Modernism in The Great Gatsby

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  • 0:02 The Modernist Novel
  • 0:37 Single Vantage Narration
  • 2:26 Questioning Reality
  • 4:11 Doubt & Isolation
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

What makes ''The Great Gatsby'' so great? Among other things, it is a fine example of the Modern novel, dealing expertly with several of the main theoretical pillars of the Modernist movement.

Thoroughly Modern Gatsby

When Nick Carraway states in his early narration of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, 'life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all,' he isn't just making a quotable quip in pre-Twitter America. This opening very specifically frames The Great Gatsby's prominent position within the Modern literary movement. Fitzgerald expertly weaves into this novel many of the main tenets of modernism, including a limited and imperfect narrator, an examination of the way perspective shapes reality, and a loss of the belief in the absolute truth.

Narration From a Single Vantage Point

In the Victorian tradition that preceded the Modernist movement, a narrator was all-knowing, all-seeing, and often pronounced judgment of some kind in a story. Modernism makes a clear break from this, as is exemplified in The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway, as mentioned, speaks of viewing life through 'a single window.' This points out very clearly to the reader that the story presented in these pages is just one view from one person. The 'single window' we are about to look through is Nick's mind.

Fitzgerald is careful to present Nick as ordinary and flawed to further dispel the Victorian tendency to bestow omniscience upon a narrator, whose presentation begins within the very first few paragraphs of the story. Nick boldly states of himself, 'I'm inclined to reserve all judgments.' Moments later, he proceeds to deliver a detailed judgment of Jay Gatsby, including the observation 'there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.' Not long after that, Nick goes on to use words such as 'arrogant,' 'supercilious,' and 'cruel' to describe his cousin's husband Tom, thus clearly passing and expressing judgment. If Nick is going to tell us something about himself and then proceed to do just what he said he wouldn't, it stands to reason that we are meant to receive the things he tells us with a proverbial grain of salt, always remembering we are looking through only one window.

Throughout the novel, we see things only as Nick sees them, hear only as Nick hears, and we understand things only in the way Nick understands them. Making use of an imperfect and limited narrator helps Fitzgerald to express another foundational idea of modernism: that reality and truth are relative and dependent upon perception.

Questioning Reality

As we move through The Great Gatsby, it becomes difficult to disentangle perception from reality, which is another major tenet of modernism. Fitzgerald provides us with a brief and amusing example of perception versus reality when Daisy, upon seeing Nick, declares him 'an absolute rose,' to which Nick promptly takes exception, asserting to his reader 'this was untrue. I am not even faintly like a rose.' Daisy perceives and asserts her reality, which exists in opposition to Nick's reality. Nick's likeness, or lack thereof, to a rose is largely inconsequential, but this small amusing episode helps to highlight how difficult it is to ever know what truly is instead of just how something might seem.

Jay Gatsby functions as a more substantial expression of this idea. He is first introduced to readers as the amazing Gatsby, thrower of extravagant parties, and proprietor of substantial fortunes and illustrious careers. As the story moves on, we learn that his money most likely came from questionable sources, which may or may not have included helping to throw the World Series of 1919. Eventually, we learn that this larger-than-life persona, this Gatsby to whose parties everyone comes but whom no one has ever actually met, is really just Jimmy Gatz, who grew up in poverty, had no family backing, and never actually achieved a formal education. Jay Gatsby was a meticulously crafted facade, pieced together by the carefully guided impressions of others. This serves to express the modern idea that truth and reality are so shrouded by perception and interpretation that what truly is can never be clearly reached.

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