a pause, “by this standard, we’re probably all frauds.” No takers on that one.

“The point about Gatsby,” Kim says, "is that Gatsby seems to have a kind of higher purpose. That’s why Nick admires him.”

Nick Carraway again. I don’t want them to lean on him so much. At least right now.

“Okay,” I say. “You understand my real point here, which is less about whether Gatsby is or isn’t a fraud, and more about having a clear standard by which you measure the term. Now let’s move on to a term I suspect is a little less clear: pathetic. What does it mean to be pathetic?”

A long pause. I repeat the question.

“Lame, “says Nate. “That’s a word that comes to mind.”

“To get to a desperation point, says Liza. To stoop to a certain point.”

Another pause.

“I guess it’s time for me to share my secret dream with you,” I tell the class. “My secret dream – I take a suspense-building breath – is that I really think I can make it in the NBA. I want to become a professional basketball player.”

A few smiles.

“I mean, yeah, sure, it’s a long shot. Yes, I’ll have to lose a few pounds, work out a little harder. And yes, I’m not all that tall. But if I’m willing to work at it, and give it everything I’ve got, I mean, why not? I can do this! I mean, this is America, right?”

By this point in the school year, they’re used to this routine. No one is jumping to take the bait. “So I ask: Am I pathetic?”

“No,” says Kim. “You’re not pathetic.”

“Why not?”

“Because I think that having dreams is never pathetic.”

“Even my dream of playing in the NBA?”

“No matter how unattainable dreams may be.”

“Wait a second, I say in a voice of mock indignation. Are you suggesting my dream is unattainable?”

“No! NoNoNo!” The class relieves itself in collective laughter as Kim struggles to avoid giving offense. “Your problem is you’re too nice,” I tell her, as the class laughs some more – a well-known aspect of her personality is suddenly on public view, and my guess is that not all of this laughter is entirely sympathetic. Do they also see her grit? She waits for the laughter to subside to finish making her point. “Striving for a dream is never pathetic," she insists. "Even if it’s unattainable. That may be hard for a person to deal with in the end, but it’s not pathetic. Gatsby realizes that his dream is never what he made it out to be, but – "

“– are you saying Gatsby’s dream is also unattainable?”

“Well, he kind of got her, at least at first. But what I mean is that dreams and goals are what make life . . . . “

I finish her sentence: “Miserable?” The class roars with laughter. It feels like some tension is being discharged.

“No! No!” Kim shouts fruitlessly among the din. But it’s clear she’s not quite ready to yield.

This is good.

“Dreams are vicious things, Kim, are they not?”

“No.” She sounds almost contrite.


“No.” (A little more assertive.) “You have to keep pushing. You have to deal with the pain of it, and maybe have a new dream. Because that’s how you keep going, how you keep going forward.”

I’m moved by her ingenuousness, but say nothing. Instead, I shift my gaze to Joey, who has been watching these proceedings with unfeigned amusement. “Do you endorse my dream of making it in the NBA? You think I should do it?”

He shrugs. “Sure,” he says, an affirmation of heartless indifference.

“Wow,” I reply with exaggerated indignation. “I can't tell who's more cruel. Kim for encouraging me, or you for dismissing me.”

"I'm not cruel!" Kim protests.

Ellen is more measured. “If you’re striving to better yourself, that’s fine, she says. "But if you start closing off other avenues – like if you quit your day job and waste all this money training –"

“What are you implying?”

“Well, obviously you can’t make it in the NBA.”

“Oh really? Well what if I’m a Kim guy and insist on it? That makes me pathetic?”

“In my opinion, yes.”


“Because you’re throwing away what you have for the sake of something that’s never going to happen.”

“Hmmm.” Silently putting aside the question of just what she’s referring to in what she thinks I have, I shake my head and say she’s given us a pretty good definition of pathetic. Does it apply to Gatsby? Is he pathetic for chasing Daisy?

“Yes. “


“He wants to repeat the past, he wants to take back those five years,” she says, referring to a famous line in the novel (“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”). Gatsby wants Daisy not to have married, not to have had a daughter, not to have never had feelings for her husband Tom.

“That’s pathetic.”

The clarity of Ellen’s reasoning is impressive. I wonder if she has effectively played out the string. But then Joey continues to develop his earlier point. “Actually," he says, "it’s the other characters in the book who strike me as more pathetic.”

“Really? How so?”

“They’re so bored with themselves. They don’t know what to do.”

“Why is that pathetic? I mean, maybe it’s obnoxious, or just unattractive. But pathetic?”

“I think it’s pathetic, I guess, because they don’t have dreams.” (Shades of Kim here – who would have thought?) “Because they’re already wealthy.”

I note that Liza had used the word “desperate” when we began trying to define the word “pathetic.” But the characters of Daisy, Tom, Jordan: Are they desperate?

“Yeah, I think so,” Joey replies. “Daisy is desperate to do something with her life.”

“All right then. So here’s our Spark Notes summary of The Great Gatsby” (a few chuckles as I speak): “It’s a book about desperately pathetic frauds, of whom Gatsby is the least pathetic and fraudulent.”

I’m inviting disagreement, but assume it’s going to take a moment to coalesce. So I’m particularly surprised when Ginger raises her hand with a face that suggests obvious dissent. For months now, I’ve been using every official channel (and a few unofficial ones, like a word to her advisor) to tell Ginger I’d like to hear from her more. In part this is because her exams and essays are so weak that class participation is the one avenue I see open in terms of having a discretionary lever with which to raise her grade into the relatively safe C range. The one time we had a conversation about this directly, she grew defensive to the point of hostility. I don’t think of her as especially bright – in the terminology my wife sometimes casually uses in the privacy of the dinner table, she has “a gray matter issue” – which she may know and believe independently. Alas, her pattern of diffidence may the most concrete evidence I have of relevant intelligence. I'm reminded of the old Abe Lincoln joke: it's better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove any doubt.

“I just don’t see him as a pathetic fraud, she says. Actually, I think he’s kind of a tragic hero.”

Not bad, Ginger, I think. Not bad at all. “Well now, that’s a term we haven’t heard in this discussion. Tragic hero? How so?”

“Well, because of stuff that people like Kim and Jason have been saying. He has something and he works hard toward it. He’s like the most developed character in the book.”

Chris, who has been quiet thus far, has raised his hand, ready to take it from there. I’m pleased. There’s something palpably sane about Chris – he’s consistently pragmatic in his commentary, while evincing a sense of sympathy for any character he’s assessing, whether real or fictional. He seems like he’d be a great friend. The thought occurs to me that he’s gay (a couple gestures, his well-known presence with the theater crowd), which, if true, is an orientation he seems to inhabit with a sense of equilibrium uncommon in adolescents. I find myself wondering to what degree his parents get credit for that. “I agree with Ginger, he’s now saying. "I think we’re putting far too much emphasis on the attainability of the dream in deciding whether it’s pathetic or not. Actually, I think Gatsby was successful on a lot of levels. He imagined a life, he lived it out, he gained a lot of respect –"

“Well OK,” I acknowledge. “That’s true. But those are means, not ends. You’re saying that if I lose twenty pounds, improve my jump shot, maybe improve my sense of athletic fashion, I’m not pathetic, even if I don’t make it to the NBA, right?”

“Right. Because you’ve moved toward your goal –"

“ – as long,” Ellen chimes in, “as you don’t let it define your life.”

I nod, considering this approvingly. “All right. I’ll buy that. But let me ask you this: To what degree does the goal itself matter? Maybe it’s not pathetic to devote, or even lose, your life in a quest for world peace or to defeat racism. But Gatsby had a dream of winning the heart of Daisy. Here I gotta ask: Daisy? Like me in the NBA, no? More to the point: What kind of dream is Daisy? I’ll tell you what makes Gatsby pathetic: It’s that Daisy is what he wants!” Here I make feminine gestures with my hands and adopt the most ridiculous voice I can muster, quoting her inane reaction to Gatsby’s wardrobe when getting a tour of his house: “Oh the shirts! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such beautiful shirts before!” I know that the laughter that ensues is as much for how foolish I look in mocking Daisy than in the foolishness of Daisy herself.

Kim’s not interested in a cheap laugh. “I don’t think it’s really about Daisy, she says, as if she hadn’t heard anything but my question. It’s more that Daisy is a symbol of a larger dream.”

“Yes,” says Chris. “I mean even when he was a kid, Gatsby was making that list of things to do.”

“Like ‘Be Nicer to Parents,’” I quote, part of an inventory that included “study needed inventions” and “practice elocution,” suggesting that Gatsby was a kind of warped Benjamin Franklin from the very beginning. “Be nicer to parents: Now there’s a moron for you.”

Kim is still working through her idea. “Daisy represents everything that Gatsby wants, she’s saying. It’s the house, the pool, the status.”

“So Gatsby objectifies her? She’s a status symbol?


“Unlike all of you, who when you fall in love are actually in love with the authentic person, not some notion of what they appear to be. I’m almost sneering here. But we don’t make that mistake now, do we?”

Kim is trying to sidestep the question. “Well, that’s what he does, seeing her as the missing piece to a puzzle.”

“But that’s pretty shallow, isn’t it?”

“I guess so.”

“I mean, you wouldn’t make a mistake like that, now would you, Kim?” Kim clearly doesn’t like this line of questioning. I don’t blame her. Fortunately for her, class is just about over.

“I guess not, she says.” Books are closing. The classroom door has opened slightly; kids waiting to get in are sending a not-so-subtle signal. With a wry smile, I gesture toward the door. “All right then. See you tomorrow.” Class has ended on a discordant note. I’m satisfied.

“I guess not,” I repeat aloud to no one in particular as I gather my notes. Eduardo, the ethics teacher who has the class next, makes a gesture of hello as he tinkers with the Smart Board behind me, making the question of Gatsby’s pathetic fraudulence disappear. I guess not, too. Kim’s a pretty level-headed kid – diligent, committed, maybe a streak of melancholy. Then again, plenty of smart people have done plenty of dumb things when it comes to matters of the heart.

But that’s where we are: in the realm of educating guesses. In wonder how many of these kids were aware that for most of the last fifty minutes this was only nominally a History class. The interdisciplinary reach into English could be justified relatively easily; the move into judging Gatsby’s dream is more of a stretch. That’s not only because the discussion was conducted on ahistorical terms – we treated Gatsby’s dream as if it was a current event when in fact there are all kinds of ways it was historically determined – but because the line of discussion led me to query the ingenuous Kim about a matter that’s none of my business. I claim no special expertise in measuring the legitimacy or basis of love (though I perhaps illegitimately count the fact that I’ve managed to stay married for twenty years as among my most substantial accomplishments), and even if I did, the notion that a lively discussion in history class might avoid a broken heart is a conceit that . . . well, that’s exactly what it is: a conceit. I am the true pathetic fraud here, acting as if any of this really makes a difference.

Very well then. Let the dream begin again.