Posted on September 19, 2007 by Mr. Eldridge
One of the difficulties we’ve been having with really reading The Great Gatsby I think, stems from the complicated narrative structure. Let’s see if we can unpack it:
Essentially we are working with a story within a story. A fictional memoir, in a way. Nick is telling a story about one season a few years ago. A time when he learned about the darker side of human nature, how strong it can be, and how weak our dreams are in the face of such reality.
But it’s not that simple. Nick is not totally independent, nor totally involved. He has “secret” knowledge that he only relays to us later. In fact, he intentionally distorts the narrative in several places, and then claims to be so plain speaking and honest in others that we have a hard time piecing together fact, fiction, and (intentional) fantasy. It creates for us the readers a sense of the drift into incredulity and the violent snapping back into total belief that Nick himself experienced whenever he spoke with Gatsby. I’ve drawn a little schematic to illustrate part of our problem:
All we have access to is the innermost narrative. Each level acts as a filter on any that are within it. So Fitzgerald’s ideas are the hardest to tease out because they are buried in the story and Nick’s relation of events. Also you can see why Nick seems so ambiguous–he is living (in the story world) on two levels simultaneously. We have to read REALLY closely to tell if the detail is Nick the (ignorant) character or Nick the (seemingly) all-knowing (ie. omniscient). What makes matters worse is that Nick filters his own opinions through two years of seething and steaming. He really doesn’t like Tom… who would? He basically killed Gatsby and convinced Daisy it was a good thing.
Back to narrative: when we read sections of the text where characters are inebriated, is Nick trying to give us a exact picture of the incoherence of the party, his own cognitive incoherence, or is he just trying to relate events the best he can remember with no artistic changes? He also tries to soften the blow with the ever-present (omnipresent?) euphemism. that figure of speech where we choose the softer sounding word. His feelings for Jordan are always wrapped in this–he almost seems shy about how much he likes/liked her. She fascinated him, but in the end her lack of depth, her lack of caring disgusts him and he can’t lie to himself anymore.
In conclusion, when you identify the author’s purpose or opinion try to separate the layers of narration (the story we’re reading is the middle box). Sexism, may not sexism, it may be the character’s cynicism; racism may not be racism, it may be social commentary (on disturbing trends); and the Romanticism may be all in Nick’s head. The party in chapter three, although it is rude, clumsy, and altogether absurd, is described with elevated diction and sparkling detail–and not to mention riddled with euphemism.
Ask yourself which level of narration are we operating on.
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Filed under: Class Discussions, The Great Gatsby