In my sophomore American Lit class in high school, Mrs. Maesch (I may have spelled that wrong . . . or gotten her name wrong . . . or made this whole thing up in an elaborate web of deceit that has fooled even my own subconscious) gave a test (as American Lit teachers are prone to do) over The Great Gatsby. This was one of the questions:
What was Gatsby’s redeeming character trait?
There were four multiple-choice options: his generosity, his loyalty, and two that were far too ridiculous for me to remember. I answered “generosity,” but when I got the test results back, a red pen had indicated “loyalty” as the correct answer. Total crap.
So I asked Mrs. Maesch about it. Or Mrs. Meisch. Or some other spelling. Or some other person. It kills me that I’m getting these details wrong. Literally. Or literarily. Whatever. She told me I could get credit for the point I missed if I typed up an explanation of why I thought “generosity” made a better answer. Did I say, “total crap,” before? Because this crap was even totallier. I didn’t want the point that bad. And on principle, I didn’t think I should have to do extra work just to correct the problem on her test.
Believe me, the last thing I cared about was my grade. The administrations and staffs of the institutions at every stop along my educational journey made somewhat of a point of noting how little I cared about my grades. I just wanted to be right. And to not have to do extra work.
But this unresolved dispute has hovered over my head ever since. So here it is, Mrs. Maesch (or whatever your name is . . . I’m really sorry about this, you were one of my best teachers ever, I just struggled with the spelling of your name at the time, so recall is next to impossible at this point), my reasoning for answering C instead of A:
Gatsby’s loyalty was closer to an obsession. While one could argue that his generosity was really just a veiled manifestation of his greed for Daisy, whom he regarded as a commodity, such a conclusion would also force us to admit that his loyalty was simply greed. Not very redeeming. To whom besides himself was Gatsby truly loyal? To Nick? Meh. Nick was just kept around so someone could narrate the thing. Plus, Nick didn’t really ask must of Gatsby compared to other folks. I’m not sure where this accusation of loyalty finds its source.
But Gatsby was generous. Misguided as his obsession with Daisy was, all his other possessions were of little value to him compared to her, which shows at least the redeeming value of prioritizing people over possessions (even if his downfall was his penchant for objectifying his love interest . . . who also happened to be married). Isn’t that what generosity really is? To care more about people than things? Sure, he cared about people in the wrong way, but he was happy to share the abundance of his wealth with those who couldn’t really help him get what he was truly after.
Kudos to you, Gatsby, you messed up Redford role. In your largess, you managed to get something right.
Now, where’s my point? I want my point. I did the extra work. Gimme.