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Mad Queen
01-25-2009, 08:50 AM
These are two paragraphs from The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mild spoilers.

The relentless beating heat was beginning to confuse me and I had a bad moment there before I realized that so far [Wilson's] suspicions hadnít alighted on Tom. He had discovered that Myrtle had some sort of life apart from him in another world, and the shock had made him physically sick.

In one of the windows over the garage the curtains had been moved aside a little, and Myrtle Wilson was peering down at the car. So engrossed was she that she had no consciousness of being observed, and one emotion after another crept into her face like objects into a slowly developing picture.

POV: first person. Does it bother you that the narrator, Nick Carraway, seems to know what Wilson and his wife Myrtle are thinking? How could he know that Myrtle had no consciousness of being observed? We could assume that Nick didn't know anything, these are just his own conclusions about what they were thinking and they might very well be wrong, but I still don't like the way it was written. I took from my bookcase some other novels written in first person and read random passages from them. Sometimes the narrator tells what other characters are feeling or thinking, but never this precisely. Usually it's much more subtle, involving an adverb or adjective, such as 'Polio was delighted.' or 'This made Livy really furious.' (both from I, Claudius) or 'Holmes cast a swift glance of triumph at me.' (from The Hound of the Baskervilles). None of these seem like telepathy.

By the way, I think The Great Gatsby is a very good book.

Kate Thornton
01-25-2009, 09:04 AM
I like an omniscient narrator sometimes, someone who is more than just a character, someone who knows everything and is willing to tell it slowly and deliberately. So it doesn't bother me at all - in fact, in Fitzgerald's capable hands, I like it.

I like first person in general, although I avoid omniscience in my FP characters - I think. Maybe I'd better go check...!

Ciera_
01-25-2009, 09:08 AM
I occasionally struggle with my characters knowing too much, too. But not as badly as that, lol.

blacbird
01-25-2009, 09:10 AM
I like an omniscient narrator sometimes, someone who is more than just a character, someone who knows everything and is willing to tell it slowly and deliberately. So it doesn't bother me at all - in fact, in Fitzgerald's capable hands, I like it.

I detest Fitzgerald's work, and I think you just identified exactly the reason why.

caw

Mad Queen
01-25-2009, 09:18 AM
I like an omniscient narrator sometimes, someone who is more than just a character, someone who knows everything and is willing to tell it slowly and deliberately. So it doesn't bother me at all - in fact, in Fitzgerald's capable hands, I like it.
I like first person, and third person omniscient is okay, but first person omniscient? Unless your character can read minds, I don't think it's possible. He will just seem arrogant, except Nick isn't arrogant, and it puzzled me that Fitzgerald chose to write the book like that.

RedScylla
01-25-2009, 09:26 AM
I do love to let my first person narrators think they know what's going on, only to demonstrate in the next scene that they were completely off base.

Toothpaste
01-25-2009, 09:28 AM
Actually I do think it is possible. The Great Gatsby is very much a story being told later on. We aren't in that first person past where basically we assume the story is happening as he tells it. I always got the sense that the narrator sharing the story with us had filled in some of the blanks before he started to relay it. You know, talked with people, sat down and drawn some of his own conclusions. And then many years later, decided to tell a story that happened to him once.

It's kind of like if I was telling of my personal experience with the recent inauguration: "I listened to him recite the oath, and felt a bit bad for the justice as he flubbed it. Of course over the next few days the media would be all over that one minor error, but right then, in that moment, I just didn't care. History had been made."

ClaudiaGray
01-25-2009, 09:31 AM
I think it works in Gatsby, partly for the reasons Toothpaste outlines, and partly because Nick is such an observant character -- he has a lot of insight into other people, to an unusual degree but not to an unbelievable one.

Mad Queen
01-25-2009, 09:46 AM
Actually I do think it is possible. The Great Gatsby is very much a story being told later on. We aren't in that first person past where basically we assume the story is happening as he tells it. I always got the sense that the narrator sharing the story with us had filled in some of the blanks before he started to relay it.
At least in Myrtle's and Wilson's case, what you suggest is impossible, because (spoilers) when this scene takes place, Nick is going to NY, and when he comes back a few hours later, Myrtle is dead. So he couldn't have asked her what she was thinking at that time. Wilson also shot himself a few days later, after he shot Gatsby. (end of spoilers) So there's no way Nick could have known what those characters were thinking just because it happened in the past.

"I listened to him recite the oath, and felt a bit bad for the justice as he flubbed it. Of course over the next few days the media would be all over that one minor error, but right then, in that moment, I just didn't care. History had been made."
But you never told me what the speaker was thinking. That's the difference. What you wrote seems perfectly fine.

Mad Queen
01-25-2009, 09:49 AM
I think it works in Gatsby, partly for the reasons Toothpaste outlines, and partly because Nick is such an observant character -- he has a lot of insight into other people, to an unusual degree but not to an unbelievable one.
It doesn't matter how observant he was. No one can observe thoughts and feelings. He could have observed their reactions, but he couldn't have known what they were thinking.

kuwisdelu
01-25-2009, 10:06 AM
POV: first person. Does it bother you that the narrator, Nick Carraway, seems to know what Wilson and his wife Myrtle are thinking? How could he know that Myrtle had no consciousness of being observed? We could assume that Nick didn't know anything, these are just his own conclusions about what they were thinking and they might very well be wrong, but I still don't like the way it was written. I took from my bookcase some other novels written in first person and read random passages from them. Sometimes the narrator tells what other characters are feeling or thinking, but never this precisely. Usually it's much more subtle, involving an adverb or adjective, such as 'Polio was delighted.' or 'This made Livy really furious.' (both from I, Claudius) or 'Holmes cast a swift glance of triumph at me.' (from The Hound of the Baskervilles). None of these seem like telepathy.

I like it when it's done well. It depends on the narrator.

As ClaudiaGray pointed, in Nick's case, he's very observant. I think it fits him.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter that first person narrators don't know for sure. We, as humans, very often have assumptions and conclusions about what another person is feeling or sometimes even thinking. Ignoring that when writing first person is just silly, IMO.

I like first person, and third person omniscient is okay, but first person omniscient? Unless your character can read minds, I don't think it's possible. He will just seem arrogant, except Nick isn't arrogant, and it puzzled me that Fitzgerald chose to write the book like that.

I disagree. Everything is perception. When it comes down to it, every first person narrator is unreliable, because we are hearing the story through their perception of events, and their perception of everything else. Why shouldn't that include their perception of how others in the story feel or what they're thinking. Who can honestly say they haven't guessed at what someone else was thinking or feeling?

And I hope at least a few other people out there don't mind first person "omniscient," since I love writing it. It's fun to play with possibilities and a narrator's imagination.

Mad Queen
01-25-2009, 10:17 AM
I've got a problem with the way he chose to write it. If Nick had written: "Myrtle Wilson was peering down at the car. She seemed so engrossed that I doubted she had any consciousness of being observed.', I'd never create this topic. But he writes as if he knew what she was thinking, as a fact, and it just feels weird. It didn't seem like an assumption or conclusion, which I agree we all make, and it's fine by me when first person narrators make them.

Let's say I write: 'Today I created a topic on AWWC about two excerpts from The Great Gatsby I don't like. kuwisdelu read my post and thought first person omniscient is a fine point of view.' Doesn't it give you the creeps? How can I know what you thought when you read my post? Even if you tell me what you thought when you read my post, I still can't be sure you're telling me the truth, and I still don't know what you thought when you read my post.

LeeFlower
01-25-2009, 05:52 PM
The reason I didn't have a problem with it is because Nick is both observant and curious. He supposes a lot about what's going on in the story.

He's proposing theories about what was going on and weaving those in with his facts, which I have no problem with in a first-person narrator. People present inferences as facts all the time in the real world, so why shouldn't they do it in fiction? It might affect their reliability as a narrator, but then, so does dating one of the key players in the story.

tehuti88
01-25-2009, 06:58 PM
I've never read "The Great Gatsby," but based on the quotes provided, it niggles at me too. I notice things like that now, when a character makes observations they have no ability to make. I know all about a character ASSUMING how something is, but you're right, the way this is phrased it sounds like the character KNOWS for a fact things that he should not know. Awkward.

I'd find this jarring in somebody's work, no matter whose it is. I try to avoid it in mine, or make it clear that the POV character is only assuming things. (E. g., I'd probably say something like, "The relentless beating heat was beginning to confuse me and I had a bad moment there before I realized that so far [Wilson's] suspicions didn't seem to have alighted on Tom. He had apparently discovered that Myrtle had some sort of life apart from him in another world, and the shock had made him physically sick"--well, I'd try to find a way to minimize the adverbs, I guess.)

When I see something like this anywhere it really jumps out at me.

Jcomp
01-25-2009, 07:08 PM
Let's say I write: 'Today I created a topic on AWWC about two excerpts from The Great Gatsby I don't like. kuwisdelu read my post and thought first person omniscient is a fine point of view.' Doesn't it give you the creeps? How can I know what you thought when you read my post? Even if you tell me what you thought when you read my post, I still can't be sure you're telling me the truth, and I still don't know what you thought when you read my post.

It's realistic though. Now whether that was Fitzgerald's intent or not could be debated, but realistically when people make assumptions they often state it as fact and often believe that they do know even if they don't. It tends to get people in trouble, but it's also true to life...

KikiteNeko
01-25-2009, 07:40 PM
I'm not a crazy Fitzgerald fan. Or even a regular fan. But yes, that's too omniscient for my liking.

Toothpaste
01-25-2009, 07:59 PM
At least in Myrtle's and Wilson's case, what you suggest is impossible, because (spoilers) when this scene takes place, Nick is going to NY, and when he comes back a few hours later, Myrtle is dead. So he couldn't have asked her what she was thinking at that time. Wilson also shot himself a few days later, after he shot Gatsby. (end of spoilers) So there's no way Nick could have known what those characters were thinking just because it happened in the past.


But you never told me what the speaker was thinking. That's the difference. What you wrote seems perfectly fine.

Well . . . I guess the first point goes down to his character being that observant. It also it goes to my point about him drawing conclusions. To me I always felt like he was taking great creative license in "re-telling" this story. In fact I always kind of doubted him as a narrator. But that was part of the story for me, not a bad thing (btw, I'm not saying you have to like it but just responding to your doubt that first person omniscient can't exist). Is it really necessary in first person to have to write "he appeared to be happy" or "it seemed he was happy" as opposed to just "he was happy"? It might suggest arrogance to you, but it really doesn't to me. And honestly I get very tired of the "seemed" "appeared" qualifiers in first person. To me they aren't always necessary. I get it.

As to my Obama point. No I wasn't reading his mind, but I was predicting the future about the media. If this was truly first person as it happens, how would I have known what was to happen days later? I was illustrating how some first person stories can be told from the perspective of the far future. How they can indeed appear omniscient, and as you said yourself, what I wrote seemed perfectly fine.

ClaudiaGray
01-25-2009, 09:25 PM
It doesn't matter how observant he was. No one can observe thoughts and feelings. He could have observed their reactions, but he couldn't have known what they were thinking.

Of course you can observe thoughts and feelings. You've never looked at another person and thought, "Wow, he's depressed" or "Did she just now catch on?" Nobody has ever said something to you about your own state of mind? There comes a line past which you can't guess what's in another person's head, but Fitzgerald doesn't cross that line here.

Nateskate
01-25-2009, 10:00 PM
I'm fine with those lines. First person is probaby the hardest for me to read or write. I think it adds more color. And as a reader, I can take this as that person's assumption, just like in a conversation where you start describing people walking through the mall.

"Yeah, that guy's full of himself... He think's his the hottest thing since sliced bread..."

We can't get inside their head, but we can have a perspective of what's going on inside their heads.

Again, first person point of view doesn't mean they're without an opinion.

kuwisdelu
01-26-2009, 12:24 AM
People often present their assumptions as fact without adding in a "seems" or "apparently" all the time. Sometimes they do point out its their assumption, but just as often they don't.

Plenty of times I'll be talking with two people, one of them will leave, and the other person will tell me, "He's mad at me," or something. That person doesn't always know this for sure--usually it's just an observation. Sure, sometimes it's "I think he's mad at me," but not always. The former seems just as natural as the latter.

Most emotions can be observed, because people tend to react to them in certain ways. Sometimes, even thoughts can be observed if the person is acting in a certain way.

Now if this happened all the time, or in situations where it's just impossible or too specific to possibly know, (e.g., he was thinking about that time in his youth when...) then it can definitely be too much.

But let's take the original examples:

The relentless beating heat was beginning to confuse me and I had a bad moment there before I realized that so far [Wilson's] suspicions hadn’t alighted on Tom. He had discovered that Myrtle had some sort of life apart from him in another world, and the shock had made him physically sick.

That makes sense to me. If someone's cheating with some guy's wife, if he were to realize the husband was beginning to have some suspicions, there are certain reactions I'd expect. I think it makes perfect sense that the way Tom was acting would make it clear to Nick he hadn't realized yet.

In one of the windows over the garage the curtains had been moved aside a little, and Myrtle Wilson was peering down at the car. So engrossed was she that she had no consciousness of being observed, and one emotion after another crept into her face like objects into a slowly developing picture.

Maybe she did have consciousness of being observed, but Nick doesn't think so. I've watched someone before who's so engrossed in something I could definitely have said for a fact, "they have no idea I'm even here..." Maybe I'd be right, maybe not, but I'd feel pretty damn sure of it. Seems fine to me.

scarletpeaches
01-26-2009, 12:48 AM
Of course you can observe thoughts and feelings.

So you're a mind-reader?

You've never looked at another person and thought, "Wow, he's depressed" or "Did she just now catch on?"

Yes. I do that all the time. But I'm not looking at someone's thoughts or feelings; I'm observing their body language and listening to their speech. I'm making assumptions, not reading their mind.

Nobody has ever said something to you about your own state of mind? There comes a line past which you can't guess what's in another person's head, but Fitzgerald doesn't cross that line here.

In your opinion.

Now, to me, it's obvious the character is observing someone's body language and assuming he knows what's going on in their mind, stating it as fact, as Jcomp touched on earlier in the thread.

Doesn't make it any less jarring, though. But what's the alternative? Filling the novel with "I thought," "I assumed," and "It seemed as if?" That would soon get old and I tell myself "It's in first person, just accept these are the character's observations.

It'd be harder to take in third person, where it would read like head-jumping (makes me wonder why it's acceptable in first person, then) but I still don't have to like it.

Mad Queen
01-26-2009, 06:33 AM
People often present their assumptions as fact without adding in a "seems" or "apparently" all the time. Sometimes they do point out its their assumption, but just as often they don't.
Which makes them seem arrogant or silly, like when my mom gives me fairly detailed and convoluted explanations of what the cat was thinking when he did something. It makes no difference that she doesn't know how cats think, if they think at all. It sounds very silly. In Gatsby, it doesn't sound silly, just weird.
Plenty of times I'll be talking with two people, one of them will leave, and the other person will tell me, "He's mad at me," or something.
As I said, I opened a few books written in first person. There were plenty of lines like "He's mad at me" and I've never paid much attention to them, but those two excerpts from Gatsby have made me stop reading the story, because something was clearly wrong. They are much more than "He's mad at me" and they are about people Nick barely knew. And the passages are also very close together in the story, so if you notice one, you are bound to notice the other.
Now if this happened all the time, or in situations where it's just impossible or too specific to possibly know, (e.g., he was thinking about that time in his youth when...) then it can definitely be too much.
It does happen often in the book. If you liked the story, as I did, you could read it again paying attention to this aspect specifically. Then read another book written in first person and notice the difference.
I think it makes perfect sense that the way Tom was acting would make it clear to Nick he hadn't realized yet.
The first time I read that passage I also thought it was about Tom. But now I think Nick was talking about Wilson, Myrtle's husband. It's a strange passage, for one reason or the other.
I've watched someone before who's so engrossed in something I could definitely have said for a fact, "they have no idea I'm even here..." Maybe I'd be right, maybe not, but I'd feel pretty damn sure of it. Seems fine to me.
Making assumptions is fine, and this particular assumption is fine, but the way it was written is spooky. It sounds like mind-reading. It leaves no doubt about what she was thinking.

blacbird
01-26-2009, 10:39 AM
Anyone who wants to read what I would consider a really good first-person present-tense novel, try Walker Percy's The Moviegoer.

caw

kuwisdelu
01-26-2009, 11:01 AM
Which makes them seem arrogant or silly, like when my mom gives me fairly detailed and convoluted explanations of what the cat was thinking when he did something. It makes no difference that she doesn't know how cats think, if they think at all. It sounds very silly. In Gatsby, it doesn't sound silly, just weird.

Maybe it just depends on what you're used to... that feels very natural to me.

My girlfriend and I pretend to know what our cat is thinking all the time. We do state it as fact.

As I said, I opened a few books written in first person. There were plenty of lines like "He's mad at me" and I've never paid much attention to them, but those two excerpts from Gatsby have made me stop reading the story, because something was clearly wrong. They are much more than "He's mad at me" and they are about people Nick barely knew. And the passages are also very close together in the story, so if you notice one, you are bound to notice the other.

Well, I already explained why they seemed fine to me. I still don't really understand the perceived problem with the second one. The first is a little awkward, but more from the antecedent confusion than anything.

It does happen often in the book. If you liked the story, as I did, you could read it again paying attention to this aspect specifically. Then read another book written in first person and notice the difference.

I think it just depends on the narrator. To me, it's a voice thing.

*shrug*

Like most things, I think it can be done well and work, or it can be abused and fall flat. In this case, I thought it was fine.

RobJ
01-26-2009, 11:23 AM
Making assumptions is fine, and this particular assumption is fine, but the way it was written is spooky. It sounds like mind-reading. It leaves no doubt about what she was thinking.
It doesn't tell us what she was thinking. It tells us what the narrator was thinking.

I've got a problem with the way he chose to write it. If Nick had written: "Myrtle Wilson was peering down at the car. She seemed so engrossed that I doubted she had any consciousness of being observed.', I'd never create this topic. But he writes as if he knew what she was thinking, as a fact, and it just feels weird. It didn't seem like an assumption or conclusion, which I agree we all make, and it's fine by me when first person narrators make them.
It's first person. It doesn't need seemed. Seemed is implied. The narrator, observing Myrtle Wilson, is making a judgement based on those observations. Diluting those judgements with seemed throughout a novel would be poor writing and quite unnecessary.

Cheers,
Rob

josephwise
01-26-2009, 08:16 PM
Could be, Fitzgerald/Nick was just trying to cut the BS. It's easy enough for the reader to insert the following phrase on his own, if the reader requires it:

"I gathered from his facial expression and small behavioral queues that he seemed to be thinking about..."

I'd be willing to bet that if Nick had qualified all of his assumptions in such a way, most of us would have been greatly annoyed.

selkn.asrai
01-26-2009, 09:05 PM
I think it works in Gatsby, partly for the reasons Toothpaste outlines, and partly because Nick is such an observant character -- he has a lot of insight into other people, to an unusual degree but not to an unbelievable one.


I often observe these moments as one of character interpretation and conjecture. Nick is far from flawless. He v. well could be presuming what these characters were thinking.

And this has become his story; he isn't simply Fitzgerald's first-person narrator. He's also Nick Carraway's third-person narrator. In relaying this tale so many years later, he has become the omniscient storyteller regaling an audience, a forensic artist struggling to piece together facts, scenes, characterization, etc., from a distance. His narration so often flounders between sage removal and an impulsively personal, interpretive air.

Notice his fascination with Dr. Eckleberg: he sees all and never speaks, never flinches, never blinks. Much like Nick Carraway seems to do. To him, they all amble through the wastelands under Eckleberg's unspoken scrutiny. Is he foreshadowing of Nick's character? Is Nick projecting after all these years gone? What influences this interpretation, and is it 1920s Nick, or writing Nick doing the interpreting?

His "friends" are now his characters; his imagination has morphed into fact. He's transcended the observer to reconstruct someone else's sprawling tragedy as a writer (and his need to truly discover Jay Gatsby and the many reasons behind his life, his motivations and his murder; and he never accomplishes the answer to these mysteries). The presumed omniscience might be deemed necessary to compel, to explain and to put to rest. Presuming to know what these people thought--not as fellow human beings, but as his characters--may ease his perturbed mind and solve the puzzle. After all, he witnessed so much and was utterly immobile and unresponsive. I find that, often, his regret and sadness, his lasting bewilderment, is palpable.

I always found Nick to be hugely vulnerable, but somehow otherworldly. I take this as his straddling that line between the limited perspective of the contextualized Nick, in the present of the tale as Gatsby's confidante, Daisy's cousin, Jordan's lover, and his older, reflective, storytelling self. There's a purposeful fissure between his first-person writing and the essence of his third-person observations/interpretations.

I think this goes beyond, "It's impossible for him to know so much." It's all Fitzgerald's subtle yet jarring characterization of Nick.

^ My opinion only.

Mad Queen
01-27-2009, 03:01 AM
The presumed omniscience might be deemed necessary to compel, to explain and to put to rest. Presuming to know what these people thought--not as fellow human beings, but as his characters--may ease his perturbed mind and solve the puzzle. After all, he witnessed so much and was utterly immobile and unresponsive.
This explanation does make sense, though it doesn't make his omniscience any less jarring to me.
I find that, often, his regret and sadness, his lasting bewilderment, is palpable.
Yes, especially in the last couple of chapters, though I don't think he could have done anything to avoid the tragedy. You often have to just let people ruin their lives when none of their problems concerns you.

KiraOnWhite
01-27-2009, 08:05 AM
Off-topic but...Elle Driver rocks!

I haven't read The Great Gatsby, but perhaps in some cases omniscience might be forgivable if the process to find out the truth stretch out the plot too long.