Before we get started, a bit of backstory: I prepared this analysis as part of an application for a book summary job. Although I didn’t get hired, this sample became far and away my highest viewed piece on Medium.com, so I thought, “Why not post it here as well?” Hope you enjoy, old sports!
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is written in a lavish style, which is befitting a work that focuses on status, money, and the corrupting effects of wealth. Each character’s social position is clearly reflected in their speaking style. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young Minnesota man who has moved to New York to learn the bond business, and it is apparent from the very beginning of the story that while Nick is far from wealthy, he makes up for it in depth of language. Although his dialogue is markedly reserved, the narration he provides the reader is of another character entirely:
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.
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There is a sense in the novel that the wealthier the character, the more anemic their vocabulary. This has nothing to do with the character having a poor education; rather Fitzgerald uses this to show their superficial nature. In Nick’s eyes, even inanimate objects have life and meaning (“the lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun”), but the aristocrats of East Egg speak in short, clipped sentences. Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan, a moneyed East Egg beauty, is described as having “a voice full of money,” but her dialogue is shallow and repetitive:
“I’ll tell you a family secret,” she whispered enthusiastically. “It’s about the butler’s nose. Do you want to hear about the butler’s nose?”
Daisy speaks this way throughout the novel. She always seeks to draw attention to herself, jumps quickly from topic to topic, but rarely ever says anything of substance.
Though he lives in West Egg with the rest of the nouveau riche, Jay Gatsby is another example of this. His dialogue is a carefully crafted mimicry of what he believes the fabulously wealthy speak like — unfailingly polite, but with the unusual habit of calling everyone “old sport.” Unfortunately, this is what gives him away as new money.
“That’s a great expression of yours, isn’t it?” said Tom sharply.
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“All this ‘old sport’ business. Where’d you pick that up?”
This artificial way of speaking is so ingrained in Gatsby that even when he is given the opportunity to confront Tom and release five years of pent up yearning for Daisy, he cannot drop it:
“Not seeing,” said Gatsby. “No, we couldn’t meet. But both of us loved each other all the time, old sport, and you didn’t know.”
In contrast, consider how Fitzgerald uses language to portray those characters who are not affluent yet wish they were. When Tom brings Nick to the city and insists he attend a party at the apartment he keeps for his mistress, Nick meets several of the neighbors. As a new face, Nick is a valuable commodity to these social climbers; he’s a blank slate on which they can impress their forged status, and so they spend the evening putting on airs. However, their manners and vocabulary give them away:
“My dear,” she told her sister in a high, mincing shout, “most of these fellas will cheat you every time. All they think of is money. I had a woman up here to look at my feet, and when she gave me the bill you’d of thought she had my appendicitis out.”
“You’d of” instead of “you would have.” “Appendicitis” instead of “appendix.” Fitzgerald achieves great characterization with these details.
1. (Literary Context) Fitzgerald dedicated The Great Gatsby “once again to Zelda,” and it is well known that his novels were heavily influenced by his personal life. How can the path of Fitzgerald’s relationship with Zelda be traced throughout his four novels?
2. (Social/Historical Context) Towards the end of the novel, it is revealed that Gatsby has amassed his considerable wealth partly from involvement in bootlegging. What effects did the Prohibition have on American society? What were some of the unique influences during this time period that set the stage for The Great Gatsby?
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