What writers can learn from a close reading of The Great Gatsby
I just finished reading The Great Gatsby for the sixth time. Divided into my age, that makes about once per decade. Like so many other teens, I was introduced to Gatsby in high school – just about the time the Beatles arrived in America – creating a complete mismatch between my aspirations and my learning. I knew nothing about impossible wealth or hopeless love. The book was lost on me.
With age and five re-readings comes wisdom and insight. I’ll frame the question of this essay this way: “What do I see in the novel now that I was blind to 50 years ago?” What can I learn from the novel as a writer that I can apply in my next story? How can the book become for me -- and for you -- a mentor text?
I could select countless passages to study, as many bright and shiny things to admire as decorated Gatsby’s mansion.I could have great fun picking at the author’s naming of people, places, and things; or connecting the image clusters related to eyes – from the faded billboard ad for the eye doctor to the owl-eyed man at Gatsby’s funeral; or discussing the archetypal tensions between the promised land of West Egg and the wasteland of "the valley of ashes"; or studying Fitzgerald’s intentional elaborations on classic themes of American literature, patterns of individual and collective renewal that can be traced back to Franklin, Emerson, Whitman, and Cooper.
Instead of those, I’ll focus on the ending, one of the most revered passages in literary history, so celebrated that the recent movie version spells it out on the screen. This passage is three paragraphs long, the 139 words coming from narrator Nick Carraway, who stretches out on the Long Island sand and gazes out at the water:
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning ----So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
We could devote a different essay to the textual elements in this passage, from the tension between “green light” and “blue lawn”; to the choice of ‘orgastic’ (meaning ‘ecstatic’) over ‘orgiastic’; to the creative use of ellipsis and dash; to the double-meaning of ‘borne’ (carried as a burden vs. given life).
Instead, I want to focus on the structural or architectural concerns of the author, the ways in which the patterns of language and imagery create the backbone of a narrative.I would say it’s almost impossible to perceive these patterns in a single reading – and it took me six to understand their full effects.
Where did that ending, that contemplation of the green light come from? Books have endings, but so do chapters. It turns out that the seeds for the ending of Gatsby are planted at the end of chapter one, where Nick sees Gatsby for the first time:
But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far way, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.
It’s all here: the dark water, the green light, the end of a dock, the stretching, reaching, and desperate striving -- as well as the elusive character of Gatsby.
The title of the novel, "The Great Gatsby," strikes many as a kind of oxymoron, a clumsy surname for someone great; but it also has the feel of a magician’s name, like the Great Houdini. The word “vanished” seems just right. But should a reader at the end of a 180-page novel be expected to remember that passage on page 21? Maybe. But perhaps the reader could benefit from a reminder. I found it in the central scene when Gatsby and Daisy are reunited after five years, thanks to the maneuverings of Nick Carraway.
“If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,” said Gatsby. “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”
Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock.
His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.
It is important to note the repetition of key words over significant spaces of text. The word “vanished” echoes the end of chapter one, Gatsby’s vanishing act.
It just so happened that I was visiting Long Island while I was re-reading this passage. I was riding on the Long Island Railroad towards Manhattan -- I couldn’t have been more than 10 miles from the imaginary West Egg -- when I noticed that this passage was on page 92. That is, page 92 of a 180 page novel! The physical, structural, virtual center of the novel.
What are we to learn from this? We should learn how finely wrought is a truly great work of art. And how purposeful is the strategic vision of the author. Whatever its effect in Gatsby, it also serves as a writing lesson for the rest of us, whether we are writing, journalism, fiction, memoir, screenplays, or poetry.
The big writing lesson is this: If you have some very powerful idea or image -- something of great interest and importance -- introduce it early in the work, call attention to it in the middle, and let it shine at the end.