The Great Gatsby: an American novel photo

The Great Gatsby: an American novel

A refracted vision of America

The Great Gatsby is like a mirror of the America of the 1920’s. America in the Great Gatsby is a fundamental notion and the novel cannot be studied without the historical context of the time.

The novel reflects the Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties and the opposition between East and West.

The Great Gatsby emphasizes the strange association between materialism and spiritualism, which is crucial to the Puritan ethic. Gatsby is seeking wealth because he is pursuing an idealistic vision.

A corrupted vision

The Crack Up (1937) is a collection of short stories by F.S. Fitzgerald where he tried to catch the mood prevailing in the 1920’s.

The mood was characterised by hedonism, the search for pleasure: “America was going on the greatest gaudiest spree in history”. Spending money in order to be part of the show means society is more based on appearance than substance.

The time of the action is the summer of 1922. America, after World War 1, has become the most prosperous and thriving nation in the world. It is the period of the Golden Boom (America has sold weapons and has become rich) and widespread corruption is at its apogee.

Bribery was a frequent practise. It has been shown by historians that after the Civil War, corruption was nothing compared to the Roaring Twenties. Even if 1850’s carpetbaggers took advantage of the situation of that time, it was far less important than in the 1920’s.

Corruption also marks the weakening of spiritual and moral values. After the butchery of World War I, disillusion had set in and therefore isolationism was striking rich.

In the 1920’s, political circles were also corrupted. Warren Harding, president from 1921 to 1923, was marked by a series of scandals. In the summer of 1923, the president died in mysterious circumstances.

The 18th Amendment of the Constitution, voted in January 1920, laid down that producing and selling alcohol would be forbidden. The Prohibition, also known as “the noble experiment”, triggered an increase in delinquency.

Al Capone belonged to that context. In people’s collective mind, the image of the bootlegger was worshipped and admired because the bootlegger was the man who dared to resist, to rise against the law.

The historical background

The Great Gatsby is based on a series of events published in the newspapers. F.S. Fitzgerald did not invent all the facts : he shows to shape and create a character who was emblematic of his time.

In The Great Gatsby, apart from Gatsby, we find characters based on real figures such as Meyer Wolfshiem, who is actually Arnold Rothstein, a master of the New York underworld.

In Chapter 4, at the metropole, the guy shot down was based on reality, it actually happened before the novel was written: he was gunned down because he had ratted on Becker, the corrupt NYPD chief.

The results of the 1919 baseball championships were fixed. In the text, Meyer Wolfshiem is responsible for tampering with the results while in reality, it is all Arnold Rothstein.

In chapter 4, we learn that Wolfshiem lives above the laws : “they can’t get him old sport. He’s a smart man”. Arnold Rothstein was nicknamed “the brain”, “the bankroll”, “the Morgan of the Underworld”. A Morgan is a magnate, a nabob, a tycoon in the capitalist 19th century.

Gatsby’s models in real life

One of Fitzgerald models for Gatsby came from a trial that took place in New York: the Fuller-McGee case. Edward M. Fuller, one of the two men, had been a neighbour of Fitzgerald’s in Long Island.

The Fuller-McGee case concerned illegal speculation. They both had been partners in a brokerage firm. Yet, it was soon discovered that they had cheated people. Later on, it was proved that Fuller and McGee were acting for Rothstein, the head of the New York underworld.

We can suspect Fitzgerald is to Fuller what Nick Carraway is to Gatsby.

Gatsby has earned a lot of money very quickly, more or less illicitly. He also polished his manners: “it took me three years”.

Gatsby is said to have had a hand in “the drug business” and in “the oil business” : there is no precision and his business remains quite vague.

The clue to the truth is that Gatsby must have earned a lot of money through shady dealings and illegal transactions. This is spelt out at the end of the book, after Gatsby’s death, when Nick answers the phone call: “Young… in trouble. They picked him up when he handed the bonds over the counter”.

We can therefore conclude that Gatsby has been involved in the trafficking of bonds.

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Introduction to The Great Gatsby by Francis Scott Fitzgerald : from the Lost Prairies to the Realist Jungle photo

Introduction to The Great Gatsby by Francis Scott Fitzgerald: from the Lost Prairies to the Realist Jungle

Both the novel and the American society correspond to the beginning of a modern era. America is a direct consequence of the age of reason (18th century).

Indeed, the first settlers intended to escape the tyrannical power of absolute monarchs.

The novel is also the result of a revolution :

  • social revolution: when the middle-class asserted its cultural autonomy
  • idealogical change that put the single individual at the centre of the world

Yet, there are profound contradictions:

  • America did not offer favourable conditions for the birth of the novel. The notion of class, and love and marriage are central to the novel.
  • the 18th century and 19th century novels are about chasing a husband.
  • the European novel favours a plot with a domestic story and marriage E.g.: Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary.
  • the American novel avoids treating passionate relationships, focuses on male characters, and turns away from Society to Nature. E.g. Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans.

American novels dream of the innocence with the first settlers bu Puritanism and the notion of guilt proved to be fundamental in American literature. This feeling of guilt included the rape of nature and the exploitation of the Natives.

The Lost Prairie

The early 19th century can be described as an American Epic. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales gave America legend and myth.

The two main themes are:

  • the settlement: how pioneers got used to a new life in the American wilderness;
  • the frontier, which can be described as an ideal boundary between two cultures: the “civilized and cultivated” society, and “wild and lawless” tribes. The frontier is also a limit pushed further westward.

Settlers and trappers and the Great Prairies

The central character found in Cooper’s Tales is a trapper surviving by catching small animals: Natti Bumppo. He’s a white man who has lived with the Natives and respects them. He’s suspicious of progress. He’s a typical American hero – a poor lonesome trapper.

The notion of solitude is significant. According to Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la Démocratie en Amérique, democracy is about a world of lonesome men owing their allegiance to no none, men who are neither servants nor bondsmen. Self-reliance is key although man is constantly watched by God’s invisible eye (puritan view and the sense of guilt).

The Frontier is a virgin land, the New Eden, the biblical Promised Land. The utopian territory is soiled and tarnished, corrupted: by invading those new virgin lands, the conquerors brought along their greed for money, their lust for power, and their selfish appetite.

As a consequence, their adventures are bound to damage what they most cherish, respect, and admire.

The land is turned into a battlefield opposing white men against themselves and against Native populations. The dream of purity and innocence turns into a sanguinary and bloody battlefield.

East and West, North and South

The East represents industrialisation, urbanisation, corruption, and sin while the West represents the last rampart against encroaching civilisation, the last space of innocence and purity.

The North is Yankee, modern and industrial while the South is Dixieland, with the colonial south, agricultural and colonial area with the cotton fields There is a clash between conservative (South) and modern/liberal (North).

We can see these oppositions in very famous pairs of characters: Cooper’s Natty and Chingachgook, Melville’s Ishmael and Qeequeg, and Twain’s Huck and Jim.

The Prairie’s posterity

Novels have often recounted a flight or escape towards a mystic and idealised West. In Grapes of Wrath, a bunch of dislocated farmers is making the same journey as their ancestors, their eldorado being California.

In the 1920s-1930s, America had become a modern country and the far west was still very much synonymous with freedom and anarchy. American novelists are like their books, escaping their familiar environment (Huck escapes with a runaway slave for instance).

In the 1920s, American writers left America for Europe, they were the writers of the “Lost Generation”: Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein all came to France to write about America.

In the 1950s, the writers of the “Beat Generation”, such as Jack Kerouac, went to California: San Francisco was then identified as the ideal of freedom.

Yet, the journey is not always physical. It can be symbolic, a retreat from society by getting isolated: Emerson went to Concord, Thoreau went to Walden, at the fringe of society.

The realist jungle

Urban America was depicted in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.

America is going to deal with the metropolis in a simplistic and manichean vision that opposes the Prairie, synonymous with innocence, with the City, a place of evil and corruption.

This innocence was destroyed by immigrants as men broke what has been their dream. The vision of the city reminds us of biblical references: buildings and skyscrapers are reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, their dreams of going beyond and transgressing human limitations.

Romance is the universe of the prairie whereas the novel, with its elements of realism, deals with the shabbiness and ugliness of the city.

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The 18th Century : the Age of Enlightenment photo

The 18th Century : the Age of Enlightenment


The 18th Century can be dubbed “the Age of Enlightenment” as it was marked by French philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau or Diderot (the Encyclopédie was published in 1761).

The Enlightenment is characterized by the belief of natural goodness of man : man is perfectible, it is the idea of progress obtained through the use of reason.

Since man is naturally good, all bad things come from society : if we could fight prejudices and oppressive social institutions, man would be better. It’s a question of education : political and social reforms would bring man happiness. These are the principles of the French Revolution.

The situation is different in the United Kingdom. The revolution has already been made : the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 established a parliamentary monarchy but it was not a democracy since you needed to be rich to go to Parliament.

John Locke, a famous British philosopher, influenced the notion of parliamentary democracy. He was a predecessor of the Enlightenment but his ideas were only applied in America after the War of Independence (1776-1782).

The American Constitution was applied in 1789. In the USA, there is a republican government with a president and a principle of equality in front of the law: “everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. There is a truly optimistic belief in man and happiness, and in progress and reason.

The end of the 18th century saw an evolution : the development of the rational and the irrational. There were general changes in taste in arts in the 1750’s :

  • rococo and its myriad of details
  • primitivism (more simple) and its two sides : neoclassicism and its imitation of Greek and Latin architecture (strict and rational), and the Gothic revival.
reading voltaire s tragedy l orphelin de la chine at madame geoffrin s salon painted in 1812 by gabriel lemonnier 1743 1824 oil on canvas 129 5 x196 162278848 58e6e3323df78c516266d3a6
Reading Voltaire’s tragedy L’Orphelin de la Chine at Madame Geoffrin’s salon, painted in 1812 by Gabriel Lemonnier (1743-1824). DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images


Primitivism is connected to a new vision of nature. Instead of being addicted to laws, nature became a sentimental reference. It helps you meditate, find yourself – it’s a new conception of life.

Nature is not a rational entity any longer but it is sentimentalized. This shift can also be seen in gardening: French gardens were less controlled, more spontaneous than British gardens for example.

Cult of “sensibility”

Feelings were seen as an essential part of human nature, that should be expressed rather than repressed:

  • romanticism is based on the expression of feelings
  • humanitarianism is the sentimental promotion of feelings and asks how feelings affect our minds through compassion for the poor and unhappy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in La Nouvelle Héloïse glorifies passions and feelings, and as such can be considered a pre-romantic writer.
  • the development of a new type of psychology : our sensations influence our minds.

The Rise of the Novel

During the 18th century, the modern novel came into being and became the most important genre in literature.

The novel is characterized by its realism and simplicity :

  • the characters are not noble but middle-class characters
  • it is often presented as autobiographies, letters or journals : it looks ordinary, the language is not difficult, the style is simple – all that make novels very realistic.

Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). Defoe created a new way of thinking. He was Protestant and took side for the Protestant capitalistic values, advocating thrift and perseverance.

Samuel Richardson, who wrote Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), was a pioneer in the sentimental novel and psychological novel.

Henry Fielding, who wrote Joseph Andrew (1742) and Tom Jones (1749), was a specialist in comedy and parody. His books are anti-sentimental.

Lawrence Sterne, author of Tristan Shandy (1759), showed the artificiality of the novel. He questioned the conventions of the genre through the use of digressions, self-referentiality and puns.

Two traumatic events can explain the context of Gothic and Romanticism : the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

Sommaire de la série 19th Century Literary Movements

  1. The 18th Century : the Age of Enlightenment
  2. The Gothic and the Fantastic
  3. The 19th Century : Romanticism in Art and Literature

Utopia saison 2

Voici la seconde saison d’Utopia, diffusée sur Channel 4.

La série nous ramène dans les années 1970, quand Philip Carvel commence à travailler sur Janus avec Milner.

Alors qu’il teste le virus sur son fils réticent, Pietre, il conduit une expérience macabre sur un lapin avec l’espoir de susciter une réaction de la part de son enfant.

Il pense avoir échoué jusqu’à ce que sa femme achète un lapin à Pietre qui le tue juste après. Sa femme le jette dehors et quelques mois plus tard, elle meurt en donnant naissance à Jessica, que Carvel élève seul.

Cinq ans plus tard, sans rien dire à Milner, Carvel ajuste la formule du virus…

Lire la suite

Utopia : résumé de la première saison en 3 minutes photo

Utopia : résumé de la première saison en 3 minutes

Après presque un an et demi, Utopia s’apprête à faire son retour sur Channel 4 pour sa seconde saison.

Thriller énigmatique, Utopia se centre sur un groupe de personnes que rien ne connecte au départ, mais qui vont se rencontrer grâce à leur intérêt pour un étrange graphic novel.

Leur existence va alors être bouleversée quand ils vont se retrouver pris au cœur d’une conspiration et être poursuivis par une mystérieuse organisation.

Vous pouvez trouver la première saison ici :

ou le résumé de la première saison, pour se rafraîchir la mémoire (attention, contient des spoilers de la saison 1, bien évidemment) :

Retour sur nos écrans ce mois-ci.


Utopia saison 1

Je vous invite à regarder la nouvelle série de la chaine Channel 4 – Utopia – scénarisée par Dennis Kelly.

Passionnés par l’étrange roman graphique The Utopia Experiment, un groupe de personnes se retrouve pris au cœur d’une conspiration menée par des personnes sans scrupules qui tuent avec une facilité déconcertante et avec beaucoup d’imagination.

Ils ne savent pas ce qu’on leur veut, mais celui qui trouvera la suite jamais publiée de l’histoire aura toutes les réponses.

Utopia est indéniablement atypique dans son style, que ce soit narrativement parlant ou visuellement, avec une approche cinématographique très poussée et accentuée par une stylisation qui favorise les couleurs vives et les contrastes.

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English Literature


Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Richard III by William Shakespeare

World War One Poetry

Regeneration by Pat Barker

The Short-Story and the Novel photo

The Short Story and the Novel


The Short Story appeared in the 19th century, inherited from tales and narratives. As Edgar Allan Poe stated, 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 are 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 the 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 thought 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 in 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 intensity and purity of emotional effect based on rigorous selection and arrangement of materials and on 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.

Structure and Narration in

The ordering of events in The Great Gatsby


In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald condensed the story’s events. It appears that two important changes were introduced:

1. 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.

2. 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 calls 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 hourglass 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 oncoming 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, burlesque, 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.

Structure and Narration in

Structure and Narration in The Great Gatsby

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, the 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 he was overdrunk: ‘everything that happened had a dim, hazy cast over it…the whisky distorted things.'(chap2, p35) or because he 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, he is and remains a static figure until the very end before being murdered when it finally dawns upon him that the Daisy he worshipped was no more than an illusory creation.

On the opposite, Nick goes through different stages as he 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 he is given access to Gatsby’s past and Gatsby’s love quest; he 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, he 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.