This is the second entry in my Passages series, where I transcribe my favorite passages from a book I have just finished reading. Today I felt like an enjoyable read and thus returned to a story I relate to as both a writer and a human being. Fitzgerald manages to tell a story that is free from verbosity without being as robotic and curt as I find his contemporary chum Ernest Hemingway.
The Great Gatsby is, in my estimation, a novel without flaw. Read the passages below to discover why this work is considered to be a masterpiece of American literature.
Copyright 1925, Scribner paperback edition, 2004.
Jay Gatsby’s extraordinary gift of hope
“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of “creative temperament” – it was an extraordinary gift of hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.”
– p. 2
“This was a permanent move, said Daisy over the telephone, but I didn’t believe it – I had no sight into Daisy’s heart, but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.”
– p. 6
“I looked back at my cousin, who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voce that the ear follows up and down, as I’d each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. 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 cared for her found it 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.”
– p. 9
Unpredictable, realistic dialogue
“You make me feel uncivilized Daisy,” I confessed over my second glass of corky but rather impressive claret. “Can’t you talk about crops or something?”
I meant nothing in particular by this remark, but it was taken up in an unexpected way.
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently.
“I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?”
– p. 12
“As for Tom, the fact that he “had some woman in New York” was really less surprising than that he had been depressed by a book. Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egoism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.”
– p. 20
Insight, Intuition, Inference
“Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that this was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.”
– p. 20
How to begin a chapter
“There was music through my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
– p. 39
“He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as 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.”
– p. 48
Nick Carraway’s impression of himself
“Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
– p. 59
“As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge”, I thought; “anything at all”…
Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.”
– p. 69
Cultural commentary / observation
“Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.”
– p. 88
Daisy’s effect on Gatsby
“He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well loved eyes. Sometimes, too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual presence none of it was any longer real. Once he nearly toppled down a flight of stairs.”
– p. 91
From Gatz to Gatsby: Jay’s reinvention and backstory
“I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of vast, vulgar, and meritorious beauty. So he invented the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”
– p. 98
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”
He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…”
“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of – ”
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell with it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it… High in the white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl….”
– p. 120
“She never loved you, do you hear?” he cried. “She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me. It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved anyone except me!”
– p. 130
Carraway describes the Midwest
“That’s my middle west – not the wheat or the praries or the lost swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of the hokky wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters…”
– p. 176
Carraway’s breakup with Jordan Baker
“I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride.”
“I’m thirty,” I said. “I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.”
She didn’t answer. Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.”
– p. 177
Carraway’s verdict on Tom and Daisy
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made…”
– p. 179
The End: Gatsby believed in the green light
“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 on 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.”
– p. 180