The first time I read The Great Gatsby, I was in high school. That is to say, I remember a deep blue cover with a pair of mysterious eyes. The other salient details have escaped me.
This time around, I’m reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of ill-fated love while following a course on novel-writing. Somehow, the two have become conflated in my mind. I’m thinking about narrators versus protagonists, the perils of a framing device, and poor old Nick Carraway, the narrator but never the star of this novel.
To be sure, Nick gets some nice lines. At his first party hosted by his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, Nick spies a group of impeccably dressed Englishmen
all talking in low, earnest voices to solid and prosperous Americans. I was sure they were selling something: bonds or insurance or automobiles. They were at least agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key.F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (Vintage 2010)
But Nick and his insights into human frailties are not what this novel is about. This is Gatsby’s tale: his money, his obsessions, his desire for Daisy Buchanan.
The Great Gatsby is structured as a story within a story. We begin with Nick, a new arrival in West Egg on the unfashionable side of Long Island’s North Shore. Nick is at loose ends. He’s graduated from Yale and seen some action during the Great War. He decides to try the bond business and, to do that, he moves to New York City.
Except he ends up in Long Island, next door to a mansion owned by Jay Gatsby. Nick reacquaints himself with his cousin Daisy Buchanan who lives across the water in East Egg. And so the stage is set for Nick to reunite the former lovers, Gatsby and Daisy.
In my novel-writing course, we study the three-act structure that many novels and most film and TV follow. In Act I, the “inciting incident” is an invitation to the protagonist into the world of the novel. The Act I climax is when the protagonist decides to take the plunge. For my homework, I ventured this analysis of The Great Gatsby.
The inciting incident is when the narrator, Nick Carraway, allows himself to act as an enabler so that Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan can re-meet after a five year hiatus. The Act I climax is when sparks reignite and Jay and Daisy resume their love affair.
A fellow student disagreed. They saw the inciting incident as the moment Nick moves next door to Gatsby. Our teachers (diplomatically?) concluded that we were both right. Because when you’re telling a story within a story, each story needs an inciting incident and an Act I climax.
Nick is a classic example of an observer-narrator. He gets to tell us the story but it’s not his own. Think of Mr Watson reporting the deeds of his great friend Sherlock Holmes. There is something more than a little clingy in Nick’s interest in his next door neighbor. The first time Gatsby smiles at Nick tells us enough.
[Gatsby’s smile] understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
Because I’m fixated on inciting incidents, I count the pages it takes to reach this moment in The Great Gatsby. Remember that this is a short work, more of a novella than a novel, clocking in on my paperback version at a mere 148 pages. If we’re looking at Nick’s framing story, then the inciting incident is where it should be on page 6. If we’re looking at the main story of Gatsby and Daisy, however, that moment doesn’t occur until page 65.
Perhaps readers in 1925, when The Great Gatsby first appeared, would have been patient enough to wait until midway the novel. I felt impatient for something to catapult these characters into action.
The Great American Novel?
Whoever that high school English teacher was who assigned to me The Great Gatsby, they must have considered the book to be worthy of earnest study. It’s certainly not their fault that my memory of this novel is so hazy. The Great Gatsby is generally considered to be the best of Fitzgerald’s works and one of the contenders for the title of the Great American Novel.
Given my love for the Jazz Age, I should have liked The Great Gatsby more than I did. I suppose I lost interest while I waited for the story to take off. And once it did, it was too late for me to connect with the characters. Nick, Gatsby, and Daisy felt like holograms rather than flesh and blood characters. After all Nick’s hard work narrating this tale of love and money, revenge and betrayal, the story failed to move me. Poor Nick.
28 Apr 2022 | Karen Kao