Style as Politics in 'The Great Gatsby.'

By Giltrow, Janet; Stouck, David | Studies in the Novel, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Style as Politics in 'The Great Gatsby.'


Giltrow, Janet, Stouck, David, Studies in the Novel


The Great Gatsby is valued for the vividness with which it renders an historical era; perhaps more than by any other American novel written in the 1920s, we are convinced that we hear the voices of people speaking from that decade before the advent of talking motion pictures. As narrator, Nick is the medium by which those voices are heard and, as principal speaker in the text, he serves as a translator of the dreams and social ambitions of the people who surround him. But the dilemma for readers of the novel is how to interpret Nick's voice: is he genuinely critical of Gatsby's romantic imagination and the culture that informed it, or does his suave talk conceal an essentially conservative nature?

Major statements on the novel in the last twenty years identify important elements of cultural criticism in the text. Ross Posnock's Lukacsean reading, grounded in Marx's account of commodity fetishism, views Fitzgerald (and the story's narrator) as primarily a critic rather than an exponent of the American Dream; his assurance of the speaker's critical purpose is such that he can claim "the novel's account of man's relation to society . . . profoundly agrees with Marx's great discovery that it is social rather than individual consciousness that determine's man's existence" (p. 202).(1) Even Judith Fetterley, in her denunciation of the text's misogyny, allows that "certainly there is in the Carraway/Fitzgerald mind an element that is genuinely and meaningfully critical of the Gatsby imagination and that exposes rather than imitates it" (p. 99).(2) Less certain of the text's radical intent is a 'queer' reading by Edward Wasiolek who locates one of the novel's meanings in the conservatism of what he alleges to be Nick's repressed homosexuality. According to Wasiolek, Nick does not act on his intense feelings for Gatsby, but remains a voyeur, and he draws attention to a masturbatory image and rhythm in the last lines of the text ("So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past") to suggest a regressive infantilism at the novel's center.(3) And in a deconstructionist study that negotiates the competing claims of psychoanalysis, feminism, and Marxism, Gregory S. Jay suggests in passing that Nick's identification with Gatsby belongs to that conservative order of social bonding wherein women are viewed as possessions in male power games.(4) But Jay also argues for the radical nature of the text asserting that The Great Gatsby is "a work of cultural criticism that enacts . . . the intellectual analysis of how the social subject can never be conceived, even ab ovo, as the inhabitant of a world outside commodification, exchange, spectacle, and in speculation" (pp. 164-65). Then Jay asks, concerning the moment in the text when Daisy weeps over Gatsby's shirts, does Nick reproduce the scene for us to read critically, or does he endorse Daisy's emotion--her thrill and sense of loss at both the reach and the limits of Gatsby's imagination? In other words, he asks (as if uncertain about the large claims he has made of the text's design), where does Nick stand?

In this essay we shall approach the question of critical intent and execution through an examination of the novel's style.(5) We shall use traditional accounts of English syntax to describe Fitzgerald's at sentence level, but we shall also use techniques from discourse analysis and linguistic pragmatics that will help us invesitage stylistic features that operate beyond the sentence, in the arena of language as socially situated, as utterance addressed and received both within the text and as an exchange between reader and writer. One of the major criticisms of stylistics, voiced strongly by Stanley E. Fish, is that observable formal patterns are in themselves without value, or else that stylistics assigns them value in a wholly arbitrary fashion, without regard to contexts of reception and reader expectation (p. 70).(6) Respectful of such criticisms, we point out that our analysis is inspired by advances in critical linguistics that insist that style is motivated--by context, by differentials of position, by political interest. …

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