'The Great Gatsby': Why it draws fans in prison

The student-inmates in my prison lit class were attracted to 'Gatsby' by scenes of opulence – and the thought of self-improvement.

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    A number of my students – inmates in a Connecticut prison – decided to give copies of 'The Great Gatsby' to their sons and nephews.
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Thanks to Baz Luhrmann's new movie, readers everywhere are taking a second look at "The Great Gatsby." That includes the Connecticut prison where I conduct a class in literature.

Of course my student-inmates had their own unique take on the book – and it was a view much more pragmatic than romantic.

The character they felt influenced Gatsby the most? Not Daisy Buchanan. She was dismissed as too obvious or too trivial. Instead they favored a character who surfaces only briefly: the gambler and unrefined “reminiscencer” Meyer Wolfsheim. 

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My students admired Wolfsheim, the character who unabashedly sports “cuff-buttons” made from “the finest specimens of human molars"; a man who resembles a “real life” racketeer, mobster, and high-roller; the figure who fixed the 1919 World Series and undermined the national pastime, so he “could play with the faith of fifty million people, with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe," and who “saw the opportunity” and was so smart that he was never jailed for the fix.

And while my students gave Wolfsheim his “props,” they also allocated some admiration to Gatsby. But what they felt mostly was envy mixed with incredulity – and disdain for his devotion to Daisy. (“Get over it, Slick. Move on, fellow.”)

Scholars of the suspicious and the shady, post-graduates in sharp practice and “persuasion,” my students took inventory of Gatsby’s “rides,” his Prince Charming shirts, the draw and excesses of his “shambanginos” – and then, of course, his “crib.”

The question that we came back to again and again was: “What made Gatsby great?” Was it the “wheels,” the clothes, the parties, the mansion? The extravagance? The aspirations?

The answer, I suggested, comes toward the end of the book via Henry C. Gatz – Jay Gatsby’s father. 

I’ve looked up a number of reviews that were published when the book first appeared in May and June of 1925. Henry C. Gatz isn’t mentioned at all. And yet he does provide the single bit of documentary evidence of what made Gatsby Gatsby.    

We first learn of – and meet – Henry C. Gatz toward the end of the book.  He is “a solemn old man” who is genuinely saddened by his son’s death but who can’t help but marvel at the splendor of his son’s life: “His eyes leaked continuously with excitement....” 

Fitzgerald describes Gatz’s sad pleasure as he takes in (for the first time) his son’s acquisitions and surroundings: Gatz “had reached an age where death no longer has the quality of ghastly surprise, and when he looked around him ... and saw the height and splendor of the hall and the great rooms opening out from it into other rooms, his grief began to be mixed with an awed pride.”

Gatz sees the splendor as the emblems of a station realized, a life (seemingly) fulfilled. If Jay Gatsby (the former Jimmy Gatz) had lived, he would have become an industrialist, a magnate, a mogul of wide renown and stature. Gatz believes his son would have helped “build up the country.” Maybe. Maybe not.

To some extent, my students overlaid their aspirations onto Gatsby’s romantic longings, his preoccupations – his obsession and bad judgment. He hadn’t been done in by the kinds of bad “bets” that had them doing time. But Gatsby had been done in by mistaken identity. In a way, he had been wrongly accused and unfairly condemned for a crime he didn’t commit. The students found that “conviction” to be something that they could understand.

But prior to that “sentencing,” Gatsby had been able to close in on his dream. And so we wonder, how did he amass what he was able to amass? How was he able to pay for that waterside mansion and the best cars, clothes, food, and entertainment? By ill-gotten gains? By swindling? 

My students acknowledged that for all his generosity, Gatsby was far from virtuous. He was no moral Mahatma. He wasn’t among the ethical elite. Here are the multiple-choice “cards” I dealt out to the inmate-students:

Jay Gatsby was great because –

a. he gave the grandest parties with the biggest orchestras, the best music, and the most extravagant fare.

b. he wore spiffy shoes, nifty jackets, and beautiful shirts; and drove a big roadster and lived in an awesome mansion furnished with expensive things and interesting people.

c. he was a man of mystery and power, and he knew how to use his power and mystery.

d. he was an incurable, obsessed, romantic.

OR

e. because of the determination and discipline that he himself chronicled at the age of sixteen.

Closing in on the book’s conclusion, we are provided with the answer. Just prior to his son’s funeral, Gatz shows Nick “a ragged old copy” of a book (“Hopalong Cassidy”) that his son had used to record his personal agenda. On a blank page at the end of the text, sixteen-year-old Jimmy Gatz had set out the game-plan for his transformation into Jay Gatsby, via this schedule:

Rise from bed …………………………..   6:00 A.M.

Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling ……  6:15 – 6:30       

Study electricity, etc. ……………………  7:15 – 8:15      

Work …………………………………….  8:30 – 4:30

Baseball and sports ……………………… 4:30 – 5:00

Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it ………… 5:00 – 6:00

Study needed inventions …………………    7:00 – 9:00

Right under this schedule, young Jimmy Gatz had set out his "general resolves":  He resolves to no longer waste time at a place that might have been a saloon or a pool hall. He resolves to save at least three dollars every week. He’s not going to smoke or chew tobacco. He will bathe every other day. And he will read one improving book or magazine per week and be better to his parents.

Would it have made a difference to my students – now sitting in their prison classroom – if they had read “The Great Gatsby” in their early teens? 

A number of them said they were going to pass their copies of the book along to their sons and nephews.

Will 16-year-old Jimmy Gatz’s schedule and his general resolves make a difference in their lives? Do you think that Wolfsheim would bet on it?

Joseph H. Cooper teaches ethics and media law at Quinnipiac University.  His “Pauses and Moments” columns appear at PsychologyToday.com.

Recommended: 20 books set for 2013 film adaptation
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