Winter Dreams by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1922
The magic trick:
Advocating for the first-person narrator
Anyone who cares to argue that Nick Carraway, the first-person narrator of Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, is a throwaway nothing of a character should probably first consult “Winter Dreams.”
“Winter Dreams,” written during the early days of Gatsby’s formation in the author’s mind, deals with many of the same themes as the novel. The key difference? There’s no Carraway. “Winter Dreams” is told in third-person omniscient narration and the story suffers badly for it.
Fitzgerald falls into the trap of spending large stretches of the story simply telling the reader what happened, instead of showing. Parts – especially those that sum up years of biography in Dexter Green’s life – are flat-out boring. The story, without a Nick Carraway character to provide a certain lens for the reader, lacks any point of view. There is no mystery or intrigue. The characters appear, they are described and summarized for us, and they move on. They have no life to them, no peculiarities. They feel like barely sketched templates.
It also doesn’t help – if we’re continuing the Gatsby comparison – that “Winter Dreams” picks up the story at Dexter’s first meeting with Judy Jones. It makes the chronology feel very much like a this-happened-and-then-this-happened-and-this-happened inevitability. There is no gray. Gatsby, on the other hand, emerges in Nick Carraway’s years after his initial “winter dreams” are ignited by Daisy, making for a much more engaging melodrama.
As it is, “Winter Dreams” is an interesting story, don’t get me wrong. The notion that a single encounter with a beautiful girl can start a lifelong obsession is a powerful one. It’s just an idea that Fitzgerald would explore in much more artful fashion elsewhere in his oeuvre. “Winter Dreams” is instructive for what it is not; its missteps illuminating the achievements of the author’s other, more successful works. And that’s quite a trick on Fitzgerald’s part.
He was, as he found before the summer ended, one of a varying dozen who circulated about her. Each of them had at one time been favored above all others – about half of them still basked in the solace of occasional sentimental revivals. Whenever one showed signs of dropping out through long neglect, she granted him a brief honeyed hour, which encouraged him to tag along for a year or so longer. Judy made these forays upon the helpless and defeated without malice, indeed half unconscious that there was anything mischievous in what she did.
When a new man came to town every one dropped out – dates were automatically cancelled.