Academic journal article Style

Tuning in to Conversation in the Novel: Gatsby and the Dynamics of Dialogue

Academic journal article Style

Tuning in to Conversation in the Novel: Gatsby and the Dynamics of Dialogue

Article excerpt

I decided to play football, to smoke, to go to college, to do all sorts of irrelevant things that had nothing to do with the real business of life, which, of course, was the proper mixture of description and dialogue in the short story.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Who's Who--and Why"

Some talk has an obvious meaning and nothing more, he said, and some, often unbeknownst to the talker, has at least one other meaning and sometimes several other meanings lurking around inside its obvious meaning. [...] Everything depended, he said, on how talk was interpreted, and not everybody was able to interpret it.

Joseph Mitchell, "Joe Gould's Secret"

To the degree that readers of the novel have listened for the sound of the narrator's voice, they have turned a deaf ear to all those other kinds of talk that makes novels novels. This widespread bias makes a certain kind of historical sense: developed through the close reading of poetry, the methods of formalist criticism have always worked best on texts distinguished by a verbal purity typically associated with the traditional lyric. Yet, by treating novels like poems in order to read them more closely, most formalist criticism has slighted the Novel's distinctively messy, mongrel quality, its capacity to represent what Bakhtin calls "the real business of life" by "employing on the plane of a single work discourses of various types, with all their expressive capacities intact" (200). [1]

The impact of this selective attention becomes clear when one considers how rarely critics choose to explicate an excerpt from a novel that includes characters speaking to one another. Close readings almost always analyze passages of narration, not of dialogue. As David Lodge points out, "When [...] we take what is deemed to be a representative passage (of a novel...], we invariably choose a passage of narrative description that is either authorial, or focalized through a character with whom the implied author is in sympathy" (76). But novels, as Lodge argues, are full of what he said and she said, as well as a range of other discourses that intermingle with the speech of the characters--and a critical method that would do justice to novels should be able to account for the ways in which they are "full of other people's words" (After Bakhtin 200).

In illustrating such an approach, this essay will focus on The Great Gatsby, a novel famous for the lyrical splendor created by its narrator's voice. In the memory of many of its readers, Gatsby exists as a series of magnificent descriptions: a green light glimmering across the bay, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg hovering over a valley of ashes, the colors of silk shirts falling. Few readers remember what Daisy says or the way Myrtle talks. Gats by, then, would seem to be the kind of novel that would lose very little from being treated as "poetic" prose. Yet, to the same degree that we concentrate on the sound of Nick's transcendent narration--"a tuning fork [...] struck upon a star"--we have trouble hearing the almost-as-thrilling inflections of Daisy's banter, the no-nonsense tone of Tom's manner of speaking, and the flatly prosaic note sounded by the smallest of Myrtle's small talk (117).

In his Notebooks, Fitzgerald offers us an invitation to reconsider our critical method, to broaden our sense of how much the novel can hold: "There never was a good biography of a good novelist," he writes. "There couldn't be. He is too many people if he's any good" (1037). [2] By insisting that there could not be a unitary author behind a good novel, Fitzgerald suggests that there could not be a single, stable narrative voice within it. In so doing, Fitzgerald points us toward a kind of reading that could better comprehend the novel's range of voices.

This sense of the "many people" that good novelists are made of seems related to Fitzgerald's fascination with dialogue, the way that characters (and people) speak to each other. …

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