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Analysis: Chapter 5

Fitzgerald's Preoccupation With Turning Back Time

Robert J Comito

January 26, 2004

The Problems of Time and Remembered Experience in The Great Gatsby

            The concept of an inescapable past manifests a major theme in F Scott Fitzgerald’s works. The 1920s left Fitzgerald him with memories and experiences that he tries in vain to refute.  Venting through his writing, Fitzgerald points out a sympathy and disgust for his past, as well as its hopelessly unavoidable nature.  In the Great Gatsby, this theme is intensely important not only to Jay Gatsby’s futile intentions but to the themes of excess and wasted youth.  Clocks and watches, especially in Chapter 5, serve symbolically for Gatsby’s and Fitzgerald’s vain attempts to relive or recreate the past, to “wind back the clock” so to speak.  In The Great Gatsby and his other works, Fitzgerald captures his and Jay Gatsby’s fool’s errand to redo or rewrite an inescapably remembered past, a motif to which clocks and watches are significant. 

            Memories of excess and tragedy in the Roaring Twenties especially anguish Fitzgerald because he understands that he cannot escape or relive them. Certainly Fitzgerald desired to forget much of the 1920s.  To him, it was a time when he and others wasted their valuable youth in the pursuit of vanities. He states in his essay Echoes of the Jazz Age that the entire youth had become “hedonistic, deciding on pleasure” and declaring the whole period “an era of excess” (Fitzgerald1 41, 42).  Many critics agree that it was precisely this disgust with his and the nation’s past that so alienated Fitzgerald; critics commonly interpret him as the prophet of youthful vanity and excess during the Jazz Age (Commager 245).  But the twenties were also a decade of personal tragedy for Fitzgerald.  Of this, he wrote

By this time, contemporaries of mine had begun to disappear into the dark maw of violence.  A classmate killed his wife and himself on Long island, another tumbled “accidentally” from a skyscraper in Philadelphia, another purposely from a skyscraper in New York.  One was killed in a speakeasy in New York and crawled home to Princeton to die; still another had his skull crushed by a maniac’s axe in an insane asylum where he was confined. (Fitzgerald1 45).

Although writing Echoes of the Jazz Age in 1931, by 1922 undesired experiences filled Fitzgerald’s memory.  Critic Maxwell Geismar referred to the two years between 1920 and 1922 (or between This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned) as “two decades of bitter experience: an experience that has no sufficient counterpart in the external facts of the writer’s life over the period” (244).  But however much he may strive to relive his youth more meaningfully or to write over the painful truth, the inescapability of these events bind him. Furthermore, he recognized the futility of forgetting or ignoring the past. In Echoes of the Jazz Age, he ridicules the elderly who in 1931 pretended to believe that Americans faithfully followed Prohibition during the Roaring Twenties, even though they knew Americans did not. He even started the essay admitting that however repulsive or attractive parts of the decade may have appeared, they cannot be forgotten nor relived (Fitzgerald1 40). 

            These mixed emotions for the past find their way inevitably into Fitzgerald’s writing.  Much of his success has been accredited to his ability to see good and evil in human experience.  First, he treats the past as definite, permanently behind people.  In his works remains an “acute consciousness of the irrevocable passage of everything into the past”; something done cannot be changed (Myener 241).  But Fitzgerald expresses how the passage of time robs people of opportunities through youthful characters frittering away their youth to pursue transient pleasure and passing beauty. He looks sympathetically to his days of lost youth in his novels.  There he displays “the pathos of the irretrievableness of a part of oneself” (Myener 241). Fitzgerald also tried to relive his youth through these vain young characters, giving them the same opportunities and qualities he once had. But the tragedies that befall these extravagant and vainglorious characters remind the readers that bad memories cannot be escaped. In his books before The Great Gatsby, tragedies seem more like terrifying nightmares (Myener 241).  In this sense, Fitzgerald points out that the felt experience will stick with readers forever, and despite denial will not go away.  Attempts to forget or rewrite them are fruitless and frustrating.

            In The Great Gatsby, the idea of a lost yet inescapable past underlies many themes in the book.  First, the rich and extravagant meaninglessly waste away their youth and money. The conspicuous consumption and endless pleasure seeking at Gatsby’s parties evidence this. Rather than a meaningful and memorable experience, these partygoers waste their time on drunkenness and immediate gratification.  Similarly, Nick makes it seem like other characters waste his time—he seems to have more meaningful things to do when others drag him around in vain pursuit of pleasure. When Tom brings Nick unwillingly to meet his “girl” and have a party in the city, Nick continually tries to escape what seems to be a frivolous waste of his time.  In chapter five at the Gatsby mansion, Nick does not want to just stand around and watch Daisy and Jay watch each other, and tries repeatedly to escape the situation. But more important is the concept that the past cannot be rewritten.  Nick himself repeatedly insists on historical objectivity because he realizes the past is past and unchangeable (Myener 241).  Likewise, in order to appear genuinely rich, Gatsby tries to erase and forget his past as a poor midwestern farmer and menial worker.  Not even his developmental experience with Dan Cody fit into his new image. Instead, he tried to make himself a legitimate pharmacy-chain owner who inherited his fortune and a rich Oxford and high-class heritage.  But Fitzgerald reminds the reader of this endeavor’s futility.  He cannot escape the true sinister origins of his fortune, a fact that catches up to him when he and Tom have fight over Daisy. Pieces of his past remain to hamper his plan. Miss Baker and other social partygoers gossip about his past. Pictures, such as one of he and Dan Cody, books, and other things remain to evidence his real history.  Even in conversation he cannot keep the proper cover. Waiting for Daisy in chapter five, he slipped up, revealing weakness in the story of where his wealth came from. However, despite these inconsistencies, Jay continues with his lie, thinking that so long as he has changed his history in name (as long as he is Jay Gatsby not James Gatz) his story is true. In the end, Fitzgerald proves that Gatsby can never truly erase his own past.

            Clocks serve as an essential symbol for this ongoing theme. First, clocks symbolize futile attempts to return to the past, and they frequently appear when Gatsby sentimentalizes about his long-ago romance with Daisy.  In chapter five, Gatsby’s encounter with the clock happens at this significant moment:

“[Daisy and I have] met before,” muttered Gatsby. His eyes glanced momentarily at me…Luckily the clock took this moment to tilt dangerously at the pressure of his head, whereupon he turned and caught it with trembling fingers and set it back in place.  Then he sat down, rigidly…

“I’m sorry about the clock,” he said. (Fitzgerald2 87). 

As he remembers about his past experiences with Daisy, he accidentally nocks over the clock.  The way Fitzgerald phrases this, with “took this moment to tilt,” the clock does not passively get the center of attention. Rather, the symbol is thrust into the situation to remind the reader and Gatsby that he cannot return to his former romance with Daisy, before she married, had a baby, and became otherwise occupied.  Additionally, the clocks in chapter five serve to point out Gatsby’s attempt to recreate the past. Clocks are tools that can help keep track of time, but they don’t always tell the correct time.  Metaphorically, Gatsby deliberately set the clock wrong to deceive himself and the world; by making telling or thinking a different image of the past he thinks it can be true.  Accordingly, after the success of Gatsby’s scheme to meet Daisy again, Nick sees him as “running down like an over-wound clock” (Fitzgerald2 93). Thus the image of Gatsby manipulating a clock complements his motives to recreate the past as he wanted it.  To Nick, this attempt it just as absurd as it is visible. Similarly, in the first clock encounter Nick says that the three of them momentarily thought the clock had fallen and smashed. This allegorizes Daisy and Gatsby’s fantasy about rejecting the past five years, returning to when they were madly in love, and pretending that they had always been in love.  For this reason, Fitzgerald juxtaposed the fantasy about the broken clock to Daisy’s admission that they had been apart, followed by Gatsby’s recital of exactly how long it had been.  Juxtaposition serves not only to link the two ideas (and thus show that this is the past they try to forget) but to give their fantasy a reality check, reminding that they cannot change what Daisy and Gatsby have done in the past five years nor can they return to life before it. So not only does the clock itself remind them that they cannot change the past, but their futile attempts to change the clock also prove the inability to change the passage of time.

            Fitzgerald symbolically uses a clock to express the futility of Gatsby and Daisy’s attempts to relive and rewrite their pasts.  Throughout The Great Gatsby, the theme of wasted time and changing characters’ pasts relies on the concept of a fixed yet irretrievable past.  In most of his novels, Fitzgerald tried not only to vainly recreate his lost and wasted youth, but he also conveys the how characters cannot return to or change a time that they have wasted away. The reason he did this is because Fitzgerald himself experienced firsthand the excess and vanity of Americans during the Roaring Twenties and other violent experiences that he longed to erase.  But because he found any attempt to retrieve lost opportunities or to forget, change, or erase past events futile, Fitzgerald how events passed were fixed, inescapable, and irretrievable. 

Works Cited

Commager, Henry Steele. The American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950. Rpt in Twentieth

Century Literary Criticism. Vol 1. Ed Bryfonski, Dedria and Mendelson, Phyllis. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1978. 245.

Fitzgerald, F Scott (1). “Echoes of the Jazz Age”. Visions of America. Ed Brown, Wesley and Ling, Amy.

New York: Persea Books, 1993. 40-47.

Fitzgerald, F Scott (2). The Great Gatsby. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1980.

Geisman, Maxwell. “F Scott Fitzgerald: Orestes at the Ritz”. The Land of the Provincials: The American

Novel. Houghtin Mifflin, 1947. pp 287-352. Rpt in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Vol 1. Ed Bryfonski, Dedria and Mendelson, Phyllis. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1978. 224.

Myener, Arthur. “F Scott Fitzgerald: The poet of Borrowed Time”. The Lives of Eighteen from Princeton.

Ed Thorp, Willard. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946. pp 333-353. Rpt in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Vol 1. Ed Bryfonski, Dedria and Mendelson, Phyllis. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1978. 241-243.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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