Literary Qualities


Fitzgerald has been justly praised for the narrative structure of The Great Gatsby. As critic Matthew Bruccoli points out, his “narrative control solved the problem of making the mysterious-almost preposterous-Jay Gatsby convincing by letting the truth about him emerge gradually during the course of the novel.” Fitzgerald greatly admired novelist Joseph Conrad’s employment of a partially involved narrator, and everything that occurs in the novel is presented through Nick’s perceptions, thus combining, as Bruccoli puts it, “the effect of a first-person immediacy with authorial perspective.”

Nick’s tempered approach to life and his undeniable honesty lend an authenticity to his observations. In Nick’s narration, Fitzgerald skillfully merges the language of the lyric poet with subjects not traditionally associated with a lyrical sensibility. Gatsby’s car is not just an ostentatious display of wealth, it is a mobile realm; his drawer of unusual shirts is more than a display of buying power, it suggests the generosity of abundance; the Buchanans’ mansion is not just an example of conspicuous consumption, it is a symbol of a limitless power, almost a natural force; Gatsby’s gestures are not just calculated effects, they are manifestations of genuine aristocracy; Daisy’s voice is not just “full of money,” it is an expression of the magic that stirs the senses.

One of Fitzgerald’s greatest strengths is his ability to animate the vision of the American dream even as he reveals the forces that have tainted, if not destroyed, that idyll. Nick’s list of “guests” at one of Gatsby’s parties hints at the ugliness of the “high” society that beckons to and often swallows those who see in its glitter the realization of their dreams and desires. Predatory names such as Leeche, Civet, Ferret, and Blackbuck evoke these people’s voracious bestial habits; the suspect quality of “fishy” people like Whitebait, Hammerhead, Fishguard, and Beluga is suggested by their surnames, as is the murky, swamp-like aspect of Catlip, Duckweed, and Beaver. These people’s lives are based on an extravagant, tasteless display of cash, unmerited status, or power gained through criminal activity. They are people for whom the American dream has lost its meaning, or for whom it never held meaning. They live in a hollow world that reflects the surface dazzle of advanced technology but lacks any connection to the natural world or to a sense of morality. Perhaps most significantly, these people have no culture; nothing to revive their souls and nothing to replace their desperate groping for diversion and stimulation. This is the world where the dream has died.