Who wrote better characters, Dickens or Fitzgerald?
Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is often mentioned as one of the finest pieces of writing available, and rightly so. But how does it hold up to the works of other great writers? A description in Gatsby that I thought rather good made me think of one of Mr. Dickens’ character descriptions. Both made my writer-heart bleed with envy, and my reader-head jump for joy.
But how do they fare when put up against one-another?
1. Miss Murdstone, David Copperfield:
It was Miss Murdstone who was arrived, and a gloomy-looking lady she was; dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows, nearly meeting over her large nose, as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account. She brought with her, two uncompromisingly black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite. I had never, at that time, seen such a metallic lady altogether as Miss Murdstone was.
2. Tom Buchanan, The Great Gatsby
… and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.
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.
Of the two passages above, I like Dickens’ more. Fitzgerald cheats, by saying that Tom has “arrogant eyes” and “a cruel body”. Eyes are incapable of arrogance and bodies are incapable of being cruel (it is the actions of the person controlling the body that are cruel). We get a sense that the narrator does not like Tom, or at least gets a less-than-flattering first impression (though Tom himself would probably like the way he was described).
But by saying that Miss Murdstone is carrying a “very jail of a bag … shut up like a bite”, we get the impression that she is a strong woman, and very very stingy, apart from giggling at the way Dicken’s has with words. Dickens trumps Fitzgerald by describing Miss Murdstone via the things she is carrying, using words like “uncompromising”, “black”, “hard bass nails”, “hard steel”, “heavy chain”, “shut up like a bite”. The reader immediately does not like Miss Murdstone.
Don’t get me wrong, Fitzgerald’s description of Tom Buchanan is good. It’s just that Dickens is such a shining beacon of genius that he quickly overshadows his American colleague. And Dickens had long books full of characters, and quite a number of them.
Dickens was a genius, and nothing less. Fitzgerald was merely very, very good, and nothing more.