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Gauging Gatsby’s Universality

Chris Benner ’12, like countless other American students, has declared F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby his favorite novel. But this steadfast literature student has stretched his fascination with the Great American Novel, as it is often referred to, beyond its American rags-to-riches theme.

Eager to know if the novel—with its beautiful prose, complex character portrayals, and descriptive language—holds the same weight across Europe as it does in America, the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship recipient set off to interview Fitzgerald scholars in the United States and abroad.

“What I thought I would find turned out definitely not to be the case,” says Benner, a double major in English and the Writing Seminars.

Benner assumed that U.S. professors would present The Great Gatsby to students as an esteemed work of American literature. To verify his hunch, he relied primarily on interviews with members of the Fitzgerald Society—scholars and aficionados of the writer—and works of literature on Fitzgerald. His assumption proved incorrect.

“In general, they tended to downplay its importance as American,” Benner says. “Some American scholars acknowledge its American nature, but aren’t taken by the fact that it was about the American dream,” Instead, explains Benner, they emphasized that The Great Gatsby is a modernist text with universal themes not bound to its American heritage. Overseas, Benner relied on similar research tactics and was once again surprised to learn how the novel is taught.

European scholars who teach The Great Gatsby typically emphasize its American roots, according to those whom Benner interviewed. At the University of Hull in Great Britain, professor of American literature Laura Rattray told Benner she places great emphasis on The Great Gatsby’s significance as an American text.

He got similar responses from scholars in Germany and Switzerland, where the novel often is presented within the context of American literature courses and compared to other American writers or texts. In Germany, for instance, The Great Gatsby is frequently lumped together with other “great American novels,” like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. French scholars, however, take a different tack.

Benner found that the French teach The Great Gatsby—and all works of literature, for that matter—differently than do scholars from other countries. “There, literature is heavily textually based,” Benner says, explaining that the French place a greater emphasis on how books are written and constructed and less on thematics. That the French teach The Great Gatsby at all suggests they deem it a worthy work of literature.

Given the French approach to presenting literature, as well as the much lengthier literary history of Europe compared to America, Benner was unable to draw a definitive conclusion about the perceived worth of Fitzgerald’s writing in Europe. But that hasn’t changed Benner’s own perceptions regarding the classic.

“The book says interesting things about the way people behave, and about love and economics, that supersede Americans,” he says. “I would make the case for it as a universal novel.”