What is direct and indirect characterization of Gatsby in The Great Gatsby? (with quotes and analysis)

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mwestwood eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Characterization is a literary tool that dominates the narrative of The Great Gatsby. Even the narrator, Nick Carraway, is a character himself. In the opening lines of the first chapter, Nick delineates himself an objective observer, declaring that he is " . . . inclined to reserve all judgments." 

As the narrator, then, Nick provides the reader with direct characterizations, that is, he directly states what traits a character possesses. For instance, Nick characterizes Jay Gatsby as having "a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again" (Ch.1). In another instance of direct characterization, the narrator Nick describes Gatsby and provides commentary to the readers about him when he and Gatsby have their first encounter at the party, which Nick had been invited to without realizing who his host is. At the same time, Nick informs the reader of much more about Gatsby, intimating that there is a facade which he presents. 

He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, . . . and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that . . . you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. (Ch.3)

Indirect characterization involves more subtlety than direct characterization. With this form of depicting a character, the readers must determine for themselves the qualities that the personage possesses. They do this by examining the speech, behavior, mannerisms, and appearance of a character. Also, readers must analyze the dialogues that a character has with other characters to determine his/her characteristics. For instance, in the fourth chapter as Nick rides in Gatsby's elaborate car, Gatsby talks with Nick along the way, supposedly describing his background. 

"I'll tell you God's truth. . . . My family all died and I came into a good deal of money. . . . I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe. . . . Then came the war, old sport. It was a great relief and I tried very hard to die but I seemed to bear an enchanted life. . . . In the Argonne Forest I took two machine-gun detachments so far forward. . . . I was promoted to be a major and every Allied government gave me a decoration. . . . " (Ch.4)

In this monologue, Gatsby commits many historical inaccuracies that a reader should notice. Further, some of Gatsby's actions, such as his desperate eagerness to drive behind the elite Sloanes who are on their horses just to be with them, demonstrates his sense of wishing to be included in a society of which he is not part. Tom's words also suggest Gatsby's apparent inferiority.

"My God, I believe the man's coming," said Tom. "Doesn't he know she doesn't want him?" (Ch.6)  

From this reaction of Tom Buchanan's, the reader can infer that Gatsby, for all his wealth, is still regarded as an outsider.

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susan3smith eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Direct characterization is what is explicitly told to us by the author about a character.  However, in The Great Gatsby, the story is told through a first person observer viewpoint.  In other words, Gatsby is characterized directly by Nick, not the author.  The opening pages of the novel provide examples of Nick's direct characterization of Gatsby in which Nick declares that Gatsby had

an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.

Indirect characterization is achieved by inference.  From the descriptions of the character's actions, speech, appearance, home, we can determine much about a character's personality that usually results in our judgment of that particular personality.  Throughout The Great Gatsby, the readers must determine whether or not Nick's comments about Gatsby are true or if we have a different impression of the man that Nick is both impressed with and somewhat contemptuous of.

For instance, Gatsby's constant use of "old sport," seems to imply a somewhat pretentious speech.  His  car is described as

rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes

giving the impression of ostentatiousness.  Gatsby's association with a man like Mr. Wolfshiem suggests Gatsby's corruption.  Even when Nick withholds his judgment, which he often does until the end of the novel, we are given key details that allow us to develop our own opinion of this character.

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