Friday, August 23, 2013

Nick Carraway’s fiction

The discussion of The Great Gatsby begins today in my course on it—an entire course devoted to a 180-page book—and in rereading it, I was struck for the first time by the apparent irrelevance of the opening paragraphs. You’ll remember them. Nick Carraway, who has not yet divulged his name, quotes advice from this father, warning him, in much the same way the Los Angeles Review of Books warns reviewers of first-time authors, not to say anything if he can’t say something nice. Nick reflects:

[My father] didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought—frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of fundamental decencies in parcelled out unequally at birth.What exactly is this passage doing in the novel? On the first page, to boot? What function (if any) does it perform?

Fitzgerald himself, according to Matthew J. Bruccoli’s biography, received eight votes in a poll of Princeton’s class of 1917 for Thinks He Is Biggest Politician (he also received seven votes for Wittiest, and fifteen for Thinks He Is Wittiest).[1] In at least one respect, then, the passage is grounded in autobiography. And perhaps this accounts for the pseudo-intellectual tone of the general observations: “The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person,” “the intimate revelations of young men . . . are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.” These sound like the grand pronouncements of a recent undergraduate, although Carraway (as we learn later) is just about to turn thirty.

Fitzgerald’s social and academic position at Princeton was anxious and unsettled. Unlike Carraway, his family was not “prominent” nor “well-to-do”: his father was a failure in business. He was one of the few Catholics at Princeton—the only Catholic whom Edmund Wilson knew there—and though he did not flunk out, he never took a degree. Because he was never in good academic standing, he was never able to hold office in the Triangle Club, the undergraduate dramatic guild (he coveted the presidency).[2] Fitzgerald must have been exquisitely sensitive to accusations of “being a politician”—a suck up, as we might now say, a brown noser.

What he has done in this early paragraph is to transfigure the social anxiety into the plausible explanation for his narrative—the fiction of the fiction of Gatsby. Few critics have bothered to answer the question that the Amateur Reader recently asked about the novel: “Why is Carraway writing?” How does he account for his 180-page manuscript?

The answer is that Nick Carraway has the “habit” of listening to the “secret griefs of wild, unknown men”—men like Gatsby, for instance. His “inclination” to reserve judgment has repeatedly cast him in the role of onlooker narrator, although perhaps third-party narrator or confessor narrator is more apt in his case. An “intimate revelation” like Gatsby’s is nothing new to him. Why, even the sensation he reports later upon listening to Gatsby’s war stories (“like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines”) is nothing new. Gatsby too offers up revelations that are “plagiaristic” and “marred by suppressions.”

It has generally been recognized that, at least as far as Nick Carraway understands what he is doing, The Great Gatsby is not a novel. “[O]n Gatsby’s side, and alone,” he is “responsible, because no one else was interested.” As far as he knows, he is telling a true story—as true as he can make it. But if he is not writing a novel, then, what is his writing? He is transcribing an intimate revelation as confessed to a “normal person,” an unremarkable person, who is accustomed to reserving judgment even for the unsought monologues of “curious natures” and “veteran bores.” The fiction behind The Great Gatsby, the device that plausibly explains its place in the world, has rarely been remarked upon, because Fitzgerald has been as masterful in concealing it as in devising it.

[1] Matthew J. Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 2nd rev.ed. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), p. 72.

[2] Bruccoli, p. 57.


David Gruber said...

If anything could make me wish I was back in college, it would be the prospect of taking your class on Gatsby! Any chance you'd share your syllabus for it with CB readers?

Paul J. Strassfield said...

I always thought that this passage was meant to give us insight into Nick's personality as the novel's narrator. Nick's what gives the novel its fleshy quality. He's the guy that gets shaken up to tell Gatsby's story. This passage indicates that he's changed, too by what happens in the novel. Nick's not the mirror he thought he was before he got involved with Gatsby. @JayMcInerney described an interesting take in the guardian about the novel, not specifically alluding to this passage, but focusing partly on Nick's role in the novel:

I'm no expert I could be wrong, but from the passage it's a nice way to introduce Nick to the reader that sets up his growing up.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Paul, you're thinking like a novelist - how should a novelist introduce a narrator. That passage was in fact written by a novelist. I grant that.

But it was also written by Nick as an introduction to his non-fiction book about the summer he spent hanging around with a bootlegger whose murder you remember reading about in the newspaper.

As a way to begin that book, the passage is odd, as are a couple of later lines where Nick's writing process is mentioned. Why does Nick write the book this way?

The last time I read the novel I became interested in what it meant that Fitzgerald emphasized Nick's act of writing, so I went through a shelf of books at the college library to see what had been made of it. I was surprised how few people even seemed to have noticed.

Palinurus said...

This is an excellent question, especially for a narrative given by one of the novel's characters, and a rewarding approach, to take what looks like a throwaway line, some introductory throat clearing, and to show how revealing and important it is.

One of the things that emerges upon a reading of the novel, and comparison with the novel's famous ending, is this passage's irony. Turns out Nick is not so non-judgmental; he issues a series of judgments on the novel's characters, culminating in his "you were better than the whole lot of them" verdict rendered over Gatsby's corpse.

Nor is Nick given to the infinite hopefulness suggested by his purported non-judgmental-ness. The novel's last passage highlights his tragic sensibility, his awareness of the "orgiastic" quality of hope: how it is irresistible, enthusiastic, exciting, and even grand, but inevitably disillusioning, disappointing, and hopeless.

It is this tragic sensibility that makes Nick uniquely suited to be both the pimp and poet of the novel's love story. In this regard, as survivor-story teller, the character of Nick links the Great Gatsby to other survivor-story tellers -- Hamlet's Horatio, Moby Dick's Ismael, and that Ur-story-teller survivor, Odysseus; it also contrasts with non-survivor, potential story tellers, like Romeo and Juliet's Mercutio, Julius Caesar's Marc Antony, and Antony and Cleopatra's Enobarbus.

Snortwood said...

i don't have it handy since i gave the book to a friend to read, but you might enjoy the one paragraph review Edward Bunker gives Gatsby in his Mr. Blue: Memoirs of a Renegade. Very telling, the view of a purported gangster from someone who practically grew up in the trade.