The power of the reflective narrator in novels & memoirs
The Great Gatsby is a touchstone book for me, as it is for many writers, so as I tried to rework my memoir’s prologue recently it was my instinct to reread the novel. I saw why—Gatsby is set up as a memoir, with narrator Nick Carraway’s musings in the first two pages functioning as a prologue. Fitzgerald’s famous opening lines set the novel’s elegiac tone in Nick’s voice:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
The advice is to withhold criticism, of course, which Nick says he does—thus explaining how he got the story he’s telling—and then he blithely proceeds to judge everyone throughout the novel. But this clubby voice admits its own snobbery, and draws us in. Moreover, we soon learn that Nick is removed in time and space from the events he’s going to relate. He’s somewhere to the west of the East where the action took place, and he’s speaking as much as a year later. Thus he’s not exactly the character Nick of the story who’s in the midst of the drama and doesn’t yet understand it.
Here is the older, wiser Nick of the novel’s fourth paragraph, the narrator who frames the action:
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.
On the third page we’re informed exactly where Nick is—back in his own “Middle Western city,” and thus in that that safe and distanced place said to be desirable if not necessary for memoir. Obviously it can figure in novels as well (see the opening of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for another great example). The point here is that the writer possesses no mere story, unfolding with plot’s primitive “and then,” but instead offers a tale from someone who has meaning if not wisdom to impart along with exciting events. This is why “persona” is a more precise and useful term than “voice,” I think; the point is whose voice we hear, not what kind might be ginned up.
Perspective is Nick’s promise in Gatsby’s first pages. And we know that the man who tells us that he withholds judgments isn’t in fact the same man in the action who levies judgments. That is, the narrator knows something now that he didn’t then. He knows how Jay Gatsby’s misplaced love ruined him, and knows which supporting players properly to condemn.
Unlike civilians who are just living their lives, narrators have stories to tell—and they have the distance to weigh significance. It is strange how this literary technique of the reflective or distanced narrator does not kill unfolding plots but adds a layer of narrative depth that readers enjoy. I wonder if, like stories themselves, this facet of narrative is in our DNA? Around campfires and hearth fires, the survivor of the hunt or the battle told the tale. So we trust and we crave the authentic witness.
Nick addresses us directly throughout Gatsby, and hammers closed the novel with its famous last page and a half, in which, his trunk packed and his car sold to the grocer, he muses on Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house” and the evil East itself, which has milked dry Long Island’s promise, flattened that “fresh, green breast of the new world.”
Googling “Gatsby as memoir” turned up this SparkNotes analysis:
If Gatsby represents one part of Fitzgerald’s personality, the flashy celebrity who pursued and glorified wealth in order to impress the woman he loved, then Nick represents another part: the quiet, reflective Midwesterner adrift in the lurid East. . . . Nick is also Daisy’s cousin, which enables him to observe and assist the resurgent love affair between Daisy and Gatsby. As a result of his relationship to these two characters, Nick is the perfect choice to narrate the novel, which functions as a personal memoir of his experiences with Gatsby in the summer of 1922.
Alas, like this post or any exposition about Gatsby, SparkNotes’ summaries, chapter by chapter, are dead beside this slender, lambent novel. And Gatsby is still great qua story, intricately crafted and with powerful sustained scenes, its prose piercingly lovely. Fitzgerald knew how to deploy an adjective, and no one places a semicolon—or a dash—better than he. Gatsby’s very paragraphing feels perfect.
There’s yet another movie of Gatsby in the works, with Toby McGuire as Nick; the gifted Leonardo DiCaprio will attempt a believable Gatsby. The problem with the book as a movie seems to reside in Gatsby’s “old sport” line, his awkward attempt to fit into the upper class: it feels too unreal, all the same, even in the novel. That phrase, which epitomizes Gatsby’s pose and his opaqueness as a character, in both the novel’s world and in my reading experience, is the proximate reason movie adaptations have been turkeys.
Fitzgerald died at only forty-four, in Hollywood. He was working on a new novel but considered himself washed up. When he’d published The Great Gatsby, in 1925, he was about the age of Nick Carraway, twenty-nine turning thirty. Sometime afterward he lost his way, and his middle-aged three-part essay “The Crack-Up,” which Esquire used to reprint periodically and still offers on line, is breathtaking in its despair and its sustained cynical rage.
But Gatsby survived Fitzgerald and will again survive Hollywood. It’s a book about the death of youth, but it’s such a young book, surging with feelings. Its sadder-but-wiser narrator, who’s still only thirty, is just mature enough to be a credible commentator on youth’s follies. Fitzgerald was inspired with Gatsby, was in full command of narrative craft, and slaved over its revision.
In this fable from a man ruefully musing upon his last wild summer, somehow Fitzgerald caught forever the firefly glimmer of youth’s optimism and yearnings.