In ‘The Great Gatsby’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, many compelling issues are conveyed through the attributes and actions of the wide range of primary and secondary characters – however the most notable, as suggested by the book’s title, is arguably Jay Gatsby himself. He appears to be the epitome of enigma and strongly reflects the novel’s hedonistic social influences. Similarly, Donna Tartt illustrates similar profound issues using a similar technique with the portrayal of her characters in ‘The Secret History’, of which Henry Winter is a main focus of the storyline, much like Gatsby.
Firstly, one main aspect of both Henry and Gatsby appears to be their mysterious and unusual natures. A distinct gap between Gatsby and his peers is evident within the first party of the novel, as Jordan Baker states ‘He told me once he was an Oxford man… … However, I don’t believe it. ‘ This suggests how mistrusting even Gatsby’s neighbours feel towards him, which is ironic taking into account that he has invited her into his own home.
Gatsby has only told her ‘once’, which in itself reinforces his unrevealing nature, as he does not care to make repeated attempts at convincing others of his secrets. A similar scenario is created in The Secret History, as Bunny tells Richard ‘He can read hieroglyphics. ‘ However, a different atmosphere is created by this portrayal of hearsay; a true sense of admiration is reinforced by the emphasis on ‘hieroglyphics’, which contrasts directly with Jordan’s lack of belief in Gatsby.
The social setting of both characters appears to be a significant factor – Gatsby revels in the fact that he associates with ‘celebrated people’, but does not describe them as friends or even acquaintances. This can be juxtaposed with the tight-knit friendship of the five pupils at Hampden, which Richard describes as an ‘arresting party’ on first encounter. Although both characters share the same enigmatic quality and our narrators must initially learn about them through word of mouth, Henry seems at first to be much more reputable than Gatsby through his peers’ faith in his abilities.
Contrary to this, however, Gatsby’s superficial portrayal is usually much more positive than Henry’s, especially on first encounter. ‘It was one of those smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it,’ begins to describe his inviting and accommodating attitude, or so it seems. We are drawn so far into and entranced by this enigmatic character, it is hard to question or accuse him of being any different than perfect. The impression given by Henry is quite different, as he is ‘large, square-jawed, with coarse pale skin’.
This imagery is highly unattractive in comparison with the implied handsomeness of Gatsby’s smile, and ‘leisurely movements’ which reinforce a sense of self-security which in itself attracts the reader. Henry is described as wearing ‘dark English suits’ which reflects his old-fashioned, and quite rigid personality and in turn contrasts with the ‘luminosity’ of Gatsby’s pink suit – a suggested reflection of his splendour and sophisticated character.
The pink suit reinforces his riches and hedonistic lifestyle, which is lacking evidence in Henry’s ‘old-fashioned’ appearance, who can only be seen among simple items such as books and his umbrella, though even this is described as a ‘rare sight in Hampden’ which further creates his sense of mystery. One notable and comparable aspect is that Gatsby is also described by Nick as an ‘elegant young rough-neck’, an oxymoron which begins to shed light on his true, simpler background. This sense of history is almost immediately revealed by Bunny in Henry’s case, he is from a surprisingly average location – Missouri.
Furthermore, although Julian Morrow may not be considered a main character in The Secret History, it may be considered that he makes a better direct comparison to Gatsby. He is described as ‘ageless’ and ‘sly as a child’, which creates a similar atmosphere in creating such a strong and flawless presence, although the word ‘sly’ suggests a slightly more sinister undertone to his personality; much like Gatsby being a ‘rough-neck’. He appears to hold a similar fai ade when communicating with Richard, ‘You have a wonderful name… … There were kings of France named Pepin. It is not clear whether he mispronounces Richard’s surname purposely or by accident, although it is all too convenient for him to compliment him so generously, much like Gatsby’s ability to ‘be how you want him to be’, especially when his intents are to usher him into his class. Arguably Gatsby uses this same technique when luring Nick into his assistance to communicate with Daisy on his behalf. In addition, his fabricated projection of himself is possibly much stronger than Julian’s, especially taking into account the new name he has made up for himself – Jay Gatsby instead of James Gatz.
He has created an entire new identity for himself to aid his intents. Finally, both Gatsby and Henry are verbally gifted, the former told as ‘picking his words with care’, the latter a ‘linguistic genius’, although whilst Henry holds the ability to be concise in seven or eight different languages, Gatsby uses language to his advantage to uphold his constant fai?? ade among his peers. His constant use of ‘old sport’, and gentle, elaborate speech lures Nick into a sense of security throughout the novel. His guard appears only to truly crack at the pivotal point in the novel – his encounter with Tom. Your wife doesn’t love you… … She loves me. ‘ This abrupt use of short sentence structure suggests a more stubborn and less pleasing nature, quite different to the one given by Nick’s first impressions. Even so, the ending of the novel shows him ‘break into that radiant and understanding smile’ once more, causing a shadow of doubt within the reader as to which side of his personality is the ‘real’ Gatsby. This sense of confusion is hardly seen in Henry, who is particularly rigid as a general rule.
He also uses short sentence structure to convey his stubborn nature, ‘Look. I want a Scotch and soda. In a tall glass… … That’s what I want. ‘ Whilst this adheres to his usual rigidity, he appears to be much more commanding and daunting – very specific to details and succinct, rather than Gatsby’s outbursts of emotion which appear to be the direct cause of his shortcomings. To conclude, both characters carry a sense of mystery, however Gatsby’s portrayal seems to be much more positive both physically and intangibly throughout most of the novel.
Although this is true, this ‘perfect’ atmosphere around him is possibly an attack by Fitzgerald on the impossibility of a hedonistic lifestyle as the character appears so immaculate it is fictitious. When he does finally start to reveal part of his true nature in the form of a stubborn attitude, it may be much more shocking to the reader than Henry’s forceful yet constant demeanour, as it is abrupt and unexpected which is reflective of Fitzgerald’s style – very differing to Tartt’s gradual transformations seen in The Secret History.
There is a definite lack of emotion seen in Henry in contrast with Gatsby’s sudden bursts of it, which shows a distinct difference in personality. Furthermore, a sense of sophistication which is displayed in Gatsby through his calculated behaviour and clothing seems to be lacking in Henry – though he makes up for it with linguistic and intellectual genius.