FREE! Great Gatsby and the (New) American Dream

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Literary classics often provide Hollywood with storylines. The 2013 release of a Baz Luhrman’s new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby provides a new lens through which readers may examine this classic book.

The Great Gatsby is a perennial favorite in high school American literature courses. The hero (or anti-hero), Jay Gatsby, simultaneously chases and upends the traditional American Dream. His version of the motto “work hard and prosper” is neither legal nor humble.  Gatsby’s lavish spending provides an interesting contrast to the current climate of high unemployment, high personal debt, and fashionable thriftiness. The juxtaposition of here and now’s economic downturn to Gatsby’s energetic aspiration may seem incongruous but it will foster rich discussions about the American Dream and the nature of success and happiness.

To prepare students for the historical and literary context, survey a selection of sites about the F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, and the Roaring Twenties. Use them to design a virtual field trip back in time and through the pages of a classic.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Despite its place in the cannon of American literature, The Great Gatsby never received critical acclaim during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, and the American Dream regularly eluded Fitzgerald. Read brief biographies of Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda. View an interactive timeline of Fitzgerald’s life.gatsby2

Follow these up with a more in-depth examination of Fitzgerald. Watch the PBS American Masters episode about Fitzgerald, Winter Dreams, hosted by Vimeo. The entire show is an hour and a half long. Instead, of viewing the entire episode with students, identify some excerpts. Consider watching:  the first 11 minutes to learn more about his childhood and early adulthood; 13:00 to 23:00 to learn more about Fitzgerald’s development as a writer, the young Zelda, and their courtship, 26:00 to 33:00 to learn more of his success and how it tormented him.

It is always tempting to psychoanalyze authors by using their work as a way to see into their motivations and emotions; however, this does not usually result in accurate conclusions. Instead, learn about a Fitzgerald from his essay, The Crack-Up. It provides a very public and revealing self-examination. Students may read an excerpt of The Crack-Up on PBS’ site. Students can read the full text at Esquire. (Preview the site; it may not be appropriate for your students.)

gatsby3Fitzgerald is best known for several of his novels; however, many of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works were short stories published in periodicals. It can be fun to read an author’s lesser-known works. After previewing them, consider assigning one of Fitzgerald’s short stories: Beatrice Bobs her Hair, The Camel’s Back, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, Head and Shoulders, May Day. How does each compare to The Great Gatsby?

Finally, read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s New York Times obituary. What was his reputation at the time? What does the obituary reveal about the times?

The Great Gatsby

The American Dream—aspiration, success, economic hierarchy, and happiness—is a strong theme of The Great Gatsby. Social hierarchy and reputation are important elements as well. Explore who is in, who is out, and the “secret society” in the novel with a lesson from Edsitement.

Nearly one hundred years divides The Great Gatsby’s publication from its contemporary audience. Much has changed in that time. Has the American Dream changed since Fitzgerald published the book? Use the Washington Post movie review as a springboard for this discussion.

Ask students to consider Baz Lurhmann’s film version of the story and the original work. Students may write and post their own reviews, or read and respond to the review published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.gatsby4

The Historical Context

The Great Gatsby was written in the years between World War 1 and the Great Depression. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work was very much tied to the age in which he lived. The time, which Fitzgerald named The Jazz Age, was one of pervasive technologies, economic prosperity, artistic exuberance, youthful rebellion, and redefined roles for women. Introduce students to three video-based lesson plans. Hosted by C-Span, each lesson consists of three video clips and follow-up questions. Students can explore Fitzgerald and the Twenties, Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, or Fitzgerald and Modern America.

The Great Gatsby’s Modern America included Prohibition, which prohibited the manufacture, transport, import and export, or sale of alcohol, though not the consumption or possession of it. Understanding Prohibition and its historical context is important, especially considering Jay Gatsby is a bootlegger. For a broad overview, have students watch, Prohibition in the United States. Select a few excerpts from Ken Burns’ series, Prohibition, to share with students. You may want to choose at least two from each episode.

gatsby5Jay Gatsby yearns for acceptance, wealth, and stature. This, he believes, is the path to love and happiness. These deeply human themes continue to resonate with readers today. Our 21st century experiences, views, and technologies may give today’s readers a different perspective than earlier readers, but our shared humanity and Gatsby’s tragic yearning make it a work that still draws readers in.

Rachel Cummings


CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2 Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3 Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9 Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature,
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7 Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10  By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

§110.44. English III
English III students read extensively in multiple genres from American literature and other world literature. Periods from American literature may include the pre-colonial period, colonial and revolutionary periods, romanticism and idealism, realism and naturalism, early 20th century, and late 20th century. Students learn literary forms and terms associated with selections being read. Students interpret the possible influences of the historical context on a literary work.
(9) Reading/culture. The student reads widely, including American literature, to increase knowledge of his/her own culture, the culture of others, and the common elements across cultures.
(A) recognize distinctive and shared characteristics of cultures through reading; and
(B) compare text events with his/her own and other readers' experiences.
(10) Reading/literary response. The student expresses and supports responses to various types of texts.
(B) use elements of text to defend, clarify, and negotiate responses and interpretations; and
(C) analyze written reviews of literature, film, and performance to compare with his/her own responses.



C-SPAN: American Writers

Edusitement: The Secret Society and Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby

Esquire: full text of The Crack-Up

New York Times: obituary 

PBS: Fitzgerald biographies


excerpt of The Crack-Up


Post Gazette Review

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