One of the finest pieces of American fiction ever written, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby provides the reader with an abundance of carefully interwoven themes: intricate relationships, epic battles between greed and self-respect, social commentary on wealth and power, and in the end, a story of moving forward in life, despite our innate desire to look back at where we have been. Of all of the approaches to analyzing this classic work, an often over looked aspect is the mastery with which Fitzgerald moves the reader through all of these elements using a sound narrative structure.
The purpose of this essay will be to explore how spectacularly Fitzgerald, through the narrative voice of Nick Carraway, brings the reader along through the five main parts of a succinct and satisfying story. I. Explanation of the Narrative Structure Using Freytag’s Pyramid In order to provide an overview of the nature of a classic narrative structure, a brief summary of Freytag’s pyramid is offered.
Five main sections can be found in a drama, which allow for a natural development of characters and plot.
At the outset, a drama will provide exposition, or the background information needed to understand the characters, the dilemma or conflict of the story, and the setting of the action. The exposition leads into the second part or act known as the rising action with an inciting moment – or a turning point that delivers to the reader the indication that something is about to take place. The rising action will include the main dramatic problem of the story, as well as introducing any secondary conflicts, relationships or entanglements that will add to the overall action of the plot development.
At some point, the conflict will reach a boiling point where the most notable change for the main character(s) occurs. This is known as the climax. While many good stories deliver on these first three elements of Freytag’s pyramid, only the best works deliver the final two elements. After the main character’s climactic point, altering the story for the better or worse for the character, a period of falling action occurs, allowing the reader to see the fallout from the main turning point of the story.
While this is not the same as the final step, resolution, falling action allows for the unraveling of the plot and all of it’s consequences to naturally unfold – often with surprises unseen at the point of the climax to the reader. Resolution or denouement allows the reader to experience finality and conclusion through the narrative voice. It gives the reader the opportunity to see the conflict as resolved, for better or worse, from the perspective of the main character(s). II. The Great Gatsby: A Classic Example
a. Exposition: Fitzgerald uses the voice of his main protagonist, Nick Carraway, to set the stage. Carraway begins the story straightaway by delivering background on not just himself, but his lineage, family history and insight into one of the major themes of the book: social stratification. Carraway also introduces the character of Gatsby in the first chapter, and alludes to the almost hero-worship like affection for Gatsby that he felt, which as the story unfolds, will be another important theme.
Carraway further sets the background through his descriptions of the locations of the story: West and East Egg and how the different areas held different views of old and new money; again helping the exposition of the story by framing the areas which will highlight the drama yet to come. Additional characters of Tom and Daisy Buchanan are introduced, as well as Jordan Baker – a young woman who begins dating Carraway as a result of mutually knowing the Buchanans.
This is especially important in part to introduce the character of Daisy who will ultimately play a major role in the development of Gatsby’s character; and also to highlight the longing in Carraway for the material life he recognized in the East Egg socialites. By the end of the second chapter, Carraway has exposed the nature of Tom Buchanan as an abusive husband capable of violently hurting women; another important point in the background of the characters in this story and the inciting moment, when Tom breaks the nose of Myrtle Wilson, his mistress in the presence of Carraway.
This causes Carraway to begin to rethink the glamour of the East Egg socialites and focus his attention on the West Egg society – namely the parties thrown weekly by Carraway’s neighbor, Gatsby. b. Rising Action: The true rising action of the story begins as Gatsby and Carraway become friendly over the course of the summer. Jordan Baker, a mutual friend also of Gatsby, attends the same parties and begins dating Carraway regularly. This alone is not noteworthy, except that she provides a linking piece of information that changes the direction of the story dramatically.
Gatsby revealed to Jordan Baker, and thus in turn to Carraway, that he is in love with Daisy Buchanan, an unrequited love from his past when he was poor. At roughly the same point in the story, another major element adds to the rising action when the character of Meyer Wolfshiem is introduced. Until that point, Carraway had idolized Gatsby as an honest person and worthy of befriending; however, Wolfshiem is Gatsby’s connection to organized crime – the source of Gatsby’s wealth.
Two conflicts begin to develop in earnest: externally, Carraway is dragged into the beginning of an affair between Gatsby and Daisy when asked to facilitate a meeting at his house between the two former lovers; and internally, Carraway, in his idolization of wealth and status, is drawn into questionable relationships with both Gatsby and Jordan Baker, which are contrary to the characterization he gave of himself in the exposition of the story, citing the manner in which his father had always taught him to conduct his affairs.
c. Climax: The pinnacle moment of the story takes place in the sixth chapter as the physical ramifications of Gatsby and Daisy’s affair, and Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson’s affair culminate in a tragic series of events. Tom is distraught upon learning that his mistress’ husband has learned of her infidelity and plans to take her away. At the same time, he learns his wife Daisy wants to leave him for Gatsby. Ordering Daisy and Gatsby to leave, the two drive off in Gatsby’s car.
On the way home, Nick, Tom and Jordan come upon the accident scene where Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress, has been killed by a car that did not stop. d. Falling Action: As Carraway becomes further dismayed by the lack of morality of the people he’s been associating with, he breaks off his relationship with Jordan and returns home. Why The Great Gatsby is such a fantastic example of falling action, and where other books often fall short, is that in unraveling the plot from the point of the climax could have been very bland and summarily wrapped up the story as a tragedy of immorality.
However, Fitzgerald takes the reader along for such an unexpected twist when it is revealed that Tom tells Wilson that Gatsby was the one driving the car that killed his wife, and Wilson in turn, murders Gatsby and commits suicide in his grief. The final bit of irony is revealed that Daisy and not Gatsby had been driving the car at the time of Myrtle’s death. While certainly not the pinnacle of the drama, the falling action is just as satisfying and important to the totality of the story as any of the other five areas.
Some might argue this is the area that transforms a good story into a great and lasting tale. e. Resolution: While certainly there can be great morality lessons drawn out in the conclusion of such a story, the narrative voice of Carraway allows the reader to see both the external changes and tragedies that resulted from the interactions of the characters and conflicts, but also the more subtle and internally deep struggles which his character experienced.
By writing the story in the past tense and through the lens and voice of time and reflection, Carraway’s narrative resolution to his internal conflict of class, social aspiration and longing to be a part of the elite shows that even while he was disgusted and horrified at times by the behavior of his East Egg contemporaries, the longing at times remains. References: Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995.