Novel Writing Techniques – On The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is a true Great American novel. What is even more amazing is that F. Scott Fitzgerald did it in little more than a short story. How did he do it? Essentially, he wrote a Great American Story. Fitzgerald was able to create what may be the fundamental story structure of 20th Century America and weave together a number of characters that each express a different take on the problem that the structure exposes.

Let’s begin with the novel’s endpoints, because they tell us the structure. And the structure tells us more about how the story works than anything else. At the start of the book, Nick tells us a story about a person he met when he went east. At the end of the book, Nick says he went back home to the Midwest.

Looking at the story’s frame tells us two key points. First, the true main character is Nick. Fitzgerald uses the third-person storyteller. So the basic structure of the story will track how Gatsby changes Nick’s life. Second, Nick doesn’t go west. He goes east.

To see why this is so important to this novel and indeed all of American storytelling, we have to look at the fundamental movement of American history. That movement: “Go west, young man. Go west.” How did this movement define the American character? In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner wrote an essay entitled, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” one of the most important essays in the history of history.

The Frontier Hypothesis said:

o The frontier was the meeting point between savagery and civilization.
o As the immigrant confronted the crucible of the free, harsh land, the land transformed him from a European into an American.
o As the line of the frontier moved west, the country became gradually less English, more American.
o The most important effect of the frontier was that it promoted democracy. When you live on the frontier, central authority disappears, and even the little man can take control of his own life.

How did the frontier and the move west affect American character?

o The frontier created an American who was selfish and individualistic, valuing personal freedom above all, along with strength, inquisitiveness, a practical, inventive mind, and exuberance.

In short, said Turner, “America has been another name for opportunity.” But Turner ended his essay with a crucial point:

o In 1890, after 400 years, the frontier disappeared, and with it ended the first great period of American history.

Notice that if Turner is right, the close of the frontier means a fundamental shift in the American character, because the frontier is no longer exerting its power. Cut to 1925 and the publication of The Great Gatsby. We are now 35 years after the close of the frontier, and seven years after the Great War, fought among the corrupt European powers we originally fled to form America in the first place. In the America of 1925, the call of destiny is now: go east young man, go east.

In other words, the great American myth is no longer the Western, it’s the “Eastern.” This is precisely Nick’s movement: he starts in the Midwest – solid, nothing fake – and goes east, not to make things, but to sell bonds, to make a lot of money off of money. Nick goes to make it rich in the great American city of business. Gatsby undergoes the same eastern movement: he’s a Midwesterner who goes east and makes his fortune.

Gatsby’s opportunity to change his life, and go after this new American dream, comes with the arrival of a man named Dan Cody. Nick says Cody is ” — the pioneer debauchee, who during one phase of American life, brought back to the eastern seaboard the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon.”

Of course, Cody’s name takes us back to one of the legendary characters of the American West, Buffalo Bill Cody. Ironically, Buffalo Bill was one of the men most responsible for not only closing the west but also turning it into a mythical story and a commercial spectacle for Easterners to enjoy from the comfort of their seats.

One form of the “Eastern” is the gangster story. In the gangster story, instead of becoming a person of substance by confronting the land on the frontier, the immigrant enters the world of the city, of façades, of extreme differences of wealth and power. The gangster hero is corrupted by false goals and false success, by his craving for money and status. The gangster story was codified by three movies in the early ’30s: “Public Enemy,” “Little Caesar,” and “Scarface.” All were heavily influenced by The Great Gatsby. “Scarface” even makes direct steals, like the sign and the scene with the shirts.

Within the Eastern story structure, Fitzgerald places another structure, a simple love story. Gatsby wants Daisy. By placing the love story within the Eastern structure of going after American success in the city, Fitzgerald turns Daisy into the human expression of the American promise which is being corrupted by money and status. And love itself is twisted and destroyed.

Having set up this very clean, tight story structure, a love story set within an Eastern, Fitzgerald makes all of his characters’ variations on this theme. This is one of the techniques that allows Fitzgerald to tell the Great American Story so succinctly.

Nick, the main character, is solid, substantial, and moral. He says, “I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules.” Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine. I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” Fitzgerald contrasts solid Nick with Gatsby: fake, hollow, immoral House Cleaning West Jordan UT and illegal. But Gatsby has one saving grace; he’s going after the ideal of true love.

Nick says of Gatsby, “He smiled understandably. And much more than understandably — [the smile] assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.”

Gatsby tells Nick: “I am the son of wealthy people in the Middle West – all dead now. I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years.”


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