Communication Dynamics within F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby". Communication in Modernist Literature

Term Paper, 2021

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1. Introduction

2. Overview
2.1 Modernism
2.2 F. Scott Fitzgerald
2.3 The Great Gatsby

3. Theory: communication in modernist literature

4. Analysis: communication in The Great Gatsby
4.1 Communication between characters
4.1.1 Ordinary dialogue
4.1.2 Poetic dialogue
4.1.3 Miscommunication
4.1.4 Lack of communication
4.2 Communication between narrator and reader
4.2.1 Reliability
4.2.2 Stream of consciousness
4.3 Tools for communication
4.3.1 Language
4.3.2 Telephone

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Communication is key.” This phrase is well known all over the world and applies for every social interaction. It does not matter if you are a parent, a best friend, or a businesswoman to agree with this statement because communication is so important every day in every kind of relationship. It could be argued that communication is the basis of just about everything in our modern world.

But what does communication in literary texts reveal? Which kind of information do communication dynamics in literature provide, and to what degree does communication in literature function as a window to the past? Inspired by these questions, this paper will try to explore to what extent the communication dynamics in The Great Gatsby, published in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald, are key for understanding and reinterpreting the novel, considering its contextualization in the period of Modernism.

Harrel states: “As literature helps communicate social, ethical and spiritual values of a time period, it is important that we consider how communication is portrayed in literature” (Harrel 2018: 11). Bearing in mind the citation, this paper will attempt to analyze the communication dynamics within the novel, evaluate their significance and find out if they mirror common communication features of the movement of Modernism. Thus, this paper will direct the attention to a new perspective and make room for a new understanding of a novel that has been thoughtfully analyzed over the last century. Hence, different aspects of communication, such as communication between characters, communication between the narrator and the reader, and tools for communication, will be looked at in the main part of this paper to gain as much information as possible concerning the communication dynamics within the novel.

Consequently, it is inevitable to begin this paper with a short depiction of the period of Modernism and a brief introduction of the author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his novel The Great Gatsby, before proceeding to the theoretical chapter of this paper which introduces popular features of communication during the early twentieth century in order to explore successively which features are (not) to be found within Fitzgerald’s novel. The main reference for the theoretical chapter is Fictional Dialogue: Speech and Conversation in the Modern and Postmodern Novel by Bronwen Thomas from 2012. The emphasis of this paper lies on the analytical chapters, in which relevant passages, especially dialogues, from the novel itself will be discusses and examined closely. The term paper ends with a merging chapter.

It is crucial to bear in mind that this paper, due to its formal restrictions and the complexity of the topic, cannot offer an exhaustive analysis but rather aims at contributing new information to the topic of communication in The Great Gatsby.

2. Overview

Although the novel is known world-wide, the following chapter will, as short as possible, introduce the movement of Modernism, the author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his novel The Great Gatsby, since the successive analytical chapters will build upon this information and rely on the familiarity of the movement Modernism.

2.1 Modernism

In a broader sense, the term Modernism refers to an entire tendency in literature and arts that started in the middle of the nineteenth century and lasted until the middle of the twentieth century. However, the many characteristics, which were and still are interpreted in various ways, depending on the perspective of the observer, make it difficult to determine one exact period and to find one precise definition of American Modernism. While some critics extend the period from 1880 to 1950, others divide the period into pre and postwar years. Some other critics believe that the movement started in 1890 and finished in 1945 when World War II was over.

It is certain that in literature the significance of Modernism increased after World War I. The movement was concerned with the changing situation of the society and aimed to break away from traditional verse forms and narrative techniques. However, Modernism did not only break away from traditional narrative techniques, but also from established rules: modernists reconsidered the “man’s position” and “function” from a new perspective which was quite bizarre to the eyes of traditionalists (cf. Hooti, Omrani 2011: 252). Therefore, modernist writing refers to specific experimental elements, which flout the conventional literary forms and is not to be mistaken with modern writing. Revolutionary changes in narrative style, structure or language are just some determinants of modernist fiction. Childs claims that Modernism “can be taken as a response by artists and writers to several things, including industrialization, urban society, war, technological change and new philosophical ideas” (Childs 2016: 21).

2.2 F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald is a distinguished author in American Literature. He was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and celebrated his breakthrough as a writer after the release of his first novel This Side of Paradise in 1920. Although recognition came early, appreciation has come late in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He died in 1940 in Hollywood where he lived and worked for the last years. His last book The Last Tycoon was never finished. Unfortunately, he has been properly and widely appreciated only after he stopped writing.

Although he was part of the fun generation and the jazz age, he is often, together with other famous writers who lived and gained prominence during the 1920s, referred to as part of the Lost Generation. According to Lazo, members of the Lost Generation conveyed a philosophic pessimism in their work and many of these writers reflected the search for something to believe in after the destruction caused by World War I. They also tended to reject the conventional literary techniques of the past (cf. Lazo 2003: 78).

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a writer who saw clearly and saw through the mores of a particular class in a particular country at a particular time. The time was a short one - hardly more than two decades. The country was a unique one. And the class was a small one. These circumstances have shaped his reputation into that of a specialist and a spokesman (Greenleaf 1952: 97).

2.3 The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and has become one of the most popular novels in the world. Before its fame and popularity though, the novel was virtually forgotten for twenty-five years; its revival in the early 1950s was part of the rediscovery of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The novel represents an era of excitement and is about the glamour and moral bankruptcy of the Jazz age. The title refers to a mysterious millionaire, named Jay Gatsby, who gets involved in the materialism and corruption of a mercenary society without feelings or human concerns. He struggles with the impossible task of trying to recreate his past.

The novel is most recognized for its allusions to the American Dream. Until lately, however, The Great Gatsby has not been regarded as an example of Modernism as works by Hemingway and Faulkner have. According to Prigozy “The Great Gatsby has been difficult for critics and theorists to classify, so unusual is its narrative design, its elusiveness, its seeming unwillingness to be placed in any category” (Prigozy 2006: 343). Yet, this unconformity might exactly be why the novel may be indeed an example of Modernism. The novel’s elastic ability to lend itself to decidedly different interpretations and its refusal to fit comfortably into a literary mold, indicates the rejection of the conventional literary techniques of the past.

3. Theory: communication in modernist literature

Communication has always been dynamic. Simply because our communication is linked to language, our ways and possibilities to communicate with one another may change every day by adding and using new words in conversation. In the early twentieth century the subject of language began to take on an unprecedented centrality in European and American literature (cf. Berry 2006: 114). Some critics even derided Modernism for abandoning the social world in favor of its narcissistic interest in language and its processes. Since this paper aims to investigate to what extent communication is key for understanding and reinterpreting the novel and the significance of the time period it was written in, this theoretical chapter will introduce common characteristics of communication in modernist literature from the early twentieth century. As previously mentioned, modernist literature is famous for its breaks with tradition and drive for innovation. This revolution also concerns communication.

While many writers experimented with language in new ways, others experienced the problem of or even incapacity to ever fully communicate meaning, especially after World War I. T.S. Eliot, who for many is synonymous with Modernism, coined a nowadays famous line in his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock which puts the problematic of communicating meaning in a nutshell: “That's not it at all, that's not what I meant at all”. The problematic of struggling to communicate meaning is distinctive for modernist literature and will therefore be thoroughly analyzed in this paper.

The stream of consciousness is one characteristic outcome of the experimentation with narration in literature during Modernism. It describes a unique technique in which various thoughts and impressions of a character are relayed to the reader in a way that captures the suddenness, spontaneity and often inconsequence of those thoughts and impressions. This new way of expressing thoughts influenced the communication in literature of the twentieth century, since writers had found new ways to communicate with their readers. According to Hooti and Omrani “the stream of consciousness helped several original minds who had been working, […] towards a new method of writing fiction and prove their isolation and originality in the depiction of their loneliness and lack of communication.” (Hooti, Omrani 2011: 256). In fact, lack of communication and miscommunication are other popular features in modernist literature. In Bendixen’s A Companion to the American Novel, the modern scene is entirely defined by negation: “[L]oveless marriages, abortions, lack of communication, casual sex, denial of spiritual sources” (Bendixen 2012: 67). Miscommunication is explicitly mentioned by Thomas: “Writers were prepared to engage with the mishaps and miscommunication that characterize so much of our day-to-day interactions with one another” (Thomas 2012: 8). The struggle to communicate is commonly accompanied by a profoundly pessimistic picture of a culture in disarray and a break with the Victorian bourgeois morality. This pessimism and frustration of the movement was displayed through misleading or non-sense dialogues, which sometimes only served to convey a general feeling of futility. Thomas explains further that modernist writers engaged with reality in a new, often ironic way and that “no study of twentieth-century fiction can ignore the […] disrupted prevailing notions of meaning and truth and how these might be represented” (Thomas 2012: 9). In her opinion, experimentation with dialogue can be identified as a key constituent of communication in modernist literature since the speech of fictional characters is often perceived as offering the reader direct, unmediated access to that individual’s emotions, desires, habits, and predilections (cf. Thomas 2012: 57). Steiner counters that “human speech conceals far more than it reveals; it blurs much more than it defines; it distances more than it connects” (Steiner 1975: 240). Whether the speech of the characters in The Great Gatsby is insightful or not, will be examined in this paper. Thomas makes aware that particularly modernist fiction has “disrupted faith in the transparency of character speech”, and as new techniques for representing characters’ consciousnesses have developed, the boundaries between speech and thought have become ever more blurred (cf. Thomas 2012: 57). The illusion of the reliability of a character’s speech is consequently another characteristic element of communication in modernist literature, which will be investigated.

Concerning the content and form of dialogue, Thomas explicates that dialogue underwent a shift itself during Modernism by focusing more on the ordinary than on the art of dialogue (cf. ibid: 8). Dialogues in modernist literature often dealt with the banal and the everyday life, she claims. Yet, she also points at an interesting combination of both, ordinary and poetic dialogue within the same piece of literature. Since dialogues illustrate best the communication between characters, this paper will study the form and content they engage with.

But not only the communication between characters should receive attention; also the communication between author or narrator and reader should not be ignored. D'hoker and Martens state that unreliability is typical for modernist texts from American literature (cf. D'hoker, Martens 2008: 2). So, another characteristic communication feature of modernist literature is a discontinuous, often unreliable narrator, which will be addressed in this paper.

Last but not to forget is the impact of technological innovation during the nineteenth and twentieth century on communication in literature. Especially the telephone changed the communication and offered up new possibilities for narrative and storytelling. The response in modernist literature to this major technological change is ultimately another influential aspect on communication, which will be examined in this paper.

4. Analysis: communication in The Great Gatsby

The following chapters will analyze the communication between the characters, the communication between the narrator and the reader and tools for communication that influence the comprehension of The Great Gatsby. This paper will investigate the presence and significance of the above listed popular communication features of modernist writings and then interpret what role communication plays in the novel, considering the period it was written in.

4.1 Communication between characters

These chapters seek to place the emphasis squarely on the communication between the characters. Thomas claims that dialogue is the key element when analyzing communication in modernist literature (cf. Thomas 2012: 8). Therefore, different dialogues and their versatility will be studied trying to determine what they engage with.

4.1.1 Ordinary dialogue

Thomas argues: “[T]his period was […] important in establishing a sense of common ground among writers experimenting with dialogue, particularly insofar as they were prepared to foreground the banal and the routine […]” (Thomas 2012: 8). She goes on stating that “evidence suggests that the early decades of the twentieth century marked a shift away from focusing on dialogue as an ‘art’ toward engaging with the idioms and jargons of the day” (ibid.). In other words, according to Thomas, dialogue in modernist literature dealt with the routine of everyday life and was often verbalized less eloquently.

While reading The Great Gatsby, it is difficult to overlook the short superficial dialogues in the novel. When Nick is about to leave the get- together dinner at the Buchanan’s in chapter one, Daisy exclaims: “‘Wait! I forgot to ask you something, and it’s important. We heard you were engaged to a girl out West.’ ‘That’s right,’ corroborated Tom kindly. […]. ‘It’s libel. I’m too poor.’ ‘But we heard it,’ insisted Daisy. […]. ‘We heard it from three people so it must be true’” (Fitzgerald 1992: 23). This short dialogue illustrates that the topics, even the assumed important ones, are just superficial gossip. Daisy Buchanan, with her childish attitudes, her empty expressions such as “How gorgeous” (ibid: 12) and “I’m p-paralyzed with happiness” (ibid: 11), personifies the superficiality and artificiality of the society in The Great Gatsby. Her main concern is to be “sophisticated” (ibid: 20). And yet it is Daisy who says something that is one of the clearest examples in the novel of the mindset of the lost generation: “You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow,’ […]. ‘Everybody thinks so-the most advanced people. And I KNOW. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything” (ibid: 20). Daisy has been around and experienced many things, but it has not made her life satisfying at all. Interestingly, her affirmations along with her wishes and feelings, which seem to function allegorically for her personality, remain answerless and unacknowledged.

It seems almost as if the characters did not feel the urge, pleasure, or the power to communicate with one another. As if conversing was an empty social norm, people lived by out of habit. In these endless and aimless conversations talk makes more talk for the thrill of talk itself. The short dialogue in chapter one between Tom and Nick is one of many that perfectly illustrates a conversation taking place simply out of habit instead out of interest: “‘What you doing, Nick?’ ‘I’m a bond man.’ ‘Who with?’ I told him. ‘Never heard of them,’ he remarked decisively. This annoyed me. ‘You will,’ I answered shortly.’” (ibid: 13). The conversation seems of so little interest, that not even the reader gets to know who Nick works with. Other dialogues instead start out more promising by conveying the impression the characters would know what they talk about. In a heartbeat, this facade breaks down and the reader understands that they don’t. In chapter one Tom talks to Nick about a book he has recently read.

‘ I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?’ ‘Why, no,’ […]. ‘Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be-will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.’ ‘Tom’s getting very profound,’ said Daisy with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. ‘He reads deep books with long words in them’ (Fitzgerald 1992: 16).

This dialogue between Tom, Nick and Daisy demonstrates that the more sophisticated conversation topics are, almost ironically, reduced by the characters to banal small talk devoid of meaning. In a context where even the “big words” are just part of the game, Tom Buchanan’s suggestion “[d]on’t believe everything you hear” (ibid: 23) is, according to Coleman, “indispensable advice for any conversational player” (Coleman 2000: 58).

Correspondingly, most of the dialogues in the novel are of materialistic concern. The characters talk about clothes, cars, money and gossip about other people and their lives. The party in Tom’s apartment in New York in chapter two consists of elaborate lies, “artificial laughter” (Fitzgerald 1992: 40), and high-class pretensions that create superficial connections through shallow and disdainful conversations, such as Myrtle’s scornful discussion of her husband’s lack of wealth and class (cf. ibid: 39). Finally, a person’s reputation seems to be a major interest for the characters. Gatsby fears: “I didn’t want you to think I was just some nobody” (ibid: 73). His anxiety of living and dying as some nobody is his prime motivation for all his moves. The missing piece, which would complete his new identity as a rich, popular, and successful man, is Daisy, who “was popular in Chicago, as you know” (ibid: 83). Without Daisy, Gatsby can only belong to the newly rich, less esteemed west.

In accordance with Thomas, the routine and the banality of the dialogues serves “to dramatize the tedium and frustrations of the characters’ lives” (Thomas 2012: 28). Clearly, the novel is abundant in dialogues that foreground the banal and the routine as proposed by Thomas as a characteristic feature of communication in modernist literature.


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Communication Dynamics within F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby". Communication in Modernist Literature
University of Cologne
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communication, dynamics, scott, fitzgerald’s, great, gatsby, modernist, literature
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Anonymous, 2021, Communication Dynamics within F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby". Communication in Modernist Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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