Exam Topic IV, Vered Arnon
There are two opposing ways of thinking of a man, according to a statement from Ezra Pound’s “Vorticism”(1). By attempting to look at the narrators from both Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Cather’s My Antonia in light of this statement, one can see how the two opposing ways of looking at a character are integral and complementary, and not evaluative. Both Nick Carroway and Jim Burden are the ‘toy of circumstance’, but they also both ‘direct force against circumstance’.
On a first reading, Nick Carroway from The Great Gatsby seems like nothing but a toy of circumstance. He definitely receives impressions, but he receives them passively. The story he tells seems to be about Gatsby, not himself. Every adventure he has is created by one of the other characters, and doesn’t even really impact his own life. His impressions come and go, inconsistently. By the end of the book one isn’t even sure what impression he really had of Gatsby. “Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn”(2) Carroway declares in the first chapter as he introduces the story. But by the end of the book, he tells Gatsby, “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together”(3), referring to the other people in the story, some of whom he has expressed an extreme admiration for. However, he still adds in the narrative, “I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”(4) This conflicting statement expresses the plasticity of his impressions, the mutability, the way that he simply reflects and observes and doesn’t act out against circumstances. He gives Gatsby a compliment but doesn’t change his conviction of the fact that Gatsby’s actions conflict with all of his own values. Everything in Gatsby’s story seems to just flow over and around Nick Carroway.
But in his passive reflexion and observation as he narrates Gatsby’s story, Nick is in fact narrating his own personal story of directing force against circumstance. He understands that he has limits, and he accepts the fact that circumstance will keep him within those limits. On the other hand, he does want to pursue the ‘American Dream’, so he vicariously gets as close to it as he can by getting closer to Gatsby and more involved in his life. As the drama unfolds, Nick Carroway helps Gatsby chase after his dream of being with Daisy. For example, he sets up the initial tea date for Gatsby with Daisy. Carroway remains distant and neutral, but he is affecting Gatsby’s life. He’s directing force against circumstance and assisting the melodrama as it unfolds. On the surface he seems to be passively narrating someone else’s story, but on a deeper level he is creating a story for himself. When Gatsby’s life ends in tragedy, Carroway remains standing at the end of the dock, reflecting on Gatsby’s lost dreams from a distant fluid point of control. Carroway learned Gatsby’s lessons not just from observing, but from playing a subtle hidden part as the fluid current underneath the surface that guided the drama forward.
Jim Burden in My Antonia seems just the opposite on the first reading. He’s the narrator, and he’s telling his own story, despite the title of the book. From the start, the book is about his adventure, his choices, his decisions. Even when he passively lets other people make decisions for him, it’s his own choice to flow with circumstance or against it. While Nick Carroway fixates on specific people and events, Jim Burden’s life is full of many different relationships and many different people who influence him in a transformative way. He gets caught up in action more than in observation and reflexion. Circumstance carries him across the country and back, to and away from Antonia, but instead of plasticly receiving impressions as life flows by him, by the end of the book he turns back against the current, and returns to Antonia, directing his own will against the circumstances that distanced them, and renewing the friendship. He doesn’t vicariously live through her story. He builds his own story around her. The narrative always focuses on his own actions and his personal drama. His story weaves around her but isn’t solely a function of the impressions she gives him or his observations and reflexions on her own drama.
Of course, Ezra Pound’s quotation concludes on the note that “the two camps always exist.” Jim Burden can also be seen as ‘the toy of circumstance’. The story seems on the surface like a romance between Jim and Antonia. The reader is inclined to want them to get together. But Jim and Antonia’s romance never comes to fruition. In the end she marries someone else and the story is about Jim’s observations of her and reflexions of her, not about his personal involvement with her. He doesn’t really move as a fluid force against the circumstances of her life. They move apart and things happen in her life that he has no connexion with at all. The story is called “My Antonia” but the part that’s “my” or Jim’s is reflexion and observation. He says in the introduction that he just “wrote down pretty much all that her name recalls to me”(5). He wasn’t conceiving her, he was recollecting her, observing her and recording the perceptions that moved towards him.
When looking at a character in a novel, even the narrator can always be seen in different ways. The different perspectives and interpretations are not evaluative, the one view isn’t more accurate than the other. The two ways of thinking about characters are complementary and add deeper insight to the messages carried in the novels.
Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1988.
Fitzgerald, F Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner Paperback Fiction, Simon & Schuster Inc, New York NY, 1995.
1 “There are two opposed ways of thinking of a man: firstly, you may think of him as that toward which perception moves, as the toy of circumstance, as the plastic substance receiving impressions; secondly, you may think of him as directing a certain fluid force against circumstance, as conceiving instead of merely reflecting and observing. One does not claim that one way is better than the other, one notes a diversity of temperament. The two camps always exist.” From Ezra Pound’s “Vorticism”, as presented on the final exam topics sheet in ENGL 250.
2 Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Chapter 1, p6
3 Ibid. Chapter 8, p162
5 Cather, My Antonia, Introduction, p2