Critics of The Great Gatsby frequently, and quite understandably, focus their attention on the magnificent overt symbolism of the novel, particularly Dr. Eckleburg and the ashheaps his brooding presence dominates. So powerful are these symbols, and certain others in Gatsby, that it is sometimes assumed that the meaning of the novel resides in them. Readings of the novel through the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg overlook a simple truth about fiction, which is that narrative pattern is the total mode of symbol. The major meaning of a work of fiction is by and large carried by the narrative—and this narrative is in turn symbolic of the novel’s larger meaning. In terms of the structure of Gatsby it is questionable whether symbolically Eckleburg is as important to the novel’s meaning as the less eye-catching dog-leash which Myrtle Wilson buys for her mongrel pup and which, in a complex way, mirrors her relationship with Tom Buchanan. What our fascination and preoccupation with the oculist’s sign, with “owl eyes,” the ashheaps,and other such symbols, reflect, I think, is the depth of our immediate response to the powerful moral quality which pervades the book. At the root of Fitzgerald’s success in Gatsby lies something we can only attribute to the author’s personal passion. Ultimately, as I hope to show, Fitzgerald used his narrative art to curb and express this passion. In effect he manipulated the processes of his own heart, and in so doing enlarged the dimensions of narrative in twentieth-century fiction…
Fitzgerald’s narrative sense was in an extraordinarily personal way the direct expression of his moral experience as a man. I use the phrase “narrative sense” for lack of a more precise term. Yet what I mean is not very difficult to see. It resides in the fragmented narrative line of Gatsby and the skill which Fitzgerald, through the agency of his first-person narrator, Nick Carraway, exercised in putting it together. I would like to stop over one isolated instance of Fitzgerald’s use of Nick Carraway at the beginning of Chapter VI to illustrate the point I wish to make. This is that Fitzgerald’s swift, breathless, and apparently rather random ordering of his material is actually so tightly controlled that the reader’s mind is led through each involution of narrative…
The chapter begins in the following manner:
About this time an ambitious young reporter from New York arrived one morning at Gatsby’s door and asked him if he had anything to say.
“Anything to say about what?” inquired Gatsby politely.
“Why—any statement to give out.”
The reporter, we learn, has come out to West Egg on his day off. Some rumor, some half-understood remark in the office, has sent him energetically in search of a story about Gatsby. “It was a random shot,” Nick remarks, “and yet the reporter’s instinct was right. Gatsby’s notoriety … had increased all summer until he fell just short of being news.”
Contemporary legends such as the “underground pipe-line to Canada” attached themselves to him, and there was one persistent story that he didn’t live in a house at all, but in a boat that looked like a house and was moved secretly up and down the Long Island shore.
“Just why,” Nick goes on, concluding the paragraph with a sudden, and upon first sight seemingly unexpected, revelation. “Just why these inventions were a source of satisfaction to James Gatz of North Dakota isn’t easy to say.” And the next paragraph abruptly begins: “James Gatz—that was really, orat least legally, his name.” With as little overt preparation as this single page of the novel, the misty grandeurs of the Gatsby legend are suddenly blown away to reveal an unglamorous patronymic and an unromantic birthplace. And then, before we have time to cease wondering over our new insight, the next sentence plunges us backwards in time, to Dan Cody and the incident of the Tuolumne, to events which Nick learns only later, on the final night he spent with Gatsby.
It is true, of course, that we have been expecting some such revelation about Gatsby’s background for some time. The rumors spread by the guests at his parties, “the bizarre accusations that flavored conversation in his halls,” have been compounded as Fitzgerald’s tale has progressed. Gatsby’s own account of himself to Nick in Chapter IV (“I’ll tell you God’s truth”) has left Nick half incredulous. The luncheon with Meyer Wolfsheim has added another dimension to the mysteries surrounding the man, and Jordan Baker’s account of Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy has also contributed to our growing expectation of some revelation. But we have not expected it to come as starkly or as boldly as it occurs at the beginning of Chapter VI, and certainly not at this moment, in this way. Yet a closer examination of the passage shows that the revelation has been subtly prepared for.
The success of Fitzgerald’s narrative boldness derives from the particular relevance of the apparently random occurrence of the newspaper reporter at Gatsby’s door and the pattern of suggestion it creates. The reporter’s instinct, that a story concerning Gatsby is about to break, is, Nick tells us, the right instinct to have; the truth about Jay Gatsby, the incident suggests, is near at hand. There is an added suggestion of this in the emphasis on the season; before summer is over, the implication runs, Gatsby will be news. Time, we are made to feel, is about to run out on Gatsby’s masquerade— and before the paragraph is over, he has become James Gatz.
Gatsby, of course, doesn’t have “any statement to give out” to the young reporter; but he does have, we know, a detailed statement to give Nick, and it is ultimately our knowledge of this that gives the incident its relevance and the transition its effectiveness. For Nick is our reporter. We are waiting for his account of Gatsby’s life, for the “news” about James Gatz. The reporter’s arrival and reaction have been merely the occasion for revealing the real story behind Gatsby. What we might call Fitzgerald’s calculated “rhetoric of narrative” in this instance serves a similar function at a number of crucial junctures where Fitzgerald is bridging difficult gaps in his fragmented narrative scheme. Without such imaginative rhetorical movements on the part of Nick Carraway, no rearrangement of chronology, however clever, would be effective. A good deal of the technical brilliance of Gatsby stems from Fitzgerald’s narrative sense at precisely such moments.
It was Fitzgerald’s narrative sense, I think, which partly enabled him to achieve the extraordinary effect of compression Gatsby gives. Writing to the author some months before the novel’s publication, Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins remarked: “It seems, on reading, a much shorter book than it is, but it carries the mind through a series of experiences that one would think would require a book of three times its length.” And Fitzgerald, in his Introduction to the Modern Library reprint of the novel, remarked: “What I cut out of it both physically and emotionally would make another novel.” The contours of Fitzgerald’s story would more than prove the truth of such a statement. For one problem Fitzgerald faced, and solved, was the burden of narrative. He had too much story on his hands. Any one of his isolated narrative fragments—Gatsby’s courtship of Daisy, Tom’s and Daisy’s wedding, Dan Cody and Ella Kaye—could have commanded a great deal more space.
In The Fictional Technique of F. Scott Fitzgerald, James E. Miller, Jr., demonstrates at considerable length that Fitzgerald had a “sure touch” for selection, for knowing which events to dramatize, which to present obliquely, to summarize, to omit, and so on. Some similar account also has to be given of Fitzgerald’s “sure touch” in the selection of his major narrative elements. For one reason for the brevity of the novel and its extraordinary effect of compression is that basically the plot of Gatsby is that of a short story, not a novel. Fitzgerald fashioned the narrative framework for a major American novel from the thin story-line of two sexual affairs (Gatsby and Daisy, Myrtle Wilson and Tom Buchanan), one of which he does not even recount, and he resolved both lines of action by a single violent action on the road to West Egg. So the novel appears in outline.
The narrative scheme of Gatsby is built around two strands of story—the story of Gatsby and the story of Myrtle Wilson, parallel characters who share parallel dreams and parallel fates. In terms of structure, the novel is as much Myrtle Wilson’s story as James Gatz’s, and the novel’s most tragic moment is when her body is found on the road to West Egg, the left breast “swinging loose like a flap.” “There was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.” I am not suggesting for a moment that Myrtle Wilson is the central figure of the novel, or even that Fitzgerald was as absorbed by her story as Gatsby’s, but that she carries the burden of narrative which her more glamorous counterpart cannot sustain. She is the ballast which prevents Fitzgerald’s balloon of romance from sailing off into the blue and out of sight.
Myrtle Wilson, of course, was not part of the nucleus of fact out of which Fitzgerald first conceived his novel, and it is impossible to reconstruct what led him to seize upon her story and develop it to such lengths—except to say that his extraordinary narrative sense guided him. Her story is a second, less glamorous, more soiled version of the American Dream. Its realities are crude, its plot openly one of adultery and exploitation. Its characters are distinctly unpleasant people. Myrtle is seen at her most vulgar, Tom Buchanan at his ugliest. Then there is Wilson, a tragically broken man who lives in a blighted world with his own dreams of success. And at the party in Myrtle’s and Tom’s apartment, the dark counterpart of all the glamorous parties on Gatsby’s estate, there is Myrtle’s sister Catherine and the McKees, characters which reinforce Fitzgerald’s point. The Sunday afternoon party occurs before we see any of the exotic affairs at Gatsby’s on Long Island. It stands at the front of the novel providing ironic commentary and judgment on events to follow. The accidental violence which is to occur on the road to West Egg is prefigured by the violent outburst of emotions with which the party breaks up near midnight…
Assuredly it was a stroke of narrative genius on Fitzgerald’s part which found the resolution of his two narrative strands in a single event on the road to West Egg—but it was Fitzgerald’s narrative sense which enabled him to join together his two fragmented lines of story so that they not merely reflecteach other but become a single unit of narrative. The effect he achieves is much like that of a composer orchestrating two themes which sometimes reinforce each other, sometimes clash, but which always provide continuous commentary on each other. From the pattern of consonances and dissonances emerges the larger meaning of Gatsby.
It is in creating the resonances between the two narrative strands that Fitzgerald’s narrator plays such an important role…
It is often said by critics of Gatsby that Fitzgerald’s narrator not merely records the events of the novel but also embodies the meaning of the experiences he witnesses. Certainly Nick Carraway is one of the most engaging narrators in twentieth-century fiction. He is warm, human, fallible. From the first page of the novel, when he presents his credentials in a humorous, self-deprecatory yet quietly authoritative voice, much like Herman Melville’s Ishmael [in Moby-Dick], we consciously identify with him…
Nick’s function is another matter. If we turn to the most complex instance of Fitzgerald’s weaving together of his narrative strands, his role becomes clearer. After the breakfast with Gatsby, on the morning after the accident, Nick goes up to the city. He tries “for a while to list the quotations on an interminable amount of stock,” then falls asleep in his swivel chair. At noon he is awakened by the phone. It is Jordan Baker. “Usually,” Nick remarks, “her voice came over the wire as something fresh and cool, as if a divot from a green golf-links had come sailing in at the office window, but this morning it seemed harsh and dry.” Jordan tells Nick that she has left Daisy’s house. “Probably,” Nick remarks, “it had been tactful to leave Daisy’s house, but the act annoyed me, and her next remark made me rigid.” Jordan complains that Nick wasn’t “so nice” to her the night before. (“How could it have mattered then?” he replied.) Nevertheless Jordan wants to see Nick that afternoon. But Nick, responding to the suggestion of cowardliness in her leaving Daisy’s, and to her essential selfishness and lack of concern over what has happened, doesn’t want to see her. “I don’t know which of us hung up with a sharp click, but I know I didn’t care. I couldn’t have talked to her across a tea-table that day if I never talked to her again in this world.”
I called Gatsby’s house a few minutes later, but the line was busy. I tried four times; finally an exasperated central told me the wire was being kept open for long distance from Detroit. Taking out my time-table, I drew a small circle around the three-fifty train. Then I leaned back in my chair and tried to think. It was just noon.
Now there occurs a space break on the page, possibly to suggest that the thoughts which follow could occur to Nick as he reclines in his chair, and then a time-shift carries us back to the morning.
When I passed the ashheaps on the train that morning I had crossed deliberately to the other side of the car. I supposed there’d be a curious crowd around there all day with little boys searching for dark spots in the dust, and some garrulous man telling over and over what had happened, until it became less and less real even to him and he could tell it no longer, and Myrtle Wilson’s tragic achievement was forgotten.
A final, abrupt sentence closes the paragraph: “Now I want to go back and tell what happened at the garage after we left there the night before.” With that sentence time shifts first backward, to the night before and events at the garage, then forward to the events of the day leading to Gatsby’s death.
About the detailed events crowding around Wilson and Michaelis in the hours after the accident—which Fitzgerald describes immediately after the paragraph quoted above— Nick can know only what newspaper accounts or Michaelis’s testimony at the inquest revealed. Nick’s “Now I want to go back and tell what happened…” seemingly violates point of view. A less assured and less skilled writer than Fitzgerald, one can theorize, would have handled the matter less swiftly and less boldly. Conceivably he might have had Nick interview Michaelis. More likely, he would have taken pains to show Nick piecing things out from various sources, or he would have planted an eyewitness who directly tells Nick what happened. But such devices used inthis fashion would have obtruded technique upon subject matter, and Fitzgerald is too good a writer to do this. Actually Fitzgerald does use these devices but much more subtly and imaginatively. In scattered references to Michaelis’s testimony and to newspaper accounts in the pages which follow Nick implies that he has gathered the information which he dramatically retells, while the suggestion of an eyewitness—“some garrulous man telling over and over what had happened”—is represented in the ghostly person of Nick…
Fitzgerald’s rearrangement of time juxtaposes the deaths of Myrtle and Gatsby. It also allows Wilson’s story of his life with Myrtle, his growing suspicion of her other life, his discovery of the dog collar, and his quarrel with her to be part of the main narrative instead of mere flashback or isolated story. But such re-ordering of chronology also produces unexpected breaks in narrative, sudden stops and swift starts, awkward gaps that have to be filled. It is precisely at these moments that the presence of Fitzgerald’s narrator, who is not bound by time or scene, maintains the unbroken rhythm of the plot. But Nick is not merely the author’s stand-in. The relationship between authorial intent and personality and narrative technique remains complex.
In his biography of Fitzgerald, Arthur Mizener remarks: “His use of a narrator allowed Fitzgerald to keep clearly separated for the first time in his career the two sides of his nature, the middle-western Trimalchio and the spoiled priest who disapproved of but grudgingly admired him.” Mr. Mizener’s remark, in the sense in which I think he intended it, is obviously true. Gatsby exhibits a measure of control over subject matter which Fitzgerald failed to achieve in his other books and this control resides in Fitzgerald having found, through his use of first person narration, a way not only to sort out the attitudes he shared with his characters but also to provide legitimate commentary on these attitudes…
It is a commonplace of Fitzgerald criticism that the characterization in Gatsby is not deep, is at times no more than adequate; and we ourselves have seen how minimally Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker exist as people. But what has never been posited is that perhaps Fitzgerald is using first-person narration here to avoid characterization. That is, in Gatsby the deliberate pressure of narration frees Fitzgerald from a blinding sense of identity with any one character in the working out of his fable; in effect, he is able to curb and express his personal passion.
Ultimately, of course, Fitzgerald does create a magnificent figure in Gatsby, one with depth and possessed of profound moral seriousness, but that figure is neither Jay Gatsby nor Myrtle Wilson. Nor is it Nick Carraway. It is, I would suggest, Scott Fitzgerald, both man and writer, or, rather, the man-as-writer. Brooding over his domain of ashheaps and the drama which unfolds upon it are not merely the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg but the intelligence and conscience of the author. “I am not a great man,” he wrote his daughter in 1939, “but sometimes I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur.”
From the vast biographical material available about Fitzgerald, including that provided by his Letters, it is clear that he wrote out of himself, in effect put himself directly on paper, in a way that earlier writers cannot be said to. His goal was the modern novelist’s goal of self-understanding. What separates Fitzgerald from his immediate predecessors, it seems to me, is the extent of awareness of self in his fiction. It is not that Fitzgerald was more honest than, say, Conrad, but that by the time Fitzgerald wrote, it had become possible to accept blame. For Fitzgerald’s generation, self-knowledge had become a human discovery, and Fitzgerald shared in that discovery. Overshadowing both the man and his work is the deeply tragic understanding that he is the personal author of his own wreckage.
Published in Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual (1970). Text scanned from Readings on "The Great Gatsby", ed. by Katie DeKoster (San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998).