by R.W. Lid
Critics of The Great Gatsby frequently, and quite understandably, focus their attention on the magnificent overt symbolism of the novel, particularly Dr. Eckleburg and the ashheaps his brooding presence dominates. So powerful are these symbols, and certain others in Gatsby, that it is sometimes assumed that the meaning of the novel resides in them. Readings of the novel through the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg overlook a simple truth about fiction, which is that narrative pattern is the total mode of symbol. The major meaning of a work of fiction is by and large carried by the narrative—and this narrative is in turn symbolic of the novel‘s larger meaning. In terms of the structure of Gatsby it is questionable whether symbolically Eckleburg is as important to the novel‘s meaning as the less eye-catching dog-leash which Myrtle Wilson buys for her mongrel pup and which, in a complex way, mirrors her relationship with Tom Buchanan. What our fascination and preoccupation with the oculist‘s sign, with “owl eyes,” the ashheaps,and other such symbols, reflect, I think, is the depth of our immediate response to the powerful moral quality which pervades the book. At the root of Fitzgerald‘s success in Gatsby lies something we can only attribute to the author‘s personal passion. Ultimately, as I hope to show, Fitzgerald used his narrative art to curb and express this passion. In effect he manipulated the processes of his own heart, and in so doing enlarged the dimensions of narrative in twentieth-century fiction…
Fitzgerald‘s narrative sense was in an extraordinarily personal way the direct expression of his moral experience as a man. I use the phrase “narrative sense” for lack of a more precise term. Yet what I mean is not very difficult to see. It resides in the fragmented narrative line of Gatsby and the skill which Fitzgerald, through the agency of his first-person narrator, Nick Carraway, exercised in putting it together. I would like to stop over one isolated instance of Fitzgerald‘s use of Nick Carraway at the beginning of Chapter VI to illustrate the point I wish to make. This is that Fitzgerald‘s swift, breathless, and apparently rather random ordering of his material is actually so tightly controlled that the reader‘s mind is led through each involution of narrative…
The chapter begins in the following manner:
About this time an ambitious young reporter from New York arrived one morning at Gatsby‘s door and asked him if he had anything to say.
“Anything to say about what?” inquired Gatsby politely.
“Why—any statement to give out.”
The reporter, we learn, has come out to West Egg on his day off. Some rumor, some half-understood remark in the office, has sent him energetically in search of a story about Gatsby. “It was a random shot,” Nick remarks, “and yet the reporter‘s instinct was right. Gatsby‘s notoriety … had increased all summer until he fell just short of being news.”
Contemporary legends such as the “underground pipe-line to Canada” attached themselves to him, and there was one persistent story that he didn‘t live in a house at all, but in a boat that looked like a house and was moved secretly up and down the Long Island shore.
“Just why,” Nick goes on, concluding the paragraph with a sudden, and upon first sight seemingly unexpected, revelation. “Just why these inventions were a source of satisfaction to James Gatz of North Dakota isn‘t easy to say.” And the next paragraph abruptly begins: “James Gatz—that was really, orat least legally, his name.” With as little overt preparation as this single page of the novel, the misty grandeurs of the Gatsby legend are suddenly blown away to reveal an unglamorous patronymic and an unromantic birthplace. And then, before we have time to cease wondering over our new insight, the next sentence plunges us backwards in time, to Dan Cody and the incident of the Tuolumne, to events which Nick learns only later, on the final night he spent with Gatsby.
It is true, of course, that we have been expecting some such revelation about Gatsby‘s background for some time. The rumors spread by the guests at his parties, “the bizarre accusations that flavored conversation in his halls,” have been compounded as Fitzgerald‘s tale has progressed. Gatsby‘s own account of himself to Nick in Chapter IV (“I‘ll tell you God‘s truth”) has left Nick half incredulous. The luncheon with Meyer Wolfsheim has added another dimension to the mysteries surrounding the man, and Jordan Baker‘s account of Gatsby‘s relationship with Daisy has also contributed to our growing expectation of some revelation. But we have not expected it to come as starkly or as boldly as it occurs at the beginning of Chapter VI, and certainly not at this moment, in this way. Yet a closer examination of the passage shows that the revelation has been subtly prepared for. more…