Comment on the art of characterization in The Great Gatsby.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I think  Fitzgerald uses much to bring out characterizations of his characters.  One way is through situational decisions.  Fitzgerald uses individual actions in specific moments to reveal much about his characters.  For example, Jordan cheating in golf is used to reveal her amoral characterization .  It is a singular...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

I think  Fitzgerald uses much to bring out characterizations of his characters.  One way is through situational decisions.  Fitzgerald uses individual actions in specific moments to reveal much about his characters.  For example, Jordan cheating in golf is used to reveal her amoral characterization.  It is a singular moment, but it is something that resonates in the mind of the reader as a part of her characterization.  In this moment, her character is brought out and is impossible to dismiss.  Tom's spouting of racial fear and hatred is another such moment.  It is through this action in which the reader understands much about his character from a specific moment.  Daisy with the shirts is yet another instant in which an action is used to evoke so much in a character.  The use of singular actions are employed to bring out much in characterization.  Fitzgerald recognizes that more can be revealed through actions than mere words.  Seeing Tom lie or abuse another or seeing Daisy waffle in her emotions or seeing Gatsby pursue something that is impossible are all actions in which the art of characterization is developed.  It is also a technique in which the purest understanding of who these characters are and how they function can be revealed.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is the honest, reliable narrator. Nick opens the story by informing the reader that he has been taught by his father to "reserve all judgments." Nick is therefore an objective, reliable narrator (and character) and it is through his eyes that we see the other characters in the novel. 

Tom Buchanan is essentially "the bad guy." He comes from a wealthy family, entertains racists ideologies, cheats on his wife and mistreats people in general. 

Daisy Buchanan is one of Fitzgerald's "it girls," those girls who are beautiful, tending to come from money and therefore the object of most men's desires. Daisy does have a genuine nostalgic love for Gatsby, but above all, she represents money. When she hits Myrtle with the car, she retreats to Tom. So, there is something tragic but also superficial about Daisy; she finds herself married to a philanderer but embraces the lifestyle he has given her. Jordan Baker is also dishonest, a typical good-looking socialite. 

Tom might be the foil "bad guy" to the "good guy" Nick. Gatsby, on the other hand is somewhat of a paradox. He is a genuine romantic, an idealist. Gatsby represents the American dream, a rags to riches story. He does all he can to win Daisy, as if she herself was the Holy Grail at the end of his American dream adventure. But, in order to put himself in the social position in order to even be near Daisy, he must create a secondary persona. Gatsby pursues Daisy, partly out of love and partly out of an idealization of her. His affection for her is genuine and his desire to pursue her is all encompassing. But the fact that he created a different persona and that he entertains high society parties makes a part of himself dishonest; not to mention, he has illegal dealings which led to his wealth. 

One note about the overall characterization in The Great Gatsby is that it is a portrait of honesty/dishonesty. Of all the characters in the novel, the one our honest, reliable narrator identifies with the most is Gatsby. Despite the fact that Gatsby is somewhat "fake," a created persona, he is more genuine and unselfish than any other character (other than Nick and Mr. Wilson). This is what makes Gatsby so endearing. He is not a calculating dishonest man like Tom. He is not as superficial as the socialites he hosts at his parties. He only does dishonest things in order to be close to Daisy. Through Nick's eyes, we root for Gatsby despite his flaws because his intentions and motivations are based on his naive idealism. 

This characterization also illustrates the differences between appearance and reality as it applies to the theme of honesty/dishonesty. 

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A number of methods of characterization are used in The Great Gatsby.

Characters are defined both directly and indirectly. Nick offers direct character analysis of almost every major character, from Daisy to Jordan to Gatsby, Tom and Myrtle. The language of this direct characterization is essentially the same kind of language used in "everyday life" to describe a person's personality.

Another mode of direct characterization that comes from Nick is a physical description of each character, usually offered at the first meeting with a character. One example of this is the use of the phrase "slender" repeatedly to describe Jordan in the first chapter.

Characters are also given indirect definition through dialogue and action, with certain phrases and actions being presented as characterization (not related to plot, theme, or atmosphere). We can see these type of characterization with the description of Gatbsy's odd gesture at the end of the first chapter (reaching across the water) and in his repeated phrases ("old sport" and his false Oxford-isms).

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on