The narrative fiction of the late 19th and early 20th century demonstrated a marked shift from traditional plot-driven social realism towards a more nuanced form of psychological realism. This global trend was clearly present in the American literature of the period, and also coincided with an influx of freshly wealthy American citizens holidaying and living in Europe with their new money and attitudes. Although occurring before the modern feminism of the mid-20th century, this period also represented a marked shift from the restrictions of Victorian England and European codes of behaviour towards increased economic and sexual freedom for women, particularly in America. Both Daisy Miller and Tender is the Night are works which, though written by men and preoccupied with their male protagonists, also use the subtle techniques of psychological realism to portray the complex moral and sexual challenges faced by American women abroad in Europe.
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.
I’m re-reading Gatsby for the first time in ten years, due to an upcoming lit subject—good timing with the movie just coming out, although I’m not a Luhrmann fan and don’t hold high hopes for it. Two sentences leapt out at me in Chapter One. Firstly, a vivid description of Tom and Daisy’s front lawn and house:
“The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.”
And then, of course, the mysterious Gatsby’s first physical appearance in the book, under the beautifully described “silver pepper of the stars”:
“The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone—fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars.”