"Jazz Baby," 1919. From Historic American Sheet Music, 1850–1920.
Credit: Courtesy of the American Memory Collection.
That was always my experience—a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy's school; a poor boy in a rich man's club at Princeton.... However, I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works."
—F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Scribners, 1994. pg. 352. (Cited in "Quotations," from the EDSITEment reviewed F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary.)
The high school social scene is rife with drama. Who's out? Who's in? What's cool? What's not? Behind many of the questions is a burning desire to belong. To assert their status in a crowd, students must learn the unwritten and unspoken codes of behavior. Students' own experience of the struggle to belong can provide a starting point for an exploration of how concerns about wealth, race, geographical origins, and other factors affect the perception of social status in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
In Fitzgerald's novel, "class struggle" in America is portrayed as an intensely personal affair, as much a tension within the mind of a single character as a conflict between characters. During his evening at the Buchanans', Nick Carraway says Daisy "looked at [him] with an absolute smirk on her lovely face as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged" (p. 22 in the Scribners paperback edition). Nick, a transplanted midwesterner uneasy in the East, is anxious to belong yet sensitive to the subtle snub; his mixed emotions are suggested here in the juxtaposition of "lovely" and "smirk" in his description of Daisy. Through a close study of the text of The Great Gatsby, an examination of Fitzgerald's letters and other statements, and a consideration of class, wealth, and status during the turbulent 1920s, students will explore the nature of the "secret society" implied in Daisy's knowing smirk.
In this lesson, students will
To introduce the novel, ask students if they have any "inside jokes" with their friends. What are they? What makes them "inside jokes"? Who's on the outside? Why? What do "inside jokes" do for/to people on the inside and people on the outside? If no one brings it up, you might suggest that "inside jokes" are ways of defining groups, that is, asserting one's membership in a group. They work sometimes in the ways that uniforms do for sports teams or armies - making clear distinctions between those who are members and those who are not. Then, ask if there are other things the students and their friends do to assert their membership in a group: handshakes, styles of dress, places to hang-out, music, etc. (Obviously, the answer will be "yes," but be conscious of status-anxiety or muscle-flexing among members of different groups. It is probably helpful to ask students to limit examples to their own perceived group, rather than others. Ideally, the discussion will take a lighthearted, communally self-deprecating tone!)
3-6 class periods