Let us have a look at this excerpt from From F. S. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
Copyright © ProZ.com, 1999-2021. All rights reserved.
“He had changed since his New Haven years. Now he was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty, with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body –he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage –a cruel body.
His speaking voice, a gruff husky tenor, added to the impression of fractiousness he conveyed. There was a touch of paternal contempt in it, even toward people he liked –and there were men at New Haven who had hated his guts. […] We were in the same senior society, and while we were never intimate I always had the impression that he approved of me and wanted me to like him with some harsh, defiant wistfulness of his own.”
The excerpt appears at the very beginning of the novel and its main function is to introduce the character of Tom Buchanan. It is not, however, a neutral introduction. Much on the contrary, this description of Tom Buchanan serves as an antagonizing characterization to oppose that of his wife Daisy (depicted as an ethereal being) and even that of his rival, Gatsby, a wannabe incarnation of refinement. Moreover, the word choice (“a hard mouth”, “aggressively leaning”, “a cruel body”, “dominance”, “contempt”, “a gruff voice”) lays down the basis of an atmosphere of latent tension, creating the sense that something is about to explode (much as the “strained” lacing of Buchanan’s boots), and anticipating some kind of violent outcome.
The narrator of the passage is Nick Carraway, the character who narrates the whole tale of the novel. Being a character, he could be labelled as a homodiegetic narrator, since he does take part in the events he observes –as evidenced in references to himself such as: “I always had the impression that he approved of me”. Yet, he does have a privileged perspective given by time (in this excerpt he makes clear he knows Buchanan since “his New Haven years”), and he purposely tries to position himself as an external reporter. So, contradictory as it may seem, there is also an extradiegetic aspect to the narrative voice. All in all, the main feature of the narrative voice is its unreliability, patent not only in the biased word choice but also in the indirect forms of reported speech (“there were men in New Haven who hated his guts”).
The excerpt refers to Tom Buchanan, a character who personifies the American millionaire (“dominant”, “supercilious”…). Much as Stanley Kowalski in William’s “A Streetcar named desire” (saving the distances in time and character), Buchanan seems to be there to show how all the characters are slaves to their flaws, adding the violence necessary for a tragic outcome. He is an antagonizing figure to that of Daisy, his dainty wife, and to Gatsby, a nouveau riche of doubtful origin who has a German last name (Gatz), as opposed to Buchanan’s Scottish origin (and in American history the waves of immigration who came first feel as established citizens as opposed to the new ones). Tom is the incarnation of all things solid and immovable against which the rest of the characters crash: class difference, origin, marriage, personal flaws and violence.
The physical depiction in the passage perfectly anticipates the character’s actions throughout the novel, to the point that these latter can be understood as a development of a character who has been accurately profiled as early as in page 12. His “shining arrogant eyes” and “supercilious manner” translate into a never ending car deal with Mr. Wilson; his “sturdy”, “cruel body” does not hesitate in breaking his lover’s nose with one punch; his “gruff voice” is the symptom of a “fractiousness” which shows in the mere fact that he has a lover, of his “paternal contempt”, present in the way he behaves towards his wife (and what leads him to forgive her and rescue her in the end) and even of his sort of rude “wistfulness”, portrayed in the scene at the hotel room in New York, where he compels his wife to remember past moments of shared happiness. Everything in Tom Buchanan speaks of a latent violence, much as his “strained” shoe lacing seems to be at the point of breaking out.
The speaking voice is certainly one of “The Great Gatsby”’s top synecdoches, especially in order to depict the character of Daisy Buchanan. In this passage, Tom’s voice is described as “gruff”, providing the reader with a series of evocations, from rudeness to masculinity, from down-to-earth pragmatism to a mere exhibition of force. Again, Tom’s voice antagonizes that of Daisy, qualified throughout the novel as “thrilling”, “the kind of voice that
the ear follows up and down”, a mesmerizing (to Gatsby) “deathless song”. I would argue that Daisy’s voice is the synecdoche par excellence in the novel –and the top quote is Gatsby’s statement that “her voice is full of money”- although there are minor references to other character’s voices (Myrtle Wilson speaks to his husband in a “coarse voice”, Myrtle and Tom discuss in “impassioned voices”, the crowd present when Tom punches his lover raises a “scolding voice”, “my voice seemed unnaturally loud across the garden” says Nick in order to portray his discomfort at Gatsby’s party). Much as gaze, which is also present in the novel, voice is a feature halfway between physical and psychological, and I would argue that its use for characterization is an example of Fitzgerald’s talent.