CAPE Literature- Prose fiction 

Module 3: The Great Gatsby (F.Scott Fitzgeraldand Cambridge (Caryl Phillips)

Question: In their exploration of social conflict, writers depend primarily on the use of setting.

With reference to ONE Caribbean and ONE British, American or Post Colonial work of fiction you have studied, discuss the validity of this statement.


Writers use literature to explore a variety of social conflicts.  Caryl Phillips and F. Scott Fitzgerald use their works to explore racism and sexism in Cambridge  and class conflicts in The Great  Gatsby  respectively.  They use a multitude of techniques including setting to enhance their presentation of these social conflicts.  However, while setting is used to great effect, plural subjectivities and symbolism are used in  Cambridge and The Great Gatsby respectively.  Plural subjectivities allow Phillips to explore the idea of there being varying degrees to the truth, especially in relation to controversial topics such as racism and slavery.  Fitzgerald on the other hand uses symbolism to illustrate divides between classes and to separate old money from new money and the rich from the poor.  As such, the use of setting, along with the aforementioned techniques allows the writers to better explore social conflicts.

In Cambridge, the main settings are the unnamed Caribbean island and England.  Both protagonists have experienced each setting, however they have experienced it through very different lenses.  This is especially aided by Phillips’ use of plural subjectivities.  For example, the first narrator or ‘voice’, Emily Cartwright, experiences England from the oppressed standpoint of a female, but experiences the West Indies from the more privileged perspective of a white person, specifically the plantation owner’s daughter.  She is an excellent narrator when describing scenery as she is genuinely impressed and surprised by the new sights of the Caribbean.  She also admires the housing on the plantation, both the Great House with its ‘lofty’ ceilings and ‘sumptuous mahogany’ construction and the slave shacks whose gardens bloom with ‘all the colours of the rainbow’.  However, she is highly unreliable in her descriptions and opinions of the slaves, frequently associating them with animals (‘a small parcel of monkeys and pigs’) and immorality.  The modern reader is inclined to be repulsed by her grossly racist observations, especially after reading Cambridge’s version.  This is particularly true in the case of Christiania, the ‘insolent black wench’ whom Emily believes to be Mr. Brown’s willing mistress.  However, it is revealed that she is actually a victim of systematic rape and abuse at his hands through Cambridge’s version.  Emily also frequently omits information without telling the readers, unlike Cambridge who offers a more detailed account of events.  For example, at Hawthorn cottage, she simply states that she and Mr Brown ‘held each other’, leaving the meaning open to interpretation.  The true meaning of this is revealed only when she discovers she is pregnant later on in the novel.  This censure of her own thoughts even in a private journal illustrates the extent to which women were a marginalized group in the nineteenth century.  The various gaps created in Emily’s narrative, according to critic Benedict Ledent in his piece  Crossing a Human River of Shattered Dreams open ‘spaces…through which other voices may be heard’.  These gaps set the stage for Cambridge’s account and enhance the reader’s understanding of the plot.

Cambridge experiences the majority of his life as a slave and as such his narrative is highly different from Emily’s.  Despite being in a privileged position as a man, he is black and therefore oppressed because of his race.  However, because he is a man, he is not subject to the same censure as Emily is and as such his narrative is far more reliable than hers.  Through him we learn the horrors of the triangular trade which makes Emily’s uncomfortable journey to the West Indies look like a luxury cruise in comparison.  He also informs us of the cruelty of slavery and the advantage taken of his ‘wife’ Christiania.  Though his  version is much shorter and less descriptive thank Emily’s, it shows the readers the true nature of slavery and allows us to appreciate the harsh realities of slave life.  Due to his literacy, Cambridge tells the story of all the slaves, a perspective which may have been ignored if Emily’s narrative were the only perspective from which the story was told.  This emphasizes Phillips’ insistence on there being no singular truth in any story and highlie the racism and sexism characteristic of the  nineteenth century.

The Great Gatsby on the other hand largely uses setting to describe the conflicts and demivides between classes.  The poor people in the novel, the Wilsons are relegated to the Valley of Ashes, a ‘gray’ lifeless place where ‘dust men’ swepts ash into piles.  The Valley of Ashes is a wasteland which symbolizes the death or dark side of the American Dream; the waste and excess of those who achieved this dream ultimately have consequences for the poor. In fact, it is here that George Wilson loses his wife Myrtle, the one source of ‘constantly smouldering vitality’ in his grey existence.  When she dies, so do his dreams of a better life while the rich Daisy Buchanan is not sanctioned for her actions.  In contrast, the lavish parties and excess of East and West Egg represent the insulating wealth of the upper classes during the Roaring Twenties.  Gatsby’s parties where ‘champagne flowed’ and the atmosphere was reminiscent of an ‘amusement park’ show a stark contrast to the grey desolation of the Valley of Ashes.  Similarly, the ‘rosy glow’ of the Buchanan’s Georgian mansion i s far removed from the ‘hot struggles’ and ash and dust of the poor. In this manner, setting creates an almost tangible barrier between rich and poor.

Furthermore, colour symbolism divides the nouveau riche of West Egg from the old money of East Egg.  Jay Gatsby wears a pink ‘rag of a suit’ and two grils at his party are clad in yellow.  His car is also yellow and a veritable rainbow of colour and texture exists in his wardrobe.  These colours are hold and bright but also somewhat gaudy when compared to the muted white and metallic shades frequently associated with the East Egg residents.  Jordan Baker and Daisy Buchanan are described as ‘golden girls’ and ‘silver idols weighing down their own white dresses’.  Theses elegant, sophisticated colours give them an air of inaccessibility, further emphasized by the comparison of Jordan’s ‘golden shoulder’ and the ‘yellow clad girls’ at Gatsby’s party.  It can be said that the bright,gaudy colours of West egg are merely cheap imitations of the understated, elegant palette of East Egg, illustrating the divide between the different types of rich people.  Additionally, the white, representative of the blank aimless nature of the wealthy, illustrates the ‘absence of all desire’ according to critic Michael Millgate in his piece American Social Fiction.  It shows the extent to which the rich have neither consequences nor hardships in their lives and the generally careless attitude they have toward others in society.  This social conflict is well illustrated through symbolism and setting.

In conclusion, the writers use setting along with plural subjectivities and symbolism to great effect in both novels.  The multiple perspectives of Cambridge illustrate the varying views and accounts of the controversial topic of slavery.  On the other hand, symbolism is used to highlight the socioeconomic divides between classes in The Great Gatsby. Setting is therefore not the primary device used to explore social conflicts in these novels.
© Rajini Coore 2017


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