He Told Me (a Father's Word): Authoritative Discourse in the Great Gatsby

He Told Me (a Father's Word): Authoritative Discourse in the Great Gatsby

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Mikhail Bakhtin, in his essay "Discourse in the Novel," characterizes his theory of authoritative discourse as "the word of the fathers," in which previous external knowledge demands a "simultaneously internally persuasive" acknowledgement (532). Bakhtin explains further that this authoritative word is met with its influence intact and is therefore perceived as truth, finding its way into the point of view in which everything is examined. It requires complete commitment to its authority. Given its absolute authority, however, also requires that the follower accepts as true the "entire context framing it" and it "enters our verbal consciousness as a compact and indivisible mass" with no freedom to reject parts of the ideology when it no longer suits (Bakhtin, 533). It is consequently difficult for any transmission of thought or word to stand clear of this intrinsic dogma. In a novel that uses language as a device for uncovering the perceived identity of its protagonist, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby also shows evidence of this same external narration that attempts to achieve discrimination between classes and control the behavior that governs social conduct.

Fitzgerald's narrative strategy of using the character/observer Nick Carraway creates an ambiguity that distorts the reality of who the story is about and instead the story becomes about what the narrator sees and consequently interprets. In doing so, the author allows the reader to witness Nick's own authoritative scourse. By beginning the first chapter with Nick's account of his father's advice, Fitzgerald reveals the external narrative that governs Nick's interaction and comprehension of the events that unfold. Though the paternal counsel gives th...


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...eard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever (Fitzgerald, 111).

Nick's attempt to voice what Bakhtin would call his "stage of genius" is awakened by Gatsby's confession, but it is just out of his grasp to articulate it; "such is the importance of the speaker and his discourse...in all areas of everyday life (Bakhtin, 539).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Discourse in the Novel: The Topic of the Speaking Person." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1998. 527-39.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribner, 2004.

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