First person in The Great Gatsby

If you’ve picked up some corrupted ideas about 1st person narration from bad urban fantasy writing, The Great Gatsby is a good restorative.


Reading The Great Gatsby today, I’ve been struck by how well F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, and in particular how well he writes first person narrative. The Great Gatsby was first published in 1925 but would not seem dated if read alongside Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero published in 1985, a novel it bears many striking similarities to. Unlike style in film or other narrative forms which change year by year, quickly dating older media, prose only dates at the speed that the language around it changes. Fitzgerald and Easton Ellis both read as fresh and remarkable voices not so much because they were unique in their time, as because they handle the techniques they are employing with such mastery that they stand out at any time.

In How Fiction Works critic James Wood says that ‘The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors.’ By which he means narrative points of view. We can tell a story in first person or third person. We can also tell it in second person, but it’s rarely done its simply an unnatural way to tell a story. Wood also points out that while first and third person might seem quite different, they both lead to telling the story. Hence much of what is relevant to first person is also relevant to third.

But because in first person the presence of ‘I’ on the page makes us very aware of the narrator, its becomes all the more important to answer some questions about that narrator. I talk about some of those questions in my workshop on Narrative, but will recap them here for this context. Who is the narrator? Why are they telling this story, and why now? Where and when are they telling the story from? After the action? In the action? I could go on. These are the questions that Fitzgerald answers so intelligently in The Great Gatsby.

Unfortunately in lots of fiction, with a particular culprit being the current crop of urban fantasy writing, these questions remain largely unanswered. We do usually know who the narrator is…a kick ass female heroine on a mission with a thing for wereleopards more often than not. But then things start to get problematic. The author doesn’t tell us, directly or indirectly, why the story is being told, often because they haven’t thought this through themselves. They don’t tell us where or when the story is being told from, again because they don’t know. It’s not essential that we are told any of this directly, but it is essential that the author knows otherwise the narration loses its depth and colour.

So we end up with repetitive, flat narration that does nothing more than lay out a series of events, but completely misses the real beauty of first person narrative, which is the opportunity it gives the writer to show us the character of the narrator. Not just through what they say, but through what they leave unsaid and through what they downright lie about. What is often called the ‘unreliable narrator’ isn’t a occasionally used tool of first person narrative. ALL narrators are unreliable. All of us construct our story around ourselves in the way that best serves our self interests and prejudices. Some narrators are blind to their own selfishness. Some others lie to hide their own actions from themselves. Some have the quality of self awareness. But none are entirely honest.

It’s ultimately the self awareness of the author that is reflected in first person narration. Too often the kick ass heroine narrator seems to sow an author that isn’t aware that the the story is a reflection of their own fantasies. First person is a risky way to write because the ‘I’ on the page is always to some extent the ‘I’ of the author. The trick that Fitzgerald and Easton Ellis pull is to show us the full range of their humanity through the first person voice, both light and dark, and that is why their writing resonates so deeply with us still.

Why the same arguments repeat endlessly online

The internet opens up all forms of discourse to all kinds of people. Just a few decades ago, the dialogues of literary criticism were held between only a small handful of ‘qualified’ experts. Now, for better or worse, tens of thousands of people debate literature online.

When a discourse is conducted within a limited community, it is possible to manufacture a sense of progress. For instance, the Structuralist school of literary criticism is overtaken by the Post-Structuralist. In the unbounded conversational space of the internet there can be no such progress. All arguments exist simultaneously in states of perpetual conflict that can never find any satisfactory resolution. Progress and resolution can only occur on the individual level, as in the progress a learner through a body of knowledge.

Learning theory includes the idea of threshold knowledge and threshold concepts, ‘core concepts that once understood, transform perception of a given subject’. It’s the transformation of perception that creates arguments, because individuals at different stages of learning hold fundamentally different and often irreconcilable perceptions of the same issue. And as any teacher knows, the students who argue hardest in class are often the ones making the greatest leaps in their learning. In the dialectic model argument is a powerful tool for learning (although it relies on a degree of control over the ego that is rarely present in online arguments).

In the Science Fiction community some notable threshold concepts include: the relationship between genre and literature, the value of ‘hard’ vs ‘soft’ science fiction, the overlapping identity of science fiction and fantasy. There are of course many others. Wherever you see an argument being repeated again and again, you are likely to be observing the effect of a threshold concept and leaners in that discipline going through the process of transforming their perception (or failing to have it transformed in many cases).

You may have settled your perception of a threshold issue, in which case it’s tempting to dismiss familiar arguments. But don’t dismiss the people having them. They are just engaged in the learning process, and while they may seem behind you in this area, they may well be ahead in others. Such are things on the internet.