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.
In a letter, Fitzgerald declared “ Strange to say, my notion of Gatsby’s vagueness was O.K.”. Indeed, the character of Gatsby is not built through an addition of details, which would be the traditional way but through subtracting hypotheses. Gatsby is never introduced globally and objectively.
First, there are all sorts of rumours that are spread; the protagonist is alleged to be a spy, a murderer, the cousin of Kaiser Whilhem and what not. Little by little however all these conjectures cancel each other out. So, in the end, to get a clear picture of the man it is indispensable to subtract, to eliminate what is more likely to be erroneous.
Then Gatsby’s vagueness is also due to the fact that he is not presented from any fixed perspective, any definitive angle of vision. His portrait, as in a cubist painting, is made up of juxtaposed, fragmented and distorted images; from his father’s deep-seated conviction that Gatsby like the tycoon James J. Hill “‘d of helped build up the country” (IX, 175) to Buchanan’s apparently well-informed remark “I found out what your ‘drug-stores’ were” (VII, 140). Gatsby for this part does nothing to clear up the riddle when he pours himself out to Nick it is to make up a story, to spin a yarn: “My family all died and i came into a good deal of money” (IV, 71).
A series of distorting mirrors
In The Great Gatsby, the main characters Daisy and Gatsby must be understood through a series of comparisons and contrasts with the less important protagonists: Nick, Jordan; Myrtle, Wilson and Catherine. Those secondary characters serve as mirror images, parodic doubles or distorted reflections of the central couple of the story.
These mirror effects concern the confrontation between couples; the correspondences and differences between the couple formed by Gatsby/Daisy and the couples formed by Nick/Jordan or Wilson/Myrtle. These mirror effects or specular reflections also bear on characters taken separately; Nick contrasted to Jay; Jordan to Daisy, and Catherine to Jordan. So there is a series of mirror effects that reverberate various facets of the two main protagonists.
The flirtation affair between Nick and Jordan is a low-key, toned down version of the passionate story between Gatsby and Daisy. The Jordan/Nick couple forms when they meet the two principal protagonists and they go their own separate way when the affair between Gatsby and Daisy is brought to an abrupt end. Yet, Nick is not a passionate lover and unlike Gatsby in Daisy’s case, he soon sees through Jordan’s failings: the fact that she is a cheat (like Daisy) and a reckless driver (also like Daisy who runs over Myrtle). Unlike Gatsby, Nick is not blindfolded: “Unlike Gatsby and Tom I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the cornices and blinding signs” (end of chapter V).
The Wilson-Myrtle couple is like a grotesque caricature of Gatsby/Daisy. Their union too is founded upon an illusion, even if it is a debased, cheapened sort of illusion as compared to Gatsby’s illusion. Myrtle fell for Wilson because she thought that with his pale blue eyes and fair hair he was a romantic figure and a refined gentleman: “I married him because I thought he was a gentleman. I thought he knew something about breeding” (II, 41). In the same way as Gatsby seduced Daisy when he wore an officer’s uniform, Wilson made an impression on his future bride by borrowing a suit on his wedding day (II).
The secondary characters, taken individually, also reflect the two main protagonists – Gatsby and Daisy.
Nick, like Gatsby, is attracted to wealth and glamour. He hopes he will contrive to make a fortune by coming East. He has got himself a job, in Wall Street, of all places! He enjoys staying in West Egg in the “consoling proximity of millionaires” (p.11). Jordan, for her part, is like a rough sketch, a draft of the heroine, she is like a black and white copy or replica of a coloured and colourful Daisy. The two women are shown wearing a white dress at the beginning. They have both roughly the same qualities and the same defects, both women are deceitful. Jordan in fact is the model of what Daisy might have become in life had she not been born in a moneyed family.
Catherine, “a slender, worldy girl of about thirty” (II, 36), is a tentative attempt to create the character of Jordan. She is a pale, approximate imitation of Jordan who is herself a stylized version of Daisy. Indeed, like Jordan, Catherine is insincere but in an exaggerated sort of way, she tells blatant lies (whoppers).
First, she lies on the subject of Daisy, and Nick is not fooled: “she’s a Catholic, and they don’t believe in divorce”. “Daisy was not a Catholic, and I was a little shocked and the elaborateness of the lie” (II, 40). She also gives to understand that she is a teetotaller: “the bottle of whisky – a second one – was now in constant demand by all present excepting Catherine, who ‘felt just as good with nothing at all'” (41) when in fact at the end, after the accident, it turns out that she is too drunk to grasp the tragedy that has befallen her sister: “she must have broken her rule against drinking that night, for when she arrived she was stupid with liquor and unable to understand that the ambulance had already gone to Flushing” (VIII, 162).
Characters and things
In an oblique way, in The Great Gatsby, characters can be defined through the things they own or use: clothes, automobiles, houses and gardens. Sometimes a character is made up of the addition of all that he possesses. What would be Gatsby for instance without his luxurious palace, his sparkling yellow Rolls Royce and his smart, costly suits?
Symbolically, at the moment of his death, Gatsby is nearly naked as if the essence of his character resided somehow in his plentiful belongings.
Cities and dwellings
In Gatsby’s memories, Daisy cannot be separated from the splendour of his parents house in Louisville and by extension from the city of Louisville itself which takes on a mystical dimension (chapter VIII, 158-9). New York too is invested with a symbolic function. It is a city of milk and honey made of “white heaps and sugar lumps” (IV, 74) and Myrtle’s flat is “a slice in a long white cake” (II, 34).
Gatsby’s mansion is the tangible mark of his personality, it is like a signature. The top of the white entrance steps is a highly significant location. Gatsby’s own story is framed in between two episodes which involved the white steps: Gatsby’s bidding good night to his guests after the first party in chapter III and the obscene word that has been scrawled on the white steps (187) heralding, as it were, the hero’s collapse and the disintegration of his house. A few significant scenes actually take place on these white marble steps. On leaving the party, Daisy casts a glance at the lighted top of the steps (116) and wonders what would happen if an unbelievable guest stole Gatsby’s heart (VI, 115-6).
Gatsby’s colossal dream is invariably associated to the pictorial representation of the host waving his guests good bye from the top of his marble steps. It soon becomes obvious that Gatsby’s house is a ghost, an attempt to recreate another house, Daisy Fay’s beautiful Louisville house with its “hint of corridors” (VIII, 154). Gatsby’s house is the physical, material translation of Jay Gatz’s wildest dreams. When, after the party attended by Daisy and Tom (VI), Gatsby notices Daisy’s disapproval: ” She was appalled by West Egg” (114), his dream is shattered. It dawns on Gatsby that his endeavour to reconstruct the past has been a grotesque error. From then on, his palace of gold slowly falls apart, it is no longer lighted on Saturday nights, all its staff is replaced by Wolfshiem’s accomplices and henchmen (120). The former glittering mansion becomes empty and desolate: “So the whole caravansary had fallen in like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes” (VII, 120).
Now whereas Gatsby’s house reflects its owner’s desire to repeat the past, the Buchanans’ house conveys an atmosphere of deceit and duplicity which also reveals something about its occupants. Inside it, there are phone calls and characters eavesdropping on private conversations. The sitting-room with its enormous couch is like a theatre stage where Daisy and Jordan perform their act. The last scene, in the aftermath of the accident, when Daisy and Tom are shown in their kitchen, where the blinds have been pulled down, suggests that the house is also their protective haven when things go badly. The house is thus the secret hide-out where they can retreat safely and shelter from the rest of the world whenever they risk being compromised.
Automobiles also describe characters. They are like smaller dwellings on the move. Of Gatsby’s Rolls Royce, Nick says that it was a “sort of leather conservatory” (IV, 70). Cars express their owners’ aspirations or, on the opposite, underscore their failure. Even before seeing Wilson, “the dust-covered wreck of a Ford… in a dim corner” (30-1) is already a description of the garage-owner. The choice which Myrtle makes of a taxi-cab at the exit of Pen Station reveals a trait of her character, namely her wish to show off, to look the picture of a swell, well-heeled missus once she has left her husband’s derelict garage: “she selected a new one, lavender-colored with gray upholstery” (II, 33). Nick’s old Dodge, Tom’s blue coupé and Gatsby’s yellow Rolls Royce – which for Tom is a “circus wagon” and which, later, journalists call the “Death car” – are all without exception like extensions of their possessors. Gatsby’s car encapsulates the colossal vitality of his illusion, it is literally the Sun-King’s automobile: “It was the rich cream-color, bright with nickel… that mirrored a dozen suns” (IV, 70).
The last few lines of Fitzgerald’s novel evoke the first vision of the new continent which the Dutch sailors had, as their ship neared the coastline. So Gatsby’s wonder as he stared at the green light at the end of Daisy’s pier is set against a legendary, mythic past. In fact, it should never be forgotten that Gatsby is not just one single character but also, to a certain extent, a symbol of the collective American experience. He illustrates the visionary power underlying the American dream and through his own personal limitations the difficulties of turning the dream into a tangible reality. Through Gatsby, the notion of character is hardly distinguishable from that of archetype.