Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The American Carnival of the Great Gatsby*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The American Carnival of the Great Gatsby*

Article excerpt

I

To argue that F. Scott Fitzgerald's long-held masterpiece The Great Gatsby (1925) produces in the United States of the 1920s a replication of Bakhtinian forms of carnival excess and release is an interesting, and indeed productive, deployment of Bakhtin's carnival thesis in conjunction with the multi-textured nature of Fitzgerald's novel. However, while aspects of carnivalised reality undoubtedly populate the novel, there is more going on in this text than a simple one-to-one relation between Bakhtinian carnival theory and Fitzgerald's text might suggest. The social, political and racial issues specific to 1920s America as revealed in the novel require an interpretative frame more agile and more particularised than Bakhtin's explorations of the sixteenth-century French comedies of Rabelais. Bevilacqua's argument, while tracing interesting points of comparison, overlooks the particular consequences of an American variant of carnival form that is rooted in a culture of politicised vision and display initially propagated in an interlocking set of specifically American conditions: nineteenth-century World's Fair culture; the developing commodity culture of the early twentieth century; and the production of narratives of racial and social control within America's visual, entertainment and education cultures. To read The Great Gatsby solely in terms of European carnival theory evacuates the particular American politics of Fitzgerald's novel, a politics specifically introduced on its opening page: Nick Carraway's apparently throwaway grievance at being "unjustly accused of being a politician" (7) at college should not be forgotten in a novel that raises a series of difficult questions about political machinations, race, and social exclusion. Moreover, The Great Gatsby makes a number of specific as well as implicit references to American variations of carnival form that, while possibly bearing some resemblance to European variants, require specific and careful examination.

While Bevilacqua opens an array of possibilities for comparative reflection on Fitzgerald's novel, her argument can be extended beyond a reading of The Great Gatsby that fits the frame of European carnival as outlined by Bakhtin across his works Rabelais and His World, The Dialogic Imagination and The Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Unlike European carnival events and festivals that can be readily situated within particular cultures in terms of yearly week-long events that may or may not coincide with dates in the Christian calendar, American carnival produces an ongoing definition of U.S. cultures through social and racial categorisation. Sited originally in the display halls of World's Fairs and the sideshow tents of freak shows and travelling carnivals, American carnival is, for the purposes of this article, presented as an interpretative and representative phenomenon: activated at both the conscious and unconscious levels, it facilitates a production of white American social control and of the alterity that it seeks to subdue. A fuller account would show the workings of this particularised and interconnected politics of American seeing, display and spectacle in a range of texts: for example Nathaniel Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" (1832) or Stephen Crane's "The Monster" (1898) from the nineteenth century, or Saul Bellow's The Victim (1947) or Paul Auster's Mr. Vertigo (1994) from the twentieth.

To summarise the salient features of this form of carnival that are relevant to The Great Gatsby, American carnival connotes the capacity of U.S. culture to deploy methods of seeing and representation that operate along the imbricated contours of race, ethnicity and Otherness. The opportunities and potentials outlined by Bakhtin for the overturning of social order, for a temporary equalising of social status, and for 'becoming' (the social, economic, and individual development that he outlines with regard to Rabelaisian carnival) are reformulated in the United States, repackaged in its variants of carnival form, and consequently restricted to the white audience members and viewers in the nation's display arenas and entertainment zones. …

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