The "So What?" of Structuralist Interpretation: Tyson on Gatsby

        "If the traditional quest formula--seek-and-find (or seek-and-be-transformed)--can be associated with a worldview that includes the possibility of redemption, then perhaps the seek-find-lose (or seek-but-don't-find) grammar [which Tyson has discovered in Gatsby] can be associated with a worldview in which redemption is impossible or highly unlikely.  This more pessimistic, or some would say realistic, vision of human experience is the vision associated with the modernist worldview, which dominated Anglo-European literature from the beginning of World War I (1914) to the end of World War II (1945) and which The Great Gatsby epitomizes.  We can certainly find numerous examples of this grammar in modern novels, for example, D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913) and Women in Love (1920), Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927), and Richard Wright's Native Son (1940). [ . . . ]  (Analogously, we might characterize the grammar of the postmodern novel as don't-bother-to-seek.  Certainly, it might be argued that novels such as Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 [1966], Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays [1970], Joseph Heller's Something Happened [1974], and Don DeLillo's White Noise [1985] are structured by such a grammar.)" (Tyson 238-9).

        This passage of Tyson's analysis extends the significance of the Gatsby rules to compare the novel's structural system with those of other novels written around the same time.  The post-war world had fallen out of love with the traditional "seek-and-find" and "seek-and-be-transformed" mythos, a structuring rule epitomized by the Arthurian "Grail Quest" narrative, which ends with the transfigured Galahad bodily ravished into Heaven and absolute moral reward or punishment inflicted upon all the surviving knights of Arthur's court.  Instead, many novels of the era frustrate and deny the hero's quest, often breaking the hero's body and/or heart to illustrate the structuring rule of the new mythos, which Tyson articulates as "seek-find-lose" or "seek-but-don't-find."  She cites the similarly structured plots of many other post-war novels as evidence of this new structuring rule she claims to have found in Gatsby.  This is the "so-what?" moment of a Structuralist interpretation because it increases the likelihood that the interpretation is correct by correctly predicting the rule's operation in other, similar parts of the structural system (here, "the Euro-Anglo-American novel").  This increases the importance of its discovery as an explanation of how cultural understandings are shared in literature.  In effect, all these authors are exploring the same mega-myth that they see newly articulating their cultures and helping them make sense of the world, just as the "Grail Quest" mythic rules worked for authors and readers from the fall of the Western Roman Empire (ca. 476 CE) until around 1918.  She further improves the "so what?" move by looking past the first level of cultural analysis to see how the rule might have mutated in the next era (to "don't bother to seek") which also increases the likelihood that she has found a genuine pattern in Fitzgerald's novel.

        These two kinds of "lateral thinking" from one novel to other works produced around the same time, and from one hypothesis about a structuring rule to a later transformation of the rule, fits two basic Structuralist claims about structural systems and their rules: 1)  structural systems are enormously complex and redundantly supplied with simple functional rules that readers operate unconsciously, so the structural system (in this case "the Euro-Anglo-American novel") resists change and enables a myriad of related but different "utterances" that follow the rules; and 2) they are capable of gradual transformation over time, so that the system itself appears to survive those changes while following "slated" variants of the old rules to produce new "utterances."  Even by simply following Tyson's lead into the 21st Century, you could find a new rule in the novels of "magical realism" and outright science-fiction or fantasy, in which the "seek-and-find" mythic rule is restored by metaphorical substitution, outright invocation of magical powers, or speculative introduction of scientific marvels that supply what the hero lacks.  Or, your "so-what" move also could be made laterally to compare the operation of the novel's rule in other works of art of that historical era, like paintings, movies, poems, or plays.  In the Hemingway story, of course, you will be working with far smaller narrative units (which Gennette calls "narremes" after Saussure's "phonemes" and Levi-Strauss's "mythemes").  Each one will be a "move" in the story's game, but moves will repeat, and actors (and the "acted-upon") will also repeat.  When you have found the rules that structure that "utterance" of Hemingway's mythos, you can begin to hypothesize where to look for it in other stories from In Our Time, and his novels, but you also may find it in the art, music, or other cultural artifacts produced during the era in which Hemingway wrote.  If your rule is sound, many of those works would be composed according to the deep structuring rule whose trace you discovered, like the location and track of a spent bullet at a crime scene, which leads you to other bullets from which you infer the location and aim of the shooter, The Culture Talking About Itself to Itself.  To achieve this kind of insight in your own paper, remember what you read in other courses and try to find points of connection or difference.  Don't compartmentalize your thinking about what you learned in Art History, Music, History, Sociology or Anthropology, Philosophy, or any other discipline.  To connect is to realize relationships, and to realize relationships is to discover significance.  This is your chance to begin to discover huge inter-disciplinary connections in the world of ideas.