Great Gatsby How do we perceive a novel? What influences our impressions of certain characters? Many literary critics would agree that choosing the correct point of view is critical in developing the plot and character of any piece of writing. Quite simply, point of view can be described as the role of the narrator in the story; is the person telling the story as a detached observer, or is he or she actually involved in the events? A narrator who is not involved in the plot may be placed into one of two categories, the first being third person, while the second category is known as omniscient narration. Third person narration deals with events in an objective manner, with no comment on motives. This method has been compared to the “fly on the wall” who sees events but cannot comprehend there significance. The second manner of detached narration, omniscient, is able to reveal the thoughts and motivations of characters, whether it be one, or many.
As mentioned before, there is another type of narrator, one who eventually participates in the novel’s events. This is known as narration in the first person. Easily recognized by the use of the word “I”, it involves interpretation of the novel’s events through an active participant, the narrator. This brings a definition of types of point of view, but why does a writer choose a specific viewpoint? An answer may be found by examining the strengths of each option. Narration in third person is useful because it brings objectivity to a novel.
The reader’s impression of characters is not clouded by the narrator’s perception. Unfortunately, the reader is never given direct insight into the thoughts or motivations of any of the characters. This leaves the reader to find his own theme in the novel. If the author desires a stronger direction, omniscient narration overcomes this hurdle by obviously showing intentions and motives. However, this power to manipulate characters often tempts the author to editorialize; many modern critics have argued “that the author should be less in evidence and more willing to let us interpret the story ourselves.” (Burnet, 88) This leaves us with first-person narrative, which is easiest for the author to write, yet as in essay writing, use of the word “I” tends to allow the reader to dismiss the character’s feelings. It allows for total insight into the character, yet this reliance on one individual for information will likely result in a biased view.
Therefore, when one examines point of view, the writer must be aware of what he wants his story to accomplish, and how he would like his character to be perceived. The reader is then responsible for examining the effect of the chosen view and its effect on the novel’s character. Point of view is an element which has evolved only recently, for it is only with the advent oft the modern novel that its use has been examined. It is this base which F. Scott Fitzgerald built upon in his American classic The Great Gatsby.
Fitzgerald uses first-person narrative in an attempt to illustrate the character flaws which many individuals refuse to acknowledge within themselves. The narrator, Nick Carraway, attempts to portray himself as an individual of definite opinion, a calm observer, and a prisoner to the truth. However, the course of the novel eventually proves that Carraway’s portrayal actually conflicts with his actions, eventually causing him to change. Since Nick Carraway is the only character in the novel who seems to undergo a moral change, he is a logical choice for narrator. The presence of irony is predominant throughout The Great Gatsby.
This irony is even present in the title, for it could be argued that Jay Gatsby is less than great. Irony, which is the difference between what is stated or implied and what is actually true is also apparent in Nick Carraway. Quite often Nick will make a statement, only to later contradict himself. Very early in the novel, Nick describes Gatsby by saying “there was something gorgeous about him.” (2) However, he states in the same paragraph that “Gatsby…represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” Nick has similar conflicting feelings towards the Buchanans, for he “is repulsed by the Buchanans droit de seigneur and their moral carelessness, he is attracted by their nobility and their heightened life.” (Lehan, 109) When Tom states that whites are deservedly the dominant race, Nick says that “there was something pathetic in his concentration” (14) Despite this disdainful view, Nick sees that Daisy exudes “a whispered ‘Listen’, a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay and exciting things hovering in the next hour.” (9-10) Nick is mesmerized by this, and says about Tom, almost wishfully, “while we were never intimate I always had the impression that he approved of me.” (7) Why would Fitzgerald choose such an inconsistent character for narrator? Key to remember when analyzing these statements is that they all occur very early in the novel. Soon after, Carraway undergoes a change. Nick begins to form solid opinions about the people around him until finally: “They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn.
“You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. (154) Nick seems to have become sure of his dislike for Gatsby; his “compliment” is only a disguised barb. Nick feels that it is not admirable to be equal to a “rotten bunch.” The emotions of Nick Carraway are particularly important in this passage; Nick’s character would not have been revealed without his thoughts about the comment to Gatsby. These thoughts come from the first-person point of view.
A change also occurs in Nick’s feelings towards the Buchanans: They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” (180-81) It seems that Nick has passed a moral judgment on Gatsby and the Buchanans, completing the transformation from fence-sitter to resolute idealist. Fitzgerald would have had trouble expressing this change in Nick had the story been told from any other point of view. Transformation occurs again in the way that Nick portrays himself as the reserved observer. In his introduction to the novel, Nick states, “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments.” (1) Nick seems to accomplish this, for he relates events without emotion for most of the first part of the novel, Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchannan broke [Myrtle’s] nose with his open hand. Then there were bloody towels upon the floor, and women’s voices scolding, and high over the confusion a long broken wail of pain…Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door.
Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed. (37-38) Nick does not comment on the situation either during the event nor during the telling of it. Instead, he chooses to remove himself by leaving. Once again, however, Nick undergoes a change as the plot progresses. His comment to Gatsby, “I wouldn’t ask too much of her…you can’t repeat the past.” (111) indicates his newly found willingness to supply his opinion. More remarkable however, is the narrative where Nick is once again obviously giving his opinion at the novel’s conclusion, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms father…And one fine morning -” (182) Note the use of “we.” Not only has Nick allowed himself to form opinions on others, he has also learned that he should be included within that scrutiny.
Nick has discovered that the process of forming and acting upon ideals is part of the journey of life. This journey of transformation continues in another of Carraway’s character; it seems that Nick is not quite as honest as he suggests. For instance, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” (60) Yet, when he breaks up with Jordan, she tells him, “You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn’t I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride.
(179) Jordan is expressing her dissatisfaction with Nick because she trusted him, while he encouraged their relationship despite Nick having only physical desire for her. This sparks realization in Nick, who for the first time admits that he is responsible for his actions; he begins to reevaluate his lies to others and his lies to himself. “‘I’m thirty’ [he] said. ‘I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.'” Nick has stopped lying to himself and has learned that his aging has brought on new consequences, for “Youth – with its spirit of adventure and hope of achievement can encourage the vision; but a day comes when one has to be objective and see himself as he is rather than as he could be or would like to be.” (Lehan, 111) Once again, Fitzgerald has given us another change in Nick Carraway which is apparent only because of the chosen point of view. Nick Carraway, like the other main characters of The Great Gatsby, is a immoral, undesirable individual for the first part of the novel. However, he is unlike the others because he is the only one we see change.
Nick sees that there is a “horror in every consuming vision.” (Eble, 95) The following change is a process of acknowledging and amending his character flaws, namely the contradictory, unopinionated and misleading aspects of his nature. Fitzgerald realized that the first person point of view had to be from Nick’s perspective because only then would the reader be able to see the changes in Carraway. As a result, The Great Gatsby serves as an epic story in American literature but also as a pioneering comment on the snobbish ways of American upper class society. Book Reports.