Here are some questions to guide you into thinking and perhaps writing about some issues on Spark’s novel.

1. Spark uses the omniscient point-of-view to the extreme. (The omniscient point-of-view is when the author narrates the story from above. We do not see the story from any of the character’s perspective. Instead, the author assumes a perspective of authority. The author sees all.) What are the advantages and disadvantages of omniscience? Why do you think and author would choose the omniscient point of view over the other options, like first person narrative, or third person, etc?  What type of effect does the omniscient point of view have on your reception of the narrative? What kind of tone does it create?

A typical photo of the destruction from the Blitz: compare it to Spark's description in the first two pages of the novel.

2. Re-read the first two, magnificent pages of the novel. How does the depiction of the destruction and the choice of words and phrases Spark uses pre-figure / foreshadow the events of the novel? How do the first two pages set the tone of the novel? What might the various scenes of the Blitz Spark depicts say about the people who live in and lived through the event?

3. How do you describe the inhabitants of the May of Teck Club? What are the dozen or so “girls” like that Spark focuses on? How do you interpret Spark’s description of the girls on p. 9: “few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means”?

4. What is the funciton of the fragments of phone calls that Jane Wright makes to people fifteen years after the events of the narrative?  What is she trying to figure out?  What type of success is she having? Why does it seem that most of the people she speaks to seem to have little to nothing to offer her?

5. Spark is a master of a technique known as “flashforward.” This is when an author shows events that happen in the future of the main temporal flow of the narrative. It is different from “foreshadowing” in that the author shows us details and events ahead of time, even going so far as to give away the ending of a narrative.  In this novel, Spark give us information about the future that is usually reserved for the ending of a traditional novel. We know in advance that Nicholas converts from atheism to Catholicism, becomes a monk, and dies a martyr for mysterious reasons in Haiti. We know that there is a great tragedy that afflicts the May of Teck Club. What effect does it have on the narrative, and reading the narrative, that you know most of the important details about the ending?  How does it effect the narrative that throughout the novel the focuses mostly on Nicholas, we know that he dies shortly after the events of the narrative?

6. Why does Nicholas idealize the May of Teck Club? How is his vision of the place dissonant with reality? What is important for the narrative and this issue of his idealization of the Club about the briefly mentioned fact that Nicholas served in Dunkirk in 1940? (If you don’t know what Dunkirk was, google it to see how both horrifying and triumphant the event was.) And that he suffered a mild nervous collapse shortly after?   Look closely at p. 92 when Nicholas sleeps with Selina in his apartment. How does the narrator depict how Nicholas feels about Selina, and the reality of who Selina is and what she wants?

I think this is one of the best covers of the novel.

I think this is one of the best covers of the novel.

7. What do you think that the buried and un-exploded German bomb in the garden of the Club represents?  How do you think the explosion of the bomb in the end is symbolic?

8. The narration of the explosion in the penultimate chapter is brilliant. The climax of the scene, and of the novel, is when Selina races back into the slim bathroom window during the fire.  What is significant about her “inhuman” act? How does Nicholas respond to it?  What do you make of his gesture “crossing himself” when he sees her emerge from the window carrying the Schapperelli dress?

One of the elegant Schiaperelli dresses.

One of the elegant Schiaperelli dresses.

9. Why do you think that Joanna is the only member of the Club to perish in the fire?  What is her character all about?  How does she contrast Selina?  And here’s a challenge question: how does she resemble Selina in many ways more than she contrasts her?

10. Why do you think that Nicholas, an anarchist and an atheist, converts to Catholicism–and then goes the whole Catholic nine-yards, becoming a monk and then a martyr in Haiti?  What experiences and events in the novel serve as clues to his conversion?  Do you think it had a lot to do with Selina’s act during the explosion? And here’s a challenge question: how seriously do you think we are supposed to take Nicholas’s conversion?

11. How do you interpret the note that Nicholas left behind in his manuscript, “a vision of evil may be effective to conversion as a vision of good” (p. 140)?

12. How would you describe the narrative voice of the novel?  In other words, there is a distinct narrator of the story, looking down on all the events, and often making editorial comments.  Perhaps it is Spark herself as the author? Perhaps it is a narrator Spark assumes as a persona?

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Gatsby always had a full band at his parties.

Gatsby always had a full band at his parties.

Here are some themes, symbols and motifs that run through The Great Gatsby. These are just some; I will post some more as we go over the novel during the next two weeks.

The type of stock ticker Nick would have used to keep track of stocks in 1922.

The type of stock ticker Nick would have used to keep track of stocks in 1922.

THEMES

Money: The effects of money on human behavior is a major issue in the novel. As for the theme of money, one could specify many variations: Money creates the illusion of happiness; money corrupts moral behavior; money has a diffuse influence on everything in life, etc. In fact, if you were interested in interpreting and writing something concerning money / materialism in The Great Gatsby, you could look at something in your own life and / or the world around you in which money has some influence or effect, and place it in the context of the novel.

One of the “exercises” Fitzgerald engages is the “what if” method of writing popular amongst Naturalist writers of the time. He wonders, what if a young, inexperienced man from the Midwest amassed a great amount of wealth, and moved to metropolitan and cosmopolitan New York to impress and win over the aristocratic boyhood girl of his dreams? We will discuss in the next class the issue of literary Naturalism, the sort of fictional laboratory experiements of human behavior certain authors practiced.

Illusion versus Reality.

This is an age old theme in literature. Illusion / Reality is known as a “dichotomy,” which means two terms that are opposite to each other, but which create an interpretive tension. Literature is filled with dichotomies, and authors use them to create meaning: light / dark; good / evil; war/ peace; male / female; life / death. There are hundreds of them. A very effective way to understand and interpret literature is to locate the different dichotomies, and try to understand why the author is using them.

So Fitzgerald uses the dichotomy of Illusion / Reality throughout the entire novel. In context of the issue of MONEY, Fitzgerald shows a world in which wealth creates veils darker human nature. The beautiful mansions hide an ugliness inside. The same holds true for people. Although Jordan Baker is beautiful and outgoing, she reveals herself bit-by-bit to be uncaring and ruthless. Centrally, Daisy Buchanan is beautiful, vivacious, friendly and elegant. She comes across to the reader as being a positive and attractive person. But as the novel progresses, Daisy manifests her carelessness, selfishness and apathy. Finally, at the end of the novel, she not only lets Gatsby take the fall for murder, but flees the east coast with Tom without a return address, so to speak.

Jay Gatsby encapsulates the dichotomy of illusion / reality the most. His whole “aristocratic” pose is a front for his criminal operations. His slight British accent is feigned. In the first few chapters of the novel, Gatsby remains a mysterious figure. We only hear snippets of information about him from various people that may or may not be trues, such as: he is friends with the Kaiser; he killed a man once when he was young; he went to Oxford; he inherited piles of money from German descendants. In fact, we never know the complete truth about Gatsby, except for the story of his life he tells both Jordan and, later, Nick, and Myers Wolfsheim’s story of how Gatsby came to the underworld (which may, ironically, be the only truthful story about him).

Notice how in many of the “party” scenes, at one moment the party looks glamorous, and the next it looks cruel and tawdry. Pay particular attention to the conversation between Owl Eyes and Nick during the first of Gatsby’s parties that he attends on pp. 49 – 51. In many ways, this short dialog encapsulates the whole theme of illusion in the novel.

There are many more examples of illusion / reality, or lies / truth we could look at as we go on.

The Betrayal of the American Dream

Fitzgerald/ Nick announces fairly outright at the end of the novel that it is about the collapse of the American dream of happiness and individuality. In particular, he exposes the lie that one can use money to transform one’s dreams into reality. Jay Gatsby, in fact, is the last man, according to Fitzgerald / Nick, to attempt to transform his dream into reality with money. Gatsby innocently believed that cleverness, hard work and material fortune would win him the boyhood girl of his dreams. In fact, he does not imagine that it could be anyway different.

The notion of “the American Dream” is a big topic in literature and history, and much debated. What is the American dream? How is it fulfilled? Is it financial fortune? Personal accomplishment toward a goal of happiness? A family and a house? Many American novels after Word War I question the nature of the American dream, particularly after the shock of the War, and then very much after the 1929 Crash and during the Great Depression.

Nick Carroway from the movie. It is pretty on target with how the typical Wall Street guy dressed in the 1920s

Nick Carroway from the movie. It is pretty on target with how the typical Wall Street guy dressed in the 1920s

The First Person Narrator / The Unreliable Narrator

Fitzgerald also explores point-of-view, what it means to tell a story, and how perspective affect the telling of a story. Nick Carroway is the first person narrator, meaning he tells the story through his point of view. The novel is told in the first person, “I,” and everything we see through his eyes. Therefore, we do not get any of the narrative through any of the other characters points of view. When an author uses the third person–“he” “she”–or the omniscient point of view, he tends to show a story from the perspective of many different characters.

Since we see everything through Nick’s eyes, it is important for us to assess his character, and to interpret how he sees things. The unreliable narrator means that, since everything is seen through one person’s eyes, we have to question how much we can trust his perspective, and how this character’s personality and attitude toward the world might affect the way in which he tells the story.

So consider Nick’s attitude toward his subject matter, how he feels, what he has to say about the world around him.. And also consider the type of person Nick is. These things will have a big effect upon the meaning of much of the novel, particularly at the moral climax when the reader is forced to assess how he/she feels when Nick exclaims to Gatsby near the end (the last words he says to him before he is shot): “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” On page 162.

Here are a series of issues and questions for thought and discussion. They can also be used for ideas for writing.

You do not have to write responses to these, although writing ideas down can be very helpful.

In bold, I offer page numbers to re-read the important bits and pieces of chapters 3 to 5, which will help you to interpret the novel.

Chapter III

1. Skim through pages 42 – 45, the first few pages of Chapter III. Look at how Gatsby’s parties are described. What are his parties like? How do you think these large and wild parties might be a symbol of (or represent) the 1920s? Is it possible that Fitzgerald is making a commentary on the age? Look at the second to last paragraph on page 45, which begins, “I believe that on the first night . . . ” What does this paragraph say about Gatsby and his parties? Why do you think that Gatsby is so seemingly remote and disconnected from his own gatherings? What might this say about his character and possibly his motives?

2. From pages 49 – 50, as Jordan and Nick wander through Gatsby’s mansion during the party, they run into “Owl Eyes” in Gatsby’s giant library organizing the books. Owl Eyes shows Nick and Jordan a few books, and says at the top of page 50: “They’re real . . . Absolutely real–have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact they’re absolutely real.” He goes on to say, “See! It’s a bona fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism!” Why do you think Owl Eyes makes a big deal out of the fact that the books in the library are “real”? Why wouldn’t they be? What do you think Owl Eyes means when he appears surprised the Gatsby has real books in a library?

3. On page 51, read the description of the party in the first paragraph beginning, “There was dancing now.” Then look at the bottom of the page, just before dialog begins when Nick claims that “the scene had changed.” From the bottom of this page to the next one is when Nick first meets Gatsby. Why do you think Fitzgerald introduces Gatsby to us just after the garish description of the party that then suddenly transforms into something romantic?

4. From page 52 – 53, we get our first upfront descriptions of Gatsby. What seems amiss about him? Why do you think he has an affected British accent (even though he is from the Midwest), and why does he call everyone “old sport.” Look particularly at the description of Gatsby from the bottom of page 52 to the end of the paragraph at the top of page 53. What does this description say about Gatsby, his personality and his character?

5. On page 57, Jordan Baker comes out of a private meeting with Gatsby and returns to the party. She claims to Nick that Gatsby told her something “simply amazing,” but she has to keep it secret. Like the character of Gatsby himself, why does Fitzgerald leave it a mystery what Gatsby told Jordan?

6. On the middle of page 63, Nick is out on a date with Jordan. Jordan is driving the car, and she is always almost missing hitting people. She tells Nick that, “They’ll keep out of my way. It takes two to make an accident.” And then a moment later she tells Nick, “I hate careless people.”  What does this altercation say about Jordan’s character? How might Jordan and her attitude symbolize most of the people in this novel?

CHAPTER IV

1. Gatsby takes Nick out to lunch in Manhattan. In Gatsby’s magnificent Rolls Royce on pages 69 – 71, Gatsby tells Nick things about his life. Why do you think he tells Nick he is the son of wealthy parents in the Midwest, he was educated at Oxford, and became a hero in World War I and awarded medals? He also tells Nick that after the war he spent several years as an adventurer, uncovering treasure. Do you think that Gatsby is telling the truth? Is there anything about what he says that might be questionable? Gatsby also repeats several times to Nick that he is “trying to forget something very sad that happened to me long ago.” What is the effect of this repeated statement?

2. From pages 74 – 77, Gatsby introduces Nick to an older man, Mr. Wolfshiem, someone Gatsby knows and seems to do business with.  Glance over these pages, and try to ask yourself who Mr. Wolfshiem is, and what kind of “business” do you think he is involved. Additionally, why do you think that Fitzgerald writes this scene? Why do you think it is important that we see Gatsby with this man?  An additional note, the 1919 World Series mentioned on the top of page 78 was a very famous historical occurrence. The game was fixed by gamblers and involved many of the baseball players.

3. At the end of Chapter IV, pages 79 – 83, Fitzgerald tells us the story of Gatsby’s past through Jordan’s story to Nick. What do we learn about Gatsby and Daisy from this story? How in love do you think was Gatsby with Daisy in the summer of 1917?  How in love was Daisy?  How did Daisy break Gatsby’s heart?  What has Gatsby been trying to do ever since?

4. By the end of Chapter IV, we have a contradictory picture of Gatsby. He is a very wealthy business man who seems to have accumulated and maintained his fortune through shady and criminal activities. At the same time, he is also a lovesick, innocent young veteran, desperately trying to win the woman of his dreams. Why does Fitzgerald give us these two, difficult to reconcile pictures of Gatsby?  What are we supposed to think of his character?  What might these contradictory sides to his personality represent or symbolize?

Chapter V

1. How does Gatsby’s personality change in Chapter V from the previous chapters with the preparations to reunite with Daisy, and the meeting itself? Is Gatsby still the suave and mysterious character he was?  Likewise, how does Daisy’s personality and attitude change when she reunites with Gatsby and the chapter progresses?

2. Why is Daisy genuinely overcome with joy at Gatsby’s financial success when he givers her a tour of his mansion, and especially when he shows her the hundreds of beautiful shirts he has imported to his wardrobe at the top of page 98?

3. In Chapter V, the symbol of clocks and timepieces rampant throughout the novel becomes highlighted. In particular, on page 91, during the reunion between Daisy and Gatsby at Nick’s house, Gatsby almost knocks over the clock on the mantle. What do you think clocks symbolize?  What does it symbolize when Gatsby almost knocks over the clock?

This is an upcoming blog and site for my courses. This coming Spring 2009 semester, I will be teaching during the day program at Albertus Magnus College the Twentieth Century American and British Novel and Written Expression. In the evening program during Mod 3 (running from January to March), I will be teaching the Shakespeare Seminar and Masterworks of British Literature, Part 1. I will teach part 2 of Masterworks of British Literature in Mod 4 (March to May).

In this main page, I will be posting blogs for thoughts, interest, interpretation, information and entertainment concerning these particular courses for the Spring 2009 semester. I will also post anything else that I consider of interest concerning literature, education, writing and culture.

For particular information concerning a course, use the tool bar to the right.

For those of you not taking one or any of these particular courses, there will be certain material that can only be accessed for enrolled students. For those of you enrolled in any of the courses, there will be links that will require your password.

Whether you are taking a course or not, I hope that you will find this blog informative and entertaining.

Happy Reading!