When I read The Great Gatsby my junior year of high school, my class mostly centered our discussion around how the novel represented the impossibility of the American dream. We talked about the obvious class divide between East Egg and West Egg and even more predominantly between the two and the Valley of Ashes. However, our class never once discussed the implications of race in the novel, I think mostly because the main characters were all presumably white. As a result, when I saw that this book was on our syllabus I was slightly confused. I didn’t understand how we could talk about racial divides in a novel that I viewed at the time as completely white.
My confusion was quickly transformed into stunning realization as one of the first interactions of the novel is clearly racist. In the first chapter, in which Nick joins Daisy, Tom, and Jordan for dinner, Tom begins a discussion about a book he has read recently. He explains that this novel is ground in scientific fact that white people are the superior race and must take heed of the advances of the inferior races or else “other races will have control of things” (Fitzgerald). Despite taking place in Long Island during the summer of 1922, Tom’s sentiment about the science behind race and superiority is eerily similar to Painter’s The American School of Anthropology, which was published almost 70 years prior.
Although the racial implications in the opening pages of the novel are clear to me now, there was a time only two short years ago where I believed that race did not play a role in The Great Gatsby. This experience has taught me that the way a discussion is lead in a classroom can distort the fundamental understanding of a novel for the people within it. Because my English teacher focused our discussion around the class divide amongst the elite in Long Island instead of also pointing out the clear racist propaganda, I was never exposed to an essential element of the text that I am excited to explore in this course.