In writing The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald aimed to “write something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned”.
(1) This desire is mirrored in the narrative approach in The Great Gatsby where the simplicity of the first person narrative contrasts with the complexity of aspects of its structure, the subtlety of its subtext and originality. The first person narrative form has certain qualities and constraints which an author must successfully balance in order to achieve a convincing narration that fulfils all the writer’s aims.
Firstly the need for the novel to be convincing means that the narrator must be both credible and trustworthy; without both of these qualities every aspect of the text could be doubted. The character of Nick Carraway as narrator is therefore vital to Fitzgerald’s narrative approach. To this end Fitzgerald furnishes Carraway with particular characteristics, for example his strong moral sense as he wants the world to be “at a sort of moral attention forever”, a desire that he states, retrospectively, early in the book.
The reader consequently expects some honesty from a character who claims to have a strong moral sense and this means that a level of trust is established. Carraway’s subsequent actions appear to reinforce this as his character reacts negatively in the end to the selfishness of Tom and Daisy Buchanan in favour of the idealistic naivety of Gatsby. Also it is important that the narrator’s character enables him to interact successfully with the other characters. A first person narrator must be a character in his own right and his involvement must be credible in order to maintain the reader’s confidence.
To this end Fitzgerald has Nick possess particular personality traits. For example, Nick describes himself as being somebody people often come to with their “confidences” and “intimate revelations” even though they are “unsought”. This creates the impression of a character who finds it easy to form relationships that involve him being admitted into their personal situations and confidences yet has a certain detachment that allows him to have only a limited effect on the action and can step back as the story is primarily about the other characters.
This is one example of how Nick’s character is vital to the effect the narrative has on the novel’s development. Nick is a voyeur – he fantasises about the “romantic women” he sees in New York and yet is unable to make commitments. This desire for romance could also warp the balance of his narration. He wants Gatsby to be a romantic figure. In erasing the “obscene world” from Gatsby’s “white step” Nick is trying to erase Gatsby’s darker side.
He avoids exploring the only too obvious illegal connections of Gatsby: “he handed the bonds over the counter”. This has led Scrimgeour to form the opinion that without Carraway’s narration “Gatsby is a bore, a roughneck, a fraud, a criminal. His taste is vulgar, his behaviour ostentatious, his love adolescent, his business dealings ruthless and dishonest. ”
(2) In other words, Nick is what makes Gatsby great; without Nick’s presentation and interpretation of Gatsby the reader would see him as an unspectacular character.
It is true that Gatsby’s character is presented through the subjective viewpoint of Nick – this is one advantage of the first person narrative form as it allows Fitzgerald to use Nick’s presentation of character to push the reader in a certain direction in terms of their response to this character. Indeed, Henry James, a writer Fitzgerald admired, spoke of this need for “a reflecting and colouring medium”.
3) However, I feel that Gatsby is great, not because of his actions but because of his dream, its imaginative spirit and disregard of barriers, which parallels with the original purity of the American Dream. It is this that sets him apart from the rest of society and the characters in the book. The plot itself must develop as an account of Nick’s first hand experiences or at times his relating of the experiences of others. This poses the author with a dilemma: how to relate events which the narrator is not directly involved in.
This problem appears most notably in Chapter Nine as Gatsby recounts his initial relationship with Daisy. Fitzgerald has Nick quote directly from Gatsby’s speech. However the nature of this speech in its attention to detail, imagery and diction sounds completely unlike natural speech and fits closely with the written style of Nick. It has been criticised, therefore, for an example of Fitzgerald struggling with the constraints of the first person narrative and lapsing into giving Nick the qualities of an omniscient narrator.
To a large extent this criticism is justified. However the novel is heavily symbolic and indeed not written in a literal way as each event and description is presented through Nick’s eyes and in the light of his subjective experience; this story is his take on Gatsby’s story, his version of the reliable facts. Certainly the reader must stretch his acceptance to allow the non-literal recounting of Gatsby’s experiences on this occasion and must suspend their scepticism on this occasion. Also read is Nick a reliable narrator essay
It allows Fitzgerald to continue using Nick’s written style and therefore continue developing the images, motifs and themes developed throughout the novel. Often Nick makes judgements or presents thoughts and motives behind the actions of other characters although it would be impossible for him to know these. One of the clearest examples of this is when Nick tells, in Chapter 8, what happened between Wilson and Gatsby at their deaths. Nick was not there, indeed no one outside of the two protagonists, now dead, could know accurately the details of what happened.
Therefore the entire episode is imagined by Nick. He does admit to this in part by saying “he must have” but then proceeds into an elaborate and detailed description of actions and feelings moving away from his earlier statement with the result of an apparently factual recounting of events and motives. George Gosworth sees this as Nick “quite candidly blending overt speculation with an implausible certainty to form a single poetic vision”.
4) This technique allows Nick to follow the scenic method in dramatising the major scenes in the book (for example the crash that killed Myrtle) and to explain to the readers his views on the action whilst maintaining the written style including symbolism. However, the reader must question the reliability of sections of The Great Gatsby as a result and decide either to take them as reliable or merely the narrator’s musings on events he has been involved with first, second or third hand.
Fitzgerald greatly admired novelist Joseph Conrad’s employment of a partially involved narrator, for example as is seen in Heart of Darkness. As Marlow tries to make sense of the experiences he is having and the characters he is involved with, so does Nick in relation to his experiences and particularly the character of Gatsby. At the time of writing The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald had been studying Conrad’s work and was surely influenced by it. Everything that occurs in the novel is presented through Nick’s perceptions, thus combining, as Bruccoli puts it, “the effect of first-person immediacy with authorial perspective.
(5) Fitzgerald’s aim to create something “simple and intricately patterned” is facilitated in part by the first person narrative because that lends unity and simplicity to the novel. It gives the text the character of a story or an autobiography of a man recounting some interesting and affecting period in his life which serves to mask the intricacies of underlying themes and the carefully constructed narrative structure. The Great Gatsby is a “novel of selective incident”.
This approach to structure was first seen in Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and later developed by Joseph Conrad and Henry James amongst others. Conrad believed that there should be no word or phrase used unless it contributes to the overall meaning of the work. This careful arranging of the structure of a novel included both intricate patterning of language and of narrative events. In this stylistic approach to structure, the writer selects an incident, or series of incidents to illustrate a larger period in time.
For example, in Chapters One to Three, Fitzgerald selects three parties which stand for the entire summer, and within that chooses sections of dialogue and incident to relate in detail which represent the whole party. Indeed the parties are also used as an investigation of contrasting worlds – the party in Chapter Two, in Myrtle’s apartment is paralleled by the party in the Plaza Hotel in Chapter Seven, larger parties are also held at Gatsby’s mansion in Chapters Three and Six. Therefore these also are used as an investigation of society as well as character.
This approach includes very careful arrangement of the scenes that appear throughout the novel in order to achieve levels of meaning through cross-referencing, foreshadowing and juxtaposing the dramatic scenes. The novel of selective incident is successful as a narrative approach in The Great Gatsby because it allows Fitzgerald to focus strongly on developing the novel as he wants, and allows him to reflect upon the wider issues that interested him within a concise framework. The intricate weaving of the various stories within The Great Gatsby is accomplished through a complex symbolic subtext within the narrative.
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The significance of these motifs in subtly but consciously re-asserting elements of the novel increases as it progresses and therefore they become more distinctive and familiar. This allows Fitzgerald to develop subplots and underlying themes without digressing too much from the development of the main action of the novel. This enables Fitzgerald to fulfil another of James’s ideas for literary work, his belief that they should develop some moral theme or purpose. The flower motif is introduced by Daisy’s name.
Fitzgerald uses images of “crushed flowers” and “dying orchids” to reinforce the transitory nature of Gatsby’s dream: “she blossomed for him like a flower”, which he himself is unaware of. In this way Fitzgerald succeeds in creating an air of futility surrounding Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy. Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes – an oculist’s advertisement – overlook the social wasteland of the Valley of Ashes. Consequently the recurring reference to eyes and glasses impinges on the reader’s consciousness, coming to symbolise moral blindness and lack of social responsibility.
This reinforces Fitzgerald’s satire on ‘Jazz Age’ America. Fitzgerald uses colour motifs. For example, Fitzgerald uses the “single green light, minute and far away” on Daisy’s dock to symbolise Gatsby’s dream and its unattainable distance. Thus when Carraway likens the green light to the “fresh, green breast of the new world” Gatsby’s dream is clearly linked with the American dream. Fitzgerald uses many other motifs; some refer to Gatsby’s dream, for example moonlight, and others to the destruction of the American dream, for example motorcars.
Motifs are a narrative technique that provides silent insight and satire, enabling the pace to continue unchecked by wordy descriptions or explanations. Therefore the use of motifs in The Great Gatsby enables Fitzgerald to develop intricacies of meaning within a “simple” and concise framework. The novel is written in retrospect, involving non-chronological flashbacks within a chronological account. Fitzgerald flows effortlessly between time periods, for example he introduces Gatsby’s real name via a throwaway line, allowing him to slip neatly into Gatsby’s past. Passing references are later expanded on.
For example the bad driver episode is echoed at the end of the novel, emphasising the carelessness of Tom, Daisy and Jordan. Fitzgerald also uses Gatsby’s parties as a narrative technique to help thread the plots and structure together. They change in mood, becoming more sinister towards the end. This is suggestive of Carraway’s growing enlightenment and hence estrangement from society foreshadowing the turbulent, violent scenes to come. Fitzgerald also uses the parties to subtly describe the extravagant, opportunistic society: “five crates of oranges and lemons arrived… eft his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves” and through colourful descriptions of its intoxicated decadence. This careful arranging of the structure of The Great Gatsby enables Fitzgerald to strike the balance between a “simple” and yet “intricately patterned” novel. On the surface the story is arranged as a simple autobiography, yet behind this is a great complexity of meaning and precise planning. Thus the novel is a very short and concise, containing many more layers of meaning than a superficial reading might suggest.
Fitzgerald also skilfully presents dialogue, imitating the traits of a variety of voices, the main example being Wolfsheim’s voice clearly stylised as Jewish, and lively and realistic dialogue between characters. This has the effect of providing some relief from the monotony of Nick’s voice. In conclusion, The Great Gatsby has been proclaimed by T. S. Elliot as “the first step that American literature has taken since Henry James”,
(6) and this sentiment has been echoed by numerous other literary critics. The novel is seen by many as the greatest ever literary work to have come out of America.
Gosworth states that “it is not a matter of content or context … it is a matter of form that makes it so”.
(7) It is through Fitzgerald’s approach to narrative in The Great Gatsby, using the concise form of the novel of selective incident and filtering events through the perceptions of a first person narrator that he is able to produce a novel that transcends an investigation of character and events to criticise the broader issue of the “American Dream”. Therefore, I feel that Fitzgerald was successful in writing “something new”, something that was both “simple and intricately patterned”.