Narrative techniques and psychological realism in Death in Venice, Mrs Dalloway and The Great Gatsby

In the narrative fiction of the 19th century, many writers achieved a form of realism using an authorial third person narrative voice and conveying meaning through description, plot and dialogue. Societal changes, psychiatry and modernity in the 20th century brought new modes of thinking and an increased emphasis on psychological realism, driven by the idea that a character’s inner thoughts and perspective reflect human reality more accurately than external observation. Death in Venice, Mrs Dalloway and The Great Gatsby demonstrate that psychological realism can be achieved using a variety of narrative techniques: free indirect discourse, stream-of-consciousness and complex symbolism allow Death in Venice and Mrs Dalloway to portray the internal mental state of their characters, while the first person limited narration of The Great Gatsby foregrounds the protagonist’s perspective and emphasises the true unknowability of other people.

In Death in Venice, Thomas Mann employs free indirect discourse to blur the distinction between the narrator and the protagonist Aschenbach, conveying Aschenbach’s thoughts directly to the reader. On Aschenbach’s journey to Venice, he encounters a “dandified old man” (213) and Mann writes: “did they not know, did they not notice that he was old, that he had no right to be acting as if he were one of them?” (211). This thought is not attributed to Aschenbach, and is an example of free indirect discourse. The effect of this technique is that the narrative voice is removed, bringing the reader directly into Aschenbach’s mind. The reader feels Aschenbach’s disgust at this old man trying to regain his youth, which becomes a powerful irony once Aschenbach befalls the same fate.

As the story progresses and Aschenbach becomes obsessed with Tadzio, the use of free indirect discourse diminishes, and the ambiguous closeness between narrator and protagonist is removed, corresponding with Aschenbach’s shift from the cerebral to the sensual. This technique allows the reader to judge Aschenbach from an external moral perspective, with his “drooping, cosmetically brightened lips” (264), yet his psychology is still given prominence through passages that utilise stream-of-consciousness narration, for example “the discourse his brain was delivering” (264) as he dreams of Phaedrus and the binary opposition between beauty and knowledge.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway uses stream-of-consciousness much more prominently, providing the reader with deep access to the thoughts, memories and emotions of multiple characters, and using setting, symbolism and fluid shifts of focalisation to emphasise the interconnectedness between them. Woolf privileges thoughts ahead of actions, for example in this passage concerning Peter:

He became absorbed; he became busied with his own concerns; now surly, now gay; dependent on women, absent-minded, moody, less and less able (so he thought as he shaved) to understand why […] And then he could just—just do what? Just haunt and hover (he was at the moment actually engaged in sorting his keys, papers) […] (140).

Peter’s actions, such as shaving and sorting his keys, are parenthetical, while the continuous stream of his thoughts is given precedence. Mrs Dalloway differs from Death in Venice with this prominent use of stream-of-consciousness, and also by presenting the thoughts of multiple linked characters rather than a sole protagonist.

People’s differing perceptions of shared experiences are highlighted in Mrs Dalloway in both trivial and profound ways. Early in the text, Clarissa hears “a pistol shot in the street outside!” (10), which Miss Pym reveals as being from a car. This simple misunderstanding is soon followed by a number of scenes in which various characters attempt to interpret sky-writing, hinting again at some of the text’s larger themes: shared experience (as symbolised by central London and the chimes of Big Ben), the different perceptions we all have within our unique psychological universe, and the effects that memories from the past can have on our present selves.

When Peter and Clarissa meet, Peter’s impression is that “she’s grown older”, while Clarissa thinks that Peter is “exactly the same” (34). Peter observes Clarissa mending her dress, “growing more and more irritated, more and more agitated” while Clarissa finds Peter “perfectly enchanting”, remembering “how impossible it was ever to make up [her] mind” (35). In this passage, the perspective alternates between the two characters in a beautifully flowing manner, following their conversation and providing a holistic view of their emotions. The contrast between our interior life and exterior actions is further explored when Richard comes home to Clarissa with flowers, but “could not bring himself to say he loved her”, although the fact that “she understood without his speaking” (104) also reveals a subtle interplay between alienation and interconnectedness that runs through the book.

While both Death in Venice and Mrs Dalloway demonstrate the effectiveness of free indirect discourse and stream-of-consciousness in portraying psychological realism, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is written from the first person perspective of Nick Carraway and achieves its psychological reality in quite different ways. Firstly, Nick is a perceptive outsider, who is caught up in the glitzy and “remotely rich” (19) world of Tom and Daisy, providing the reader with the means to judge their “careless and confused” (142) attitude and share in his disgust. Nick’s perspective also emphasises the idea that we cannot truly know other people. Unlike Mrs Dalloway, which presents this by showing the different perspectives that each character takes from the same events, The Great Gatsby emphasises the mystery surrounding Gatsby, and Nick’s somewhat naïve view of him, which the reader does not share.

The importance of perspective is symbolised by the recurring motif of Dr Eckleburg’s eyes, which “brood on over the solemn dumping ground” (21) and witness Myrtle’s demise; the character Owl Eyes who is confounded by the “absolutely real” books in Gatsby’s library, exclaiming “what realism!” (38); and also by the blinking green light at the end of Gatsby’s wharf, which directs his gaze towards Daisy. Nick reflects on the “yellow windows” of Myrtle’s apartment, which convey “their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher” (30), and the potential holes in his own unreliable narration are revealed by the use of an ellipsis to gloss over the homo-erotic scene with the “pale, feminine man” (26) Mr McKee: “…I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear” (32). Clearly The Great Gatsby uses the subjective personal voice over the objective authorial, achieving psychological realism though its portrayal of the main characters and revealing truths behind the lives of the upper-class in 1920s New York.

The narrative techniques of perspective and voice are a vital component in the way stories are told, and in the transference of meaning from text to reader. These three texts all convey psychological realism by revealing the thoughts of their characters, and the different perspectives that can apply to the same situation. In Death of Venice, the narration shifts from Aschenbach’s own perspective to an objective narrative voice, allowing the reader to judge his moral decline. Mrs Dalloway shifts perspective fluidly and uses symbolism to show both the uniqueness and interconnectedness between each character’s psychological world, and The Great Gatsby uses the perspective of a potentially unreliable outsider to allow the reader to view and judge the characters, while also questioning the narrator’s own judgements. While they employ different techniques, each of these works demonstrates modernism’s increasing emphasis on psychological reality rather than social realism.

 Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby.New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice and Other Stories. Trans. David Luke. London: Vintage, 1998. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. London: Vintage, 2004. Print.


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