humiliation of my towels

p. 95:

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.

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gusts of emotion

p. 94:

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.

wild tonic

p. 90:

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.

so much as a shiver

p. 81:

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.

every young girl

p. 80:

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.

basic insincerity

p. 22:

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.

a beautiful little fool

p. 21:

‘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.