I have been working on writing a module based on The Great Gatsby. I started out thinking that I would take a fresh approach that would avoid standard literary criticism altogether. I wanted to ignore standard themes such as the “American Dream” and avoid looking at well-worn symbols such as the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and the enormous eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg. However, when I re-read the novel I found that my original plan was impossible. The elements that teachers have been pointing to for several generations are just too prominent, and too much a part of Fitzgerald’s design, to ignore.
I decided to take a multi-pronged approach that ran on several tracks at once, including the standard themes but also including some new perspectives. My critical approach might be called “Guided Reader Response.” As is typical in ERWC, the emphasis is on what authors are trying to do and how their decisions affect the reader.
First, I felt I had to neutralize some of the assumptions that students often have about reading literature. I also wanted to argue against the use of “notes” publications such as SparkNotes and Cliff’s Notes. What follows is a draft of an introduction to the module for students.
Note: I have updated this introduction based on feedback from teachers at the latest meeting of the Module Writing Institute. I moved the last paragraph of the original draft to the beginning and reordered the other paragraphs. I added a new conclusion. Thanks to those who gave me feedback!
Further note: I have revised this again to soften the polemical attacks I was making on figure hunting as an approach to literature and on the use of “notes” publications. I have also introduced the “arc” language–prepare, understand, question, use, write, and revise–for students to think about.
Novels are tools for thinking about life in new ways. Characters face problems, make decisions, commit errors, deal with relationships, succeed or fail. Fictional worlds tend to be more focused and selective than the real one, so it is easier to see what the issues are and how to think about them. However, novels, even fantasy and science fiction novels, are ultimately about our own lives and what we make of them. Reading a novel allows the reader to experience someone else’s life, think someone else’s thoughts, and compare those fictional lives and thoughts with his or her own. Thus, reading literature is not just about extracting some meaning left behind by the author. It is ultimately about making meaning in your own life.
People often think that authors who write literature take big ideas and encrypt them in symbols, metaphors and other literary devices to hide them from casual readers. From this perspective, the reader’s job is to find and interpret the literary devices, decode them, and extract the correct meaning. It is true that literary language often includes symbols and metaphors. It is also true that when authors write they have meanings in mind and intentions for the reader. However, literary texts often have meanings beyond what the author intended, and every reader has a different emotional and intellectual experience. Literary devices are only a part of that experience.
This learning module is designed to help you read The Great Gatsby from a number of different perspectives. As you do the activities, you will go through a series of steps: preparing, understanding, questioning, using, writing, and revising. We call this the “arc” of the module. “Preparing” refers to thinking you do before you start reading—thinking about the title, reading the cover, skimming some pages, making connections to your own experiences. Then you read for understanding, making sense of the text. After you understand the text, you begin questioning it, looking for contradictions, unsupported claims, and faulty arguments. At that point, you begin to think about selecting words and ideas from the text to support your own claims and arguments. All of these processes are the basis for writing about the text. You will create a thesis, then explain and defend it using material from the novel. Once you have a draft of your essay, you will get feedback from peers and from your teacher so that you can begin revising your work, taking the feedback and your audience into account.
This sequence of preparing, understanding, questioning, selecting, writing, and revising can be used with any reading and writing project, in any discipline, at any level. It will serve you well in college.
We recommend that you avoid using any of the popular “notes” publications when working through this module. A good novelist or short story writer causes the reader to ask questions, then delays answering those questions (or answers the questions in ways that generate more questions) in order to keep the reader engaged and reading. The “notes” products answer all the questions you might have, short-circuiting engagement with the story and preventing you from having a real experience of the novel in the way the author intended. You will know many things about the novel, but you will not have read it, experienced it, or enjoyed it. If you think novels are boring, it might be because you are reading these published “notes,” which tend to drain the life out of the experience.
The Great Gatsby is one of the most widely-read and interpreted novels in American literature. Critics are still coming up with new interpretations of it. Lois Tyson, in a popular introduction to literary theory called Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, offers 14 different interpretations of Gatsby from 14 different critical perspectives. We will explore some of these perspectives in this module. There is no single correct interpretation. However, this does not mean that all interpretations are equally good. Good readings are rooted in evidence from the actual text. Good readings are also persuasive to readers other than the critic who wrote the interpretation.
This module is designed to help you engage with the novel, experience the lives of its characters, think about the issues it raises, and make connections to your own life. You will create your own interpretations, based on the text, and share them with your fellow students and your teacher. Reading the novel is only part of the experience. Writing and discussing the ideas, trying to persuade others to interpret it the way you do, and experiencing the way your ideas change as you discuss them with others, are all important parts of the experience of reading literature.