Random Thoughts

More on music in the language of The Great Gatsby

... Fitzgerald's language just sings

by Ed Boyd

I got The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s famous book, to see if he might match the sterling prose in his short stories. 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, lyrically 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 p.53-54.)  

I can’t be sure if Gatsby could take this in, all in at a glace, 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 Queesboro 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.)

On May 10 the film industry is about to display still another The Great Gatsby. This features Leonard DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Carey Mulligan as Daisy. I must see this, of course, but nothing can match the dazzling, lush language of The Great Gatsby.


June 7. 2013
 










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