And all the time something within her was crying for a decision. She wanted her life shaped now, immediately—and the decision must be made by some force—of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality—that was close at hand.

A pitch-perfect passage of third-person narration in The Great Gatsby, oscillating gently between commentary and observation, between social behaviors and a character’s interiority (just short of free indirect discourse). It touches on the moment, four years before the main events of the novel, when Daisy, in the face of Gatsby’s absence and delayed return from the Great War, decides to marry Tom Buchanan:

For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.


Through this twilight universe Daisy began to move again with the season; suddenly she was again keeping half a dozen dates a day with half a dozen men, and drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed. And all the time something within her was crying for a decision. She wanted her life shaped now, immediately—and the decision must be made by some force—of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality—that was close at hand.


That force took shape in the middle of spring with the arrival of Tom Buchanan. There was a wholesome bulkiness about his person and position, and Daisy was flattered. Doubtless there was a certain struggle and a certain relief. The letter reached Gatsby while he was still at Oxford. (151)

The passage is readily classifiable as third-person “partial omniscience.” So, what makes it remarkable other than its eloquence and tact? Simply that this novel is not a third-person narration at all but first-person. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is Daisy’s cousin—“second cousin once removed” (5)—and while he is presumably told of Daisy’s letter by Gatsby, he witnesses none of the other events, social or psychic, detailed in the passage. If one were not a literary theorist tasked with rethinking the very idea of the third-person narrator this passage would almost certainly be read through without the least sense of disjunction or irregularity. In style, tone, and attitude it is on a par with several moments where Nick’s aesthetic, moral, and psychological inflections of the narrative intensify, usually for no more than a few sentences or a paragraph. The passage does, though, break the epistemic decorum scrupulously maintained on every other page of the novel. Yet it seems wrong to call it a lapse. How then to understand this event within the narrative discourse?

It could be taken as Nick’s suddenly freer exercise of his imaginative powers—or Fitzgerald’s exercise of his, a brief foray to test out the voice of third-person narration. The passage is at once fully consonant with Nick’s voice and yet, as is clear when it is set off by itself, capable of sustained narration unattached to Nick or any other particular entity within the story. The overlap and the difference throw light on the theoretical controversy posed by those who question the validity of attributing third-person narration to a “narrator.” Stylization and individuating inflections imbue the prose of a third-person narration, even a staunchly “impersonal” third-person narration, with a sensibility. The more at once complex and coherent, fluid and formative the sensibility the better. In this instance, the stylization, inflections, and sensibility are derived from, or associated with, the first-person narration attributed to Nick Carraway and firmly established by this late point in the novel. The passage allows a complex and coherent, fluid and formative third-person voice to emerge from Fitzgerald’s creation of Nick’s first-person narration. This overlap underscores that the novelist’s task of creating voice requires much the same elements for first-person and third-person narration. What then of the difference? Prevailing narratological categories could define the difference as that between “homodiegetic” and “heterodiegetic” narrators, Nick being in the story and the ostensible narrator of the third-person passage outside the story. That distinction would overlook the fact that here the difference is at the same time a relation within the text.

The Great Gatsby is by no means “metafiction” as the term has been applied to a number of later 20th-century novels; a reflection on the art of the novel is nevertheless embedded within its own narrative procedures. The passage I have been discussing is the culminating instance, intentional or not, of that self-reflection; it amounts to a transmutation within the narrative discourse itself. The other instances are explicit, but they too loop the énonciation through the énoncé, the discourse through the story, and the writing through the telling to effect a paradox, a paradox which we readily accept. The first chapter opens with a short preamble that identifies the narrative to follow as the book Nick Carraway writes, casting it as recollection, unshakeable fascination, and self-reflection, all of which is tinged with irony and ambivalence: “When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn” (2). Nick’s writing is referred to in one other moment early on: “Reading over what I have written so far, I see I have given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me. On the contrary, they were merely casual events in a crowded summer…” (55).

Nick’s narration is granted the status of writing, as though Fitzgerald’s own endeavor of creating voice is doubled by Nick’s effort to recount events and personages that profoundly affected him. Fitzgerald writes Nick writing. When that relation folds back on itself in the momentary slide from first- to third-person, Nick’s sensibility mutates into the sensibility of impersonal third-person narration.

 How to imbue a third-person narration with sharply etched attitudes, values, and inner turmoil at the same times as acute powers of disinterested observation, empathy, and incisive social commentary—is that is not perhaps the artistic problem Fitzgerald tacitly poses for himself in this hinge passage? 

Looked at the other way around, the passage reveals that Fitzgerald’s path to discovering the full potential of third-person narration was to write a novel in first-person. The artistic problem requires more than a grammatical solution. Fitzgerald’s solution is to create a first-person narrator who is at once fully implicated in the actions and relations of all the other characters’ and at the same time removed from their field of action. The remove has to do with romance and sexuality. Beyond the premise, stated in the preamble, that Nick attracts people’s confidences and is “inclined to reserve all judgment” (1), it is his aversion to, perhaps incapacity or disdain for, romance that sets him apart. Most sharply and distinctly of course from Gatsby, whose fascination lies for Nick in his having “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness” (2). Nick listens to everyone, rides along on their adventures, facilitates their clandestine rendezvous, while his own romantic attachments arise in vagueness and end by evaporation. He comes East to escape “a girl out West” (19) and rumors they are engaged; he has “a short affair with a girl who…worked in the accounting department” until her brother signals disapproval, “so when she went on vacation in July I let it quietly blow away” (56); his affair with Jordan Baker follows— “I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a kind of tender curiosity” (57)—until it ends is an aimless phone call the day after the hit-and-run: “I don’t know which of us hung up with a sharp click, but I know I didn’t care” (155). Nick’s passionless attachments and drift toward disaffection are what make him an apt, complex, and unobtrusive narrator. His sensibility suffuses the novel’s prose but he initiates none of its action. That harbingers the brief transmutation to third-person. He even has “partial omniscience” thanks to circumstances, that is, thanks to Fitzgerald’s artfully woven storyline itself: he’s the only character who knows everyone’s relation to everyone else.

November 2019