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Responses to Characters in The Great Gatsby

Discusses techniques used to position the reader to react favourably or unfavourably to characters in The Great Gatsby.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterful novel, The Great Gatsby, is a text that is both deeply reflective and uniquely critical of the period of its construction. It was written in the mid-1920s, in America; a time of moral decadence, dominant materialism and an uneasy combination of elation and complacency following the Great War. Fitzgerald sucessfully employed many techniques and conventions of the genre in The Great Gatsby in order to encourage readers to respond to the text in a way that would promote critical evaluation of the meaning behind events, characters and symbols.

Understanding characters is imperative in understanding The Great Gatsby. Our reaction ot the characters is filtered through the narrative perspective and moulded by the use of setting, dialogue, language, imagery and symbolism. It is through the use of these techniques and through intricate charactersiation that Fitzgerald presents us with startingly three-dimensional; yet, at a superficial level, symbolic characters. The reader is invited to join Nick Carraway, the narrator, on a journey of ill fated love and failed dreams, as he or she tries to understand the characters of The Great Gatsby.

The novel is told through the eyes of an active, biased participant. Nick Carraway is both an important character and the narrator, and is used by the author on many different levels to influence our interpretation of the novel. This has consequences on our response to the text because we are told a personal, filtered version of events.

Nick sets out immediately - in the exposition - to secure the trust of the reader. He endeavours to establish moral credibility, insisting that, unlike the other characters, he has a "sense of the fundamental decencies". By implying that he is the ideal person to be telling the story, the narrator persuades the reader to believe that he or she will be hearing an impartial version of events.

Nick, however, betrays the reader's trust. H e makes judgements about events and chooses to respond to characters in different, and often unfair ways. A primary example is his willingness to forgive Gatsby for several serious crimes while criticising other characters for minor offences. Nick overlooks the moral implications of Gatsby's bootlegging and association with the criminal Meyer Wolfsheim and still manages to praise him as a man with "an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness". At the same time, he is contemptuous of Jordan Baker for cheating in a mere golf game!

Will we, like Nick, be willing to forgive Gatsby for these serious crimes?

"They're a rotton crowd. You're worth the whole damn bunch put together."

The truth is that since Nick plays such an important role in the novel and we have little alternative but to accept his version of events, the reader will often inherit Nick's response to characters.

The story's structure also plays a role in positioning the reader. The story is told in retrospect - almost a year after the events of the summer took place. This allows the narrator to look back on the events in the exposition and make public his judgement about Gatsby and the main characters before the story even starts.

Fitzgerald makes use of elements of setting - including time, place and weather conditions - to give events and characters a backdrop that highlights their significance. Places that have moral and ideological associations allow the author to highlight contrasts in the values and ideologies of the characters. An important example is the use of the 'East' and 'Mid-West' of America as poles of moral values. The characters all came from the West - a place of innocence, simplicity and clearly defined morals and values - but were corrupted by the East. In the exposition, Nick remarks that the relative moral 'bliss' that the East offers was a relief to him. Setting is also used to symbolise very specific themes. The valley of Ashes, a dreary suburb of New York, has a meaning that is extended to the moral and spiritual state of the people who live there. They are described as "ash-grey men" and immediately we have a degree of sympathy for the main characters who live there - George and Myrtle Wilson.

The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg on the billboard that overlooks Wilson's garage in the Valley of Ashes represent a decline in American spirituality. THe eyes witness two terrible crimes - Tom's affair with Myrtle and Myrtle's death at the hands of Daisy. These crimes go unpunished, and the criminals are not morally affected by their wrongdoings. Worse, some characters, notably Wilson, relate to the eyes as though they are the eyes of God:

"I took her two the window and I said, 'God knows what you've been doing, everything you've been doing. You may fool me but you can't fool God!"

While relating this event to the police, Wilson stares at the eyes of Eckleburg. In chapter seven, Daisy sees a resemblance between the eyes of the advertisement and the eyes of Jay Gatsby. With dual significance, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are an excellent example of the use of symbolism to alter our judgement about characters who interact with objects in the novel.

The green light situated on the pier in front of the Buchanen residence is visible from Gatsby's house and is another multi-faceted symbol. It represents Gatsby's longing for Dasiy and the extraordinary lengths to which he went to try win back the past. At the end of the novel, Nick remarks:

"It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out farther..."

The meaning of the green light is extended to the longing every person has to accomplish their goal in life. This generalisation makes Gatsby's attempts to bring back the past seem more acceptable and is one of many techniques Fitzgerald uses to encourage readers to react favourably to that character.

While all of these techniques have a profound effect on our perception of the characters, the role of the characters themselves similarly plays an important role in the relationship we develop with them. The comments that the characters make and the ongoing dialogue is the most important element of characterisation in The Great Gatsby. The rivalry between Tom and Gatsby is emphasised Tom's comment, "He's just some big bootlegger". Daisy's melodramatic contemplation is another example - it encapsulates how we respond to her as a character; she is weak, easily influenced and perfectly representative of the historic period and the role of women at the time:

"The best thing a girl can be in this world [is] a beautiful little fool".

Dialogue in The Great Gatsby reveals the relationships between characters and is used to develop their personalities to which readers are encouraged to respond. A special technique assists readers in subconsciously responding to the characters. When a cricism is juxtaposed with a compliment, for example when the girls at the party comment on Gatsby's kindness at replacing a torn dress but proceed to spread rumours connecting him with murder, we will often react favourably towards the victim.

The characters' physical appearance is also used to facilitate our initial response to a character. We dislike Meyer Wolfsheim, for example, because he has tiny eyes, hair growing out of his nostrils and table manners of a "ferocious delicacy".

Fitzgerald made use of the historical period of the time of the text's construction to criticise belief in the American Dream and highlight moral deterioration. Characters are frequently either totally representative of their culture, such as Daisy and Tom; or at odds with it, like Nick. Placing characters on this contextual scale encourages the reader to make judgements about how their position in society influences their actions.

Scott F. Fitzgerald makes use of a broad range of literary techniques and convention of the novel to encourage reader sto respond to the protagonists in certain ways. We leave The Great Gatsby startled with the significance of these characters and can examine the techniques used to build this significance. We learn to appreciate Gatsby, despite his wrongdoings, and understand it was the "foul dust" that "floated in the wake of his dreams" that was his undoing, not any action of his own. An outstanding example of techniques used to catalyse a certain response, The Great Gatsby is filled with a set of startling and significant characters.

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