Random Thoughts

Music in the language of The Great Gatsby

... listen to the music

by Ed Boyd


In the Square One Mall this summer I picked up a sizable book titled "The Short
Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald" in the second hand book store. This is a thick
book with 773 pages and 43 stories. It was only three dollars so I did not feel I
could lose. Besides, I realized that I never had read Fitzgerald. I put this book
aside and said this would be nice to read when winter’s cold sets in.

As November moved in, my golf on Tuesday and Thursday, putting a lot of clothes
on for golf, became a pain.  Nestled by the window in my rocking chair with the
sun streaming in, I leafed through the Fitzgerald short stories. I quickly became
captivated with the lyrical quality of these stories. “Absolution” on page 259
caught my attention. Here is a little sample of Fitzgerald at work.

“For some time, however, a demonic notion had partially possessed him. He could
go home now, before his turn came, and tell his mother that he arrived too late,
and found the priest gone. This, unfortunately, involved the risk of being caught
in a lie. As an alternative he could say that he had gone to confession, but this
meant he must avoid communion next day, for communion taken upon an uncleansed
soul would turn to poison in his mouth, and he would crumple limp and damned from
the altar-rail.”

I, too, was raised as Roman Catholic and knew only too well that absolution was
very necessary so as to keep you pure for the receipt of the sacred host. But
what captured my attention was Fitzgerald lyrical language. These short stories
are filled with his sterling prose. I said to myself, “I wonder if a story like
The Great Gatsby has language like this, famous as Fitzgerald’s great moment?” I
took myself to the Melrose Library and borrowed The Great Gatsby. With the Gatsby
book to read, it was not long before on page 24 I had what I was looking for.

“We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely
bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and
gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way
into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and
out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake
of the ceiling — and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on
it as wind does on the sea.”

This startling, lyrical and eloquent paragraph sends shivers through me. I want
to give below some of the writing that makes "The Great Gatsby" a great story.  

This is the first time that the narrator, Nick Caraway, meets Gatsby.

“He (Gatsby) smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one
of those rare smiles with a quality of external reassurance in it, that you may
come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole
external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible
prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be
understood, believed in you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed
in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had
precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” (Bottom

I can’t be sure if Gatsby could take this in, all in at a glance, but the
language is just delicious.  

The Great Gatsby is a very short novel, only 154 pages. On page 65, Fitzgerald,
speaking as the narrator, describes a car of vintage 1924 or 1925 as the novel
was published in 1926.

“I’d seen it. Everybody had seen it. It was a rich cream color, bright with
nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes
and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of windshields
that mirrored a dozen suns. Sitting down behind many layers of glass in a sort of
green leather conservatory we started to town.”

Can you just see this 1920 car in the manner in which Fitzgerald describes it?  

Here is a rich description of a scene of the city from the Queensboro Bridge in
the 1920’s.

“Over the great bridge, with sunlight through the girders making a constant
flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white
heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city
seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always a city seen for the first time, in its
first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.” (Gatsby, p.68)

And, a scene from Long Island.

“It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows
downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadows
of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among blue
leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising
a cool lovely day.”(Gatsby, P. 132)

I borrowed The Great Gatsby video-cassette (1974) and spent a few hours with it.
It does capture well the Jazz Age of the 1920’s. Also, unlike most novels made to
film, this film is very faithful to the story. What it lacks is the lush language
of the book. When Gatsby was first published in 1926 it received poor reviews. In
the 1940’s and thereon, there have been many articles celebrating The Great
Gatsby. One professor who has been teaching The Great Gatsby for thirty years and
has read the book at least one hundred times says he is always surprised to find
something in it he had not noticed before. There is little question that The
Great Gatsby is a masterpiece.

As the story nears its end, Gatsby is murdered by Mr. Wilson who thinks Gatsby
was driving the car that crashed into and killed his wife. It was Daisy who was
driving Gatsby’s car.

Now that Gatsby is dead, the story has to have an ending. The ending as you might
expect is very somber.

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights
except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon
rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became
aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor’s eyes — a
fresh, green breast of the new world. Its varnished trees, the trees that had
made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and
greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have
held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic
contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time
in history with something commensurate to its capacity for wonder.” (Gatsby,
p.154, last page.)

This is not to tell the story of The Great Gatsby but to highlight these dazzling
paragraphs. I am sure you can see as I do that without these lush paragraphs, The
Great Gatsby would be just another story.  

The Great Gatsby, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Scribner’s Sons, c.1926, and c.
renewed 1953 by Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanahan.

February 4, 2011

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