A New Way to Read Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald never explicitly states Jay Gatsby’s race.

illustration of mirror images of man in suit and fedora facing each other in black and white on red background
Oliver Munday

Of all the books in the 10th-grade curriculum, the class set of The Great Gatsby was what we teachers most coveted. Short enough to cover in one quarter, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel was also packed with symbolism—Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes on the billboard, the green light at the end of the dock, the cars, the music. And it was weighty enough to support multiple readings. I imagined my first year of teaching bursting with rich discussions. But to start any conversation, I had to secure the books before the other teachers got them.

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I succeeded, only to be deflated: My students fought Gatsby from the beginning. The teenagers in my classroom—all children of color living in an impoverished rural community in South Florida, many of them first-generation Americans whose parents had come from Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, or Guatemala—simply did not understand a majority of the words on the page. Any appeal I made to the sheer pleasures of the text fell flat. “Surely,” I’d say with as much enthusiasm as possible, “you think this part is funny!” And I’d launch into a reading of Nick Carraway’s opening narration: “Frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.” Silence. Eventually, one brave soul would raise a hand. “What’s ‘feigned’?”

More advanced readings, I realized, would have to be tabled. I shouldn’t have been shocked. I, too, had struggled with Gatsby when I first read the book—and I had been a junior in college. Fitzgerald’s coupling of lyrical passages with a minimalist plot, full of fits and starts, proved too great a challenge for me. Like my students, I hadn’t been prepared by my public education for such a text. (One of my high-school teachers read Roots aloud to us for 45 minutes each class period—we made it through all 888 pages.) Stymied by the structure and language of Gatsby, I couldn’t get a handle on the characters either. If I hoped to pass my upper-level literature course, I needed to find a way in.

I turned to the secondary literature and found a chapter that offered an unexpected perspective on Gatsby’s race in a 2004 book titled The Tragic Black Buck: Racial Masquerading in the American Literary Imagination. In it, Carlyle Van Thompson, a professor of African American and American literature at Medgar Evers College, argues that Fitzgerald “guilefully characterizes Jay Gatsby as a ‘pale’ Black individual who passes for white.” I read this sentence twice, feeling like I had finally been granted license to enter the novel, to see myself in it, to make my way through the prose and develop my own interpretations. I was a 20-year-old English major, concentrating in African American literature at a historically Black college, and I still needed that permission.

In America, we are taught that canonical literature foregrounds the experiences of white people. Rarely do we question the racial identities of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s characters, or Herman Melville’s, or Willa Cather’s. If the race of an American character is not specified, we assume the character is white. This is especially true in reading older texts, but we do the same with contemporary ones. Take Celeste Ng’s best-selling 2017 novel, Little Fires Everywhere, which revolves around the lives of two American mothers. Ng, an Asian American author, makes clear that Elena Richardson, one of the mothers, is white. Ng says nothing about the race of the other, Mia Warren, leaving many readers to imagine her, too, as white. In the adaptation of the novel for the small screen, the casting of Kerry Washington, a Black woman, as Mia delivered a jolt, adding a new dimension to the series that Ng welcomed. Toni Morrison challenged our imaginative assumptions in a different way. In “Recitatif,” the only short story she wrote, her goal was to expose the binary expectations that most American readers bring to texts—and to confound them. As she revealed in her critical study Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, the story was “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”

Stumbling on Thompson’s analysis of The Great Gatsby was like finding a door propped open, and I rushed through with questions. What if the novel’s focus on class and ethnic tensions obscures a racial drama that readers have read right over? Early in the novel, Tom Buchanan’s eugenicist warning to “look out” or “the white race will be ... utterly submerged” is loud and clear. Thompson’s claim, by contrast, requires careful scrutiny of the text. He sets out to prove that a Black person is skillfully placed in the novel’s foreground. Preoccupied with the obvious clash between old money and new money, we just haven’t seen him, or the threat of miscegenation he represents. Fitzgerald was wrestling with the idea of America as a place of self-​making, where radical reinvention is at once celebrated and feared. In doing so, according to Thompson, he struck upon the most illusory of American self-​transformations—Black passing as white—revealing “how intrinsically American literature and the American Dream are racial.”

Thompson’s interpretation—picking up on Morrison’s call, in Playing in the Dark, to recognize an “Africanist presence” at the center of the nation’s 19th- and 20th-century literary canon, a presence that serves as a foil for ideas of whiteness, freedom, and more—sent me back to Gatsby, this time to meet with an intellectually charged experience. To read the novel without presupposing any character’s whiteness is to discover which characters are identified as white and which are not. As I searched for any possible references to Black or brown characters passing as white, eager to assess the racial ambiguities that Thompson finds so telling, I was alert for more clues than his chapter supplies. Nick Carraway, the first-person narrator, is of Scottish descent. His maid’s Finnish identity is referenced seven times in the novel. Meyer Wolfsheim is a “small, flat-nosed Jew.” Tom Buchanan, a self-identified Nordic, includes Nick as a fellow member of the master race. But as Thompson notes, he pauses before adding Daisy Buchanan—Nick’s second cousin “once removed”—to the list, and then interrupts her when she begins to describe her “white girlhood.” “Don’t believe everything you hear,” Tom tells Nick.

Jordan Baker, Daisy’s best friend and Nick’s love interest, makes it onto the Nordic list. Yet I noted that she is given a “slender golden arm,” a “brown hand,” “grey sun-strained eyes,” “fingers, powdered white over their tan,” and a “face the same brown tint as the fingerless glove on her knee.” One explanation for these colorful adjectives could be that Jordan is a competitive golfer—tans are common in the profession. The use of “powdered white,” though, gave me pause; so did the fact that Jordan is never reliably identified as white. Nick’s assessment of her, even during their fling, is biting: “She was incurably dishonest. She wasn’t able to endure being at a disadvantage and, given this unwillingness, I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young.” Could it be that she and Daisy get along so well because they’re both women at the turn of the 20th century who might very well be passing?

Thompson trains his focus on Jay Gatsby, flagging what he sees as telltale physical traits—his “brown, hardening body,” in Fitzgerald’s words, and hair that “looked as though it were trimmed every day.” Thompson also has his eye out for an array of culturally evocative signals that “Gatsby is racially counterfeit.” Nick, for example, is struck by his “graceful, conservative foxtrot,” a dance modeled on the slow drag, a Black dance sensation of the period. He also notes that Gatsby’s mansion sits on 40 acres of land in West Egg, an allotment that has a particular valence for Black Americans.

Thompson gathers less subtle pieces of evidence too. When, at the Plaza Hotel, Tom lets loose his suspicion that Daisy is having an affair with Gatsby, he frames it this way: “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife … Next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” To this, Jordan, the “incurably dishonest” one, responds, “We’re all white here.”

And what is one to make of the insinuation that Tom hurls at Gatsby in the heat of his anger upon learning of Daisy’s infidelity? “I’ll be damned if I see how you got within a mile of [Daisy] unless you brought the groceries to the back door.” Throughout the scene, Fitzgerald emphasizes that Tom is “incredulous and insulting,” impatient, sharp, and explosive. To be sure, Tom’s fury might be expected, regardless of Gatsby’s identity. But, combined with Tom’s possibly veiled racial observations, could the outbursts suggest that something more is at stake than his marriage and social standing among the old-money elite? Could Tom here be venting his fears about miscegenation?

Of course, not everyone buys the Black Gatsby reading. Matthew J. Bruccoli, the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: A Literary Reference, perhaps the most comprehensive study of the novel, dismissed the idea when he heard about Thompson’s interpretation: “If Fitzgerald wanted to write about Blacks … he would have made it perfectly clear in April 1925.” Perhaps. But if Fitzgerald intended to write simply about white people, why did he plant so many cryptic descriptions? A scion of the Scribner family, whose firm published the novel, said the reading wasn’t supported by any correspondence between Fitzgerald and his editor, Max Perkins. Yet Janet Savage, in Jay Gatsby: A Black Man in Whiteface (2017), explains that the initial title for the novel—Trimalchio in West Eggrefers to the former slave in Petronius’s novel, The Satyricon. Upon gaining freedom and wealth, Trimalchio throws lavish parties. Though Fitzgerald chose another title at Perkins’s request, the link between Gatsby and Trimalchio remains. When Gatsby finally reconnects with Daisy, he has no need to keep hosting big parties. “His career as Trimalchio,” Nick observes, “was over.”

Thompson himself said, after delivering the paper that inspired The Tragic Black Buck, that his students weren’t all prompt converts to his view, and in the end, I couldn’t, and still can’t, endorse his confident assertion that Jay Gatsby is Black. What I do claim is that Jay Gatsby is unraced. And that seems to me more important, because it opens the door wider than stark revisionism does. The ambiguity of Gatsby’s race and ethnicity shatters the Black-and-white framework we reflexively impose on so many classic texts.

This reading of Gatsby, I went on to discover when I scratched my initial lesson plan and started over, certainly gave my diverse class a way in. Gatsby’s American identity is so ambiguous that the students could layer on top of it any ethnic or racial identity they brought to the novel. When they did, the text was freshly lit. This was the fall of 2012, and the Baz Luhrmann film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, with a score produced by Jay-Z, had not yet been released. But the trailer was available, and I projected it onto my whiteboard. The students, immediately recognizing Jay-Z and Kanye West’s song “No Church in the Wild,” sat up. When Gatsby finally appeared, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, I paused it.

“Why is Gatsby white?” I asked them.

“Because that’s what the book says,” they answered, in near unison.

“Does it?” I asked, pretending to be confused.

Suddenly they were invested. They began scouring the novel for evidence of Gatsby’s race. They were forced to look up words they didn’t know, in the hope that those words would yield more clues. The students parsed intricate sentences down to their essence to extrapolate a clear meaning. And soon they began probing for deeper interpretations.

The conversation then, and in classes since, took off. “What about the two eggs?” students have asked, referring to Fitzgerald’s description of East and West Egg. “Could they represent Black and white people?” They’ve pointed to Daisy’s upbringing in Louisville, Kentucky, and wondered, “What about this section on Daisy’s past? Could all this whiteness point to what Gatsby was really after? Is whiteness what he wanted to capture?” They delved more deeply into The Great Gatsby than they did into any other text I taught during those years—more deeply, according to some, than they did into any book in any school year. In sifting through pages and pages of textual evidence, they found room for themselves in one of America’s greatest novels—indeed, in American culture.

This article appears in the March 2023 print edition with the headline “A New Way to Read Gatsby.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.