Not-so-great ‘Gatsby’

A shorter, simpler, “retold” version of The Great Gatsby, designed for students who aren’t fluent in English, cheats students, writes film critic Roger Ebert. “There is no purpose in “reading” The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it.”

Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style — in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.

English Learners who aren’t ready for The Great Gatsby should read young-adult novels with a simplified vocabulary, Ebert suggests. “Why eviscerate Fitzgerald?”

He quotes Fitzgerald’s famous conclusion to the novel, which ends with the narrator imagining the “old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.”

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Macmillan’s version, as “retold by Margaret Tarner,” eviscerates Fitzgerald’s meaning and his poetry:

Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true.

Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.

Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby’s dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn’t he?

Teaching Now’s readers are skeptical of dumbing down Gatsby, writes Anthony Rebora.

One reader, a high school English teacher mortified by the rewritten Gatsby, recommends Jake, Reinvented, a young-adult novel based loosely on Gatsby, which features hard-partying, social-climbing high school students in a contemporary setting. The teacher has students read the “remake” as preparation for the real Gatsby.

However, book blogger Jessica Crispin defends “young reader” adaptations of classic novels. She read Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities in simplified versions, then went on to the real books when she was older.

I read them for the story as a kid—murder and intrigue and violence and revolution—and then for the prose later on, when it wasn’t so off-putting.

I can see that for A Tale of Two Cities, but not for Gatsby.


About Joanne


  1. Richard Nieporent says:

    If they are going to eviscerate the Great Gadbsy why not have them read the lipogram, Gadsby, instead. It would be just as useful and maybe more entertaining. Here is the first page of the book:

    If youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that “a child don’t know anything.”A child’s brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult’s act, and figuring out its purport.
    Up to about its primary school days a child thinks, naturally, only of play. But many a form of play contains disciplinary factors. “You can’t do this,” or “that puts you out,” shows a child that it must think, practically or fail. Now, if, throughout childhood, a brain has no opposition, it is plain that it will attain a position of “status quo,” as with our ordinary animals. Man knows not why a cow, dog or lion was not born with a brain on a par with ours; why such animals cannot add, subtract, or obtain from books and schooling, that paramount position which Man holds today.
    But a human brain is not in that class. Constantly throbbing and pulsating, it rapidly forms opinions; attaining an ability of its own; a fact which is startlingly shown by an occasional child “prodigy” in music or school work. And as, with our dumb animals, a child’s inability convincingly to impart its thoughts to us, should not class it as ignorant.
    Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl. It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary “fill-ins” as “romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road.” Nor will it say anything about tinklings lulling distant folds; robins carolling at twilight, nor any “warm glow of lamplight” from a cabin window. No. It is an account of up-and-doing activity; a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today; and a practical discarding of that worn-out notion that “a child don’t know anything.”
    Now, any author, from history’s dawn, always had that most important aid to writing: an ability to call upon any word in his dictionary in building up his story. That is, our strict laws as to word construction did not block his path. But in my story that mighty obstruction will constantly stand in my path; for many an important, common word I cannot adopt, owing to its orthography.
    I shall act as a sort of historian for this small town; associating with its inhabitants, and striving to acquaint you with its youths, in such a way that you can look, knowingly, upon any child, rich or poor; forward or “backward;” your own, or John Smith’s, in your community. You will find many young minds aspiring to know how, and why such a thing is so. And, if a child shows curiosity in that way, how ridiculous it is for you to snap out:— “Oh! Don’t ask about things too old for you!”

  2. I may have read Gatsby five times.

    Why so many times? Did I like it that much? No, not at all.

    I kept reading it trying to figure out what I was missing. Why do people like this book?

    It’s something I never figured out.

    I sure dislike that book.

  3. Richard Nieporent says:

    No Robert, I have not read Gadsby for its literary content. I use it as an example in my data communications course when I cover the topic of data compression. If the standard English character frequencies were being used in the Huffman Coding algorithm to compress the text in this book, it would not work very well.

  4. Robert, glad I’m not the only one who wonders that.

  5. I’ve read any number of dumbed-down classics in German and Russian in order to improve my reading levels in these languages. It’s an incredible way to learn a foreign language because, even dumbed down through a simpler vocabulary and grammar, classics and good books tend to be good reads. Constantly referring back to a dictionary gets incredibly tedious while a simpler text can teach through context and repetition while maintaining interest.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    I liked Classic Comics back in the day. If, due to a run of bad luck, I encountered one of the classics in classic form, I already knew the plot and some of the characters and so I didn’t get lost in the fog of words.
    I’m with Robert. I figure the must-reads are a list handed down from one professor to another for so long that they have reached sacramental status and may not be changed, not one jot nor tittle under pain of everlasting torment. Is there anything to them? Bite your tongue!
    Said before, Rosemary Sutcliff has improved the Odyssey and the Iliad. Better story telling and fewer digressions.
    Dumbed down is better than nothing if the goal is to inflict a particular book. As in my case, it might make the real book an easier read later on.

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I *love* comic book adaptations, as a general rule. I’m with Aubrey 100% on that account.

    The difference between those and this, though, is that it’s obvious you’re reading something else. It’s an adaptation, with little possibility of fraud because of the bright pictures everywhere and the little speech bubbles.

    Like robots that look “too human”, books like the one under discussion ring the “adulteration” bell rather than the “adaptation” bell.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    If the advertising is correct, these books were written for adults. Is there any problem seeing the problem that kids–work with me here, who are not adults–don’t like them, don’t follow them, don’t get them?
    Or are they supposed to get them, dammit?
    Is it that teachers above say, K-6, feel dumb teaching kids’ books or YA novels?

  9. Richard, it is obvious you’ve never been to an English department faculty meeting, cuz honey, we don’t agree on ANYTHING, much less which novels to teach. Thus, postmodernism.

    (But now I’m dying for the inevitable post about how those stupid English teachers are teaching YA novels instead of real literature to come around again.)

    But seriously:
    1. Certain novels are taught fairly universally because they are part of the cultural heritage. If you see a headline about so-and-so’s Great Expectations, you’re supposed to know it is ironic — cuz you read the novel (or at least enough of the Spark Notes to pass the exam).

    2. I don’t see the point of wasting taxpayer money teaching students something they can read on their own. The idea is to stretch ’em. You know, all students won’t love everything assigned — but different books will appeal to different kids. And, this is heresy, but you can learn from a book you dislike — hate even.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Lightly. All very well, but the problem with, say, math is lack of preparation in earlier grades. See about a zillion earlier threads on JJ’s dime. What prep is there for Gatsby? Vocab? Hell, you can’t even discuss the meaning between of a brief conversation between a man and a woman if you don’t first explain various social conventions of the time.
    I suppose giving calc to an Alg I class would stretch them.
    In my personal opinion, what is called the western canon, by people who haven’t had an original idea since they decided they don’t like Gerbers peas, is boring as hell.
    It’s like calling Catcher in The Rye a coming-of-age novel. A loser from an uninterested family ends up in a rubber room. Not my experience, nor that of my friends, nor of my kids or their friends. Nor my wife’s students. Nor…. No connection to our reality. If you want to call it a version of “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”–not the song–fine. But not a novel a kid can be expected to identify with, except by some extremely sheltered characters who end up in the ed biz.
    Gatsby reinvented himself. So? Doesn’t everybody? Or try, at least.
    If I had to make some recommendations, I’d be suggesting books on how we got here. To be unfrivolous, but sort of because you can’t get it any more, afaik, I’d start with Timberwolf Tracks by Hoegh and Doyle.
    Devoto. Morison. Catton. Shaara. But stories about self-absorbed fictional characters …? Noop.

  11. Mark Roulo says:

    Richard Aubrey: “I liked Classic Comics back in the day.”

    Michael E. Lopez: “I *love* comic book adaptations, as a general rule.”

    FYI, the Classics Illustrated and Classics Illustrated Junior lines are being republished by Jack Lake Productions. I grew up with these and loved them. I bought a bunch for my kid and he likes them, too 🙂