It seems like The Great Gatsby is required reading in high school classes across the United States, so I was surprised to encounter it on the banned and challenged classics list maintained by the American Library Association. I dimly remembered the book because I read it in high school (of course) and as I recall it sparked some lively discussions, but didn’t really contain very much controversial material. Yes, I am one of those philistines who doesn’t really make a habit of reading the classics in adulthood. Mea culpa!
The book has been challenged on the grounds of sexuality and profanity, but it’s really rather tame, as I discovered when I went back to read it. Then again, I am steeped in the freewheeling era of the 21st century, but, still, I didn’t think the sexual content was that objectionable, unless you want to talk about moral issues, since the book is filled with philanderers and infidelity. And that may, indeed, be the core of the problem, as it often gets challenged at Christian schools, where teachers may be uneasy about teaching that content.
It’s not cast in a particularly favorable light, though; it seems like if you object to those relationships on moral grounds, the book provides a lot of teachable moments, actually. The characters are very much punished for their extramarital activities, Myrtle most of all. This is not a book that glamourises relationships of this nature. They are sordid and messy and unpleasant. It’s certainly not the kind of thing one would read and conclude ‘I’d better go out and have an affair, it looks like so much fun!’
The affairs are also a deeper metaphor for the wasteful and profligate lifestyles of the characters, which are treated extremely unfavorably. We are supposed to find Nick a noble character for living a modest, understated lifestyle, for attempting to build up wealth and reputation through hard work instead of creating a massive fortune and then blowing it on lavish parties and fast cars. The Great Gatsby is an indictment of a very profligate era, a time when there were tremendous gaps between rich and poor (sound familiar?) and when displaying your wealth ostentatiously was a mark of style among some classes, but a topic of censure among others.
While people whiled away their days on East and West Egg, after all, political developments were happening, and some of them were very, very dark. Europe was recovering from the ravages of the First World War and lining up its ducks for the Second. Those who did return from the First World War, like Nick, were processing their experiences in the ‘Great War’ and coping with the radical shifts in warfare that happened in the 20th century. Prohibition may have created a market for good times, but it was also senses a dark and uneasy time. In 1922 the shadow of economic depression wasn’t stretching out its long arms just yet, and the memory of the war was starting to fade, but society was in a wounded, vulnerable place, and Fitzgerald cut to the core of some of the ugliest aspects of the United States in this era.
We are supposed to see the hardworking lower classes in this book as morally superior. They aren’t frittering their lives away in summer homes, swanning about in mansions and engaging in lurid affairs. They’re too busy rebuilding and creating a strong nation to attend liquor-soaked parties, let alone to run liquor to meet the demand for illicit alcohol. It’s kind of a simplistic view of rich and poor, in some ways, but it’s also a very firm skewer of parody. In the 1920s, some people had a lot of money and power, and enjoyed all the delights of the flapper era. Others did not, and struggled to eke out a living. Fitzgerald wanted to talk about that.
This is not a book where you come away feeling like all the characters are just terrific and have a lot to recommend themselves. Yes, it does contain sexuality. And profanity, often included in a way meant to be critical. I note that it’s often Tom who’s the foulest of mouth, and certainly the most racist, and this is not a coincidence. Fitzgerald had a gift with language and he chose words for his characters very, very carefully. To argue that Gatsby should be banned on the grounds of profanity is to miss the point of that profanity. It’s included for very clear reasons.
And, of course, it’s a very misogynistic book. This is a book where women are depicted for the most part as vain, foolish, self-involved creatures who get what’s coming to them. The women in this book are shallow, obsessed with looks, and focused on getting ahead in their lives. They ignore their families and friends, picking people up at whim to toy with and then discard. This is not a book that makes great strides for women’s liberation, you know? Women are manipulative and wily in The Great Gatsby. Let’s not forget that women had just won the right to vote, and many people blamed the success of the temperance movement, and its push for Prohibition, on women. Fitzgerald’s contempt for his female characters is palpable.
I suspect that the core of the challenges to the book may lie in Nick’s ambiguous sexuality. I’ve seen reads on him as bisexual or possibly gay, and I would tend to agree that there is more to Nick than simple heterosexuality. There are some scenes in The Great Gatsby that are not easy to dismiss, at the same time that they play into some familiar stereotypes about what gay men look like, and how they behave. Could it be that some eager book challengers are uncomfortable with the thought of students discussing a bisexual man?