Gatsby, Hawthorne, and Being Sixteen
By Tricia Ebarvia
One of the last books I read in 2014 was Gabrielle Levin’s delightful novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. At one point, the main character—a somewhat odd and sometimes churlish bookseller named A.J. Fikry—tells his daughter to remember that “the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.” He adds, “Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time.”
Many years ago when I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, I didn’t like it very much. I remember listening to a classmate discuss how much she loved the book. “Gatsby,” she gushed, “The way he could change his entire life to win Daisy over? It’s soooo romantic.” I didn’t get it. I’d read the same book but I didn’t have the same reaction. In fact, it wouldn’t be until years later, when I was taking a graduate course on the Lost Generation, that I would come to appreciate not just the tragedy of Gatsby’s love for Daisy, but also the stunning beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose.
I think of Gatsby whenever I hear my students say that they don’t like something we’re reading in class. Just last month, as we were finishing up Much Ado About Nothing, a student admitted, “I know this play is supposed to be funny, but I haven’t laughed at all.” I was puzzled. Here was a student who volunteered to read every day in class and who seemed to genuinely enjoy the play. Seeing my puzzled expression, he added, “I mean, I like the story. But I think this would have been better written in modern English.”
The English major in me cringed. I wanted to remind him for the upteenth time that Shakespeare actually wrote in modern English and 90% of his words are still used today (plus he invented the word swag! Isn’t that awesome?!). But I know that wasn’t his point. The language is a stumbling block. It’s difficult. I know, I’ve been there. All I could say to him—and to his peers whom I’m sure felt the same way—was that I hope he reads it again one day. Then I shared my experience with Gatsby and went on to mention other titles I was required to read during college, titles like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel I didn’t like when I first read it and, unlike Gatsby, still don’t like, much less love.
I also reminded my students of something I’d been saying since the beginning of the year. Reading, like any skill, takes practice. Whether you’re playing a sport or an instrument, the only way to get better at something is to keep doing it. Reading Shakespeare can be a particularly difficult skill, so it’s something that may take more practice (enter familiar groans). I tell my students to go easy on themselves. Very few of us could run a marathon without training. And when we travel to new places, as we do in books, we may sometimes get lost. (And that’s okay.)
Before Much Ado, my students had read just one other Shakespeare play (Romeo and Juliet, in eighth grade). I ask them to raise their hands if reading Shakespeare was easier this year; almost all of their hands go up. After I admit that much of Shakespeare still baffles me, I promise them that when they encounter Shakespeare the next time, it won’t be so hard. It will be like opening a door to a house they’ve already entered, and though they may still stumble over a piece of unfamiliar furniture here and there, the more time they spend in the house, exploring its rooms, the more they’ll get to know all its secrets—like how the upstairs bedroom door needs a firm push, how the bottom kitchen cabinet sometimes sticks, or how the third stair creaks-just-so even with the gentlest of steps. They’ll learn how the floors feel beneath their feet and how the sunlight travels from window to window, casting moving shadows from dawn to dusk.
Some books are challenging because of their language. But sometimes books are challenging for another reason. When I read Gatsby in high school, I understood most of the words, but I couldn’t relate to Gatsby’s story. I didn’t know the kind of yearning that Gatsby experienced nor could I relate to the glitz and glamour of his lifestyle. On the other hand, another book I read that same year was The Scarlet Letter. Like many of my peers, I struggled with Hawthorne’s prose. Looking back, I’m fairly confident I may have understood only every other word.
Yet I connected deeply to The Scarlet Letter. I only understood half the book, but there were passages in the novel I still remember today. To explain why Hester stays in town despite her public shaming, Hawthorne described a “fatality in man, a feeling so irresistible… which invariably compels human beings to linger and haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime; and still the more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it.”
At the time I was reading Hawthorne, I was going through my first ‘real’ breakup. And at the risk of sounding (like a teenage) cliche, I found myself identifying deeply with Hester’s pain: despite the sadness she felt, she just couldn’t leave. Something compelled her to stay in the very place that caused her so much grief and suffering. I knew what that felt like, or at least as much as any 16-year-old could.
I didn’t know then that reading about Jay Gatsby or Hester Prynne would become so meaningful for me. But these two reading experiences as a student would later serve as important reminders for me as a teacher—to remember what it was like to be 16-years-old. To be 16-years-old (and everything that goes with it) and to struggle with a difficult text, to fumble around an unfamiliar house, yes, but to also delight in finding a special hiding place.
For many years after I started teaching, I took it personally whenever students told me they didn’t like what we were reading. If I could just show them how incredible the symbolism was in Lord of the Flies or how interesting a feminist interpretation of Hamlet could be, then surely I could convince them to fall in love with these books. And even if they couldn’t see it yet, if I gushed enough—“fangirled” enough—then maybe they would catch some of my passion by osmosis. (Looking back, I can see now that my students were probably wondering what was wrong with this crazy English teacher.)
To move students forward as readers, it’s useful to remember what we were like when we were their age. Sometimes my students will find a text, even a difficult one, that speaks to them, as The Scarlet Letter did to me. Other times, however, I know that my students will struggle. “Sometimes,” as A. J. Fikry reminds us, “books don’t find us until the right time.” High school wasn’t the right time for me and Gatsby. Although I can’t be sure if Fikry ever read Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration or studied reader-response theory, it’s clear he knows how important timing can be between a book and its reader.
Perhaps what I’m saying is obvious. But as teachers know all too well, it can be incredibly frustrating when students don’t connect with the books we teach, when they complain about them. What does this have to do with my life? they ask, sometimes not so quietly. Instead of giving into the frustration—or worse, blaming students for not trying hard enough/not reading carefully/not taking this seriously—we might remember we had the same frustrations. And we might even admit that we understand how they’re feeling. (We might also try to find texts that do speak to them or give students choices beyond the classics, but that’s a topic for a different blog post.)
I wasn’t the same reader when I was 23 and fell in love with Gatsby, as I was when I was 16 and indifferent. Now that I am 38 and a teacher, I sometimes have to take a step back and remember. Remember that I’m looking at what my students and I are reading as someone who has many more years of experience reading (and teaching).
One way to honor my students’ reading experiences it to remember that I struggled—and continue to struggle—just as my students do. Then I ask myself, “What could my teacher have done that would have helped me back then, to struggle a little bit less?” Perhaps if I start by humbly putting myself in my students’ shoes, I can begin to see which light I might turn on in the house to help them see a little bit better.
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature and AP English Language & Composition at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. This year, she continues her quest to inspire a love for reading in her students by integrating more independent reading and free choice. She’s proud to say that her freshmen have already read more than 400 books in the last three months and admits that her heart skips a beat whenever she sees a student with a book in his hand she’s recommended. (Better yet, if he likes it.) In future blog posts, she’ll discuss her independent reading endeavors in her classroom. Her teacher webpage can found at mrsEbarvia.com. She can also be found on twitter @triciaebarvia (for peers) or @mrsebarvia (for students).