Daisy went upstairs to wash her face – too late I thought with humiliation of my towels – while Gatsby and I waited on the lawn.
This is a beautiful bit of technique, I just want to deconstruct it very carefully. We’ve just come out of one of the most emotionally intense moments in the book, the reunion of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, the goal of Gatbsy’s years-long quest finally realized. This scene has taken place off-stage, from narrator Nick’s perspective, as he departed his own house in order to give the couple privacy. So Nick has been standing in the rain on his modest little lawn for half an hour, the lawn that Nick had allowed to grow shaggy and unkempt until that morning, when Gatsby had sent his landscaper around for a proper mowing.
Now Nick re-enters his house to see Daisy’s face shining with happy tears, Gatsby relaxed and composed where before the meeting he’d been a nervous wreck. Whatever happened in that half hour had been full of painful joy. Daisy goes to clean up, the men wait. Such a simple action, it could have passed by without any further flourish. But Fitzgerald takes this opportunity to show us the reflexive thought that enters Nick’s head, a simple and true statement that he’s embarrassed that he forgot to do something about his dingy towels in the upstairs bath. It reveals the kind of person Nick is, his class concerns, the ever-present impulse of self-judgment that resides within him as surely as his heartbeat.
The narrative of this novel is about Gatsby and Daisy, but the genius of it is that the story is about Nick. We learn nearly nothing about the interior lives of the purported main couple. But we learn everything about Nick in these stealthily delivered injections of perspective.
While the rain continued it had seemed like the murmur of their voices, rising and swelling a little, now and then, with gusts of emotion.
After those first awkward moments before Gatsby regains his composure, Nick tactfully leaves his own home and stands outside in the inclement weather, taking shelter under ‘a huge black knotted tree whose massed leaves made a fabric against the rain,‘ while Daisy and Gatsby negotiate their sudden reacquaintance. Fitzgerald makes the clever choice to leave the most emotionally charged moments unobserved, and so undescribed by our unreliable narrator – which makes these moments more elemental and enduring, mysterious events like the weather itself. The storm is more powerful for having been unseen, its aftermath the best evidence of its power. Gatsby relays Nick’s obvious news that the rain has ended, and her response has nothing to do with the weather.
‘I’m glad, Jay.’ Her throat, full of aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy.
The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.
Daisy’s voice is her defining feature. Is there another character in all of literature whose physical beauty is conveyed so much by sound rather than sight? With subtle mastery, Fitzgerald elevates his prose anytime he describes her voice – he brings tonality and life into his writing to simulate the intoxicating effect of Daisy’s voice on the listener. Fitzgerald’s writing is cinematic, and this technique of surrounding a detail with vibrant prose is like dramatic lighting on a closeup of a beautiful face.
I had to follow the sound of it for a moment, up and down, with my ear alone before any words came through. A damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek and her hand was wet with glistening drops as I took it to help her from the car.
To hear her voice is to love her, as long as her warm breath vibrates in the air. Like the sound of her voice, this love is temporary and fragile, but rich and real and irresistible in the moment.
Next day at five o’clock she married Tom Buchanan without so much as a shiver and started off on a three months’ trip to the South Seas.
Daisy has quite a night before her wedding. She sucks down a bottle of sauterne, tosses the groom’s wedding present in the trash – a string of pearls worth over four million dollars* – and by early evening she’s swanning about her room wailing ‘Tell ’em all Daisy’s change’ her mine. Say “Daisy’s change’ her mine!”‘ The bridesmaids and matrons douse her in a cold bath, where she clutches a final forlorn letter until it comes to pieces like snow. Half an hour later ‘the pearls were around her neck and the incident was over.‘
I wonder how she thinks of that night, the next day or the next year or five or twenty years down the line. If she recalls it in old age, on her deathbed, who does she think was making that scene? Does she think it was her, but not in her right mind? Does she think it wasn’t her, but a dramatic release of emotion as a final performance on closing night? Does she think it was her true self, revealed through alcohol, only to be buried forever by the necessity of sobriety? Did she ever love Jay Gatsby, and if she did, was this the night she drove a stake in the heart of that love without so much as a shiver?
Daisy is a mystery. She may be a coward for never having the bravery to suffer the consequences of her passions, or a vampire sucking the burning blood of hopeless suitors, or an involuntary canvas to dreams bigger than her meager borders … or just another confused young woman, trying on persona as the seasons turn and her beauty fades.
*the pearls are valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars in 1919, which is a little over $4.5 million in 2012 dollars.
The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at sometime, and because it seemed romantic to me I have remembered the incident ever since.
This is a clever work of sentence construction – if Fitzgerald had tried to describe what Gatsby looked like as he gazed at Daisy, the description might have worked for some readers but fallen flat for others. So instead the author describes the look as a fulfillment of universal fantasy. This breaks the hackneyed writing rule of “show, don’t tell” – but that rule was always more of a Hemingway thing than Fitzgerald.
Romance is better described by its effect than its actions, because romance is ultimately so personal that the actions that seem romantic to one person can seem ridiculous to everyone else. What is the way that every young girl wants to be looked at? Try to describe any one way, and a thousand young girls will say, “Eeeew.” But it’s close enough to the truth to say that every young girl imagines that there is a special way that no one has ever looked at her before. She herself couldn’t put it into words, other than the words for how that look should make her feel. Jordan remembers the incident not for the way that Gatsby looked at Daisy, but for the effect upon Daisy.
The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said.
We’ve all met someone like this, someone who is so compelling, convincing, captivating in person. In a one-on-one conversation, these people exude a magic circle of belief – they are not exactly deceiving you, but they create their own limited reality with the force of their personality. And then they turn it off, like a switch, you turn away, the world comes seeping into the circle and you realize the basic insincerity of that temporary reality.
‘And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’
Now this is interesting. Daisy said this – or says she said this – at the birth of her nameless little girl. It’s kind of a proto-feminist’s lament, that society is rigged to limit any meaningful goals for women, so they’re reduced to having their happiness depend on men, who are destined to disappoint them. So the best thing is to be beautiful enough to attract the best man, and foolish enough to be blissfully ignorant of his failings.
Daisy says it to Nick, and maybe she means it, but what she really revels in is the cynical sophistication of her saying it. She doesn’t care about women’s rights, she barely cares about her daughter in this moment – what she cares about is her trying on this attitude like this season’s latest fashion.
For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened – then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.
This simile – the sunlight leaving her face like children from a street at dusk – is one of the phrases that made me want to write this blog. I keep using the words “beautiful,” “lovely,” “gorgeous” because my vocabulary is so thin, I have no power over language like this man. This simile is all that, well beyond what my simple words can describe. Along with the clear romanticism and tribute to beauty, for this modern reader there’s a paean to lost childhood – do kids really play on the street anymore, running for home as their mothers call out their names in the twilight?
And that whole sentence, I just noticed now, is actually a metaphor for an entire love affair, an entire life of a beautiful woman. There’s this shallow trend now towards flash fiction – it’s hard to sustain bursts of imagery like this over an entire novel, so people try it in paragraphs and pages. But this one sentence shames many of those efforts.
My distant second choice for this page is the way Miss Baker chats about California and “Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.” Brilliant observation that body language interrupts as much as the spoken word.
Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth – but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.
Well, maybe this is a bit of a cheat on my original rules, it’s longer than I thought I’d use and it happens to extend across two pages. But hell, it’s still one sentence, and most of it is on page 14.
And it was worth typing all of it. In fact, I’m beginning to believe that you could vastly improve your writing skills simply by typing all of this novel over and over again. Just having that music flow through your fingers is bound to leave behind some residue of genius.
The first part, describing Daisy’s face and mouth, shows that you don’t have to use fancy words to craft an indelible vision. Fitzgerald uses “bright” three times in describing her face, eyes and mouth, and the repetition isn’t dull, it’s a waving of the wand that draws her face in the air before you. The juxtaposition of sad, lovely and bright is also wonderful.
And then he does sneak in a nifty phrase there, “singing compulsion” – again in description of her siren voice. I also like that he qualifies her unforgettable voice to “men who had cared for her” – a tacit acknowledgment that only those who fell in her magic circle were so enchanted; you are free to make your own judgments.
It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.
Daisy’s voice is one of the magic totems of her allure. Here is an example of the hold that only the written word can bring, beyond any other creative medium – that voice is lauded throughout the novel, you hear the way it sounds and the way it feels to the men who love her, and no live recreation can ever reproduce that music the way you imagine it. This disconnect between your idea of her voice and actually hearing it is a microcosm of one of the themes of the novel itself – holding the dream in your hand can never live up to the dream in your head.
No one has ever been better at describing women in the full power of their youthful beauty, and this page gives distinct visions of both Daisy and Jordan. Daisy’s feminine magnetism is in full flower: “She laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see.” Every man has met that woman once, and remembers her forever whether or not he ever loved her. Her “absurd, charming little laugh,” the murmur that “was only to make people lean toward her,” that “low, thrilling voice” – these are things that might introduce her as an object of contempt, but it’s clear that her charms overpower all objections into irrelevancy.
Jordan’s got her own special qualities of beautifully hardened poise. She sits “with her chin raised a little as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall.” She nods at Nick “almost imperceptibly and then quickly tipped her had back again – the object she was balancing had obviously tottered a little and given her something of a fright.” Nick’s quite taken – “Almost any exhibition of complete self sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me.”
I’ve read this novel more than a dozen times, and I never noticed until just this moment: you can tell that these women are beautiful, alluring and charming – and there isn’t a single line about their physical features throughout the page, nothing about what they are wearing, whether they’re tall or short, fat or thin. (Until the very last sentence, when Fitzgerald starts to describe Daisy’s face, but that goes over into the next page, so I’m going to count that out . . .) That’s good writing, and an example of why Gatsby can be read again and again and again – you keep finding more magic with every pass.