In the Great Gatsby, characters are not introduced in a traditional way. They are not described in any detail and cannot be studied separately. Thanks to his "ideographic" method of character-portrayal, Fitzgerald suggests one idea through an attitude, a gesture but does not provide a final explanation. It is up to the reader to reconstruct the pieces of the puzzle into a coherent whole.
The author's technique is close to the Joycean "signature" when the character is broken down into its separate parts, and one or two of the parts are made to stand for the whole. Thus, Gatsby's presence for example is signalled by his indescribable smile (54, III) or by his colourful suits, his hollow-eyed stare or Wolfshiem's by his hairy nostrils. This is a stylized method of presentation, a virtual iconography of character whereby the soul of a being is shown forth through one exterior element.
This study will fall into parts: in the first one, we will see how characters are gradually characterized by the readers from a few signs and in the second one, we will demonstrate that characters must be understood through their relationships with objects.
A stylized technique of characterization
Instead of the over-detailed description of 19th century novelists, we find in the case of each character a few signs that may be contradictory. It is often a material or a physical detail that points to a moral dimension of the character, as with Hawthorne and Melville.
Daisy’s voice is alluded to several times in the novel. It is because of this voice that Gatsby falls madly in love with Daisy: “I think that the voice held him most - that voice was a deathless song” (end of chapter V, p. 103). Yet, Nick realizes on the first he visits the Carraways that Daisy’s voice lacks sincerity, and that it gives away Daisy’s duplicity: “the instant her voice broke off… I felt the basic insincerity of what she has said” (p.24).
From these two contradictory signs, the magic power of the voice and and the insincerity of that same voice an interpretation is suggested. The meaning is finally made explicit by none other than Gatsby during the night of the accident. The latter, thinking back to his past, recalls his first date with the woman whom he was to love so much ever after. It so happened that Daisy had caught a cold so that her voice was huskier (VIII, 155). At that point in time Gatsby realized that the charm and youth of that voice was very much a matter of wealth. Daisy’s melodious voice was not so much due to genuine passion as to the glamour of money (VIII, 126).
From an opposition between two signs the reader is left to infer meaning. For instance, Wilson the garage-owner is first seen as a passive, ghastly silhouette “a blond, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome” (II, 31), but this lack of presence is contradicted by the end (chapter VII, VIII) when he turns out to be a destructive force bent on taking vengeance on his wife’s killer. Our first impression of the man is therefore not borne out by the story’s denouement.
The term quest immediately calls up the fairy tale motif or the German Märchen (Tieck; Grimm). The quest has been studied by Propp in Morphology of the Folktale.
In a tale, the hero attempts to escape from his humble origins to claim a higher ascendency or a royal lineage. James Gatz from North Dakota had never really accepted his parents who were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people : "his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all". James Gatz denies his social as well as biological parentage to aspire to a more glittering and glamorous future. He therefore creates an exalted image of himself : he yearns to become a demi-god ("he was a son of God"). So James Gatz's quest consists in proving to the world and possibly to himself that he is mighty and powerful. Now this may only be achieved through personal enrichment.
The quest pattern is also closely bound up with the romantic desire to transcend the limitations of the Self. The aim of such a quest is therefore to assert the primacy of the imagination over reason in a materialistic and philistine world. Fitzgerald often recalled his great admiration for the poet Keats and he went as far as to claim that he intended to "write prose on the same lines as Keats' poetry" (Sheilah Graham, College of One, Harmondsworth, 1969). So even if the novel's action is steeped in the hedonistic, pleasure-seeking America of the Jazz Age, it is nonetheless imbued with Romantic idealism. In a way, The Great Gatsby may be interpreted as a downright rejection of everything that is earthbound, mundane and devoid of spiritual lift.
"Real time" versus timeless ideality
Time is the real enemy in the Romantic World. Keats, whose influence should never be underestimated, is constantly striving to attain a transitory moment of vision which will defeat time, even if he never loses sight of the chronological succession of events altogether.
Gatsby's self-creation and transcendentalism
James Gatz refuses the constraints and limitations of his social milieu. He spurns the historical determinism that results from being born in a rather destitute family. By turning down his tie with his biological father, Jay Gatz lays claim to an existence outside history, that is outside time. His first romantic aspiration is to prove he is not in any way bound by the fetters/shackles of time.
In fact, James Gatz will be who he chooses to be, he will be his self-creation, a byronic Romantic rebel who hates anything that excludes the imagination. The emphasis on the power of the imagination probably owes something to the transcendentalists (Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Henri Thoreau). The latter rejected Calvinism and the materialism of society. Emerson and Thoreau asserted their beliefs in the possibility of spiritual communion with nature. They also insisted on each individual's capacity to fulfil his own potential by relying on the force of his intuition. Transcendentalism praised self-reliance, that is to say a liberation from habits, conformism and traditions in order to create one's true self.