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.

@damiengwalter

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.

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2 thoughts on “First person in The Great Gatsby”

  1. First of all, glad to see you are enjoying The Great Gatsby.

    Second, I cannot agree enough with what you’ve written. I recently started reading Nocturnes (a short story collection by Kazuo Ishiguro) and it seems to suffer from the problems you describe. I imagine this is in part because the shorter narrative makes it harder to really flesh out the characters, but after 2 stories I’m finding it difficult to connect or even care about the characters.

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  2. I think second person works well for extreme psychological disturbance. It serves as a shorthand that doesn’t require a lot of tedious exposition introducing the character as disturbed. You just know up front that nobody talks like that unless they’re really dissociative. It also provides the necessary emotional distance for the writer to pull it off without coming across as a narcissist. That said, such applications are limited and it’s usually off-putting to the reader. Hence why it’s not a common POV.

    I agree that POV is both very important and poorly done. It goes far beyond chronology and into why the person even chose the POV in the first place. Random head-hopping is my pet peeve. You’re in one head then you’re in another, flitting around like a hummingbird on speed. You never get the chance to settle into anyone’s perspective and get to know them.

    I’m afraid that even Fitzgerald has inadvertently contributed to this. People look at Nick and think that the technique being used is a way for an adoring, unimportant narrator to describe their Mary Sue Kick-Ass hunter who likes wereleopards without their having to do even the minimal character analysis that first person narration by a protagonist requires. Never underestimate the ability of a bad, immature writer to warp any lessons from a great writer. Give them “Moby Dick” and they’d use it to justify their thousand-page epic/natural history about unicorns.

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