The style of The Great Gatsby is wry, sophisticated, and elegiac, employing extended metaphors, figurative imagery, and poetic language to create a sense of nostalgia and loss. The book can be read as an extended elegy, or poetic lament, for Gatsby – “the man who gives his name to this book… who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” Throughout the novel Nick references the fact that he is creating a written account of a time past – one he remembers with nostalgia and fondness. One of the most frequently occurring words in the book is ‘time,’ and the word ‘past’ appears often, as well, suggesting the act of remembrance and recollection. Fitzgerald describes Gatsby as an exceptionally graceful, stylish, and elegant character, and the novel’s flowing, musical sentences underscore this impression. When talking about other characters, however, the elevated, metaphoric language often creates ironic contrast with the crude nature of the characters themselves. Many of his descriptions contain an undertone of ridicule, with the most sympathetic, wistful passages reserved for the character of Gatsby and for Nick’s lost innocence.
While an elegy is often written in a reverential style, Fitzgerald undercuts the sense of mourning in Gatsby with sharp, sardonic wit. Nick’s narration of Gatsby’s parties and Long Island society contains many subtly satiric observations. “Instead of rambling, this party had preserved a dignified homogeneity, and assumed to itself the function of representing the staid nobility of the countryside—East Egg condescending to West Egg, and carefully on guard against its spectroscopic gayety.” The ornate words “homogeneity” and “spectroscopic” point toward Nick’s high level of education and suggest that the novel speaks to a highly educated reader. In describing the relationship between East and West Egg as “condescending” and “on guard,” Fitzgerald also imbues the passage with a sense of elitism. Nick’s rarified tone is juxtaposed against the behavior of the guests themselves, who grow increasingly less sophisticated as the party wears on and the Champagne flows. By the end of the evening, the last guests are nearly incoherent – “wonder’ff tell me where there’s a gas’line station?” – their inelegant speech thrown into relief against the elegance of Nick’s description of the party.
The sophisticated style is also indicated by the extended metaphors and elaborate imagery that characterize the novel. For example, in the description of the same party, Nick observes: “The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.” Held together by semicolons and conjunctions, this lengthy descriptive sentence gives the reader a vivid vision of the scene. We get a strong sense of continual movement (“dissolve and form,” “wanderers,” “glide on,” “constantly changing”), much like a dance, implying that the partygoers are accustomed to moving effortlessly through life. The passage also includes a subtle extended metaphor of the ocean (“swell,” “dissolve and form,” “sea-change”), adding to the sense of ceaseless motion.
Fitzgerald uses rhetorical devices such as alliteration and repetition to contribute to the text’s evocative mood. For example, when Gatsby and Tom visit Myrtle in the city, Nick imagines someone looking up at them illuminated in a window, saying: “Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” The list of contrasts (“within” and “without,” “enchanted” and “repelled”) illustrate Nick’s restlessness and fascination with the city. Even the most casual observations are highly stylized, often more poetic than literal, like Nick’s description of an enraged wife who appears “like an angry diamond,” or the city “rising up out of the river in white heaps and sugar lumps.” These metaphoric descriptions are contrasted with the vernacular speech of many of the lower class characters, such as the Wilsons. “I just got wised up to something funny… that’s why I been bothering you about the car,” Mr. Wilson tells Tom. Whereas some other writers of the time period, such as Ernest Hemingway, preferred to use simple language, Fitzgerald delights in the poetic capacities of his prose, and in juxtaposing elevated, imagistic language with the rough voices and brutish nature of many of his characters.