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Explore the function of the narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Brett Easton Ellis’ “Less Than Zero”
Published in 1925 by author F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, is considered a literary classic by many critics. The eponymous novel is set in the “Roaring 1920’s” post World War 1 and tells the tale of Jay Gatsby through the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway. The exposition begins when we are told of the socio-cultural divide between the upper class of America, by a character who has just moved to Long Island from Minnesota. The clear separation between West Egg and East Egg is an idea explored by Nick, who is a resident of the “lower-upper” class West Egg.
Throughout the novel, it can be observed that events that occur are a direct parallel to the life of Scott Fitzgerald, as he projects characteristics of both Gatsby and Nick that were similar to his own. It is widely believed that the book is written in a manner that is cynical of the American Dream and of the elitist society, in a biased fashion that favours Gatsby. Conversely, Less Than Zero is a novel set in the 1980s and tells the story of affluent college students, who lead hedonistic lifestyles with the security of their parents’ wealth.
Brett Easton Ellis’ first novel in his oeuvre is written during the years following the Vietnam War of economic prosperity in Reagan’s America and highlights the fragmented society caused by passionless relationships between friends and family and the lack of morality present in upper class America. The two novels contrast in the cities that they are set in; The Great Gatsby is set in New York’s Long Island, whilst Less Than Zero is set in California on the opposite coast of America. However the behaviour of the two generations is quite similar, and is reflective of the influence of money on higher-class society during the respective periods.
In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is not only the narrator, but also a character that actively participates in the novel and it his opinion that dictates how the reader perceives other characters. One obvious example of this is in the novel’s title, as the epithet “Great” is used to describe a character that the reader has not yet met. This suggests that Nick Carraway idolizes Gatsby in some aspects and to some degree, aspires to what Gatsby represents. “… Produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterers basket.” This short extract is taken from a section where Nick is describing a lavish party that is frequently held by Gatsby.
The metaphor implies that Gatsby is almost God-like in the way he is able to throw extravagant parties yet remains anonymous to those that attend. During the 1920’s, there was a period of what was known as prohibition, where all alcohol was banned, and yet people are often described drinking throughout The Great Gatsby.
This could be a condemnation of upper class society, as it suggests they are just as immoral, if not more so, than the lower classes. Fitzgerald himself went from a family of mediocrity to a sudden rise in splendor through his writings, and can therefore relate to the awe that one might feel when acclimatizing to such a society. Less Than Zero’s narrator, Clay, does not represent its author in the same way as Nick does, however Easton-Ellis uses Clay to magnify the issues that surrounded affluent college students during the 80s. Clay often negatively portrays the actions of other characters, which can be seen as an act of hypocrisy. For example,
“Because you both stole a quarter gram of cocaine from me the last time I left my door open. That’s why.”
At this point, Clay accuses his sisters of stealing his cocaine, which they put down to him “leaving his door unlocked”. This may be a reference to the lack of privacy or a lack of trust within society to such a degree that one cannot trust even their closest family.
Nick Carraway is arguably a biased narrator, through his romanticized and idealized description of the novel’s protagonist and adversely, his foil, Tom Buchanan. On their first encounter Nick describes Gatsby’s gestures with authority for example,
“He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself” This quotation epitomizes Nick’s admiration for Gatsby before he has properly met him and implies that he has already formulated an opinion based upon rumours he has heard but also based on the party Gatsby invited him to. Once again, this is may be seen as a condemnation of American society by Fitzgerald who shows that capitalist and superficiality was a major factor in defining an individual.
Gatsby’s flawless persona does deteriorate as the novel progresses and as Gatsby comes close to achieving his dream, however Nick appears to glaze over this and as a result, preserves Gatsby’s “greatness” to the reader. The use of the affectation “old sport” throughout Gatsby’s communication with Nick highlights a friendship that is neither formal nor informal but rather one of an illusionary nature. This is to say that Gatsby uses the affectation in order to evoke a more appealing, intellectual persona. Despite Nick seeing through his façade, he chooses to ignore the matter, instead only becomes more infatuated with what Gatsby represents.
“What part of the Middle West?’ I inquired casually.’
It is apparent that Nick knows San Francisco is not in the Middle West but rather on the west coast yet he chooses not to argue as if Gatsby’s word is unequivocally truth. Claire Stocks puts this infatuation down to a likeness that both men share which is that “[both men] seem to be the victims of insufficient or thwarted inheritances… They are both forced to work for their living”. It can be suggested that towards the end of Less Than Zero, Clay wants to leave this society as he narrates, “My eyes keep wandering off the screen and to the two green exit signs that hang over the two doors in the back of the theater” This occurs whilst Clay, Blair and Kim are in the cinema watching a “gory” film and highlights that Clay does in fact have some form of morality despite the actions that he part-takes in. Easton-Ellis reveals a character that is torn between being moral or following the hedonistic life he is so easily acclimatized to.
Fitzgerald also uses Nick Carraway as a way of criticizing the society that he strives to be a part of. This is evident in Chapter 2, where Nick spends time with Tom, Myrtle and Mr. Wilson, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” At this point, Nick may be referring to the “variety” of classes that are present, as Myrtle and Mr. Wilson are of a lower class, himself of middle class and Tom from the upper echelons of society. It may be seen that Fitzgerald could not stand the behavior of the people he became associated with, however realized that their behavior was a result of what he sought after, in terms of the “American dream” and therefore feels “enchanted” by the hedonistic nature of the upper class. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald also highlights the vast socio-cultural divide between classes and as such presents the reader with an ambiguous view of fractured relationships.
Clay also presents his own society with undertones of disdain, being cynical of the netherworld through his direct and succinct account of various events that take place. He rarely places emotion or opinion in his description of events and as a result, it seems that he is more of a trustworthy narrator. This is most evident when he recounts the viewing of a “snuff” movie, “It looks like a toolbox and I’m confused for a minute and Blair walks out of the room. And he takes out an ice pick and what looks like a wire hanger and a package of nails and then a thin, large knife and he comes toward the girl and Daniel smiles and nudges me in the ribs.” The repeated use of polysyndeton gives the reader the impression that Clay is not properly viewing the movie; instead, he is almost analyzing it as if it were a novel.
The lack of sensory description also implies that Clay is trying to distance himself from this and that he sees the crude and disgusting nature of what he is being shown. At this time, snuff films had just been exposed and were not an unknown phenomenon. Therefore, Easton-Ellis may be suggesting that society has lost its moral compass/guidance, being reduced to ignoring such shocking acts. However, in spite of this, Clay does offer himself as a more intellectual individual compared to other characters, by the way he looks at the billboard that is titled “Disappear Here”. Evidently he does not choose to “disappear” and instead stays amongst the morally obsolete society that he is attached to and this ultimately leads to the dénouement in which he is forced to leave his society.
Both novels differ in the tone in which they are written though the contexts are very similar despite being in diverse decades. On the one hand, there is Nick who is biased towards one specific character and seems to show disdain for the society that he once strived for, and on the other, Clay, who has a more direct approach to narration and more expressively communicates the plot to the reader. Overall, the two narrators are used to convey to very different ideas that are relevant to their contexts.
The Great Gatsby is narrated such that the reader is almost forced into liking Gatsby despite his clear superficiality, which is upheld by trivial objects such as “real books” and medals with “authentic looks”. Less Than Zero poses are more critical view of society, with the narrator becoming confused by the moral ambiguity and generally growing to hate the society that he belongs to as it has been reduced to individualism and by an large a fractured society whereby “people are afraid to merge”.