Gatsby from Multiple Perspectives

After teaching The Great Gatsby for many, many years, I couldn’t help but get bored with the same old interpretation of the geography:  East Egg represents the old rich, West Egg represents the new rich, The Valley of the Ashes represents industrialization.  Blah, blah, blah.  That’s why I was excited to find a totally different (although controversial) interpretation right here on eNotes. 

 It all began with one of the answers in our Question and Answer section which, ironically, was on the synecdoche in The Great Gatsby.  Suddenly, my teacher-mind (numbed by years of teaching the exact same thing) became reenergized again and I posted a query to the discussion board.  What was most interesting was to hear the loud voices of dissenters!  (Was it truly surprising to me that, as teachers, we would desire to cling to our time-tested ways of looking at literary pieces?)  Desiring to research the new perspective myself, I came to a lesson on The Great Gatsby from Multiple Perspectives, began to peruse and be amazed.

Suddenly, I was being presented with The Great Gatsby from a feminist, Marxist, and archetypal point of view!  Never before had I broached the subject of how Fitzgerald himself had “treated” women in his novel or whether the female characters were, in fact, “complete” or victims of “gender inequality.”  It was totally new to me to discover a separation of the characters into the powerful and the powerless, as cars as the symbols of power, or of the impact of a specifically Midwestern, middle-class narrator.   I had never thought before to divide characters into types such as the hero, the scapegoat, the loner, and the temptress.

Furthermore, as a teacher, it is just so exciting to inject novelty into a subject that becomes so very monotone year after year.  Now the trysts of Daisy and Gatsby, the bloody blotch on the yellow car, Nick’s quaint cottage in West Egg, and those ominous eyes of Eckleburg will never quite look the same ever again.

Enotes Revives Dead Poets

In the midst of teaching, my mind often wanders to the great inspiration of Mr. Keating in the film Dead Poets Society.  I first saw this film as an aspiring teacher and was so moved that I cried all the way home.  There was something about those students standing up on their desks in support of their inspirational teacher, defying expulsion, that moved me deeply, . . . and still does. 

Recently eNotes brought me back to that image or, more specifically, to the image of the students of The Dead Poets Society chanting a poem, getting back to the primal nature of rhythmic poetry in a cave near their college prep school.  How?  By what seemed to be a simple question asked by a student: “What is your outlook on ‘The Congo’ by Vachel Lindsay?”

I was interested in the question and intrigued even further by the first answer, so I decided to reread “The Congo” and was struck by the verses echo from the movie Dead Poets Society:

THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision. / I could not turn from their revel and derision. / THEN I SAW THE CONGO CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK, / CUTTING THROUGH THE JUNGLE WITH THE GOLDEN TRACK.

They young men in The Dead Poets Society use this poem properly, I might add, using Lindsay’s own “stage direction” and do great justice to this rhythmical chant:  they are simply using spoken language to honor the poets of old, . . . poets of all races.

Furthermore, my take on “The Congo” generally coincides with the rest of academia that chides Vachel Lindsay for being a “well-meaning but misguided primitivist.”  Ah, if there were just a way to put a more positive spin on this statement!  I truly believe that Lindsay was doing the African-American race a great service, giving great honor to the absolutely superior rhythm of their music and, therefore, of their poetry.

The reality is, however, that living in the turn of the century “white” world of the late 1800s tends to lend itself to decades of erroneous assumption, . . . even if he DID discover a very young Langston Hughes at a restaurant.  It is incredibly important to note that Lindsay considered himself to be a staunch advocate for the African-American race!  One wonders why his stress on “Their Basic Savagery” in this particular poem didn’t make him read between the lines just a bit.  A link to the poem is included below, so you can see for yourself.

The irony here is, it isn’t that the things in “The Congo” aren’t true, per se.  (Could this be the very first instance of political-correctness?!?)  It is simply the way it is presented that puts a focus more on the pre-industrialized continent of Africa (which, by the way, is not in itself a bad thing!) instead of the great advancements of the culture, especially in how it has influenced the culture of the Western world.

Still, I wanted to explore this subject further, so I asked a friend of mine, Sarah McDowell:  a leading expert in present-day Tanzania.  Here was her take on the subject:

Even though the language is pretty derogatory in today’s world, there does seem to be a strange feeling though that the poet actually does have some respect or at least sort of romanticizes the “savages.”  I like that it is so lyrical, but to use “mumbo jumbo” and “boom boom boom” so much in a poem seems sort of naive to me.   I have a hard time with anything that uses the term “savage” at all.  I am pretty wary of anything that creates such a strong divide between and Us and Them.  Hard to feel equal and respectful toward anyone that one sees them as Other.  I know that the poem has to be looked at though in its context, and I cut it more slack when I do that.  Very vivid in lyrical form.

I was amazed further at Sarah’s take on the poem and how very similar it was to many literary critics because Sarah hadn’t been exposed to anything but the poem itself and, therefore, was not influenced by many critics’ persuasive language in the matter.

To me this shows that, even from the standards of modern-day Tanzania, this older literary criticism of “The Congo” and consequently of Vachel Lindsay continues to ring true.

I may never watch that Dead Poets Society primal cave scene quite the same way again!

Drawbacks to the Kindle in the Classroom?

If you were to go back to the old copies of the novels and plays I still rely upon—To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Hamlet—to do my daily teaching, you would see all sorts of scribbled notes in different colored pens.  You would see highlighters in every color imaginable.  You would see small pieces of printed material taped to pages.  You would see dog-ears and great big rips among the stressed-out bindings of my paperback copies.  You would see the small word “Ha!” scrawled next to anything remotely funny.

Well, according to a new Princeton study, if I relied upon a Kindle DX to view these same literary masterpieces, I’d be in quite the pickle, indeed.

I remember a teacher I had long ago preaching to the class about how margin notes reeked of lower intelligence.  I can only laugh at her now as I use some of those very notes, some from wise souls as far back as high school, to teach my own classes.  Although not for everyone, notes on the side of a page are like gold to me.  They always reveal the teacher’s wisdom on the subject:  wisdom that I often lacked at the time, . . . and that wisdom is scrawled right next to the exact quote from the work in question.

Thus stands the problem for both students and teachers for the Kindle DX.

According to a recent article from USA Today and follow-up in, the college students at Princeton (although well equipped to embrace the new technology) grew frustrated with a few simple functions that were lacking.  Stated simply, the Kindle DX has no ability to highlight, no ability to use different colors to differentiate underlined text, no way to scrawl simple notes in a margin (only typed on a keypad), no easy way to maneuver through the work to underlined text, no way to skim or flip randomly through a work, no way to mark text via “page” number, no way to keep multiple texts open at the same time, and no real system for organizing typed annotation.

In short, although this product is perfect for simple reading, the students at Princeton weren’t convinced it was a good scholarly aid.

This device needs to make things easier, not more frustrating, for students trying to annotate and, further, for students following along in class when the professor simply asks them to “turn to page 154.”  Michael Koenig, director of operations at Virginia’s Darden School of Business who also ran a Kindle DX study, said, “It’s just not as flexible or nimble as having your paper notes or your laptop right there, . . . not quite ready for prime time.”

Still, others called it a “first-generation product” with lots of potential.  At least 15% of students loved the device, citing perfection for students on-the-go as well as the “green” aspect of using zero paper products.

For me, unless the descendants of the new Kindle come with a stylus and different color options, I think I’ll pass on this technology for everything except the simple reading of a text.  However, that isn’t to say that these improvements aren’t already hanging in the balance . . . .