Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

The "Secret Society" and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

"Jazz Baby," 1919. From Historic American Sheet Music, 1850–1920

"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.

Guiding Questions

  • What tensions about wealth and status are revealed in The Great Gatsby? How are these tensions reflected in Nick Carraway's struggle to belong?

Learning Objectives

In this lesson, students will

  • Engage in practical textual analysis and critical thinking
  • Reflect on the class struggles of early twentieth century
  • Combine critical thinking, textual analysis, and imaginative writing skills
  • Write a "credo" for the "secret society" implied in The Great Gatsby.

Preparation Instructions

  • Reread the first two chapters of the novel, focusing on and highlighting Nick's comments on money, the differences between the East and the Midwest and between East Egg and West Egg, Nick's unease at Tom and Daisy's home, Tom's racist proclamations, and descriptions of Tom, Daisy, and Jordan.
  • Pay particular attention to Nick's comment that 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).
  • Tour the EDSITEment reviewed F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary. Its many resources include biographies (a good place to start), texts, and critical essays. Important for this lesson is the Fitzgeralds' interesting relationship with money, which you can find by clicking on "A Brief Life of Fitzgerald." Scott's father had significant ups and downs in business, including failing miserably in furniture manufacturing in 1898 and then being released by Proctor and Gamble ten years later, an event that led the Fitzgeralds to move from Buffalo to St. Paul, MN when Fitzgerald was 12. He was able to go to boarding school in the East (through the benefit of his mother's inheritance) and then to Princeton, where, he later said, he always felt like "the poor boy." The "Quotations" section of the Centenary website includes many great, short quotes by and about Fitzgerald, including this gem from a 1938 letter: "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." Students might able to browse through the quotes before focusing on Fitzgerald's concepts of class.
  • If you are not already familiar with it and wish to pursue the item listed in Extending the Lesson, browse the Timeline of the Harlem Renaissance, which will help to contextualize Tom's acute status-anxiety ("It's up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or those other races will have control of things"), which coincides with African-Americans' unprecedented rising prominence in Harlem just a few miles away. Also, the EDSITEment-reviewed The New Americans tackles conceptions of and misconceptions about immigrants.
  • Download and photocopy the PDF worksheet, Teacher Time!
  • Download and photocopy the PDF worksheet, Shhh … Secret Society.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. An Inside Joke

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!)

  • Distribute the Teacher Time! handout and divide students into groups. Ask students to complete it (it should take about 10 minutes) and then reconvene. This lesson will take a little humility on the part of the teacher, as students will likely jump at the opportunity to skewer teachers and teachers' "codes of conduct." However, the power/status divide that often exists in the classroom between teacher and student interestingly replicates the power/status divide between Nick, on the one hand, and Daisy, Tom, and Jordan on the other. Thus, students get an immediate sense of Nick's position.
  • Have a representative from each group read/write on the board the group's observations. Discuss different groups' similarities and differences.
  • For homework, have the class read the first two chapters of The Great Gatsby.
Activity 2. A Secret Society
  • Give the class a brief biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, such as the biographical information available at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary site.
  • If you have a computer lab available, you might give students a few minutes to explore the Quotations section at the site, whetting their appetite. After a few minutes, focus on this gem from a 1938 letter: "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." Ask students to paraphrase this piece … What is Fitzgerald really saying here? Is he assuming that rich and poor are definitionally different? Are rich and poor definitionally different? That is, is it even possible to cross class boundaries and still fit in? Then, discuss whether the essence of this quote comes through in the first two chapters of Gatsby. Where in the first two chapters do questions of class, wealth, and privilege come to the fore? Who's rich and who's poor here? Of course, Nick isn't exactly "poor"—but is his money or status in any way different from those of the other characters? You might spend some time reading over passages that students suggest and engaging in some close textual analysis as a class.
  • If no one suggests it, highlight Nick's comment that 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." Ask the class what, exactly, this comment is suggesting? How might you relate it to Fitzgerald's comments on his experiences?
  • Distribute the worksheet Shh … Secret Society and ask students to work either individually or in groups - maybe even the same groups that did Teacher Time—on the potential characteristics of this "secret society." Highlight to students that they will certainly need their text to do this well, but also that there are very few "right" answers here. Much of this is necessarily speculative—after all, they've presumably only read two chapters. Also, tell them that this sheet will come in very handy for an exercise they'll be doing in a few days—writing the "Credo" for this "secret society." This should take about 20 minutes.
  • Finally, reconvene as a class. Have a representative from each group read/write on the board the group's observations. Discuss different groups' similarities and differences.
Activity 3. Synthesizing and Writing
  • As we discussed, at one point 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" (22). Is Fitzgerald trying to give his readers the impression that Daisy and Tom are somehow different from Nick? In light of the two chapters of The Great Gatsby, what might be the characteristics of this "secret society"? Which characters are a part and which are not? Why? Please invent the credo for this "secret society" based on what you see in the text. In it, you might pay particular attention to the selection criteria (that is, how does one become a member?) and the guidelines for comportment (that is, how does one act once one is a member?). Ask them to use the Shh … Secret Society handouts to help them write. The credo should be somewhere between 250-300 words.
  • After hearing a few such student "credos," discuss common elements, dealing in particular with concepts of class, wealth, and status as well as with codes of conduct associated with a particular class. How are these class codes related to the historical context? That is, what do students think these class codes have to do with the recent influx of immigrants and the rising prominence of African-Americans? Finally—and central to the novel—ask students what makes Nick different from the members of this secret society? Why does he feel that he's on the outside? Discuss how feeling on the outside, as Nick does, changes the way you might perceive things. This will blur into a discussion of character and characterization—with focus on Nick, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan.

Extending The Lesson

  • Contextualizing Status Anxiety. Ask students if they know of any public figure who used to be powerful or popular, but who has since faded away for one reason or another. As they come up with examples, list them on the board. Then, choose one to focus on (be sure to choose someone who likely didn't wish his/her status to drop): What could he/she have done to have remained in the spotlight? Why did his/her popularity wane? How do you think he/she felt about it?

    Then, project (if you have the technology to) this cartoon from Harper's Weekly entitled "Every Dog (No Distinction Of Color) Has His Day," from the EDSITEment-reviewed HarpWeek. The feature says much about class anxiety, anti-immigrant stances, and the protection of old wealth and interests. Ask students to imagine the desires of both the new immigrants and the pre-established. How do you get into a situation where you have such animosity? You might also use the discussion in The New Americans about misconceptions of immigrants for some greater depth. If you wish, you might also walk students through the following timeline, borrowed from The New Americans website:

    1880 Anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco lead to treaty barring Chinese unskilled laborers.

    1881 The nation begins to grow in population due to the migration of millions of immigrants looking for new places of employment and better living conditions. Portuguese, Spanish, Greek, Russian and other Eastern Europeans enter United States. Most of these immigrants move to cities, where they find jobs in factories. Living conditions were very poor.

    1882 The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—"to prohibit the coming of Chinese laborers into the United States" for 10 years. The first major restriction on immigration to the United States.

    1885 Statue Of Liberty, a gift from France, erected at Liberty Island.

    1892 Immigrants begin entering the United States at Ellis Island.

    1901 First significant immigration from India or from the Canadian Province of British Columbia.

    1901 Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie sells Carnegie Steel for $450 million and becomes The Richest Man in the World.

    1910 Angel Island Immigration Station put into operation near San Francisco—primarily a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

    1910 English immigrant Charlie Chaplin arrives in America.

    1912 At the Olympic Games in Sweden, Native American Jim Thorpe wins Olympic Gold in Track and Field Competition. In 1950 Thorpe was selected by American sports writers and broadcasters as the greatest American athlete and the greatest football player of the first half of the 20th century.

    1917 World War I—The conflict in Europe involves many countries. The United States declares war on Germany.

    1918 Quota systems are set up that favor the British and Northern European immigrants.

    1924 The Immigration Act of 1924 limits numbers of non-European immigrants.

    Then, let students explore the the Timeline of the Harlem Renaissance. Remind them that Fitzgerald publishes The Great Gatsby in 1925. Highlight how Tom's status-anxiety corresponds with African-Americans' rise in prominence. What is Tom trying to protect? Why?
  • Continued Thematic Reading: As you continue to read The Great Gatsby, discuss whether characters would be part of the "secret society." Clearly, it is Gatsby's desire to be "in it" that leads him to change his name, hold the parties, act as lavishly as he does, etc. Yet Gatsby's stance, Like Nick's (and perhaps for similar reasons), seems curiously ambivalent. Continue to reinforce the themes of inclusion and exclusion as you continue to read the novel.

 

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

3-6 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
Skills
  • Creative writing
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
Authors
  • Christopher Warren (AL)