Alternative narrative devices

Telephone calls

The text has many uses of telephone calls, which contribute to the narrative by:

  • introducing characters
  • clarifying the nature of relationships
  • foreshadowing outcomes.

Most often, they signal a lack of communication.

An ominous intrusion

The first interruption of Nick’s narrative in Chapter 1 is achieved by means of a telephone call, and a second call immediately afterwards, which introduces a new character (‘some woman in New York’) and thereby destroys the dinner conversation of Daisy, Tom, Jordan and Nick. 

The language used to describe the second phone call emphasises its negative aspect - it rings ‘startlingly’, with a ‘shrill metallic urgency’. The image of the dinner guests returning to the library, ‘as if to a vigil beside a perfectly tangible body’, underlines the destructive effects of Tom’s infidelity. This image also foreshadows the death of Myrtle (the woman in New York) and the vigil of Wilson and Michaelis before Wilson decides to take revenge on Gatsby. 

The association of a telephone call with death also occurs in Chapter 8. Gatsby’s final instruction to his butler is to bring him word if a telephone call should come for him, but Nick comments that:

I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared.

The call, it is implied, would have come from Daisy, but this ‘single dream’ is now lost. Shortly after this, Gatsby is shot by Wilson.

Shady business

Gatsby is often interrupted by phone calls, which are always concerning business. At his party, in the restaurant with Nick, and even in his house when he is first showing Daisy around, he conducts business over the telephone, albeit briefly. 

Gatsby’s business is also revealed via a telephone call in the final chapter, when Slagle calls Gatsby’s house and begins to talk to Nick, having mistaken him for Gatsby, who is now dead. Slagle’s one-sided conversation is cut short with a ‘quick squawk as the connection was broken’, but nevertheless indicates that fake bonds were involved and that ‘Young Parke’ has been caught, a matter of concern for Gatsby. 

This narrative device adds important information about Gatsby’s business, further substantiating the admissions made, and then retracted, by Gatsby himself in Chapter 7.

The death of relationships

Nick and Jordan’s relationship is terminated by phone, and this is represented linguistically by the cut-off sentence:

It’s impossible this afternoon. Various - –’ We talked like that for a while and then abruptly we weren’t talking any longer. I don’t know which of us hung up with a sharp click but I know I didn’t care.

Nick’s attempts to bring mourners to Gatsby’s funeral are also conducted by telephone, symbolising the actual distance between Gatsby and any of his associates. Nick speaks with Wolfsheim, Klipspringer and Slagle over the telephone and none of these people attend the funeral. Of those who do appear, Henry Gatz communicates by telegram, expressing his determination to attend, while Owl Eyes appears at the last minute in the cemetery, without explanation of how he received the communication about Gatsby’s death and funeral.


Image and reality

Mr McKee is a photographer, satirised somewhat as his actions seem ridiculous in the context of Myrtle’s party in Tom’s flat:

Mr McKee regarded her intently with his head on one side, and then moved his hand back and forth slowly in front of his face.

Furthermore, his photographs are named using slightly clichéd phrases, such as ‘Montauk Point – The Gulls’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Old Grocery Horse’, whilst his photograph of Myrtle’s mother is presented as unappealing: ‘the dim enlargement … hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall’. Perhaps the function of such a character and his photographs is to emphasise the gap between image and reality, and to establish this attitude towards photographs in anticipation of subsequent references to these in the text.

Gatsby at Oxford

Trinity College, OxfordThe first photograph of Gatsby appears in Chapter 4, apparently showing Gatsby in the quadrangle of Trinity College, Oxford, alongside several other young men. It is set against a backdrop of a ‘host of spires’ - Oxford has been described as the ‘city of dreaming spires’ - however this location would not have given a view of them. Gatsby uses the photograph to guarantee the truth of his claim to be ‘an Oxford man’, but its ready availability alongside the Montenegro medal as a piece of evidence undermines its authenticity, as if these were props to Gatsby’s illusory narrative. 

Furthermore, the identification of one of the men as ‘now the Earl of Doncaster’ sounds like name-dropping. It may also be a way of highlighting the artifice of this image, since the Earl of Doncaster was at this time already in his fifties, so could not be one of the ‘young men’ in the photograph. (Although a later Earl of Doncaster did attend Oxford at this time, it was Christ Church College rather than Trinity, and he didn’t succeed to the title until 1935 - Walter Montagu Douglas Scott, also 8th Duke of Buccleuch). Interestingly, Nick has already admitted to his own family’s false claim to descend from the Dukes of Buccleuch, which then undermines Gatsby’s similar claim to an aristocratic connection for any reader who recognises this parallel reference.

Dan Cody

In Gatsby’s house, in Chapter 5, Daisy and Nick examine a photograph of Dan Cody, one of Gatsby in a yachting costume and several clippings about Daisy. These images are interpreted by Daisy in terms of the possessions and presumed lifestyle they show: ‘I adore it… You never told me you had a pompadour – or a yacht.’ 

The image of Dan Cody represents a part of Gatsby’s history which has not been told at this stage in the novel. Nick relates it in the next chapter, but here we are given the information, in Gatsby’s words, that, ‘He used to be my best friend years ago.’ His importance as a key influence on Gatsby is demonstrated by the positioning of the photograph, hanging on the wall above Gatsby’s desk in his bedroom. 

When Nick finds the photograph of Dan Cody again, as he searches for contacts to invite to Gatsby’s funeral in Chapter 9, he refers to it as a ‘token of forgotten violence’. He thus reinterprets the image in terms of the information given in Chapter 6, where Cody’s photograph is described as:

a grey, florid man with a hard empty face – - the pioneer debauchee who …. brought back to the Eastern seaboard the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon.

Clearly the narrative of Dan Cody combines material success with corruption and violence, as reflected in the views we are given of the photograph.

Gatsby’s mansion

Beacon Towers 1920, inspiration for Gatsby's homeThe final photograph is of Gatsby’s house, a location which is at the heart of the novel. It is presented to Nick by Henry Gatz, Gatsby’s father, and illustrates the pride he has in his son’s achievement. The irony of this is that as he shows Nick the photograph, he is standing in the house itself, prompting Nick to comment:

He had shown it so often that I think it was more real to him now than the house itself.

Such superficiality, where the image of success is more significant than the success itself, represents the corruption of core American values.


The Sheik of Araby

This song is quoted in Chapter 4 just after Jordan has finished her long narrative of Gatsby’s connection with Daisy, and precedes the revelation that Gatsby had chosen his home to be near Daisy’s. Nick’s reaction is that this is romantic and magical, using an image of childbirth:

He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendour.

However, the song implies a more possessive and predatory aspect:

Your love belongs to me.
At night when you’re asleep
Into your tent I’ll creep

and indeed Gatsby carefully orchestrates a meeting with Daisy in order to seduce her. 

Nick’s own pursuit of Jordan also occurs at this point in the novel, and he highlights this by noting:

A phrase began to beat in my ears with a sort of heady excitement: ‘There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.’

The Love Nest and Ain’t We Got Fun

Ain't We Got Fun sheet music coverBoth these popular 1920s songs are played by Ewing Klipspringer in Chapter 5, as Gatsby and Daisy are rediscovering their romance. There is perhaps some irony in these choices, and they are immediately followed by a comment on disillusionment and doubt. 

The lyrics, which would have been well known to Fitzgerald’s audience of 1925, assert:

Better than a palace with a gilded dome
Is a love nest
You can call home.

Gatsby’s palatial mansion, used up to this point as a party venue, is about to be transformed into a private ‘love nest’, but Daisy’s materialism in this chapter suggests that the ‘love nest’ phase will be only temporary. 

The lyrics for The Love Nest are not quoted in The Great Gatsby but there are brief snatches of Ain’t We Got Fun interwoven with the image of commuters and the backdrop of a gathering storm

the wind was loud and there was a faint flow of thunder along the Sound.

The selections from this song emphasise social inequality while adopting a comic tone and endorsing a hedonistic response to all experience: ‘The rich get richer and the poor get – children’, is juxtaposed with the refrain, ‘Ain’t we got fun’. The chapter then closes with a much darker sense of doubt, with hints of horror in the language (‘ghostly’, ‘feverish’, ‘deathless’, ‘possessed by intense life’). The tension between the extreme contrasts of the carefree music and the ominous imagery is maintained through Chapter 6 and into Chapter 7 in which the affair is revealed, with the heavily ironic background music of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, which gives way to jazz, described as ‘muffled and suffocating’.

Letters, signs and inscriptions


Letters are used several times as plot devices, although two important letters (Daisy’s rejection letter to Gatsby in Oxford and the letter that Daisy clutches as she almost calls off the wedding) are only referred to and not presented within the text.

Nick sends a letter to Wolfsheim, which he paraphrases: ‘asked for information and urged him to come out on the next train.’ Wolfsheim’s reply is given in the text, using the layout of a letter and a style which is consistent with Wolfsheim’s earlier language, although now without the phonetic spellings suggesting his accent. This letter clearly states, albeit in euphemistic terms, the reluctance of Gatsby’s social circle to attend his funeral and sparks in Nick:

a feeling of defiance, of scornful solidarity between Gatsby and me against them all.


A very significant sign in The Great Gatsby is the billboard of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. There are no words given but the reference to ‘Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’ implies that the text includes this name and that it refers to an ‘oculist’ (optician) with a business in New York. This is similar to the sign above the garage: ‘Repairs. GEORGE B. WILSON. Cars bought and sold.’ 

Both adverts display the name of the proprietor and clearly identify the nature of the business, but are without further embellishment, unlike the sophisticated and descriptive language emerging in the advertising industry of this time. 

The Eckleburg sign develops further significance as it is presented by Wilson as an image of God, who ‘sees everything’ and cannot be fooled. Meanwhile the garage sign becomes an increasingly ironic reference, given that Wilson struggles to maintain trade in vehicles and can repair neither his marriage nor his fatally wounded wife, whose body is laid on his work table. 


The inscriptions in Gatsby’s childhood book of Hopalong Cassidy provide a written version of Gatsby’s voice. These inscriptions are not narrating in the usual sense, because the original function of the ‘SCHEDULE’ and ‘General Resolves’ is to shape the future: they consist of a set of imperatives, many expressed elliptically as in ‘Work … 8.30-4.30 P.M.’. They are mostly positive resolutions but some are constructed negatively, as in ‘No more smoking or chewing’. They are also unusual as they represent Gatsby’s private communication to himself, while there is rarely access to characters’ interior experience in the novel. 

However, as the inscriptions are recontextualised by Gatsby’s father revealing these notes to Nick, they become part of the narrative of Gatsby’s life. In particular, they provide details of his rise from ‘rags to riches’. The methods by which the young Gatsby intends to rise economically and socially indicate the prevailing ideas (in 1906, the date of the inscriptions, and in the 1920s when Fitzgerald is writing) about:

  • physical, intellectual and cultural acumen: ‘Practise elocution, poise and how to attain it’
  • the sense of technological opportunity of the time: ‘Study electricity…. Study needed inventions’. 

The choice of book, Hopalong Cassidy (possibly anachronistically as this was only published in 1910, although the first novel containing this character, Bar-20, was published in 1906) undermines the seriousness of these enterprises and makes a literary allusion to the eponymous cowboy hero of several contemporary novels by Clarence Mulford. 

Gatsby’s juvenile self-fashioning is certainly more clumsy than his later projections of himself, but he is never completely successful. In the same way, his catchphrase, ‘old sport’, although redolent of English high society and the Oxford social network, is never convincing to either Nick or Tom.

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