The Betrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Adverbs

I heard someone quote the last line of The Great Gatsby the other day and it sent me back to the book. I read it every few years. It is still the American novel in my estimation. Whenever I read Fitzgerald, too, I pick up on something I did not note before. This time it was adverbs. Most creative writing teachers will urge you to avoid adverbs because they tend to tell rather than show.

But Fitzgerald loves adverbs.  He uses them to create internal tensions or to emphasize points-of-view.  People intrude deferentially and their eyes roam speculatively across empty ballrooms. At one point, Gatsby's house is lit like Coney Island at night, with every door and window wide open. As Nick turns away, he speaks of the house "blazing gaudily on." Moreover, Nick describes how Gatsby loved Daisy unscrupulously and he notices Gatsby's guests helping themselves to the liquor unsparingly. Fitzgerald's adverbs are the subtle insertions of Nick’s judgments, and Nick is a narrator who famously claims that he "reserves all judgments." The adverbs betray him. He doesn't reserve judgment at all. He’s a snob of the first order, but one with enough discretion to avoid blurting out his biases like those he endlessly passes judgment upon.

Of course Fitzgerald's great with verbs as well. The turkeys on the buffet table at Gatsby's parties have been bewitched to a golden brown, but it's those adverbs that amaze me. They carry so much weight, and they tend to follow rather than precede their verbs (eyes stare luxuriantly, chins rest lyrically, girls laugh exhilaratingly). Somehow slapping the adverb on the back end of the verb dresses up the image, gives it an evocative power. And Fitzgerald is always evoking, drawing us into scenes with extended and sensuous tracking shots that come slowly to rest on some small, specific particularity.

In Chapter III, for instance, he opens with that famous overview of a typical Gatsby party: crates of oranges and lemons arrive, armies of caterers fuss with lights in the garden, orchestras begin to play, and laughter spills out as dozens of cars pull into the drive. But suddenly we are no longer at a generic party. An actress tipsily starts to dance and one strategically-deployed definite article let’s us know that “the party has begun.”

Indeed, the novel often shifts from timeless overviews to tightly-specified moments, and you really have to remind yourself while reading it that the central actions only take place over a three-month period. The book seems larger somehow. It’s permeated with a sense of the immensity of time, but also with the brevity of moments available to us. Nick’s narrative voice wavers between these senses of time. This is partly structural. He is, after all, relating events two years after they happened.

At the same time, though, it’s thematic. Gatsby can’t see his past for what it is. Nick can but he can’t bring himself to say that it’s completely ridiculous. Nick’s half in love with those absurd lies himself. He knows enough to detect in Gatsby’s dream an “appalling sentimentality,” but this sentimentality also evokes in him a sense of a lost and more noble past. Upon finally hearing Gatsby’s pathetic tale, Nick says:
I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere long ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though they were more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.
It cannot be communicated for to put it into words would be the tragedy’s recognition scene, and Gatsby is not your typical tragic hero. He isn't some noble hero with a fatal flaw. Rather, he’s an average schmuck whose flaw is to be deluded about nobility. Near the end of the novel, as Nick stands before Gatsby’s abandoned mansion, he finds that some neighborhood kid has scrawled an obscene word on the white steps leading up to the terrace. He erases it, drawing his shoe “raspingly” along the stone.” This defilement of Gatsby's dream must not be communicated either. The recognition scene must be kept at bay and the dream remain beautifully and adolescently ahead.

And that is about as American as it gets.


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