In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s main innovation was to introduce a first person narrator and protagonist whose consciousness filters the story’s events. This device was not a total invention since a character through whose eyes and mind the central protagonist is discovered is to be found in two of Conrad’s books : Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. As usual with this device, the main protagonist remains strange and shady. This technique reinforces the mystery of the characters. The second advantage is that the mediation of a character-witness permits a play between the real and the imaginary. This indirect approach is inherited from Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hence, it is difficult to distinguish between true representation and fantasizing. For Emerson, vision was more important than the real world. I. Nick’s vision : the ‘modified’ first person technique The story is narrated through a ‘modified’ first person viewpoint : * it is not the main protagonist (Gatsby) who recounts his own story but a secondary character, Nick Carraway, who is successively suspicious, wary and eventually fascinated by Gatsby. Nick is not trustworthy, not fully reliable : he oscillates. * whenever Nick cannot obtain a first hand version of facts, he does not hesitate to quote other sources. For instance, Gatsby’s love affair is told by Jordan Baker (chap.4 p80). Nick reports her words but the problem is that she is said to be a liar : how far can she be trusted ? * Nick is obliged to reconstruct an event through the collage of different testimonies. Nick uses his logical mind to come up with a definitive story, result of words that have been filtered by different minds. That is why this first person viewpoint is modified : Nick can only rely on what he has been told. II. Nick Carraway : a privileged witness
Nick is not a random choice, it is very well calculated. He was the best possible witness to let the reader discover Gatsby. Indeed, through coincidence, he happens to be Gatsby’s next-door neighbor (p11). Besides, Nick has not vested interest in hobnobbing Gatsby. He has no axe to grind. Yet, without being acquainted with Gatsby, Nick is nonetheless a relative of Daisy and consequently introduced to the Buchanans and to Gatsby’s story. A. An eye-witness account
Nick witnesses some of the events of Gatsby’s last summer and sometimes participates in them. He has two functions : seeing and acting. The emphasis is put on visual perception. The act of seeing creates mystery instead of providing information. A lot about Gatsby’s life is bound to remain unfathomable : there is more in Gatsby’s life than Nick’s eyes can meet. Nick’s scope of vision is limited. Yet, Nick is a good observer and can draw his own conclusions. He can analyze Gatsby’s facial expressions and put a meaning on his gestures. See chapter 5 with the re-union between Gatsby and Daisy. He is sometimes over-informed. When Gatsby dashes into the kitchen, Nick is made privy of his companion’s feelings. Through Nick’s agency, the reader is provided with the real feelings of Gatsby : ‘this is a terrible mistake‘. This tends to suggest that Fitzgerald tried to favor the sentimental dimension of his character at the expense of his ‘business’. B. The accounts of other people
Nick picks up most information about Gatsby and Daisy through other people’s accounts -mainly gossip and public rumors. The accounts repeated may be unreliable and called into question. Through the gossip of the beginning, Gatsby is almost all the time presented with a mixture of awe and dread, making of him an outsider. Nick is just echoing : ‘German spy during the war’, ‘he killed a man once’. Nick almost believes it : ‘he looked as if he had killed a man’. Nick has a varying attitude towards Gatsby. He passes on to the reader a lot of rumors which might prove later to be contradictory. Nick plays the role of the chorus in Ancient tragedy and is the link between the reader and Gatsby. C. Nick’s reconstruction...
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