Monday, April 30, 2012

The Great Gatsby

After reading The Great Gatsby I have my students read an excerpt from Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. When teaching American literature in Tehran during the beginning of the Iranian revolution, Nafisi's students struggled with the concepts that they encountered in this classic work of American literature. I invite my students to see the book through the eyes of a foreigner and ask:
  • How can American literature help or hinder the perception other have of us? 

So I'm thinking of how I will introduce the assignment today and I came across this quote: "Like all other ideologues before them the Islamic revolutionaries seemed to believe that writers were the guardians of morality" (Nafisi 136). In literature there are no moral lessons. The writer certainly has ideas that he/she wishes to share and have the reader consider. But reading is a dialogue. An educated reader participates in this dialogue by bringing his/her previous experiences and ideas to the discussion. As a work of literature ages the discussion can change and interpretations can lead to directions that the writer never forecast. Likewise, if the text has nothing to offer later generations then the discussion ends and the literature is no longer valued.

As suggested by several end of the 20th century "Best Of" lists, Gatsby still has much to say to us, Americans. And elevating it so high in our own canon draws the attention of the outside world who is interested in "understanding" us. But understanding takes effort, especially in reserving our initial reactions and our previous stereotypes and judgements. How do you react to something foreign? With curiosity? With disdain? Would we like to think that we are like Nick: "inclined to reserve all judgements" (Fitzgerald 5)? But also like Nick, we do not see how difficult this lofty ideal really is to attain. So, that makes us a bit like Gatsby too.

  • What can the character of Gatsby tell me about myself?
  • What can this novel tell me about my country? in the '20's? today?
  • What can this novel tell foreigners about my country?
  • How will I respond to World literature that I read next year? 
American Ideals Considered:
  • perseverance
  • hard work
  • self improvement
  • reason vs. passion
  • challenging traditions
  • compassion
  • responsibility to self and community
  • responsibility to the past
These are ideas presented in our literature throughout the year.
  • What do they mean to you? 
  • How are they presented in The Great Gatsby?
  • Are there any ideals that you would add to the list?

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