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.
How human beings presented in Regeneration are different from historical characters ?
Paradoxically, several characters had real historical existence and yet, there is no difference between those who really existed and those invented: it seems that they are on the same level. The major difference lays in characterization, i.e. the ways in which human beings are constructed in characters. In history books, the stress is usually on public life whereas in fictions the stress is on subjectivity.
Regeneration is a faithful evocation of World War One and the view of the war that is given is the juxtaposition of subjective views of characters.
A – Places
Where are the characters presented ?
hospital + patients’ room [Private]
one of the character’s home [Private]
the lovers’ place [Intimate]
several passages showing Rivers in his bathroom (p.44) [Most private life]
B – Temporal aspect
Most of characters have a past:
A pair of characters is introduced only to provide a character with a past : Prior’s parents. We learn about the parents’ education, Prior’s asthma, his psychological state.
Rivers himself has a past: we learn about his relationship with his father, who was a priest and a speech therapist (he helped out stammering children). [p.153-156].
Rivers’s childhood: Rivers stammered himself. It makes him more human, with a certain fragility: he becomes closer to the reader.
C – What characters say
Indirect characterization relies heavily on speech. When they talk about war, we learn more about them than about war. Example: [p.83]. Dialogue between Sassoon and Owen: it deals with war but the way they talk is extremely subjective.
D – Stress on the characters’ feelings
Rivers is a sensitive human being but a military officer too.
Sassoon: kind of anguished [p.63] when he discusses his homosexuality with Rivers. [p.199]: homosexuals are sent to psychiatric places to be "cured".
One character is introduced for the purpose of showing other characters’ feeling : Sarah.
Not only are we introduced to characters’ feelings but also to their unconscious life due to Rivers’s job. Indeed 3 dreams are fully developed.
Anderson’s dream [p.28]: after the dream comes Rivers’s interpretation.
Rivers’s dream [p.45-48]: his own dream and his interpretation
Rivers’s dream [p.235-239].
The reader is given access to the depth of the characters.
E – Characters’ thoughts
Either in indirect style or, quite frequently, in free indirect style (fid). Effect: to reduce the distance between the reader and the characters. The reader is placed within the characters’ mind.
p.172: it goes on with Rivers’s thought: "Silly ?". We learn that Burns is so ill that he cannot read news of the war.
F – There is a hero
Rivers is both the protagonist and the hero. As the main protagonist, he is the center of the novel, everything revolves around him. There are only 3 chapters when Rivers is not here. The novel closes on him.
Other characters are like satellites around him. In the final chapter, they say goodbye to Rivers but they stay in his mind. Rivers is the hero : he is presented as an outstanding person, a terribly hard-worker. What is remarkable is the way he deals with his patients: his capacity for empathy (the ability to feel what others feel). He is a modern psychiatrist.
Yealland is another secondary character who shows how good Rivers is. Both are psychiatrists. Yealland is the anti-hero, the villain without any humanity. He is introduced because he really existed and because he is necessary to show the contrast between Rivers and himself.
Study of the passage p11-12: from "What kind of questions did they ask.." to "with quite a bit of his leg left inside".
This is the first real dialogue between Rivers and Sassoon. Sassoon is presented as shell-shocked. This passage is composed of a dialogue and 12 lines of narrative. Most of the narrative comments describe Sassoon’s behaviour.
I. Dialogue and verisimilitude
Dialogue enhances verisimilitude. Rivers is a psychiatrist and Sassoon is the patient. It is a normal professional situation. The relations are based on dialogue. The psychiatrist has to understand and must invite patients to talk to overcome the previous trauma. "War neurosis" : technical language.
II. Dialogue and drama
Tension, conflictual situation.On the one hand, Rivers is a military psychiatrist whose duty is to heal the soldiers to send them back to the front in France. On the other hand, Sassoon is a poet who has written a protestation against the war.
The conflict is all the more obvious that there is no narrator in this passage. The two characters seem to address the reader directly.
III. Dialogue and character’s development
We learn about the characters when reading the dialogue. The dialogue is also used as stage directions: it has a theatrical function. Stage directions are indications of characters’ personality.
l.2: "Sassoon smiled".
smile is not expected
ironical when he says "Don’t you know ?"
He asks another question instead of answering. Non-answers. l.6: Sassoon describes the Board as "rather amusing" : flippant, arrogant, irony.
Flippancy changes with the psychological evolution of Sassoon.
l.23 : "looked surprised". From that point onwards, Sassoon is not so sure of himself. Rivers managed to destabilize him.
l.33 : "Mad Jack" —– "looked taken aback" Even more destabilized.
l.37 : " "Is it ?" Sassoon looked down at his hands". Avoids confrontation, playing hide and seek.
l.40 : "he looked up to see if he should continue". Sassoon recognizes that Rivers is a form of authority.
IV. Dialogue and banishment of the past
The use of dialogue modifies temporality because historical events are suddenly brought out of the past into the present situation.The novel was written in 1991. The passage deals with 1917. A history book uses 3rd person and past tense. Here, past is made present in the dialogue. Sassoon speaks of his own time (immediate time), talks about his Board and some parts of his experience in France a few months before. The period of time is reduced : the novel is situated in the First World War and 1917 becomes the temporal landmark.
Sassoon starts speaking in past tense but l.44 he reverts to sentences without verbs (nominal sentences). No verb means no passing of time, no past.l.46 : present tenses again. The experience is so drastic that when speaking he is reliving the moment. Past becomes present again. That is exactly what Rivers had hoped for.
indirect speech : disappearance of the past.
l.5 : Sassoon reports the question he was asked. For us readers, it is as if we witnessed the scene of the Board: it is shown more than told.
Multiplicity of lines. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is remarkable for the many levels of its text. The play is different from Romeo and Juliet or the Taming of the Shrew (which have one main plot) because of the various levels of plots and characters. There are 4 levels: Theseus and Hippolyta, the young lovers, the mechanicals, and the fairies.
There are connections between:
Theseus & Hippolyta and the young lovers: made by Theseus, member of court.
The young lovers: connection through marriage.
The mechanicals: difference in substance, in social background. Bottom does represent the bottom in many ways, carpenter, weaver, taller…
It is not so much similarity as contrast. It is more from one social circle to the opposite. Shakespeare often involves the lower order of society. The justification is not simply methodological but also social. In the end, the play is a picture of the society (with top and lower orders). There is a gradation in that social order: from the Duke to the normal people. This enable Shakespeare to make philosophical and social comments on the way society works ( harmony, balance, social order). High society does not necessarily embodies perfection.
The introduction of Bottom has a farcical dimension, linked to the Duke and his lover. The connection between the Duke and Bottom exists because the play is put up to pay homage to the Duke and his future wife.
Fairies and friends: break in social circle but also in tone. Fairies take us into the realm of fantasy. There is a balance between couples: the Duke and the future Duchess, Theseus and Hippolyta, Oberon and Titania. The first two couples are to be connected.
Opposition between mortals and immortals. Oberon and Titania argue, they are supposed to be invisible. Theseus and Hippolyta are flesh and blood mortals. Oberon and Titania fall in love at first sight, have exaggerated demands and quarrel like any ordinary couple: they behave like old mortals.
The plot has been compared to a dance in which you exchange partners with 3 positions:
Hermia and Lysander.
Hermia rejected, Lysander and Demetrius fighting for Helena.
return to harmony.
It also follows the musical tone of the play.
II – Plot and structure
A – City of tension which seems to jeopardize the forthcoming activities
Conflict between father and daughter. Impact on the whole society: Elizabethan theory about balance. The rebellion by two individuals also implies a rejection of the norms of he society. The lovers rejecting the laws of Athens have to leave and go to the woods.
Rejection of authority (both the father’s and the Prince’s authority). Consequently, the woods function as a sheltering place.
B – The forest
Opposition between the town and the country: Athens~wood and culture~nature. The woods are a rich symbolic place in literature: they are a going back to nature, a return to something which is simple and unsophisticated. The wood is a place of freedom as opposed to the constraints of the law of society, where one can break the rigidity of concentration of the city life. It is a beneficent place where the spirit of rebirth and rejuvenation is to be found.
It is a place of fun (break of rigidity) but also a dangerous place because it is dark and you can face a lion (Pyramus and Thisbe). Wild animals and wild men. It is a kind of maze, a labyrinth where you are likely to lose your wy and yourself (it is nearly what happened to Titania).
The wood is the symbol of the unconscious (c.f.. E. Young). We are in the realm of fantasy and imagination. It destabilizes but at the same time, it is also the forest that enables the return to contentment and order. It is a kind of necessary passage. The disorder of the forest enables a return of the end:
wood v. Athens
rational v. irrational
night v. day
waking v. dreaming
The play is a parenthesis in everyday life, it is festive. Holiday time: allowed to break the rules (law v. transgression).
C – Return to harmony – recovery – wedding festivities
It is a comedy: all is well that ends well. It would be wrong to say that the end is a return to the beginning: you cannot forget what happened in between : they achieved serenity and acceptance of authority. The final act is often interpreted as a conclusion (postlude) to the whole play (see Act 5, scene1, l.414: Puck’s and Oberon’s comments at the end of the play.
III – A play within the play
The play has an embedded structure, with a flash of genius which contributes to the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Introduction of a ridiculous character, Bottom, whom Titania must fall in love with (Oberon’s plan is to make Titania ridiculous). Pyramus and Thisbe are parallel to the main subject. The play is about going into the woods and face the danger.
The tone of the subplot turns into comedy and verges on farce. These actors are unfit to be actors: this creates a discrepancy between the main plot and the subplot, which is very funny.
The play reminds us of Romeo and Juliet: split, tension, family disunion but the most important justification is probably Shakespeare’s reflection on dramatic art: absence of women, problems of representation (moon..), and liability (the lion is not a real lion: how to persuade the public..). It is a mockery of bad drama: plenty of mispronunciations. Good example of "mock tragedy".
It is easy to consider the subplot as a parody of the main plot. The play is very complex, and parallels the complexity of themes and tones, and so many disconnected elements fit in so nicely in the end: that can account for the success of the play. The beginning and the end are set in the city, the middle is set in the woods.
The Short Story appeared in the 19th century, inherited from tales and narratives. As Edgar Allan Poe stated it, a Short Story must have a “unity of impression, of totality and of single effect”. It could be compared to poetry: consciousness, inner life and the end of the story subjected to many interpretations lead to a sudden illumination from the part of the reader: at a certain point, this latter understands everything.
The Novel is based on a principle of disgression whereas the short-story is based on compression. In the short-story, there is no useless details and everything is important: one single detail can deeply affect a character and have many consequences on the plot. The short-story is short (!) but tends to go thoroughly into characters’ minds. The spiritual and inner quest, as well as the closed spaces are necessary to the achievement of the plot: there is often a scheme of circularity, ie we always go back to the beginning, even if it has changed. The final situation is the sum of the initial situation mixed up with transformations, either affecting the character himself or his surrounding.
The Short-Story and the Novel
Length : A short story is short and a novel is relatively long. The term ” short story ” is normally applied to works of fiction from one thousand to fifteen thousand words. Novels are generally thougt of containing about forty five thousand words or more. The short story is neither a truncated novel nor a part of an unwritten novel. Edgar Allan Poe settled the matter of a short story’s length when he said it should be short enough to be read at one sitting. Poe also said the story should be long enough to produce the desired effect on the reader.
The plot of the short story will often turn on a single incident that takes on great significance for the characters. The art of Poe depends for success on an intensity and purity of emotional effect based on rigorous selection and arrangement of materials and on an intensity and purity of emotional effect. Poe aimed at a sublimation of terror.
Development implies time, and the writer of a short story has little time at his disposal. Therefore, characters seldom develop in the short story. Rather, they are revealed to us.
In Miller’s mind, Death of a Salesman was not an abstract concept but the concrete image of an enormous head that would be on stage, opening up the play, so that spectators would be able to see inside. It was a very ambitious idea and the original title was The Inside of his Head.
In Death of a Salesman, the spectator is plunged into the main character’s head. There is no linear onward progression – it is a play with interruption and the striking characteristic of Death of a Salesman is its uninterrupted dramatic tension. Tragic density can be found from the beginning to the end.
Miller: ‘it is not a mounting line of tense, nor a gradually come of intensifying suspense but a block, a single chord presented as such at the outset, within which all the strains and melodies would already been contained’.
Hence, everything is in place at the beginning and the music takes a great deal of importance for it is used to set the mood. It is time now to make the difference between the different kinds of plots.
The external plot represents the succession of events perceived by Willy Loman (present – objective reality). The internal plot deals with Willy’s stream of consciousness -his memories and obsessions (subjective reality). The music points to the fact we move to the character’s present to his past.
I. The external plot
Death of a Salesman is made up of two acts without any scenes. The requiem is a burial scene. The play is about the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life; it starts in ‘media res’, i.e. in the middle of an action that has already begun.
Act I starts on Monday night and at the end of it, all characters go to bed.
Act II is about Tuesday’s events at 10am. The action is no more limited to the Lomans’ house -the two sons go the restaurant… At 6pm, they go out with two girls. Later, they found Willy sowing seeds. There is an argument, a show down between Biff and Willy. Then, a car is heard roaring in the night. The curtain falls.
The requiem recounts the day of the funeral, which is not precisely set in time. Let us say out of time. It does not conclude convincingly the play. It is rather open.
The play also has a subheading, which is ‘Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem’. We can deduce a tension between the private sphere (son/father – husband/wife) and the requiem for it is public, attended by lots of people. Willy Loman is both a private character, nonetheless with a public dimension. Both public and private, he stands for the average American.
A. Act One: from fantasy to concrete decisions
Act I shows how the initial state of despair caused by Willy’s professional incompetence is replaced by decisions to change things: ‘everything will be allright’. Act I establishes :
Willy’s mental collapse [Exposition: p7-14]
Biff and Happy’s incapacity to face up the real [Complication: p14-21]
Linda’s last-ditch attempt to open her sons’ eyes [Crisis: p41-48] [Resolution: p48-54]
1. Willy’s mental collapse
Miller: ‘the ultimate matter with which the play will close is announced at the outset’. The play is set in motions when Willy comes back home late.
The first symptom we get is the fact Willy shifts between morbidity and optimism -p8: ‘I am tired to the death‘ and later ‘God dammit‘, full of energy. Such abrupt changes a mind point to a character who is cracking up.
Second symptom : Willy has a tendency to contradict himself -p11: ‘Biff is a lazy bum’ and later ‘such a hard worker’. We cannot expect coherence from Willy.
Third symptom : Willy is in a state of mental hyperactivity. His mind is overacting and he cannot see things clearly. His mind has run out of control. He is confused and no longer able to make sense of reality. For instance, he takes the Studebaker for his old Chevvy. The allusion to the need of change glasses may be seen as Willy’s incapacity to bring reality into focus.
2. Biff and Happy’s incapacity to cope with the real
Biff has returned home after a long absence and the night before he has had a quarrel with Willy – ‘did he apology this morning’ (p11). It is proleptic of the end of Act II. There are close links between the events occurring in Act I and Act II. The argument probably occurred shortly after Biff got off the train: it is not represented on stage but only alluded to.
Biff and Happy are not able to face up the reality. They are constantly trying to divert their attention from real facts. The choice of the names indicates their reluctance to face reality.
Happy: a cliché like ‘happy-go-lucky’ (= avoid difficulty). Happy is only interested in leading a carefree life, earning just enough money, working in an office without any decisions to make. Happy represents the city man, the city dweller. He proves his powers as a womanizer and makes a point at seducing his bosses’ wives.
Biff: can be read in reverse (fib = lie). A fibber is a person who tells lies not to face the truth. He is a character who tends to deny reality because it is upsetting and disturbing.
None of them is ready to deal with Willy’s problems. Biff has chosen to escape the family to live on a ranch. He is a drifter, he went to Nebraska, Dakotas, Arizona, Texas (p16). He represents two American stereotypes: the man on the move and the man living close to Nature (escaping modern world and cities). There is a refusal to assume responsibilities.
The point of the play lies in Biff’s attitude for he is always repeating he is not responsible: ‘just don’t lay it all at my feet’ (p45). The other point is the terrible secret shared between Biff and Willy. Biff does not want to come back on it: ‘it’s between me and him. That’s all I have to say‘ (p45).Both shirk their responsibilities. Biff’s role is more important than Happy’s.
3. Linda’s last-ditch attempt to open her sons’ eyes
The crisis from p41 to p48 is momentarily solved p48-54. Linda tells her sons and the audience that a moment of crisis has been reached: ‘a terrible thing is happening to him‘ (p44).
The function of Linda is to establish Willy’s significance as a human being. Willy Loman could be a type (low man) but he is a human being with private emotions and personal feelings. Linda permits a shift of perspective. She contributes to create a realistic dimension: she constantly reminds Willy of practical details of everyday life (unpaid bills, repair jobs or equipment that need to be replaced). She is a warrant of objective reality.
In Death of a Salesman, a lot is seen through Willy’s consciousness. It is tempting to say that most of the play is a representation of Willy’s mind. Yet, Linda’s offers an exterior viewpoint; spectators are invited through Linda to see Willy from the outside.
Linda is a protagonist, an intermediary between the audience and the play. She soothes Willy, on whom she lavishes motherly care and raises the alarm by calling the boys’ attention on their father’s suicide attempts. She has a passive role but she can evaluate the situation and prompts her sons to act.
At the end of Act I, Linda has succeeded in transforming the mood of the play from fantasy and obsession to resolution and determination:
Willy will talk to Howard
Biff is to pay a visit to Bill Oliver to get a new start in life.
B. Act Two: projects dashed by reality
Act II is action-packed. New places are introduced:
Howard Wagner’s office
Frank’s Chop House
The theatrical technique is more sophisticated. A telephone conversation establishes another action and reports Biff’s visit to Bill Oliver. Miller created a higher sense of suspense by using a theatrical prop -the telephone- so that the audience can participate to the reported action. It creates a sense of action: Miller uses alternatively theatrically represented scenes (Linda on the phone) and reported episodes (Biff’s visit to Oliver). The telephone creates dramatic tension. New characters are introduced:
Jenny: Charley’s secretary
Stanley: the waiter
Miss Forsythe and Letta: two broads
1. The staging of physical action
Act two shows the physical display of action. Emotions and feelings are translated into physical movements. This tone of action is set right from the beginning of Act II. Apathy is replaced by movement: ‘I’m gonna do it‘ says Willy (p57).
The point of Act II is to demonstrate that all this energy will prove to be wasted. It brings no tangible results. Willy only manages to get the axe: ‘I think you need a good long rest‘ says Howard (p65). Biff only manages to get into trouble, to get himself in a tight spot by stealing Oliver’s fountain pen. Linda herself cracks up.
2. Failures to communicate
A stock of theatrical devices in the play is used in the play. First, there is exchanges at cross purposes when two characters are talking of two different things (not on the same wavelength). Then dramatic irony, when spectators understand more than the character (the audience knows that Biff was not received by Bill Oliver but Willy does not (p.85)).
A two-level dialogue appears when Willy talks to Linda (present reality) and to Ben (imaginary): the communication is not immediate but hampered because reality and hallucination interfere with one another.
In Act II, a scene is symbolic of the (in)capacity to communicate: the scene in which Willy visits Howard, who is more interested in his recording machine than in talking. The recording machine, which should help communication, creates an obstacle to communication, a barrier between Willy and Howard. It is emblematic of the difficulty to communicate.
3. Lies and delusions
In Act II, lying is an important topic and even becomes a necessity. For instance, Biff cannot tell Willy what happened at Bill Oliver’s. He understands that telling the truth might be lethal and kill his father for Willy has just been sacked, p.84: “there’s a big blaze going all around. I’ve been fired today”. This image is hyperbolic: it is a traumatic experience for Willy. Biff cannot add disaster after disaster. He avoids speaking the truth to protect his father, not letting the cat out of the bag.
Later on, Biff finally says: “so I’m washed up with Oliver”. It is too much for Willy to hear: he is carried back into the past. When Biff says “I kept sending in my name”, what Willy hears is “Biff flunked maths”. This scene of the past is less tragic than the present one. The past is a protective screen that allows Willy not to be confronted with the harshness of life.
4. The final showdown
The showdown has been prepared. When Willy called on Bernard, the latter made an allusion: after going to Boston, Biff has never been the same again. The audience understands that something important took place in Boston.
Some of Miller’s moral principles are explained. Miller believed that writing a play is to make a moral statement. The message could be that sooner or later facts must be faced or there comes a moment when one must assume full responsibilities for the consequences of one’s deeds.
Biff is going to force his father to recognize a few things:
Willy is a coward: he intends to commit suicide with a rubber pipe. But Biff takes it off: “Allright phony! Then let’s lay it on the line.” (p.103)
Biff makes a painful revelation: “I stole a suit in Kansas City and I was in jail.” (p.104). All his father’s ambitions are ruined.
Willy is under the illusion he will make money and rise in society. What Biff pushes Willy to accept is that they are simple ordinary people: they are “a buck an hour”. There is no need to build castles in the air and to lie to oneself.
When Biff and Willy are about to fight, the dramatic tension turns into high emotional pitch because emotion prevails: Biff bursts into tears and holds on to Willy. It is an important stage in the play when Willy becomes aware that his son has never stopped loving him. Willy is reinforced in his determination to pass on a legacy: his life insurance.
C. The Requiem
Is an important passage two. It is characterized by 2 ideas. First, it is subject to several interpretations because of equivocation. Lots of critics were disappointed by the requiem: it does not provide a final ending and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Then, despite the tragedy, it seems that characters have not changed in any significant way.
Happy still repeats the same rubbish: “to come out number one man”. He continues denying reality and even passes moral judgement “he had no right to do that”. Happy is the same as ever.
Biff has not changed his projects (go back West and run a ranch). He seems to have learn no lesson and he is committed to searching through movement and space what he could find in relationships. Going West is a way of escaping reality and the changing world. He praises his father and his manual abilities: what he likes is not the fighting man but the figure of a settler who built his house.
Charley makes a lyrical speech, turning salesmanship into poetry. The survival of the salesman depends on his capacity to convince with his words. The potential buyer must dream. It is a positive image of Willy’s destiny.
Linda has the final word. Here again, ambiguity prevails. Linda truly loves Willy but her love has not permitted her to understand the man. Love is powerless: “I search and I search and I search , and I can’t understand it”. She is too immersed into realism to see there was a spiritual dimension in Willy in climbing the social ladder. Not pure ambition but something highly respectable.
II. The internal plot (stream of consciousness)
If the external plot of Death of a Salesman may be subdivided into chronologically organized sequences: Act one (Monday evening and night) ; Act two (Tuesday), and the requiem a few days after (Willy’s burial), the same is not true of the internal plot: Willy’s stream of consciousness. In “the inside of Willy’s head”, past and present are blurred. Memories constantly impinge on present situations and, conversely, the present is put at some distance by the flood of recollections.
The past/present dichotomy is replaced by a non-past; non-present, in which different temporal layers commingle and coalesce. This non-past/non-present is confined to Willy’s inner mind, to Willy’s subjective world.
A. “A mobile concurrency of past and present”
(Miller: from his introduction to his Collected Plays, p. 26) Miller’s aim in Death of a Salesman is to erase any gap between a remembered past – that would be evoked through words (language) – and a present that would be performed on stage. In Death of a Salesman, both past and present are given theatrical representation. There is no clear cut boundary between them. Thanks to the expressionistic technique of scrim and curtain, the characters may exist in both the present and the past. For example, Biff and Happy are seen as teen-agers and adults successively.
There are no flashbacks in DS. Better than the erroneous term ‘flashback’, the phrase double exposure would be more appropriate. In Willy’s mind, past and present exist on the same level, Willy perceives himself both in the present and in the past – which is made up of various strata. In a way, Willy is schizophrenic: overwork, worry and repressed guilt have caused his mental collapse. In this state of nervous breakdown, past and present are inextricably mingled, time is, as it were, exploded.
In Death of a Salesman, Willy is both the self-remembering I, looking back upon himself, and the remembered I itself, that is to say, the salesman as he used to be. Similarly the same actors play their present and past selves, this is the case not only for Willy’s sons but also for Bernard, who has become a successful lawyer.
The dramatic units, notably time, have been abolished in the most radical sense, indeed the function of memory entails a multiplicity of temporal levels, a series of different locations (Boston ; New York but also the Prairie through Willy’s father), and finally a loss of any fixed identity. In a sense, the exploded house, with its transparent walls, its scrims and curtains is an objective correlative (a concrete, practical, tangible image) for an exploding consciousness, in which spatial and temporal fragments get intertwined.
B. A survey of the episodes of the past
The past is deeply subjective. It is not uniform. It takes many different shapes.
First there are scenes that are fully immersed within the past (the boys simonizing the Chevy ; the episode of the punching ball ; the cellar full of boys ; the contrast between Bernard the anaemic and Biff an Adonis). Here is a survey of the main episodes that are plunged in the past (music; different lighting)
[21-29]: the united family and their neighbours
[30-31] the same family scene is taken up and prolonged – Bernard is used as a choric voice “If he doesn’t buckle down he’ll flunk math” (31)
[36-41] Ben’s first visit: some horseplay between Ben, Biff and Happy (38) “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy” (38)
[66-70] Ben’s second visit. He’s got a proposition for Willy. Willy turns it down. This second visit happens to be on the day of Ebbets Field Tournament.
[91-95] The climactic episode of the past: Biff finds out his father in a Boston hotel with his mistress: Miss Francis: a traumatic episode.
All these episodes are framed within the past.
2. Double exposure
The action unfolds simultaneously in the past and in the present, through Willy’s split consciousness. The effect is achieved through a montage dialogue.
[34-36] The card game scene in stichomythic dialogue. It prepares the shift into the past. As soon as Charley leaves, we enter the past: “through the wall line of the kitchen”.
Stichomythia: form of repartee in drama: the words of the locutor and those of his interlocutor echo each other. One character takes up the words of his opponent, thus creating antithesis or parallel syntactic constructions:
WILLY: Naa, he had seven sons; There’s just one opportunity 1 had with that man…
BEN: I must make a train, William. There are several properties I’m looking at in Alaska.
WILLY: Sure, sure! If I’d gone with him to Alaska that time, everything would’ve been totally different.
CHARLEY: Go on, you’d froze to death up there.
WILLY: What ‘re you talking about?
BEN: Opportunity is tremendous in Alaska…
WILLY: Sure, tremendous.(35)
[86-91] the restaurant scene, and simultaneously, allusions to the day when the Regents results were disclosed – Bernard’s choric voice may be heard and little by little echoes from the Boston hotel become more and more perceptible.
[106-108] Willy is conversing with Ben and, at the same time, answering Linda’s repeated invitations to come to bed.
Spectators do not lose sight of the present context but are made to understand that suddenly Willy has lapsed into a mental vision and therefore cut himself off from his immediate environment.
[64 bottom of the page] in Howard Wagner’s office, Willy stares at the empty seat and addresses Frank, who is of course absent, long dead and gone…
 In his garden, as Willy discusses with Ben’s ghost, spectators realize that the ghost is very much a figment of Willy’s distorted mind. In fact it is Willy talking to himself.
4. Mnemonic mise-en-abime
From mnemonic (memory), hence a memory within a memory.
[29-31] The scene is set in the past, it stages Willy and Linda, when they were younger, from this first recollection emerges another recollection (a memory within a memory). In this second recollection the Woman (Miss Francis) appears, first her voice can be heard. Her laughter permits the shift from one level of the past to another. It seems that the mistress is laughing at the wife’s generous remark:
LINDA: To me you are [slight pause] The handsomest. (First temporal level)
From the darkness is heard the laughter of a woman …(Second temporal level).
The stocking is the metonymic object which brings together the two women in Willy’s life: Linda is darning her stockings while Miss Francis is offered brand new ones by Willy: “And thanks for the stockings. I love a lot of stockings.” (30); So, this memory within a memory contributes to increase Willy’s sense of guilt.
C. Subjective characterization
Willy spends most of his time on stage, in a continuous flow of words. He engages in conversations with characters who, like his sons or Charley, belong to his real, immediate environment. But he also discusses with figures who surge up from the inner world of his consciousness: Miss Francis; his older Brother Ben or Frank Howard.
In this sense Death of a Salesman can be regarded as a “psychomachia”. Willy, like Everyman the mediaeval character, generates other personalities, which are mental creations, and represent fragmented aspects of himself. These imaginary presences are like mirrors or doubles illustrating facets of Willy’s splintered personality.
Psychomachia: from psycho: mind and makhe (Greek): fight, so antagonistic forces that are fighting inside the protagonist’s mind.
1. The ideal types in the fantasy realm
Since everything is supposed to be strained through Willy’s consciousness, the play’s structure also depends upon the characters’ proximity to him.
The most distant the characters are, the most idealized they are. Thus Willy’s father is the absolute’ ego ideal. He is referred to twice in the play: during Ben’s first visitation (38) and briefly when Willy calls on Howard Wagner (63).
Willy’s father is a part-mythic, part allegorical figure that belongs to his very earliest, and vaguest childhood recollections: he is a fantasized image, a romanticized Father figure, or the paradigmatic embodiment of the heroic pioneer.
Ben represents an ideal figure that stands closer to reality. In Willy’s consciousness, Ben bridges the gap between the realm of fancy and the reality level. It is Ben’s qualities of toughness, unscrupulousness and implacability in the pursuit of gain, that Willy wishes for himself and wants his sons to emulate.
Dave Singleman represents success that is potentially within reach. Singleman offers the perfect illustration that being well-liked is the surest and shortest way towards success.
Now Death of a Salesman demonstrates that the high values incarnated by these various ideal figures do not find any close correspondences or parallels in Willy’s actual life. All the characters who surround Willy in the present, fail to live up to the status of those idealized types.
2. Real characters falling short of Willy’s ego ideals
The dramatic structure of Death of a Salesman may be ascribed to the tension between Willy’s fantasizing episodes, that are peopled by mythic figures, and his having to come to terms with real, unexceptional characters.
Biff most closely resembles his grandfather, through his preference for leading the life of a drifter (adventurer) out West. He has a touch of the artist and dreamer in his temperament. Yet he also breaks his father’s absolute ego ideal by turning out to be a loser, a failure : “and every time I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life“ (17)
Happy could correspond to Ben but only in a debased way. He shares his uncle’s unscrupulousness and amorality, but lacks his sense of purpose. So, again, he somehow belittles one of his father’s ideal types. Though his philandering (girl chasing) and nursing of injured pride, he also reminds his father of parts of himself, which he would much rather ignore.
Charley is Dave Singleman brought down to earth. Indeed he has none of the flamboyance and panache of the adventurous salesman. He is salesmanship domesticated. Charley is the perfect embodiment of the no-nonsense businessman. It is all the more humiliating for Willy to depend financially on Charley, as Charley’s example of success is in contradiction with Willy’s romanticized vision of capitalism.
One of the weaknesses of Death of a Salesman could come from the fact that the Requiem violates the subjective approach that Miller adopted in the first two acts. The Requiem is flagrantly outside Willy’s mind. This may be the reason why the consistency of vision that had been achieved through Willy’s consciousness is eventually lost. The irony of the play is that most of the action only goes on within the protagonist’s mind. It is ironical because what is needed is not imaginary action but real one: decisions that might change the course of things. By removing Willy from the play before the end, some of the tension that had been achieved through he “memory play” is lost.
In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald condensed the story’s events. It appears that two important changes were introduced:
Fitzgerald suppressed a long episode of Gatsby’s childhood in order to heighten the sense of mystery surrounding his protagonist’s youth. This fragment was then turned into a short story Absolution that was published in a review Mercury.
The second important change concerned the order of the events and the fact that in the original version it was Gatsby who spoke.
In the final version, all the action unfolds during one summer – from mid June to early September – and the geographical location is confined to New York, Long Island: East Egg and West Egg. The tragic dimension is also increased due to the facts that all the events have occurred before the curtain rises.
I. Scrambled chronology
The story’s events have apparently been scrambled, but it is in fact the sign of artistic order. Besides we get to know Gatsby much in the same way as in real life we become acquainted with a friend, namely progressively by fitting together fragments that are picked up as we read the novel.
First Gatsby appears to Nick as a pictorial vision, an emblematic figure that is almost unreal in the night: “fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion…regarding the silver pepper of the stars” (p27). Then through Nick’s narrative we move forward and backward over Gatsby’s past.
A. The framing narratives
The opening and the closing pages of the novel frame Gatsby’s story: in the first chapter from the beginning down to ‘glittered along the water'(11) and in chapter IX from ‘One of my most vivid memories.'(182) down to the end, what we have is a prologue and an epilogue that embed the events of the summer 1922. In both the epilogue and the prologue, which correspond to the time of writing, Nick is back in the Mid-West and reflects on his past experience.
There is a network of correspondences and sharp contrast between the prologue and the epilogue. At the outset it is Nick Carraway’s ambivalent attitude that is highlighted; he was taught by his old man not to castigate the others: ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'(7) and admittedly he is rather prudent in his comments. Yet at the novel’s closure it is clear that Nick has in the course of the novel learnt from first hand experience. He no longer refrains from censuring those who have disappointed him: ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money…'(186).
By contrast, for all his moments of hesitancy Nick cannot bring himself to indict Gatsby: ‘Only Gatsby…was exempt from my reaction…Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.'(8) Nick who learns intolerance and moral indignation, notwithstanding his father’s early recommendations, cannot run down Gatsby in the same manner as he criticizes Gatsby’s debauched (profligate) guests. Gatsby may well have been a poseur, a racketeer and a megalomaniac but Nick eulogizes him right through to the end because he was also an idealist. Precisely the framing passages explore the riddle, the enigma that is at the heart of Nick’s fascination for Gatsby.
B. Backward and forward movements over Gatsby’s past
The summer of 1922 serves as a thread on to which the beads of Gatsby’s past life have been haphazardly strung together. The extent to which Fitzgerald has muddled up the chronological sequence of Gatsby’s biography is immediately striking.
It is not until the last chapter that we find a direct reference to Gatsby’s boyhood through Mr. Gatz’s testimony: “Jimmy was bound to get ahead. He always had some resolves like this or something…He told me I et like a hog once, and I beat him for it.”(180).
The next episode in Gatsby’s life story is the protagonist’s encounter with Dan Cody which is recounted in chapter VI. Then the love affair between Gatsby and Daisy, which actually took place five years before the action in the novel, is related through three separate narratives: Chapter IV, 80-84; Chapter VI, 117-18 and Chapter VIII p. 154-57 but from various points of view and with various degrees of fullness: thus we get Jordan Baker’s version and Gatsby’s own version, but in each case the characters’ testimonies are reported by Nick.
Next Gatsby’s war experiences and his trip back to Louisville after his discharge are told in chapter VIII, p. 158-9. Finally Gatsby’s entry into his mysterious occupation in the underworld through Wolfshiem’s agency is briefly presented in Chapter IX, pp. 177-9.
II. The dual structure
A. The ‘hour- glass’ novel
Gatsby may be described as an hour-glass novel; it is built on a principle of symmetry. The first part of the novel comprises the first six chapters; in these chapters the characters are introduced as well as their environment. The first six chapters also provide Nick’s surmises and conjectures on the subject of Gatsby’s mysterious personality. Nick’s interpretations succeed one another and cancel each other out in Chinese box structure.
It is not before the end of chapter six that Nick begins to comprehend Gatsby’s secret motivations in life: “He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy”.(117). The end of chapter 6 marks a turning point in so far as Nick fathoms the depth of Gatsby’s passion and also the strength of his absolute dedication to one single purpose.
The last three chapters do not provide any supplementary information. They take up the scenes, situations themes and even images of the first part but lend them new meaning. Each scene is repeated but with contrary implications; each episode is duplicated but in an inverted way. It is as if each scene from the first part were acted out again in the second part, as if the first half of the novel were reflected in the second half that would be like a shattered mirror distorting the initial episodes.
B. A pattern of inverted correspondences
A scene from the first part of the novel can be paired off with a corresponding one from the last three chapters. The scene at the Buchanans in Chapter I (11-26) can be contrasted with its counterpart in chapter VII (121-126). Yet all the main features of the first episode are reversed in the second. Details about the setting to begin with: it is no longer dusk but noon, it is no longer balmy and mild but boiling hot.
The tableaux have common points : two women in white sitting on a couch at the center of the room. But whereas in the first scene the women seem to be floating about weightlessly, in the second one they are dragged downward , pulled down, as it were. The couch itself has become heavy and cumbersome. The allusions to the phone call are also symmetrically arranged but there is a reversal; Tom is no longer called by his mistress but by his mistress’s husband.
Whereas in Chapter one Nick is the innocent one who requires information from the others, Jordan Baker as it turns out : ‘Why – ‘ she said hesitantly. ‘Tom’s got some woman in New York'(21), in chapter VII Nick is the one who provides the information: ‘Its a bona-fide deal. I happen to know about it'(122). This time the deceiver is no longer Tom who doublecrossed Daisy in Chapter I but Daisy who asks Tom to fix a drink to take advantage of his absence to kiss Gatsby.
Finally whereas in Chapter I Nick stares at Gatsby holding out his arms towards the green light on East Egg, in chapter VII it is the house in West Egg which Gatsby points out to Tom: [Gatsby] raised his hand and pointed across the bay. ‘I’m right across from you’ ‘So you are.’ (124)
In both cases the scene at the Buchanans is followed by a trip to New York. In the first example the journey to New York is the next scene to be narrated even if some time has elapsed. (See the time gap between chapter 1 and chapter 2). In the second example the expedition to New York follows immediately on the meeting at the Buchanans, which suggests that in the last three chapters the pace (tempo) of the narrative quickens.
In either case there is an impromptu party; at Myrtle’s flat in the first instance, and at the Plaza, on the South Side of Central Park, in the second one. In both cases Tom and Nick stop at Wilson’s garage and each time Nick is stunned by Dr Eckleburg’s giant empty sockets. Yet whereas during the first journey on the train Tom is cocksure and self-assured in the second one, by car, Tom has become edgy and diffident since ‘His wife and his mistress, until an hour ago secure and inviolate, were slipping precipitately from his control'(131).
The melodramatic element prevails in this second journey to New York as Tom’s jealousy is aroused: ‘I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife.'(136) The wedding party that is taking place below is a reminder of Daisy and Tom’s own wedding which is narrated by Jordan in the very same Plaza Gardens in Chapter IV (82-4).
To sum up whereas the first half of the novel builds up the myth of Gatsby and blows it up to gigantic proportions, the second half of the hour-glass novel (consisting of the last three chapters) is a downward spiral deflating this myth.
With Tom’s mounting jealousy, the car crash and the final shooting tension rises (soars) and the drawn out, protracted descriptive scenes of the parties in the first half of the novel are replaced by an action-packed sequence which eventually touches off the final downfall: loss of illusion together with the ultimate crack up.
III. Confusion and dizziness
Fitzgerald’s novel conveys the giddiness of the twenties, it calls up something of the inebriated, staccato rhythm of the Jazz Age. The technical mastery resides in the seemingly patchy and disjointed structure to picture a universe that is on the brink of collapse, on the edge of the abyss. It is obviously not a matter of pure coincidence that Tom should allude to oncomingFitzgerald’s novel conveys the giddiness of the twenties, it calls up something of the inebriated, staccato rhythm of the Jazz Age.
The technical mastery resides in the seemingly patchy and disjointed structure to picture a universe that is on the brink of collapse, on the edge of the abyss. It is obviously not a matter of pure coincidence that Tom should allude to oncomingdisasters through an earth-sun holocaust: ‘the sun’s getting hotter every year …pretty soon the earth’s going to fall into the sun – or wait a minute – it’s just the opposite the sun’s getting colder every year.'(124) disasters through an earth-sun holocaust: ‘the sun’s getting hotter every year …pretty soon the earth’s going to fall into the sun – or wait a minute – it’s just the opposite the sun’s getting colder every year.'(124)
A. Unfinished business, uncompleted action
Fitzgerald strikes out at the dissipated, loose morals of his age by making confused and fragmentary his fictitious world. When Nick eventually escapes from Myrtle’s party, he finds himself with McKee, the photographer (4344). They are first shown almost plunging down the elevator shaft (44).
Then there is an ellipsis, Nick finds himself at McKee’s bedside. Snatches of disjointed speech are uttered without any explanation, the reader does not grasp what these words may refer to as they are separated by suspension marks: ‘Beauty and the Beast …Loneliness…Old Grocery Horse ….Brook’n Bridge…'(44) Are they tips for horse-racing, senseless words pronounced by an intoxicated chap, this is hard to decide. In a world in the grip of vertigo it is hardly surprising that the narrator should find himself unable to make sense of what he perceives.
Significantly enough a number of characters do not finish their sentences. For instance Gatsby’s finely worded repartees are often interrupted midway: ‘Gatsby began leaving his elegant sentences unfinished. ‘(70) or ‘I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West – all dead now'(71), the lyrical flight is suddenly brought to a halt for no perceptible reason as if the speaker gave up any idea of making an impression on his interlocutor.
Similarly other characters abruptly interrupt their speeches by unexpected lapses into silence. Wolfshiem fills in unspoken words by a wave of his hand: Mr. Wolfshiem swallowed a new sentence he was starting and lapsed into a somnambulatory abstraction'(76) Daisy’s voice breaks off. ‘Sophisticated – God, I’m sophisticated ! The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said'(14) Tom’s gibberish invariably ends up with a dash: The idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and -(20)
B. Disjointed time and hurried movements
Summer heat and a mood of overall confusion combine to create the dominant atmosphere in the novel; Gatsby is clocked on fast time, sometimes the tempo speeds up to such an extent that it induces a sense of vertigo: ‘It was nine o’clock – almost immediately afterward I looked at my watch and found it was ten.'(43)
Characters are simultaneously pulled forward and backward in time. Past and future are mixed as when Daisy asks Gatsby how long ago it is since they last met: ‘Five years next November’.(94) Night and day overlap, on the broiling afternoon of the tragedy a silver curve of moon already hovers in the sky. One season overlaps with another, Daisy always misses the longest day of the year because summer advances before its appointed time.
Characters are often shown on the move; in cars or on trains. The time flux is graphically made present through the road (as in a road movie) ‘I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade.'(142) or by the current, through the sea image: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'(189)
It is invariably this tension between moving on, progressing and regressing, being propelled into the future and being thrown back into the past which informs the narrative. At the very moment when the long awaited dream seems about to be attained (chapter V), everything topples, collapses. Hence all those allusions to wrecked cars, wrecked lives and to broken noses that ironically comment on the broken central dream. Everything in the novel is punned upon, jokingly counterpointed, burlesqued or jazzed up. The novel reverberates the motif of dashed hopes and shattered ambitions through less serious anecdotes.
The paradox of The Great Gatsby is that it creates an apparent impression of chaos and disorder when, in actual fact, it is a tightly knit, carefully worked out narrative.
Through his seemingly random construction, Fitzgerald captures the mood of confusion and of a loss of values that is so typical of the Jazz Age. From many respects, it can be argued as a novel of the modern city and of its erratic movements. The Great Gatsby creates a sense of illusion out of the raw stuff of the materialistic world: costly cars, luxurious interior settings and trendy garments. Yet magnificence and the fragility of magnificence are evoked almost in the same breath.
The Great Gatsby is the third novel of Fitzgerald, published in 1925 after This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922).
It is a turning point in Fitzgerald literary career because it was to improve on his previous works: he tested new techniques and insisted on the novelty of his enterprise: ‘I want to write something new, something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and ‘intricately patterned’ (letter to Perkins, agent at Scribners).
Indeed, Fitzgerald devoted a lot of care and attention to pruning unnecessary passages and tried to introduce editing methods (just like a film-maker) to re-arrange his story in movie sequences.
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, a 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 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 of events
Nick is a self-conscious narrator; he is aware of the difficulties of writing a report that would approach the truth. He uses his critical judgement to form an opinion not only on the events but on himself writing these events. For instance, p62: ‘reading over what I have written so far, I’ve given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me’.
There is a sense in which the The Great Gatsby would concern Nick. Through the events of the summer of 1922 and his writing, Nick has changed. When he is involved in the action, he is a belated adolescent but he is an adult when writing back after two years. Chap7: ‘I was 30. Before me stretched the portent menacing road of a new decade‘ (p142). In a way, he has gained knowledge, passing from innocence to the consciousness of the complexity of the world.
III. Nick Carraway: an unreliable narrator
All the characters are not depicted with the same clarity. Those described with most lucidity are those for whom Nick feels indifferent: Catherine, Myrtle Wilson and Mc Kee.
In contrast, the closer the characters get to Nick and the more blurred they prove to be: Gatsby and Daisy, as if Nick was afraid to jump to conclusions concerning Gatsby. Because Nick participates vicariously in Gatsby’s adventures, he finds it difficult to come to a clear cut picture of the man.
A. Nick’s subjective account
Nick is unreliable: he has a romantic turn of mind pushing him to idealize certain characters. He is bewitched by Daisy’s voice, which he compared to a nightingale. He is in love with Daisy himself but remains aware of her selfishness and is not shocked by her carelessness.
Nick is influenced by his upbringing in the MidWest and stands for certain moral principles: ‘I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known’ (p66). He is a prig, smug and self-righteous MidWesterner. He is spineless (not very brave) and easily influenced. He is lured to the glittering false world of appearances. Nick is like all men looking for glory and high hopes (dream of making lots of money in a short while) provided they find out how it is possible. We cannot expect Nick to be totally objective -he is taken in by all those fake appearances.
B. Nick’s distorted vision
Fitzgerald’s novel emphasizes the difficulties of getting a clear picture of reality and it also underscores the impossibility of adjusting one’s eyes to obtain a faithful reflection of the ‘outside world’. From Dr. Eckleburg’s gigantic spectacles on the advertisement to the Owl-Eyed man’s thick glasses, the eyesight is a recurrent motif, a metonymic allusion to the possibility of getting a distorted representation of reality.
It is often suggested that Nick is unable to get a clear picture of whatever goes on. Myrtle’s party in Chapter 3 offers a good example of the narrator’s distorted vision. There are several instances of misperceptions. First Nick does not see properly an over-enlarged photograph because he is standing too close to it: he sees ‘a hen sitting on a blurred rock’ but then taking a few steps backwards the sight changes into ‘a bonnet, and the countenance of a stout old lady’.
The lesson could not be clearer; namely, it is indispensable for the narrator to bring the ‘outside reality’ into focus. Indeed Nick’s vision is too often distorted either because lie has overdrunk: ‘everything that happened had a dim, hazy cast over it…the whisky distorted things.'(chap2, p35) or because lie is in a dream-like state: half awake, half asleep as if sedated: ‘I think I walked into a deep sleep as I entered my front door’ (90).
Nick is also haunted by nightmarish visions. After the scene of the accident, in chapter nine he tells a fantastic dream reminiscent of a painting by El Greco (p183), which duplicates through its odd, baroque and surreal aspect the scene in chapter 3 at the end of Gatsby’s party when a car loses a wheel. (p61)
C. Nick’s own process of initiation
Even if Gatsby is the novel’s main protagonist, the novel bears witness to the process of initiation undergone by Nick. Gatsby, after all, does not change in the course of the story, lie is and remains a static figure until the very end before being murdered when it finally dawns upon him that the Daisy lie worshipped was no more than an illusory creation.
On the opposite, Nick goes through different stages as the lie tells the story. Nick’s viewpoint evolves and his changing outlook bestows a further dimension on the novel.
First Nick overcomes his moral prejudices and strikes up a personal relationship with Gatsby (chap. 4). He stops being a Middle West prig with too simple a notion of right and wrong. Then lie is given access to Gatsby’s past and Gatsby’s love quest; lie is thus made alive to the power of illusion: ‘the unreality of reality’ (p106) to give life a sense of purpose.
Nick, it should not be forgotten, had up until the novel’s beginning, led an aimless existence, lie was unmotivated by his work as a bondman and used to let himself be carried along by events. In this respect, his encounter with Gatsby proves a decisive step forward.
With Gatsby’s death, Nick is made aware of the barrenness and sterility of the East, of a world that is ‘material without being real’. As Gatsby’s former acquaintances each in their turn finds an excuse for not attending his funeral, Nick realizes that the spree has ended once and for all. The show is over and the actors have made their exits. Nick’s process of initiation ends with his sudden realization that his fascination for a gleaming, dazzling East was unfounded.
After Gatsby’s death there remains nothing in the East but void and emptiness: the only music and laughter that Nick can hear are imaginary, hallucinatory: ‘I spent my Saturday nights in New York because those gleaming, dazzling parties of his were with me so vividly that I could still hear the music and the laughter’ (p187).
The introduction of a first-person narrator who reflects the main protagonist’s personality is the best way to conjure up a sense of mystery that cannot be solved. When all has been said and done the fact is that Gatsby remains elusive, indiscernible and unfathomable. Therefore the character’s myth is never ever broken up.
Nick’s encounter with Gatsby is a decisive step in the narrator’s progress towards adulthood. Writing retrospectively this biographical fragment is for Nick one way of consolidating his adulthood. Ultimately the memory of Gatsby is the only treasured possession that Nick may bring back to his native Middle West.