Friday, July 8, 2011

The Simplification of Jay Gatsby

What do Jay Gatsby and the American Education system have in common? Well, they're both living in the past, for one thing.

The real topic is not so much what they have in common, as what education is doing to Gatsby. Consider this article:

Someone decided that there should be a simplified version of The Great Gatsby, for intermediate readers. Gatsby is very simple to begin with. Not in content, but certainly in vocabulary. There are roughly 50,000 words, short by novel standards, and as the writer of the article points out, the most complicated word you're going to run across is "orgastic," the definition of which can be guessed at with decent results.

To change the wording of Gatsby eliminates every reason to use it in a classroom. The article gives the example of the very last sentences of the book. They're famous for a reason. If you haven't already read them, and don't want it to be spoiled, skip down past the italics.

The original ending reads like this:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an ├Žsthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning----

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The "intermediate reader" ending is this:

Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true.

Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.

Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby's dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?

Excuse me??

THE REASON Gatsby is taught is for Fitzgerald's absolutely gorgeous prose. It's not taught in elementary schools or middle schools because they're not ready for it. They won't appreciate it.
Granted, most high school students won't, either, but it's worth a try.

Changing the words to "simplify" it, renders it useless as a teaching tool.

Not only that, but the second reason it's taught is for the discussion about whether or not Gatsby WAS a success. To end with a question mark is not only the most irritating thing in the world, but answering the biggest question posed in the novel doesn't make anyone who reads it think beyond that answer.
Was Gatsby a "success?" Does he deserve the respect and idolization that Nick bestows on him?

Read it, and you tell me.
Of course, you'd need what Fitzgerald wrote, and not this woman's interpretation, for that.
Here's a thought: let's teach kids to READ, instead of handing them simplified versions.


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