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Essay: Narrative techniques in Pride & Prejudice/The Great Gatsby: heroism in the protagonists

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  • Narrative techniques in Pride & Prejudice/The Great Gatsby: heroism in the protagonists
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Through analysing the narrative techniques used by Austen in Pride and Prejudice, and Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby we develop a true sense of heroism in the protagonists, Darcy and Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, the hero of The Great Gatsby is a mysterious representation of wealth and status living in West Egg, Long Island, in the 1920s. Gatsby is a representation and critique of the American Dream as defined by James Truslow Adams in 1931: ‘life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’ regardless of status. Writing in the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald was fascinated by wealth, and he lived in an era where there was a great importance placed on material possessions. Gatsby is particularly fascinating to Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, who likes and admires him, befriending him, they spend time together allowing the reader to learn a great deal about the hero. However, written from the first person ancillary, the novel is ambiguous about Nick’s reliability. Everything the reader knows about Gatsby we learn through Nick. He mentions his own faults as a way of disarming the reader, making him seem trustworthy, even though many of his statements are contradictory and reveal him as unreliable. Both the reader and Nick find Gatsby enchanting and his mysterious past is used to emphasise his heroism. Gatsby’s untameable and romanticised love for Daisy results in his death. Nick considers this death heroic because Gatsby dies for the women he loves, but at the end of the novel the reader is unsure whether his sacrifice is truly noble.

Similarly, both Gatsby and Heathcliff entice the reader as romantic heroes due to their depth of love for Daisy and Catherine. The aloof yet acquired wealth through unethical means but are still unable to attain their desire for love.

Pride and Prejudice is written in third person omniscient with the use of free indirect discourse as we follow Elizabeth throughout the course of the novel. Austen allows the reader to listen to the dialogue between the characters as well as observing their thoughts. The roles of Darcy and Wickham are reversed as we learn more about them. Both Elizabeth and the reader are fooled by the charming manners of Wickham, which suggests that in the 19th century etiquette was valued even when it did not reflect true gentility. The reader learns more quickly than Elizabeth but both are still learning about Wickham until near the end of the novel. Austen shows Elizabeth change her mind by tracking the evolution of her thoughts, and the reader learns to appreciate Darcy and is as surprised as she is when her initial impressions are proved incorrect.

Whereas Rochester is similar to Darcy in the sense that their arrogance needs to be overcome, showing their willingness to improve themselves for the women they love.

In The Great Gatsby the alluring nature of Gatsby is presented by Fitzgerald through Nick’s initial impressions. Fitzgerald presents Gatsby in the first chapter as vulnerable and isolated. He sees his neighbour at the end of his dock: ‘he stretched out his arms towards the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away’. When the reader learns that the green light is at Daisy’s house, Gatsby’s vulnerability seems an expression of his romanticism and his constant devotion to his aspirations and his old love. This glimpse of Gatsby’s vulnerability is quickly forgotten, largely because of Nick’s fascination with him. Fitzgerald uses ‘minute’ and ‘far away’ to show that this ambition of Gatsby is unachievable. It is also ironic that something so ‘minute’ can destroy this supposed hero. The ‘green light’ is associated with the American dream as it is a symbolism of money and Gatsby reaches towards it as if the light is guiding him towards his goal.

Nick and Gatsby first speak at Gatsby’s party, where Nick was one of the few people actually invited. Nick starts to form preconceptions of Gatsby through gossip from the guests of the party: ‘Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once’. This adds to the mystery behind Gatsby as guest in his own home do not know him or anything concrete about his past. Even Nick does not know him yet. He does not realise he is talking to Gatsby during their first encounter:

‘I’m Gatsby,’ he said suddenly.

‘What!’ I exclaimed. ‘Oh, I beg your pardon’

‘I thought you knew, old sport. I’m afraid I’m not a very good host’

He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smile with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life.

Nick feels Gatsby acts favourably towards him, which stimulates Nick’s curiosity and possibly undermines his reliability as a narrator. In his own way, Nick is also hoping that the American Dream will bring him wealth and status. He wants to become a successful stockbroker:

I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew.

Nick looks up to Gatsby, admiring what Gatsby has achieved, which raises the possibility that Nick, too is corrupted by money. Thomas Boyle says, ‘An unreliable narrator … makes for a stronger demand on the reader’s power of inference’. Nick thinks highly of Gatsby, even after he learns about the dishonest source of his friend’s wealth. When he considers the way Gatsby reinvented himself, he compares him to an omnipotent being, ‘He was a son of God’. Nick’s admiration for Gatsby never fades, but the reader realises that it may be romanticised, that he ignores the truth about Gatsby, blinded by his hero’s burning desire for Daisy. Gatsby may appear to have everything, but he does not have Daisy’s unconditional love, which is all he really wants.

As the main focal point of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is intelligent and quick-witted – sometimes too quick witted. She is too quick to judge Mr Wickham and Mr Darcy, and only later finds out how very wrong she was. The original title for Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen was First Impressions, an indication of the importance of the lesson Austen wants share. At first, Elizabeth thinks Darcy is an arrogant man consumed by pride that prevents him from dancing with a girl who is beneath him. Darcy says at the Meryton Ball, ‘She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humorous at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men’. His sense of superiority establishes a lingering negative reputation for himself causing Elizabeth to only regard him through a lens of prejudice until his true underlying gentility is revealed. There is a deeper worth to Darcy as we are yet to see the full depth of his heroism as he appears supercilious but turns out to be a generous, thoughtful and true gentleman.

During Elizabeth’s and Wickham’s first encounter at Meryton, he is seemingly a polite gentleman and impresses Elizabeth with his charming manners and his dashing officer status. Elizabeth holds Wickham in high regard, ‘when Mr. Wickham walked into the room, Elizabeth felt that she had neither been seeing him before, nor thinking of him since, with the smallest degree of unreasonable admiration’. She considers him far superior to the other officers in his regiment. Wickham is similar to Heathcliff in the way they are both deeply flawed but irresistibly charming to the women who love them, and also the reader. However the narrators in Wuthering Heights include Nelly and Lockwood. Because Lockwood is more conventional in his narrating, he adds to the wildness and unpredictable nature of Heathcliff. Darcy, on the other hand is similar to Rochester in the sense that they are both proud, unforgiving and remote. Their pride and their remoteness add to their heroic status.

In both The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice we experience a change of perception of the characters. The Great Gatsby, is not a tragedy of the Jazz Age but of miscommunication, corruption and epic consequences on a small scale. As readers we feel Gatsby’s actions outweigh Nick’s impressions and that Nick has been unreliable throughout. Gatsby’s is a tragic death because of his unwillingness to change: he stays true to his ambitions to be with Daisy until he is shot. Gatsby’s refusal to let go of his dream has caused a divide among Fitzgerald’s readers, between those who think Gatsby is heroic and those who think he is deluded. Nick comments on the possibility that at the very last moment Gatsby gave up waiting for Daisy’s call: ‘If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream’. He is aware of “the ‘foul dust’ that ‘floated in the wake’ of Gatsby’s dreams. Fitzgerald leaves the reader with Nick’s authority in the final chapter to report the events as the other characters, notably Daisy, have fled due to self-interest. During the final chapter of the novel Nick’s says ‘One of the taxi drivers in the village never took a fare past the entrance gate without stopping for a minute and pointing inside’. This showing the rumours circulating around Gatsby continue when after his death. On the night before he leaves West Egg, Nick ‘went over and looked at that huge incoherent failure of a house once more’. This is a glorious summary of the whole novel, as house represents who Gatsby is and who he aspired to be. Nick still feels Gatsby is heroic, ‘On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone’. The contrast between the purity of the ‘white steps’ and the ‘obscene word’ shows how far apart the different ideas about Gatsby are. Nick erases the ‘obscene word’ to protect his dead friend and in doing so reveals himself as the epitome of an unreliable narrator. Fitzgerald shows us the obscenity, and Nick tries to hide it.

In Pride and Prejudice the possibility of change and growth is hopeful. The movement throughout the book is getting the reader and Elizabeth closer to the point where they can see Darcy’s virtues more clearly. When she overcomes her prejudices, Elizabeth falls in love. Austen proves that the quick judgements Elizabeth formed are not always reliable. She shows Elizabeth’s naivety, as she was ironically mistaken about both Darcy and Wickham: ‘“How despicably have I acted!” she cried. “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities!”’ Elizabeth has realised the error of her prejudice against Darcy and misconception of Wickham. The novel follows her course to find romantic bliss including dealing with her family and her mistaken impressions of Darcy which cause her to reject his initial marriage proposal. During the course of the novel Elizabeth continues to dislike Darcy, the heroine ‘conceives a most violent prejudice against Darcy’ as her prejudice is only removed by his good deeds. Darcy’s heroism is hidden but becomes truly morally virtuous through selfless acts towards the Bennet family. By paying Lydia’s dowry he proves that he is an eligible gentleman, and that Elizabeth’s prejudices towards him were mistaken. Darcy declares his love for her but still has pride: ‘My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you’. Elizabeth is offended by his proposal as he is saying her status is beneath him, ‘his sense of her inferiority – of its being a degradation – of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination’. Her rejection allows Darcy to change in order for them to be compatible.

Mr Wickham changes in Elizabeth’s eyes from being a trustworthy and handsome officer into a horrible man who damaged the Bennet name by seducing her sister. Wickham chooses to elope with Lydia who is only 16 just to get money proving how wrong Elizabeth’s first impressions were. Comparing Wickham and Darcy, Elizabeth says, ‘“There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.”’ Wickham is banished from her mind.

Both Fitzgerald and Austen use lavish material possessions to emphasise the magnetism of the hero. Most of the characters in The Great Gatsby reveal themselves as highly materialistic, Daisy stays with Tom because he can provide for her and Gatsby sees her as a prize to be won. Gatsby’s enormous wealth was gathered to win over Daisy, and she responds to this, showing her shallowness and materialistic obsession. Daisy only begins her affair with Gatsby after a tour through his mansion and a detailed display of his wealth. The climax comes when she breaks down into tears and says she’s ‘never seen such beautiful shirts’. This reveals a shallow nature that Gatsby is too blindsided by his love to see. Throughout The Great Gatsby Nick admires the conspicuous consumption of Gatsby and the arrogance of his money: ‘On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains.’ Nick emphasises Gatsby’s world of luxury and elegance with the use of personal pronouns, ‘his Rolls-Royce’, to create the sense that his wealth is unattainable. The author uses metaphorical language of similes such as ‘like moths’ or ‘like a brisk yellow bug’, this causes the observer to feel out of place in a strange world. The city is used in Gatsby to show the corruption of money that made all the parties possible. East Egg represents old money and the status that comes with it. Gatsby, however lives in West Egg which represents the more corrupt side of money that was made possible from the city. The division of the Eggs shows the division in society, the old money having class and snobbery compared to the newer money having more of a reputation for lavish parties. Nick says ‘bearing parties to and from the city’, which suggests that the injection of corrupt money into West Egg from the city made the parties possible. These parties are to show off Gatsby’s wealth for Daisy and finally get the status he longed for. The final chapter emphasises the corruption that occurs with wealth: ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made’. This is Fitzgerald summing up the corruptive effects wealth causes in society: there is no social responsibility in these careless people.

In Pride and Prejudice money and wealth is also used to attract both the reader and the protagonist to the hero. During the Regency period, wealth and status defined relationships. Similarly to Gatsby, when Darcy enters the room people gossip about his private affairs, adding to the mystery and lofty status of the hero. Austen says, ‘Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year’. Showing the importance of money to people in this society causing people to overlook his personality defects such as his pride. Darcy knows Elizabeth is socially beneath him as during his proposal he says, ‘In vain have I struggled. It will not do’. Darcy sees himself as confessing his love for Elizabeth however, his pride still remains and therefore she rightly rejects this offer. The reader and Elizabeth are also drawn to the wealth of Darcy. She says her love began ‘from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley’. When she first approached Pemberley ‘her spirits were in high flutter’ . This shows the self-interest of Elizabeth when she is confronted by the reality of Pemberley, and reminds her of what she turned down when she rejected Darcy’s proposal. Elizabeth wanders around Pemberley and admires its elegance: ‘The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of its proprietor; but Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendour, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings’. The use of the word ‘handsome’ refers back to their first encounter in the book when Elizabeth was not ‘handsome’ enough to dance with.

The difference is that The Great Gatsby is ironic, and ambiguous as what the reader thinks about the book will be determined by whether the reader thinks Jay Gatsby is truly as great as Nick says he is or does Gatsby actions outweigh Nick’s narration. Nick feels Gatsby’s death had purpose which in his eyes made Gatsby heroic. The tragic overtones of Gatsby stem from his continuous desire for the unattainable, which is Daisy. Throughout the entirety of the novel Nick views Gatsby in high regards and is not deterred by his reckless decisions. Fitzgerald is conveying to us the message the money was unable to fill the void of unhappiness in Gatsby’s life.

Pride and Prejudice is purely happy, with no doubt that Darcy is a hero and ELizabeth greatly improved. Darcy, under Elizabeth’s influence, gains in naturalness and learns to respect the innate dignity of the individual. Elizabeth teaches Darcy by showing her kind personality through her quick witted, verbal teachings and Darcy’s willingness to change shows he is the romantic hero and worthy of her.

Perhaps the difference comes down to a willingness to change. Elizabeth evolves, Nick does not. Nick says: ‘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’. This sums up his inflexibility.

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