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'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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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.

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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.

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