Characters in The Great Gatsby

Approaches to characterisation

Fitzgerald uses a variety of methods to create characters in the novel:

  • At the point of a character’s introduction, physical appearance is usually described sparingly, often focussing on clothing and just one or two features of the face or body
  • There are sometimes symbolic colours or objects associated with a character, such as the colour white with Daisy, or Wolfsheim’s cufflinks made from human molars
  • Some of the characters’ names may indicate aspects of their nature or role in the novel, as in ‘Owl Eyes’, ‘Wolfsheim’, ‘Daisy’ and ‘Jay Gatsby’
  • Characters always have their own dialogue which reveals their motivations and impact within the novel, and some have idiolect features such as Gatsby’s phrase ‘old sport’
  • Many of the characters have a fictional ‘past’ which also emerges in the course of the novel, often in disarranged fragments
  • To complicate the characterisation, Fitzgerald frequently uses ambiguity and contradiction, notably in Nick’s claim to be ‘honest’.

Nick’s mediation

All of the characters are viewed through Nick’s eyes (as well as a few instances where other characters recount their own impressions of a character to Nick). This means that their internal experiences are imagined by Nick, sometimes presented in a very compelling way but always with a sense of uncertainty. Nick ascribes motivations, emotions, responses and decisions to the other characters, even when he has very little credibility in doing so. An example of this is the reconstruction of George Wilson’s thoughts and actions following Myrtle’s death, or Gatsby’s ideas immediately before his own death. In this way, Fitzgerald constructs and then deconstructs the inner lives of his characters, approaching but then undermining psychological realism.

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