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.