The Great Gatsby — Why I like Myrtle

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It’s been almost twenty years since the first time I taught Gatsby for the first time.  Now that I’ve lived a little more and seen a little bit more, I feel like I understand her a little better than I used to.  At least I like her more.  When I first read about Myrtle, I loved the way Fitzgerald described vitality, saying that it seemed that “her nerves were continually smoldering.”  Years ago, this “smoldering quality meant that she was sexy, nothing more.  But now I see her as being more than just sexy.  I think that Myrtle sees possibilities, and I think that like Gatsby, she is a person who detects and senses possilities that the rest of us can’t be aware of.  When she first meets Tom on a train, she lets him get close to her, then accompanies him off of the train and into a taxi — all the while reminding herself that she “can’t live forever.”   She has latched on to Tom because she thinks that he can make her happy, and although he has provided some ownderful things for her (like an apartment in the city where they can visit and some nice clothes, and any other little thing that she needs from the drgustore) he is never going to bring her  away from her station and class.  I feel sad for Myrtle because she has convinced her sister (and probably herself) that Tom is eventually going to divorce Daisy and marry her. It’s painfully obvious that he’s not going to do so, however, since Tom doesn’t seem to have a problem with hitting her in the face. 

Like everyone else in this book, Myrtle is looking for something.  Perhaps she is seeking to recover a sense of personal dignity, after living in the Valley of Ashes.  Sadly, she builds herself up by tearing down the people around her — now that she’s “rich,” she is cruelly dismissive of her husband, her friends, and anyone else she considers below her.  When things end with Tom, then, I wonder if there will be anything — or anyone — left for her.

The Glory of War — Rupert Brooke’s Poetry

ImageOne of the important things that I hope students will take away from our unit on All Quiet on the Western Front is the eormous POPULARITY of the war — especially in the early years.  Here are links from English poet Rupert Brooke, who was a very powerful voice for the British war effort as the conflict began.  His collection of sonnets entitled 1914 captures the nationalist energy of the time, and it may give students an idea of how different attitudes at that time were — compared to the way we think about war in the 21st century.

 

On beginning to read Lord of the Flies

As we start reading Lord of the Flies, I ask students to speculate on whether people, if left along on a desert island, can find a way to get along with each other.   My instinct is to say yes.  I’ve lived in a few different places, and wherever I go, I find that people have found a way to get along with each other.  One thing that’s interesting in the scenario that Golding poses is the necessity of taking care of themselves — not only at a fundamental level, but also at a level beyond survival.   The boys have everything they need to survive (as animals) but they are trying to get beyond survival.  They want to be rescued, and in the meanwhile, they want to live in comfort.

Although the boys will share this common goal of surviving and being happy, there will be conflicts in priorities and questions about responsibilities.  First, how will the boys agree on what’s important?  If they can’t, then how will these disagreements manifest themselves?  The second big question is about responsibilities:  everyone has similar needs, but not necessarily similar abilities.  Therefore, it stands to reason that the group will be more successful if they cooperate.   If there members of a group are weak or injured, can the other members find a way to care for them?  Can the stronger members attend to the members of the group with greater needs?   Also, can those who are strong enough to fend for themselves — at least at a survival level — recognize and listen to those who have skills that do not include the same survival skills?

In the end, I believe that these questions get answered by the leadership of the group.  If the leader is able to direct the group to be compassionate towards the members who need compassion, and to respect the ideas of people who offer something other than physical contributions, then there is a chance that they will develop a working society.  If, on the other hand, the leadership can’t make either of these things happen, then it’s more likely that there will be competing individuals or small groups.

My thoughts on the holidays

My family always has celebrated Christmas.  I’ve experienced it 41 times, now, and over those many years, I’ve come to a few conclusions about what I like and don’t like about it, and how I’d celebrate this time, if I ruled the world.

  1. I don’t like gifts.  Partly because I often give very bad ones, and partly because I often receive stuff that I don’t use, which eventually ends up in my garage, or perhaps at Goodwill. 
  2. I do, however, remember some good gifts.  For example, in the first year that I’d been working full-time, I was able to go to the store and buy nice presents for everyone in my family.  I remember feeling very proud of myself because I could buy stuff that people actually wanted, and could use.  That transition, from being a gift-consumer to a gift-giver made me feel pretty good… that is, until it became a burden.  More on that later.
  3. The year before my transformation from getter to giver, I received one of the most memorable gifts of my adult life.  Back story:  After serving in the Navy, my dad developed a fetish for shined shoes.  He always keeps his shoes in good condition, and whenever I came home from college, I would stop at the shoe shine booth.  Well, one year when the flight was on a sunday and the shoe shine guys weren’t working, I showed up at home looking like I’d spent the past month walking home from Boston in the snow.  Dad didn’t say anything, but under the tree on Christmas morning, there were my perfectly shined and conditioned shoes.  He’d spent about an hour getting them to look right.  That night after dinner, he offered me a Fuentes out of his humidor.  “That’s an awful nice cigar, Dad.”  I said.  “There’s nobody I’d rather smoke ’em with,” he told me.  So even though he had to shine my shoes for me, he still thought I was grown up enough to enjoy a smoke with.  That felt good.

Odysseus’s Return

I generally find it very difficult to read the last few books for The Odyssey withoug getting misty-eyed.  The reunion of Odysseus with his home country and his family is full of moments that evoke a lot of strong feelings in me.

Perhaps part of why I have such a strong emotional reaction to this part of his story is that I also have spent about 20 years away from home.  And although my own trip has been much different (and regrettably, less heroic and exciting) I nevertheless identify strongly with Odysseus’s feelings of joy — and nostalgia — when he finally arrives at his home.  There are very few things in my life that can compare with arriving at my home in Wisconsin — of arriving near the house, stepping out of the car and into the cold, hearing the stillness of a winter night, and smelling the smoke from our chimney.

I also think that as I approach Odysseus’s age, I am learning a lesson that perhaps our hero also learns.  Odysseus has to undergo an enormous journey, full of adventure, disappointment, triumph, adversity, and life-lessons.  While leading his men through wonderful and dangerous adventures, he experiences things that no other mortal can hope for:  he hears the Sirens singing, he speaks with the Dead in the underworld, he fights horrible monsters — and sometimes wins — and he lives with a goddess. 

But even after all of these great adventures he still has a final duty or life-task to complete:  he has to get back home, and he has to be a husband and a father.  Perhaps this lesson is what strikes me as most significant for my own life at this moment:  The adventures definitely matter, and being able to tell great stories is very important.  Eventually, however, it’s time to return home and be part of the family.  Keeping the home in order and bringing children up to be great adults is ultimately more important than being a famous hero.

This particular lesson may not mean very much to freshmen in high school.  Nevertheless, I hope that my students are able to find other ways that the story resonates with them.