Monthly Archives: April 2023

Sometimes a Test is Just a Test

Here’s an essay I composed in about 10 minutes using ChatGPT. I imagined myself as a student of average intelligence and moderate ambition in another program taking an English class (e.g., a STEM student completing a humanities requirement) who had been given a take-home essay assignment (about 2000 words) about The Great Gatsby. Actually, the essay question could be even more open than that and the student may have chosen the novel. I imagine the student has attended maybe a few classes and, of course, has access to the course syllabus, hence the ability to prompt AI to discuss Freud and postmodernism. Do note, however, that the (perfectly sensible) reference to Wayne Booth (a hero here at Inframethdology) was completely unprompted.

Here are the prompts in order (I used GPT-4). I simply arranged the output (unedited) in the right order at the end.

  1. I need a summary of the plot of The Great Gatsby. About 500 words.
  2. Can you add a reflection on this that interprets this in Freudian terms, sourcing it with APA style references?
  3. Can you bring this a little more up-to-date, citing Lacan and Deleuze, and reading the book through the lens of Jameson?
  4. Assume that what you have just written are the first three main sections of essay called “Sometimes a Girl is Just a Girl”, the thesis of which is that Freudian and postmodern interpretations are pretentious nonsense and the novel is just a good story about tragic love. Write the final main section. Cite relevant literature.
  5. Please write the introduction to the essay, providing an epigraph as well.
  6. Can you collate the references in a single list?
  7. Can you come up with some evocative section headings for each of the four parts?

I also added the heading “Conclusion” and decided where to put it. That’s it. That’s all it took to produce what you see below in, like I say, under fifteen minutes. If you need a better reason to abandon the take-home essay, please explain in the comments. Do ask yourself whether your concerns couldn’t be addressed by ChatGPT given another hour or so of work. And do notice whatever the student may have learned from your course will have had very little influence on the product you are reading.

Please note also that the text was produced in 7 steps. If you had required periodic submissions of component parts of the process, ChatGPT could obviously have been used to produce any number of drafts at any stage of completion.

"Sometimes a Girl is Just a Girl": The Enduring Appeal of The Great Gatsby as a Tragic Love Story

"Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope." - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, has captivated readers for nearly a century with its tale of unrequited love and the pursuit of the American Dream. While the novel has been the subject of extensive analysis and interpretation through various theoretical lenses, such as Freudian psychoanalysis, Lacanian theory, Deleuzian philosophy, and Jamesonian Marxism, its lasting appeal may lie in its simple, yet powerful portrayal of tragic love. This essay, titled "Sometimes a Girl is Just a Girl," argues that the complexity and depth of these theoretical frameworks, while intriguing, may detract from the novel's core narrative and its ability to resonate with readers on an emotional level.

The first section of the essay provides a brief summary of the plot of The Great Gatsby, emphasizing its themes of love, betrayal, and the passage of time. The second section delves into a Freudian interpretation of the novel, exploring the characters' actions and motivations through the lens of psychoanalysis. The third section extends the analysis to postmodern perspectives, incorporating the ideas of Lacan, Deleuze, and Jameson to further dissect the novel's themes and characters. The fourth and final section argues that these complex theoretical frameworks, while valuable, risk overshadowing the novel's emotional core, which is centered around the tragic love story between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. By focusing on this aspect of the novel, readers can derive meaning and enjoyment without resorting to pretentious academic analysis.

The epigraph, taken from The Great Gatsby itself, serves as a reminder of the importance of reserving judgment and maintaining hope, as well as a gentle nudge to approach the novel with an open mind. Ultimately, this essay contends that while it is possible to analyze The Great Gatsby through various theoretical lenses, its enduring appeal lies in its timeless portrayal of love and the human experience, transcending the confines of academic interpretation.

Unraveling the Enigmatic Love Story

The Great Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a classic American novel set in the Roaring Twenties, an era marked by wealth, excess, and decadence. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young man from the Midwest who moves to Long Island's West Egg, a fictional community inhabited by newly rich individuals. Nick rents a modest home next to the opulent mansion of the enigmatic and fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby.

Jay Gatsby, born James Gatz, is a mysterious figure who throws extravagant parties, attracting the who's who of New York society. Although Gatsby is known for his wealth and lavish lifestyle, little is known about his origins or how he acquired his fortune. Nick, intrigued by his enigmatic neighbor, eventually befriends Gatsby and learns of his undying love for Daisy Buchanan, Nick's beautiful cousin, and Gatsby's former flame. Daisy is married to the wealthy, arrogant, and unfaithful Tom Buchanan, who resides in the more prestigious East Egg.

The novel unfolds as Gatsby's desire to reunite with Daisy consumes him. He uses Nick as a means to facilitate a meeting between the two. Gatsby has spent years amassing his wealth and creating an illusion of grandeur, all in the hopes of winning Daisy back. When they finally reunite, Daisy is initially enchanted by Gatsby's newfound success, and the two begin an affair.

As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Gatsby's wealth is not from legitimate sources but rather from criminal activities, including bootlegging during Prohibition. Gatsby's criminal connections and shady past are revealed, further complicating his pursuit of Daisy. Meanwhile, Tom Buchanan, Daisy's husband, becomes suspicious of Gatsby and begins investigating him.

In a climactic confrontation, Tom exposes Gatsby's criminal past to Daisy, shattering the illusion that Gatsby had worked so hard to create. Daisy, now torn between her love for Gatsby and her loyalty to her husband, ultimately chooses to stay with Tom. This devastating realization leaves Gatsby emotionally shattered.

In the aftermath of this confrontation, Myrtle Wilson, Tom's mistress, is accidentally killed in a hit-and-run accident involving Gatsby's car. Although Daisy was the one driving, Gatsby decides to take the blame for her actions. Myrtle's distraught husband, George Wilson, believes Gatsby to be the culprit and, fueled by his desire for vengeance, murders Gatsby before taking his own life.

Following Gatsby's tragic death, Nick is left to reflect on the superficiality and moral decay of the people surrounding him. Disillusioned by the shallow and materialistic values of the wealthy, Nick decides to leave the East Coast and return to his Midwestern roots. He is haunted by the memory of Gatsby, a man who ultimately sacrificed everything for a love that was unattainable.

The Great Gatsby is a cautionary tale about the disillusionment of the American Dream and the consequences of unchecked materialism and moral decay. Through the tragic life of Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald offers a scathing critique of the Roaring Twenties and its excesses, ultimately revealing the emptiness behind the glitz and glamour of the era.

Delving into the Depths of Freudian Intricacy

The Great Gatsby can be analyzed through a Freudian lens, drawing upon Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories. Freudian theory encompasses various concepts, including the tripartite model of the psyche (id, ego, and superego), the Oedipus complex, and defense mechanisms (Freud, 1923).

One could argue that the characters in The Great Gatsby exemplify Freud's id, ego, and superego model. Gatsby's relentless pursuit of Daisy and wealth represents the id, driven by pleasure and desire (Freud, 1923). Daisy, in her indecisiveness and ultimate loyalty to her husband, can be seen as the ego, mediating between the id's desires and the superego's moral constraints. Tom Buchanan, with his adherence to societal norms and disdain for Gatsby's lower-class origins, embodies the superego, reinforcing the novel's broader critique of the American upper class's moral decay.

The novel also explores the theme of repression, a key aspect of Freudian psychoanalysis. Gatsby's decision to reinvent himself as a wealthy, sophisticated individual can be interpreted as a form of repression of his true self, James Gatz (Freud, 1915). This repression may stem from a desire to escape his humble beginnings and become someone worthy of Daisy's love. However, as Freud posited, repressed emotions and memories can manifest in maladaptive ways (Freud, 1915). For Gatsby, his repressed past eventually leads to his tragic downfall.

Another Freudian concept that can be applied to The Great Gatsby is the Oedipus complex. This theory suggests that children experience a subconscious desire for the opposite-sex parent and rivalry with the same-sex parent (Freud, 1899). While the novel does not explicitly explore parent-child relationships, Gatsby's pursuit of Daisy can be seen as an attempt to attain an idealized, maternal figure that he may have lacked in his own life. Daisy's eventual rejection of Gatsby may symbolize the resolution of the Oedipus complex, where Gatsby must ultimately confront his own desires and limitations.

In conclusion, a Freudian interpretation of The Great Gatsby reveals the novel's exploration of the unconscious mind, human desire, and the complex nature of human relationships. The characters' actions and motivations can be understood through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis, providing a deeper understanding of the novel's themes and messages.

Venturing into the Postmodern Labyrinth

The Great Gatsby can also be analyzed through the lenses of Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, and Fredric Jameson, offering alternative interpretations that explore identity, desire, and the socio-economic context of the novel.

Lacanian psychoanalysis, an extension of Freudian theory, emphasizes the role of language and the Symbolic order in shaping human identity (Lacan, 2006). Gatsby's transformation from James Gatz into Jay Gatsby can be understood as an attempt to enter the Symbolic order and adopt an identity that grants him access to the world of wealth and privilege. Gatsby's desire for Daisy, in this context, can be seen as a desire for the unattainable "objet petit a" – an object that promises ultimate fulfillment but can never be attained (Lacan, 1977). This reading highlights the illusory nature of Gatsby's quest and the impossibility of attaining his desires.

Deleuze's philosophy, particularly his concept of "desiring-production," can also be applied to The Great Gatsby (Deleuze & Guattari, 1983). Desiring-production posits that desire is a productive force that constantly generates new connections and relationships. In the novel, Gatsby's desire for Daisy drives him to accumulate wealth, create an elaborate persona, and form relationships with various characters. However, Gatsby's pursuit of Daisy ultimately leads to his destruction, illustrating the paradoxical nature of desire and its potential for both creation and destruction.

Fredric Jameson's Marxist analysis of literature offers another perspective on The Great Gatsby (Jameson, 1981). Through this lens, the novel can be understood as a critique of capitalism and the American Dream. The characters' obsession with wealth, status, and material possessions reflects the commodification of human relationships and the erosion of traditional values. Gatsby's tragic fate can be seen as a consequence of his entanglement in the capitalist system, which perpetuates an unattainable ideal of success and happiness. Additionally, the novel's portrayal of social stratification and the superficiality of the upper class resonates with Jameson's theory of "late capitalism" and its effects on society (Jameson, 1991).

In conclusion, analyzing The Great Gatsby through the lenses of Lacan, Deleuze, and Jameson offers a more contemporary and multifaceted understanding of the novel. These perspectives illuminate the complex interplay between identity, desire, and socio-economic context, revealing the deeper implications of Gatsby's tragic pursuit of wealth and love.

The Art of Heartache - The Timeless Appeal of Tragic Love

While Freudian and postmodern interpretations of The Great Gatsby offer intriguing perspectives on the novel's themes and characters, it is important not to lose sight of the story's central narrative: a tragic love story. Fitzgerald's masterful storytelling and the timeless appeal of star-crossed lovers should not be overshadowed by complex theoretical frameworks. The novel's enduring popularity may be attributed to its ability to resonate with readers on an emotional level, transcending academic analysis.

The Great Gatsby's portrayal of unrequited love and its devastating consequences is reminiscent of classic romantic tragedies such as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1597) and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847). The novel's focus on the power of love to both elevate and destroy individuals has captivated readers for generations. Gatsby's unwavering devotion to Daisy and his eventual demise due to his love for her serve as a cautionary tale about the potentially destructive nature of love.

Furthermore, the novel's exploration of themes such as betrayal, disillusionment, and the passage of time transcends cultural and historical boundaries, making it universally relatable. The heart-wrenching scene where Gatsby realizes that his dream of reuniting with Daisy is unattainable captures the human experience of lost love and longing, a sentiment that resonates with readers regardless of their familiarity with Freudian or postmodern theories.

Booth (1988) argues that literature should be appreciated for its capacity to evoke empathy and emotion, rather than being solely analyzed through theoretical lenses. By focusing on the novel's emotional core and the captivating love story at its center, readers can derive meaning and enjoyment from The Great Gatsby without resorting to pretentious theoretical frameworks. In this sense, the novel's enduring appeal lies in its ability to connect with readers on a deeply emotional level, rather than in its potential for complex intellectual dissection.


The title of this essay, "Sometimes a Girl is Just a Girl," is a nod to Freud's famous remark, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," which suggests that not everything requires deep analysis or symbolic interpretation. In the case of The Great Gatsby, it is important to remember that the novel's lasting impact on readers is due in large part to its moving portrayal of tragic love, rather than to its potential for generating intricate psychoanalytic or postmodern interpretations.

In conclusion, while Freudian and postmodern perspectives provide intriguing insights into The Great Gatsby, it is essential to remember that at its core, the novel is a timeless and poignant love story. By appreciating the novel's emotional resonance and its portrayal of tragic love, readers can connect with the story on a personal level, unencumbered by the complexities of theoretical analysis.


Booth, W. C. (1988). The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. University of California Press.

Brontë, E. (1847). Wuthering Heights. Thomas Cautley Newby.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press.

Freud, S. (1899). The Interpretation of Dreams. Hogarth Press.

Freud, S. (1915). Repression. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 14, pp. 146-158). Hogarth Press.

Freud, S. (1923). The Ego and the Id. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19, pp. 12-66). Hogarth Press.

Jameson, F. (1981). The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell University Press.

Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press.

Lacan, J. (1977). Écrits: A Selection. W. W. Norton & Company.

Lacan, J. (2006). Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. W. W. Norton & Company.

Shakespeare, W. (1597). Romeo and Juliet. Thomas Creede.

Temptation and Tribulation

Over ten years ago, a former colleague of mine proposed to teach a writing course without expecting his students to actually do any writing. He had simply given up on their self-discipline (he was teaching at another institution in a far-off country, I should say, so this was no reflection on any students of mine!). I wrote a blogpost about it at the time that I was merely going to link to now, but rereading it today, I find it offers a nice lead-in to the actual subject of this post, so I will begin with a shortened version of that old one.

* * *

You learn how to write by writing. It’s the only way. So I don’t have much hope for a writing program that begins by giving up on the students’ discipline. If we don’t expect them to write, we can’t expect them to learn how to write, no matter how much we teach them. But if we can get them to write every day they will get better at writing, almost regardless of what we teach them. The students must experience the joy of composing a good prose paragraph and the (sometimes transcendent) bliss of putting several paragraphs together persuasively.

“My experience tells me that the students will not have the necessary self-discipline,” my colleague says. I have the same experience, of course. But my experience also says that some students will acquire that discipline if you provide an occasion for them to do so. More importantly, those that don’t acquire this discipline won’t learn how to write (any better than they already do) anyway. Those that do are learning how to write as well as they can.

An engagement with the student’s self-discipline is fundamentally an engagement with their “authorial” persona, their literary authority as scholars, what I sometimes call their “writing selves”. If you do not attempt to engage with that core strength (their self-discipline) you are not likely to improve the part of them that writes. That is, you won’t make them into better writers, no matter how “true” the things you will tell them may be.

I think that last point is worth emphasizing. Scholarship is difficult in many ways. It takes a lot of thought, knowledge, and sometimes courage. But the writing itself is easy; you just have to do it. It requires no heavy lifting or special skills (you already know the language). What you are developing when you are developing your writing skills (as distinct from the other skills that make you a scholar) is a competence that is, let’s say, adjacent to your basic self-discipline. Writing gets done almost exclusively by, well, doing it. The most important to muscle to train when you write is your will. Writing perhaps, just is an act of will.

* * *

Lately, inspired by W.H. Auden, I’ve been looking into Kierkegaard’s distinction between “temptations” and “”tribulations”, which may be distinguished roughly by whether or not you are responsible for the trouble they put you in.* Tribulations are to be suffered, while temptations are to be avoided; but, as Kierkegaard emphasizes, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference. After all, as Auden points out, Kierkegaard’s contribution to the founding of modern psychology was to count unconscious desires as tribulations, not temptations. But here’s the kicker: the purpose of all science is to convert tribulations (which are out of our control) into temptations (which are within our control), to convert merely “aesthetic” experiences into properly ethical situations. But once this exchange is open, it can also go the other way, so that we sometimes think we must suffer our temptations passively, which is to say, give into them as though we can do nothing about them. Auden here tries to save psychology’s ethical honor by reminding us that it requires us never to suffer needlessly. Hence the meme: “Men would literally rather … than go into therapy.”

Or, as I sometimes notice, men (more so, indeed, than women) would literally rather suffer writer’s block for years than take one of my writing courses. They think that writing is hard, and was meant to be hard, and that suffering is the only way about it. But this ostensibly brave stance also has another name: procrastination, i.e., the act of giving into the temptation to put off today’s writing until tomorrow, knowing full well that tomorrow we may do the same. That is, we suffer our ignorance, stupidity, and laziness aesthetically rather than take it upon ourselves as the ethical predicament it really is. Yes, we sometimes lack inspiration; yes, we sometimes feel less knowledgeable than we ought to. But it is simply false that we cannot write. At the heart of this issue, of course, the familiar question of whether we really “can’t”, or just “won’t”, do what Hamlet (almost) called “this thing to do”. The problem of writing, I want to say, must never be faced as something that happens to us; writing only happens when we do it. We must face the difficulty squarely; we must not give into the temptation to construe the difficulty of writing as a tribulation. It only takes a moment.

*See W.H. Auden’s New Year Letter, notes to line 1244, and Ashgate’s appropriately, if incidentally, titled Kierkegaard’s Concepts: Tome VI : Salvation to writing. [Update: when I was writing this post I didn’t have Auden with me and I was struggling to find a word like “trouble” (which Auden uses to describe tribulations) to describe temptations. I couldn’t find one so I opted for trouble in both cases, with the qualification that we’re responsible for our temptations but not our tribulations. Consulting Auden now, I find that he had indeed found the mot juste: tribulations are a kind trouble; temptations are a kind of conflict. This is another good reason to read our poets.]

Just a Minute

“Even Proust has lost a reader or two in the middle of a paragraph.”

Yesterday, a student got a penny to drop for me. I had just explained that a paragraph (of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words) takes about one minute to read. I have sometimes even suggested that a 100-word paragraph should take as long to read as a 200-word paragraph. That is, the shorter paragraph can be more difficult, word for word, sentence by sentence, to get through, and, indeed, should be more difficult, so that every paragraph represents (almost) exactly one minute of the reader’s attention and the paper as a whole is a series of such moments of attention, delivering claims in key sentences that are spaced at most two minutes apart. I hadn’t gotten that far when the student stopped me and said it takes her a good deal longer than one minute to read half-a-page. Remembering back to my own undergraduate days, I guess I’d have to grant the point. The texts we give students to read can be a bit hard going.

At the time I said simply that that is nothing to be ashamed of — the course readings are indeed difficult (and not always in our students first language) — but that she could expect her time to improve through training. Also, she should nonetheless be kind to her readers — peers in her discipline, fellow students in her cohort — composing her paragraphs so that they can reasonably expect to get their point in a single, attentive minute. Thinking about it later, I realized that this is a pretty profound insight.

An undergraduate education should raise your level of literacy. It should make you a better reader and writer of scholarly texts. The one-minute paragraph is a benchmark that is worth striving for, both in your reading and your writing, but it’s not one that you can expect to have mastery of from the beginning. That means that you will find yourself either reading paragraphs more slowly or, if you do read a 20-page paper in 40 minutes, getting less out of it than you could. You will also find yourself writing paragraphs whose message and posture is less than clear to the reader after a single minute of reading, and composing essays that don’t exactly make your ideas clear and present to the reader in the ten or fifteen minutes their length would normally suggest. But after three or four years of struggle and effort, both your reading and your writing should have picked up the pace a little. You should be approaching the ideal reading competence and should now be in a position to read a text in your discipline one paragraph, one minute at a time, understand what the author meant and how they know, and moving on to the next. And your own writing so should be as accessible to a knowledgeable peer. Like I say, you will simply have become more literate, just as you also have become more conversant and more reflective in your subject.

The penny dropped when I reminded myself that the “knowledgeable peer”, the reader, also becomes more reflective, more conversant, and more literate — in short, more knowledgeable. The first-year undergraduate is writing for other first-year undergraduates, while the writer of bachelor project or honors thesis is writing for other bachelor or honors students. It is to their criticism that they are opening their ideas. So the paragraphs can become harder and they’ll still take just a minute to read. That’s the ideal to strive for. Meanwhile, an undergraduate can, at least occasionally, try to read a text “at speed”, giving each paragraph only one minute, and see what they get out of that. That reading will be imperfect, of course, but it may be just what the course’s learning objectives required at that level. Ideally, it would be. But I’m sure the ambitious students will work a little harder, gear down, and pull a little longer, or, in any case, read the text more than once. Easy does it!