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The Influences Of The Great Gatsby English Literature Essay

Rivkin and Ryan describe Mikhail Bakhtin as one of the most influential thinkers…for literary and cultural studies and that his theory shifts emphasis away from individual literary works and toward the intertextual world in which individual literary works are set” (p.674). The key feature of his theory is that “all words exist in dialog with other words” (p.674). Bakhtin defines the novel as a “diversity of social speech types, sometimes even diversity of languages, and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized.” [2] A central feature of this, is the idea of novels as “fundamentally polyphonic (multi-voiced)” [3] or “monological (single-voiced)”(p.87). Culler goes on to state that “the essence of the novel is its staging of different voices or discourses and thus, of the clash of social perspectives and points of view”(p.87). Michael Holquist suggests that dialogism “is not just a theory of knowledge…it is in its essence a hybrid: dialogism exploits the nature of language as a modelling system for the nature of existence” [4] . He continues that it is consequently “deeply involved with linguistics”(p.33) and that it “sees social and ethical values as the means by which the fundamental I/other split articulates itself in specific situations” (p.33). F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a text that makes use of social differences and groupings, as well as the dialogue being a telling feature within the novel. Bakhtin’s work also explores how the different forms and types of language used by people not only colour perceptions of them but also why and how people use language, focusing on the contextual reliance of discourse. The terms by which Bakhtin labelled his observations of language are relatively self-explanatory as monologic describes a text with limited voice diversity. This is the opposite of dialogic, where a text incorporates different voices that creates the “interactive, responsive nature of dialogue” [5] . In ‘Discourse in the novel’ [6] , Bakhtin wrote that “language…is never unitary” except when taken as “an abstract grammatical system of normative forms” (p.674). A reading of The Great Gatsby in relation to Bakhtin’s theory, especially in ‘Discourse in the novel’, shows there are many of the ideas Bakhtin has studied and written on, in relation to the concept of dialogism in particular.

Bakhtin constructed a way of defining and reading literature depending on several key aspects. Firstly, the authorial voice and whether it allows the reader to make their own judgement or if it lays down a certain way of looking at something as fact. Secondly, the discourse within the literature and how the characters use it, both of which are two important aspects of this particular theory. In a monologic text, for example a Jane Austen novel, the author may be writing from a specific social group and subsequently pass this on through the characters and text in general. This is what the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines as “the subordination of characters to the single viewpoint of the author” [7] in relation to one of Bakhtin’s pieces, which “contrasts…various characters’ voices in Dostoevsky’s novels with…Tolstoy’s” (p.88). However, as Bakhtin wrote, “the prose writer as a novelist does not strip away the intentions of others from the heteroglot language of his works” [8] but “makes use of words that are already populated with social intentions of others and compels them to serve his own new intention” (p.678). So by using a certain type of language, for example one that is linked to a specific social grouping, the author allows the connotations that go with the tone and individual wording to become a part of the novel and with it, a particular outlook for the text and subsequently, the reader. The language used becomes what Bakhtin described as the “common language” which is typically the “average norm of spoken and written language for a given social group” (p.678). Consequently, this is then “taken by the author precisely as the common view” of people, behaviour and actions in a certain social grouping (p.678). Strongly monologic features could limit something as creative in nature as a novel and hinder the possibilities it could have. This is seen in Bakhtin’s discussion of poetry, when he states that it “depersonalizes” certain entities within language whilst the novel “often deliberately intensifies difference between them, gives them embodied representation and dialogically opposes them to one another in unresolvable dialogues” (p.676). This is Bakhtin’s main point on the differences between typically monologic or dialogic texts.

The concept of heteroglossia is a key element to Bakhtin’s study of language and its influences and affects. He writes, “at any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom” and that it “represents the coexistence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past…between different socio-ideological groups” (p.676). It is “these “languages” of heteroglossia” that “intersect each other in a variety of ways, forming new socially typifying languages” (p.676). Bakhtin takes this further and extends the concept to encompass the notion that these varieties of languages, despite what gave them form, “are specific points of view on the world, forms for conceptualizing the world in words…each characterised by its own objects, meanings and values” (p.676). It is this “juxtaposing” of languages in “an environment of social heteroglossia” (p.676) that then allows them to be used in the “unitary plane of the novel” (p.676) where individual languages can be reproduced.

Heteroglossia in the novel is defined by Bakhtin as “another’s speech in another’s language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way” (p.681) and it is this speech that then forms a “special type of double-voiced discourse”(p.681). Where voices (and the people or characters that speak them) are different due to age, gender or social standing, this affects how or what someone might say in a particular context which also will differ from what another person may say. These inherent differences between voices should come across in the language used and in a classically monologic novel there is little variety, often staying within a certain social grouping. However, a dialogic text contains different languages (national differences, regional dialects within the national language) which lead to different voices and as a direct result, different people or characters that are more individual and come from different groups. Bakhtin states that “all words have the “taste” of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour” (p.676). Again, the idea of context comes into language styles as Bakhtin goes on to write, “each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words…are populated by intentions”(p.676) and “contextual overtones (generic, tendentious, individualistic) are inevitable in the word” (p.677). This creates a more varied and dialogic discourse and is not only more realistic and representative of real-life but is also important in a literary sense as it adds depth to characters and broadens the perspective of the book and hence, to the reader. Mainly, the idea of dialogism is that dialogue is influenced by many things and is always in relation to other things. As T. S. Eliot wrote in his 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” [9] This is a perfect summary for Bakhtin’s ideas of language being responsive by nature and not ever a truly isolated entity. Although not strictly on the same subject as Bakhtin, Eliot is commenting on how the past always influences the present but past occurrences can have a changed meaning or interpretation due to something said or known in the present.

However, the idea that a text could be completely monologic is a difficult concept to accept, as there will always be different voices and differences in even the most united grouping of people. Bakhtin makes the point that within a national language there will be regional dialects, accents, and colloquialisms [10] . All of these separate aspects within a single national language show the variety present in language. It could be argued that a text cannot be wholly monologic, it could have prominent monologic features, yet there is always a level of heteroglossia. Ann Shukman in Bakhtin School Papers: Russian Poetics in Translation vol.10 [11] defines monologic clearly as being “against dialogic” also that it is “a negatively valued quality” (p.154). Just as a monologue is opposite to a dialogue as one is “uninterrupted utterance…speech that brooks no response” (p.154) and the latter is “an exchange of utterances” at its simplest form (p.153). Shukman describes it as “the basic reality of all speech activity…whether a literary work or a replique in an everyday conversation, is angled towards an expected response” (pp.153-154). This is seen clearly in Bakhtin’s writings; where monologic texts retain more negative connotations as they could be read to show they are inherently, by straightforward definition, that “what is monologic is closed, completed, q.v. because it is not open to response, q.v.” (p.154).

Michael Holquist raises the point that some parts of Bakhtin’s theories (theories involving sociological aspects) show that the study of language can go to an extreme of almost being able to act as an anticipation of how a person might behave. The fact that there are so many different types of language that denote so many things socially, economically, personally and nationally means that discourse is one of the most important things about the study of people; the study of discourse, both written in novels but also spoken in everyday life, could be seen as a foundation for communication between people [12] . The diversity that is contained within a single national language are, in themselves, testimony of how truly varied any form of discourse can be.

The ideas of relations are important also as the relations between words and certain types of discourse are a clear part of Bakhtin’s thinking. This is furthered by Culler [13] and is linked to the role of the author; the idea that language is constructed of different forms of discourse. Culler highlights the notion of interpretation, which it could be argued has a place within the discussion of different types of language. Culler describes the connections “between different levels of language” (p.30) as not only “relevant in literature” (p.30) but that because it is in

“…literature we are more likely to look for and exploit relations between form and meaning or theme and grammar and, attempting to understand the contribution each element makes to the effect of the whole, find integration, harmony, tension, or dissonance.” (p.30)

As Michael Holquist writes, “Bakhtin’s ideas have influenced thinking in literary studies, anthropology, linguistics, psychology and social theory” [14] and he cannot be wholly restrained to just literary theories. Due to his wide fields of interest, Bakhtin’s work on literature is coloured by not only literary observations and dialogue within text but also the social ramifications of dialogue and what role it plays in everyday life. The more philosophical features of his theories allow a level of personal interpretation and freedom in the application of said theories, as though nothing is ever truly a ‘fixed’ entity, or should not be. Holquist refers to “Bakhtin’s philosophy” (p.14) and whilst “dialogism…is itself not a systematic philosophy”(p.16), “dialogue does not have a place solely in the history of literary theory” (p.15). In Bakhtin’s thought, and other influential thinkers and writers that shared a similar stance concerning literature, dialogism is “one of several modern epistemologies that seek to grasp human behaviour through the use humans make of language” (p.15). It is Bakhtin’s “dialogic concept of language” (p.15) that he “proposes fundamental” (p.15), in literary theory. In The Great Gatsby [15] , the discourse between the different characters not only allows them to interact but shows motives, agendas, emotion and tension. Although this is supposedly true of discourse between characters in most novels, in The Great Gatsby, the tension and subtlety in some of the speech hints at the history between the characters (for example, Daisy and Gatsby) but also is an integral part of the novel’s overall affect to work in the style in which F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote it. It is, arguably, a thought provoking book, written from the point of view of a reflective character (Nick Carraway) who is linked by association and family to the story and serves as a catalyst [16] for Daisy and Gatsby. As well as aiding Gatsby in his efforts to see Daisy, Nick is also involved with the different groups of people, meeting new people, ranging from Daisy, Tom and Jordan to Gatsby’s father near the end of the novel. Nick is seen to interact with the social groups whilst not overtly altering his language. Unlike Gatsby, Nick does not generally feel the need to change his language to fit in. At one part early in the novel, Nick observes of Tom and Daisy,

“Their interest rather touched me and made them less remotely rich…” [17] 

This idea that their social and financial status isolates them and removes even family members (Daisy being Nick’s second cousin) from their elitist grouping highlights not only the social gaps but also the different language they use which sets them apart as initially different. When Nick meets Gatsby for the first time, he realises that appearances and performance (in behaviour or language) cannot completely disguise a person.

“…I was looking at an elegant young roughneck…whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Sometime before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.” (p.32)

No matter how Gatsby attempts to cover up his beginnings or original self and heritage with extravagant parties and expenditure, the language he believes to be the style people want or expect to hear from him is not entirely at ease with his true self. This then leaves Nick to, whether with the character’s benefit of hindsight or not, to observe this uncomfortable style of speech which only adds to the image of a façade. Gatsby’s use of “old sport” (p.32) could be seen as a stereotypical phrase used by the upper echelons of society which again contrasts to Gatsby true history.

“…I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited – they went there. They got into their automobiles …and somehow ended up at Gatsby’s door…and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behaviour associated with an amusement park.” (p.27)

However, these lines introducing Nick’s first party at Gatsby’s show a slightly different element to the idea of social gaps and correlating dialogical language. Here, Bakhtin’s concept of a “professional stratification of language…the language of the lawyer, the doctor [18] ” for example, all use a special type of language, with “their vocabularies” and “specific forms for manifesting intentions” (p.675). This could be applied to Gatsby’s situation as, although he is not performing a profession with specialist language, he is playing a specific role. To maintain it and the unofficial authority position it brings, he must speak and act a certain way, different to his norm. People may behave differently in an atmosphere where inhibitions are loosened and from Nick’s observation on Page 27, people do not necessarily flock to Gatsby for him himself rather they go for his parties and the situations it produces. Therefore, despite Gatsby’s attempt at language not specifically spoken by his social class, the fact that he uses it, however well or badly, shows that he is knowingly uses a form of context specific language, to fit in with or create a particular image and situation. As with the environment of one of his well-known parties, Gatsby is required socially to act and speak a certain way – his behaviour and therefore, his language is anticipated and expected by his guests just as his language is in anticipation to what he thinks people expect from him. This is another key point in Bakhtin’s theory on dialogism; the idea that speech is reactionary, in response to something else, some other dialogue as well as being situation dependant – that language is “half-ours and half-someone else’s” (p. 685). It is key to note, however, that Nick only notices this apparent flaw in Gatsby after he has been involved in discourse with him; this gives enough opportunity for Nick to not only identify it but also to make a judgement on it and subsequently gives this attempt at pretending to be something Gatsby is not, a negative connotation. As Nick casually questions Gatsby, Fitzgerald constantly makes it clear that Gatsby is not quite at ease with the way he is speaking, “realised that it was not an appropriate reply…he corrected himself…” [19] . It is this sometimes clumsiness or hesitation in his speech that shows a lot about him as a character thus highlighting the idea that how people behave can be seen in the way they speak [20] . Also, the air of mystery surrounding Gatsby’s past adds to the ability to easily disguise who he might have been as well as isolates him further. When Daisy exclaims dramatically,

“’They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed…’It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before.’” [21] 

This could be interpreted in several ways. Lockridge examines what they could mean in the context of what the reader already knows of Daisy and her past with Gatsby [22] . On the surface, Daisy’s “communion with Gatsby’s shirts” (p.14) in shown, but in the context of the novel and the point at which she says this (during a tour of Gatsby house after she has not see him for nearly five years) her reaction could represent a regret of not being with him and her realisation of the life she could have had with Gatsby. The “beautiful shirts” could represent the idea of a life with Gatsby, the idealised dream without any negative or realistic consequences taken into account. After seeing where Gatsby’s life is at in 1922, after she married and had a child with another man who is having an affair, Daisy could regret or question her life choices in the realisation of what she could have had (although she herself is wealthy) in a life with Gatsby. Bakhtin’s idea of language being “contextual” [23] and in relation to the situation is seen here as in a different situation, Daisy’s exclamation over shirts could mean something more materialistic [24] than if she was in Gatsby’s house and talking about his shirts specifically, as she was. As Bakhtin’s work suggests, speech can reveal more about a person than what they are actually saying, including most commonly, a grouping within society.

The character Nick Carraway, who narrates the story, assumes the omniscient narrator role although it is usually reserved for narration in the third person as a character is not typically able to realistically or believably have knowledge and insight into the whole plot. However, with Nick’s narration, he has the benefit of hindsight as the story he recalls happened two years previous in 1922 and has seen the outcome of the events. Third-person narration could be seen to “less overtly dialogic” [25] and as Bakhtin said, this means the “novel comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present” [26] and that the “novelist is drawn towards everything that is not yet completed” (p.27). This brings a level of freedom to the text as the reader lives the story at the same time as the characters do, finding out things at the same time, thus sharing reactions, and empathising. The first-person narrator allows the novel to have that level of control that a stereotypical strongly monologic novel could have with the author’s voice. Alternatively, it could be seen that the presence of the past’s influences on present day limits or constrains the narrative and through this influence, creates a particular perspective for the character and hence, creates monologic features, similar to the interpretation of a third-person narration.

Carraway’s narrative is told in a confident tone and mostly due to its first person perspective, Nick Carraway’s character is allowed to, quite fully and without outside objection, narrate solely on the events that he is recalling. As they are from his memory, they are instantly open to a level of subjectivity and bias. Due to the nature of this aspect of the novel, The Great Gatsby could arguably have both dialogic and monologic features. Bakhtin’s idea that a novel can be split into monologic or dialogic categories is perhaps rather confining in its view. As Bakhtin argues, however novels are, or should always be, inherently and inescapably dialogic as it is impossible to have a neutral type of language or discourse that is entirely unaffected or uninfluenced. Bakhtin argues that due to the “stratifying forces in language, there are not “neutral” words” [27] . Instead of the author passing judgment and being obviously present within the text, the voice of Nick, albeit a character’s voice, narrates the story from his arguably limited viewpoint. The idea of Nick assuming the omniscient and sometimes judgemental role as narrator is highlighted in Guy Reynolds ‘Introduction’ to the novel in the Wordsworth Classics, added in 2001 [28] . He notes that one of the characters, Jordan, “is rumoured to cheat at golf”(p.14) and that despite being relatively “trivial…in Nick’s disquieted responses to these stories we sense real intimations of moral collapse” (p.14). Nick himself says of her, later in the novel, “She was incurably dishonest” (p.38) thus reinforcing not only the act of cheating but also the ramification of living such a way. The use of the word “incurably” (p.38) is used most often in relation to physical or mental disease that will never get better or heal, thus giving the connotation of her lies and her lifestyle as slowly killing her, or at the very least, doing her no good in the long- term. Nick takes over the role that Bakhtin labelled as the monologic novel author’s role. In this case, the author has a more restricted view so the story is told from this specific angle; there is not a real sense of the author who allows the characters to interact with little obvious bias. Fitzgerald allows Nick to take this role and tell the story from a character’s point of view and by doing so limits the typical omniscient and often impartial narrator. Although Bakhtin may have viewed this feature as a more negative one, Nick’s character is an observer of the events in the novel, and whilst he a character, the main drama revolves around Daisy and Gatsby’s doomed love affair which culminates in Daisy’s superficial nature surfacing and Gatsby’s ultimate death (p.13)

Bakhtin’s theory about discourse, “both written and spoken” [29] , and his argument that a text can be categorised as a dialogic or monologic text are both key to not only reading literature and appreciating it but also speech in everyday life. However, it is difficult to make a strict split between the monologic and the dialogic in literature. The Great Gatsby has aspects that can be interpreted as monologic but is, for the main, dialogic. The social differences between the world Daisy lives in is different to Nick’s by simple definition but further, it could be argued that Gatsby’s social grouping is between the two, not quite fitting into ether due to Gatsby’s desires and background. Through the language used and the exploration within Nick’s narration, the “social differentiation…can become extremely acute” (p.675). The influence of social thought in Bakhtin’s concepts is clear as, especially in ‘Discourse of the novel’, the idea of context and situation affecting language is a key theme. Bakhtin states that language is not a fixed notion and that it, and the views it represents, can be “juxtaposed to one another, mutually supplement one another, contradict one another and be interrelated dialogically”(p.674). The different types of language, “social dialects, characteristic group behaviours, professional jargons”, according to Bakhtin’s work, are “internal stratification present in every language of its historical existence” and is the “prerequisite for the novel as a genre” (p.674) As Bakhtin states in ‘Discourse in the novel’, taking into account the deeply contextual nature of language and its representation in the novel, discourse is ultimately “not finite, it is open; in each of the new contexts that dialogize it.” (p.685). This permanent relationship that language has with a wider social context means that “one’s own discourse is gradually and slowly wrought out of others’ words that have been acknowledged and assimilated, and the boundaries between the two are at first scarcely perceptible” (p.685).

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