Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Perspective in The Great Gatsby

I just went to a discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" at my local library. This was part of a year of events centered around the book via The Big Read Greater Wilmington. A lot of interesting things were said about the language and symbolism in the book, as well as the culture, and about F. Scott and Zelda Fitgerald's lives, but I'm not going to try to recap all that. I just want to share the point that I wanted to make, but never got to, because we ran 15 minutes past the hour as it was.

I think the viewpoint of the book was a very interesting choice. It's presented as having been written in first person, by Nick, but although he spends a little time talking about himself and what he does, he mostly serves as a third-person narrator about Gatsby and Daisy and all the other people he observes. Why this choice to use him as the narrator is interesting is that the real main character, and indeed the namesake of the book, is Gatsby. Why is this book not written from his perspective?

First of all is the practical reason -- because of the way the book turns out, Gatsby couldn't have written it to its full conclusion. Also, even if he had been able to after the events of the book, I can't see that character sitting down to write a book about himself; he may occasionally burst out of his carefully tended shell and reveal some of his thoughts and feelings to a good listener like Nick, but he isn't a writer, or even a reader -- the books in his library are uncut.

Secondly, Gatsby wouldn't have known everything that was happening around him and that led to the denouement, so a book from his perspective would have been incomplete. That also would have set a very different tone -- pages and pages about his longings for Daisy, but probably glossing over a great deal else.

Thirdly, Nick's viewpoint does add value to the story, beyond just being able to describe the conclusion. Fitzgerald could have avoided the problems of using Gatsby as the narrator by using third-person omniscient perspective, and given that the book is so economical in other ways, he must have considered this less complex possibility. But Nick is a bit more relatable than the other main characters; he's not rich, and although they're all outsiders in a way (West Egg new money), he's fresh to the situation, so he's able to introduce it more easily than one of the characters immersed in it. His perspective also adds context, and at the end, although his father taught him not to judge people, he judges the whole West Egg/Manhattan Jazz Age society, leaving it to move back to his home in the Midwest. Ultimately, Nick's detachment resonated with the detachment of the entire unsettled Lost Generation.

Finally, Fitzgerald may have felt a little too close too Gatsby's character to write about him in first person. He himself fell in love with a golden girl of society, Zelda, and it took several years for him to become financially successful enough to win her.

Note: This is all coming from my perspective as a writer and reader. I haven't studied the book or Fitzgerald, so for all I know, there may be an author interview somewhere where he talked about his narrative choices. I am certain that there are many books and dissertations out there that cover this topic much more competently and thoroughly than this little blog post. I just wanted to throw out the topic for discussion, since I didn't get to at the meeting. Please share your thoughts if you're interested, or if you know more than me!