When Six Blind Men Read Your Novel

An old tale from India tells of six blind men who viewed an elephant. One of the blind men concludes that the elephant is like a wall. Another believes the elephant is like a snake. The others perceive it as a spear, a tree, a fan or a rope. Each blind man forms his own idea of what the elephant is like, depending upon where he touches it.

One the most famous versions of this story is the poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant" by John Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887). His poem concludes:
And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.
Not to say readers are blind, but when we read, our perceptions can be like those of the blind men. When we write, we may hope we are leading our readers down a particular path, but their individual ideas, temperaments, and other preconceived ideas scatter readers onto different roads.

As an example, look at six schools of thought about literary criticism and how each of them might view a particular elephant. Our elephant in this example will be F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The elephant remains the same, but the interpretations differ with each view.

A Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism believes we are each born with a clean slate, and soon that slate is cluttered with images. Even before we have words to label them, we begin working to sort this clutter and make sense of the world around us. If a thing is suitable we keep it or forget it, but if a thing causes us pain, shame, or any number of negative responses, instead of forgetting it we repress it into our subconscious where it festers and poisons our waking thoughts and actions. As Nick, our narrator in The Great Gatsby, says to close the novel, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Much of our conscious present is made of dealing with the suppressed and unconscious images of our past. In life this battle with the past can feel like we’re paddling upstream, and in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby each character fights the current in his or her own unique manner. Jay Gatsby, subject of the book’s title, was “borne back ceaselessly into the past” by fighting the repression associated with that past. Having been raised in a lower class family, he spent his adulthood attempting to establish himself among the “upper” classes. However, his true desires may not have been purely social or economic.

In our pre-verbal period of infancy we experience a life of fantasy, an illusion, but it is shattered when we find things around us have an order and we begin to realize our place within that order. We learn our mother is separate from us and does not feel what we feel. We cannot control her with our minds and she does not feel pain when we inflict it upon ourselves. Further, we find she does not belong to us but in fact belongs to our father. We may spend the rest of our lives trying to replace the hole this leaves in our gut. Gatsby believed he could fill the void by aspiring to win the love of Daisy. She was of another world than ours, yet something which seemed to remind us of the illusions of our infancy. A relationship with Daisy could restore that feeling of complete intimacy we once thought we shared with our mothers. But just as our idea of that relationship with our mother was a fallacy, so is the idea we can be “one” with the woman we believe will replace her.

Daisy herself dealt with her own issues regarding the replacement of that illusory world with a concrete, verbal reality. But in her disappointment she adopted the protective shield of distance from others; she became unwilling to experience intimacy in her current life as a reaction to the painful loss of a perceived intimacy from her infant hood. Instead of allowing herself to draw close to Gatsby, she felt, possibly on a subconscious level, that he wanted too much of her. She perceived his desire for intimacy, and although his desire may have been rooted in the same place as her own needs and desires, her reaction was exactly the opposite.

In Nick's closing lines, Fitzgerald summarizes a theme we revisited often within the novel. We press on, and we may feel as though we are swimming upstream. We never get what we want, even if we don’t truly know what it is we desire. We dip the oars into the water hoping they will drive us into the future, but the very act of dipping in means we dredge up the past. However, if like Gatsby we try to reach for the green light across the bay, we are still forced to face the darkness inside us, even if that darkness is beyond our reach as well.

A Marxist Critique

When we feel we have nothing out of the ordinary, when everything we have is viewed in our society as a commodity, we raise the bar of our expectations and want something more. But even then, it isn’t enough to merely have it. We want to have it and rub it in the face of those around us at the same time. We buy our furs, our fancy cars, and our large houses telling ourselves it is because we need them, they are a commodity, but in reality it is all for show. Fitzgerald approached this idea of conspicuous consumption in his novel The Great Gatsby; it wasn’t enough to live in the richest part of the richest city in the richest country of the entire world, but his characters had to “look” the part as well.

But anytime the bar is raised and our expectations progress, any attempt to lower the bar, or even leave it the same, is generally viewed as regression. These are not our innate feelings, but they are what we learn. We learn if we are better dressed, drive better cars, and live in better houses, we are better too. The problem is, who has decided what is “better”? An author who wishes to criticize capitalism merely needs to paint a capitalistic society in this light. Something deeper flows within our veins than the norms our culture has placed upon us, and it can be stirred if we see blatant greed and self-centered behavior in others.

In spite of what our culture has taught us about our rights to consume, we also believe there are limits, even if it takes some time to recall that belief. So when we see the characters in Gatsby with their conspicuous consumption we know they are wrong in being that way. Unfortunately, it probably takes an example this extreme to make the point. If we were to face a more subtle example, possibly the greed of people in the middle or lower socioeconomic classes, it might go unnoticed. Because of the way we have been trained, we often view the efforts of our middle and lower classes to “better” themselves as noble. We say they are hardworking and God fearing individuals if they aspire toward wealth and rampant consumerism. If a novel were to suggest these hardworking souls were less than ideal, it would probably be rejected, possibly dismissed as communist propaganda.

That said, Fitzgerald set up the perfect setting and story to convey the conspicuous consumption of our modern era. Perhaps it is clouded in our judgment because we would rather call it a love story. The case against capitalism might have been more powerful if it had been set among those of our middle and lower classes. It might have been a more probing treatment. But at the same time, it might have hit a little too close to home for the majority of his readers, and Fitzgerald did the best he could to paint a picture of our society’s excesses. But in keeping the issue at arms length, he may have kept its understanding at a similar distance.

Reader Response Criticism

Although the Jazz Age in America came on the scene with a bit of a strut in its stride, taking bold steps forward into a whole new era, the same bold steps brought an air of uncertainty; new territory, previously uncharted, could bring its own dangers. Fitzgerald echoed that underlying fear, either consciously or unconsciously, creating an air of indeterminacy which left the potential result open for interpretation.

Just as indeterminacy leaves gaps in the text, or possibly the discovery of these gaps is what fosters the uncertain feelings, the era of Fitzgerald’s novel was a time where gaps were par for the course. Where were relationships headed, and what would happen to our old family values? What would happen when the idle poor became the idle rich and fortunes could be made with a few telephone calls? The very foundation of American society seemed up for debate. In a time where the buzz word meant freedom, where would the journey take us and what would we leave behind?

The Great Gatsby promises a story of riches and intrigue. Who is this Jay Gatsby and where did he come from? Soon we begin to expect a love story. Will Daisy fling off the oppressive life she has chosen and return to the arms of her one true love? These are stories we are comfortable with, stories that lead us where we expect to be lead. But soon an uneasiness begins to shadow the rest of the story. We begin to wonder who is good and who isn’t. If their story is to be so simple, why are these characters so complex? Are things going to turn out the way we expect in the end.

One image of indeterminacy, or where things are left open to our interpretation, is the dusty part of town called home by Tom Buchanan mistress, Myrtle. The place is covered in gray dust, and underneath that dust is a complex triangle between Myrtle, her husband George, and Tom. We wonder what the dust means. Is it some oppressive layer Myrtle will fling off in the raptures of her affair with Tom? Or is it the dust that settles on something that’s already dead, like the layer of gray dust in an old abandoned house or ghost town? Does the layer of dust foreshadow its throwing off, or does it foreshadow the approaching death and the abandonment of dreams to follow?

Early in the novel, Jay Gatsby holds one of his large parties with what seems like hundreds of guests, largely uninvited. It is a banquet, much like we often call life a banquet. But nobody really seems to know what it’s all about or why they are there, or even who the host really might be. Many at the party drink too much, laugh too loud, and care about the entire thing a bit too little. When the party disbands one of the drivers lose a wheel and a big fuss is created until the entire incident is laughed off as some form of a joke. When we see where Fitzgerald ultimately leads his characters by the end of the story, it’s easy to wonder if this party scene isn’t a parallel to the world and life. Is the whole thing a big party where we take things for granted and ultimately laugh the whole thing off as a joke? Are we uninvited guests at a party where nobody really knows the host? Is Gatsby God?

Indeterminacy isn’t the “what” of the story’s events, it may not even be the “why”. When thinking of indeterminacy in the context of Reader Response Criticism, it could be thought of as one of the many possible meanings of the text. But when introduced into a novel as full of contradictions and unanswered questions as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, indeterminacy becomes the element which makes this story echo real life. We are left to wonder not only what the text could have meant, but what life itself is all about.

A Feminist Critique

Even if they disagree about other issues, all feminists believe patriarchal ideology works to keep men and women confined to traditional gender roles so male dominance may be maintained. Utilizing the precepts of Feminist criticism, it could be argued The Great Gatsby promotes a thinly veiled patriarchal agenda. Through Fitzgerald’s treatment of the three main women, as well as masking the possible homosexuality of a central character, the novel seems to promote only the traditional gender roles, swaying uncomfortably from any possible variance. This hidden agenda may be uncovered using common tools of Feminist criticism, primarily through the use of psychoanalytic theory, but with elements of Marxist theory and deconstructionism as well.

Psychologically, Daisy, Jordan, and Myrtle are obviously quite different from each other. In fact, it could be said they are like three corners of a triangle, supporting each others’ role in the story but entirely separate at the same time. Daisy is portrayed as a classic beauty who uses an innate sex appeal to gather some amount of control over her surroundings. As an athlete Jordan might carry the greatest potential to stray from a typical gender role. She could easily have been characterized as a lesbian because of her detachment from men, her self-centered lifestyle, and her unexplained connection to Daisy. Myrtle seems to be a more earthy woman, possibly possessing a raw sexual energy, but Fitzgerald stops short of portraying her as an independent, sexual being, empowered to pursue her own sexual experiences. In many respects these characters could have been deeper had Fitzgerald felt free to expound upon these possibilities. It seems the story would only have been enriched if he had explored these women deeper. However, the fact that Fitzgerald was not willing to fill out these women to their potential could indicate a desire, either of his own or one he felt society had placed upon him, to keep them within the expected stereotypes of their gender.

A similar opportunity showed itself within the characterization of Fitzgerald's narrator, Nick. Nick’s reluctance to enter into a relationship with Jordan was not sufficiently justified by the ol’ “girl back home” routine. No attempt at all was made to explain why Nick found himself at the bedside of an effeminate man, who was in his underwear. Nor did Fitzgerald explore Nick’s admiration for Gatsby on what seemed to be a more physical basis than of friendship. Nick made frequent schoolgirl-like references to Gatsby, but there didn’t seem to be much reason for a friendship. Gatsby’s motivation was clearly to make contact with Daisy, but why did Nick want to be close to Gatsby? These issues could have easily led to some discussion or admittance that Nick might have been gay or at least questioning his gender role. But the author’s unwillingness to breach these subjects seems to indicate he had made himself subject to the established patriarchy. By not saying anything against it, Fitzgerald inadvertently spoke in favor of the established order.

From a purely economic standpoint, the patriarchal agenda is evident in how all three of the major female characters are dependent to varied degrees upon the men in their lives. Even Jordan has some need for a man. Daisy and Myrtle are more obviously and traditionally dependent. The patriarchal agenda is also supported in the way men do “business” and women sit around and gossip. Even Nick, who in some ways is portrayed in a traditionally feminine role because of his financial dependence upon his family, is given a nice "man's" job in the stock market to remove any anti-patriarchal doubts. Simultaneously, a deconstructionistic dichotomy exists within the novel; the characters live in the decadent and supposedly "free" Jazz age, but at the same time seem unwilling or unable to free themselves from the patriarchal elements of society.

Overall, a Feminist criticism of this novel allows the reader to understand how subtle and pervasive the patriarchal influences are within our society. Through the questions Feminists ask of the text we are able to see a possibility for deeper characterization and a more enriched human experience without the shackles of patriarchal tyranny.

A New Criticism View

In another age, traveling medicine shows would tout their amazing stars as “The Great” or “The Invincible”. We learned to expect feats of magic and miracle from these men, even if beneath it all we knew they were charlatans. Fitzgerald used this bit of the pop psyche in the title of The Great Gatsby, and as we might expect he delivered a character strikingly similar to these miracle men of old. However, many people believed in these charlatans, even if they wouldn't say so in public. Their tricks tapped into our desire for magic and wonder; they were men of fantasy and intrigue. In naming his novel, Fitzgerald stirred the complex reaction America had to all the Great and Invincible of our history, tapping into a rich spring of paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension.

Fitzgerald drove the reader into his novel with the question of Gatsby’s greatness. We wondered who this man might be. We come with a prejudice from the title, then Fitzgerald further guides us to accept Gatsby’s greatness by showing us his wealth. He has such wealth we are willing to accept the man must be great as well. But an ambiguity exists at the same time; nobody knows where this man came from, where his wealth originated, or indeed what makes him so great. But we believe it just the same. Here we have a man who has wealth and seems willing to share it. He seems well mannered and genteel, yet he reaches down from his pedestal and befriends our narrator, Nick. It seems somewhat a paradox, but real life is full of such opposites that the story only seems more real because of it. Because the paradox seems so real we believe the story, and because we believe the story we commit even deeper to believing the story’s title; the man must indeed be great.

But Fitzgerald also introduces a tension, possibly springing from the sense of ambiguity. As a reader we want to know where Gatsby came from, why he is wealthy, but we are afraid we won’t like the answer. Fitzgerald strings us along then plants little seeds of doubt, and we begin to worry. What if Gatsby is a bootlegger or a gambler, would we be able to reconcile the belief we have already adopted that he is indeed great? We need him to be great, because we already believe he is. Eventually, however, we come to realize Gatsby was not born to greatness nor did he really aspire toward it. Even his schooling is questionable. He does not have any of the sure signs of greatness we have come to expect, yet we realize there is still something great about him. It might simply be that we want to justify the decision we’ve already made about him. We need him to be great because we’ve already made up our minds that he is, but this brings a certain irony into play because we have committed to his greatness even though he isn't great by the definition we originally would have given the word.

Again, it is like the charlatan who made us believe in snake oil. When the snake oil doesn’t cure baldness or make your hiccups go away, we tell ourselves “The Great and Powerful” charlatan was a great entertainer. He is still great, just not in the way we originally expected him to be. Fitzgerald first made us believe Gatsby was great, then left us to justify the reasoning in spite of the evidence. But that is just like real life.

The Theory of Myths

Northrop Frye’s “theory of myths” refers to a system of patterns which mankind has used to realize the narratives of his stories and literature. Frye asserts human beings realize basic narrative in two fundamental ways; representations of the real world and representations of an ideal or fantasy world. Frye calls the two fundamental narratives the “mythos of summer” and the “mythos of winter”. Summer is a time of heroes and adventure, and winter is a time where life’s complexities are faced. But in spite of the convenience a system could afford our attempts to categorize the written works of mankind, real life isn't always so easily defined. It would follow naturally then, literature which reflects life in its fullness might not fit neatly within Frye’s two basic theoretical categories. Great literature echoes real life in its tendency to defy simplified explanation. So because Frye realized life’s tendency to travel between times of summer and winter, he also introduced two times of transition: “the mythos of autumn” and “the mythos of spring”.

The Great Gatsby is one example of a piece of literature which spans Frye’s primary narrative patterns, leading us from the romance and fantasy of summer to the reality and complexity of winter. Gatsby opens with all the optimism and boldness of its Age. We meet a young man named Nick who faces a life full of prospects, and we join him on his journey to the East Egg, a less fashionable part of New York’s fashionable Long Island. Nick has an interesting new neighbor, a man by the name of Gatsby, who is bathed in wealth and intrigue. Here we have all the makings of what Frye would call a romance. Gatsby holds extravagant parties where all the beautiful people attend; everything reeks of the romance of Camelot and King Arthur’s court. It is Frye’s summer, a world of adventure with beautiful women, idyll days, and romantic evenings.

But Gatsby doesn’t remain in summer forever. Although the novel opens with all the optimism of its age, before the final page it transitions into a novel of irony and complexity. Because this is the final message of Gatsby, it could be argued the mythos of winter overshadows that of summer in this story. We close the book with only a feint memory of Nick and Gatsby’s days of summer, and from our new and jaded viewpoint we regard those times as days of innocence and possibly naivety. We have seen how the flaws of man can lead us to the feeling we are swimming upstream, and Fitzgerald’s final lines bring this point home: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Frye called the narrative pattern which transitions from summer to winter “the mythos of autumn”. This is a structure which moves us from a time of innocence to experience. We move from the ideal world to the real world. Likewise, Frye calls the movement from real to ideal, or experience to innocence, "the mythos of spring". He recognized conflict is the basis of romance, where superheroes face obstacles, but observed catastrophe is the basis of tragedy. While The Great Gatsby seems at first blush to be a story where a superhero faces the simple obstacles between him and his love, in the end and the catastrophe which develops along the way we realize the story of Gatsby is one of tragedy. Gatsby’s quest has ended in death, and Nick has taken a step down the road of experience.

Again, much like real life, it would be an oversimplification to label the time period covered in this novel as the time when our narrator Nick lost his naive and innocent view of the world. It would also be too easy to call it the story of the great Jay Gatsby’s fall from greatness. Life is not so simple. It is full of ambiguity, and transitions don’t always move neatly in one direction or another. For the purpose of a tidy story we might limit a piece to one period, one myth, or one time of transition. But real life isn’t so tidy, and part of the greatness of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is how it reminds us of the ebb and flow of such things in life.

Conclusion

In John Gardner's immortal The Art of Fiction, he talks about leading readers through a fictional dream. It is our job to facilitate the fictional dream and avoid doing anything to interrupt it. We weave a dream and hope our readers find themselves lost in it. But it is interesting to note we cannot control that fictional dream; readers will have dreams of their own.

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