Scarborough Maine

Scarborough Maine
Looking West from deck of Bayley's Lobster Pound Scarborough, Maine, Fall 2013

Archives: Annotations


Annotation: The Great Gatsby, by F.Scott Fitzgerald

                  Fitzgerald develops the enormous and enigmatic character Jay Gatsby through the first person narrative of Nick Carraway.  Through his eyes the complex story unfolds through clues ,which we must constantly file away in our heads as each one tells us something important about a character.  These characters and their interaction are also clues to the ultimate revelation of who Jay Gatsby really is.  We are challenged to ignore our preconceived notions and to accept that while this is fiction, Fitzgerald’s genius must lie in his astute perception of human nature.
Like other books I have read this semester, i.e. The Grapes of WrathGatsby is not a fast read, even though it is almost a shorty story.    If the reader misses a passage about or dialogue between characters much is lost from the reader’s collection of character traits.   Fitzgerald, while he uses incredible descriptive prose, shows us the characters through the use of nuance, the way a visual artist might show us depth of a landscape or importance of form through light and shadows.  Often it is his juxtaposition or unlike concepts that give us those shadows we find intriguing and have us anticipating what is next.  Fitzgerald builds the tension with these rhetorical tools.
                  For example, when Nick enters his cousin Daisy Buchanan’s house and sees Daisy and Jordan Baker in the “bright rosy space.”  The following description of the room and women in the element of wealth and airy indifference to the world around them needs only what Fitzgerald has written for us to know the kind of socio-economic status of the Buchanans and their friend Jordan Baker:
A breeze blew through the room . . . The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon.
In this passage we see, hear and even smell the breeze as it blows through the room. Then it continues:
They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.
In this sentence we see people who are light, ethereal, gossamer-like floating around their wealth with little care for the real world below them, and it feels fragile.  And in the following sentence, Fitzgerald adds the odd pairings of concepts when he writes:
I must have stood for moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.
Previously we see the white dress (maybe suggesting innocence or marriage), and then we are jolted with the whip, snap and groan which indicates abuse, or perhaps, at the very least some kind of discontent that might lead to the unfair treatment of one person with another.  This is an ominous pairing.  And because Fitzgerald shows us the lighthearted naiveté from the females even as they float around the room in the presence of the “groan of the picture,” we realize they do not seem to care, or notice, until Tom Buchanan closes the window:
The there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
The last sentence feels as if we are suffocating.  Tom Buchanan might have just shot two birds out of the sky or captured an animal to imprison it for his own bragging rights.  Tom’s is indifferent but with a big dose of malevolence: he has power to inhibit, to oppress.
                  In addition, it is in the next lines that Fitzgerald juxtaposes words to describe Nick’s expression of Daisy’s laugh: “The she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh.”  The absurd but charming laugh makes the reader stop and think about those two ideas, how can something absurd be charming, and we think of all the ways it can be.    There is not just one.  Often it is someone who shows one face and has many layers of faces underneath.  As a result we come up with more complex views of Daisy, “I’m p-paralyzed with happiness.”   Oxymoron is so effective here.`
                  Fitzgerald’s brilliant manipulation of these pairings is not something we can avoid.   And this construct makes us think, the way discordant Jazz music did when Bebop came into style.  It was a faster tempo with double timing and often complex arrangements that some listeners rejected because they didn’t get it.   There are many of these juxtapositions, these discordant ideas throughout the story.  Another good example is when Nick is with Jordan Baker as they become romantically involved,
I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs and so I drew up the girl beside me, tightening my arms.  Her wan scornful mouth smiled and so I drew her up again, closer, this time to my face.
A “wan, scornful mouth that smiles,” now that is layered with such contradiction the way most human beings are.  There is duality in these images and a lot of different possibilities as to why that character reveals such an expression, as if Nick has x-ray eyes.   Fitzgerald then leaves it to us, the reader, to imagine, to paint an image with our own brush, our own experiences.  This makes the character multi-dimensional.   These are great examples on what it looks like to opposing concepts in order to create tension and nuance.  It certainly seems as if it is necessary, although it is probably the most difficult thing to do.
                  One other aspect of his writing (there are many more but I thought I would just use a couple) is the way he says so much in so little words.  That is the kind of writing I love to read and to emulate with my own writing.  For instance the following passage when Nick goes to his first Gatsby gathering and everyone leaves drunk.  There is a car in the ditch off the driveway.  The man is drunk and while he holds up the procession of cars exiting the Gatbsy estate Nick observes Gatsby on his porch.  It gives us volumes of information about Gatsby:
The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home.  I glanced back once.  A wafer of a moon was shining over Gatsby’s house, making the night fine as before and surviving the laughter and the sound of his still glowing garden.  A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.
When I first read this passage, I was ready to think Gatsby was not who he had hoped to be for some reason.   Fitzgerald paints for the reader Gatsby’s deceit: “sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors.”  With sudden emptiness means the man is hollow or his life is hollow or his claims are hollow; it is nothing but a façade that the careless East Eggers have bought in to. And the American dream is as empty and meaningless as Gatsby’s pretentious house.
And finally, the scene with Gatsby saying goodbye “in a formal gesture of farewell,” evokes a deep sadness, an inner disillusionment, one which the reader shares as we view Gatsby’s “isolation.”  It is something we are familiar with—money never buys happiness.   This is a foretelling moment.

Excerpt Annotation: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s construct teaches us to look for hope in the small places, to narrow our thinking to what we can control.  He suggests to us when we are faced with such adversity we whittle away at our expectations even further and move in to the survival mode.   In this regard, Steinbeck efficiently sculpts his characters with the fine tools of dialogue.  The characters use the exchanges to learn only what they need to know, about each other, about their circumstance, about what they need to do to survive, just as anyone would.  When we are with the Joads we are with the microcosm of the bigger picture.  The individual scenes read like small quakes, and Steinbeck shows all the time. 
            What has happened to all these people has become a force unto itself.  And the reader begins to understand the mounting fever of discontent, a precursor to something revolutionary even as the Joads try to survive ignorant to the bigger fact.  This approach parallels the broad with the specific.  They complement and support each other while the structure helps build tension: 
And the great owners, who must lose their land in an
 upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with
 eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when
property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. 
And that companion fact: when a majority of the people
are hungry and cold they will take by force what they
 need.  And the little screaming fact that sounds through
 all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.  The great owners ignored the three cries
of history.  The land fell into fewer hands, the number
 of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the
great owners directed to repression (200).
But it is not just the narratives that give us insight.  Steinbeck, at the beginning of the book, uses an omniscient voice to lead us inside the head of one of characters, Tom.  When Tom returns to his home, we learn about Tom and his family through Steinbeck’s choice.  He allows us to see that this is a strong family we can relate to and have empathy for.  They are dimensional: they are flawed; they make mistakes;, but they are also the salt of the earth.  They don’t deserve their fate anymore than we would.  To no fault of their own they have been dealt an unfair circumstance, but we know that is life.  Bad things happen to good people.  We get all of this from Tom’s view of his mother.

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