September 24th, 2016 is the 120th anniversary of F. Scott Fitzgerald's birth. The author of, most famously, The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald is associated with the excess of the American Jazz Age but above all else, he was an amazing and gifted writer.
Fitzgerald chose words with precision, and took into account not just their inherent meanings, but also how their use would serve to establish the traits of his characters. Adjective by adjective, phrase by phrase, Fitzgerald paints portraits of even the minor characters in Gatsby that are convincing and memorable. A comprehensive list of vocabulary words from The Great Gatsby can be found here. Below are some of those carefully chosen words as well as some discussion of the words themselves and how they function to enliven characters in The Great Gatsby.
"Now he was a sturdy, straw haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward." (used to describe Tom Buchanan, Chapter 1)
Supercilious means acting superior and obnoxious to those you consider beneath you. This meaning is carried forward in Fitzgerald's next sentence when Nick Carraway describes Tom Buchanan's "arrogant eyes." Notice how Fitzgerald has prepared the reader for these less than flattering descriptions with the first such adjective, Tom's "hard" mouth. It may have been interpreted as merely a detail at the time, and it fits together with the non-judgemental sturdy before it. In retrospect however, a word like "hard" helps to lay the foundation for the collection of traits Fitzgerald goes on to assemble, where Tom is portrayed as forceful and somewhat mean.
Supercilious has an interesting history. The Latin source, supercilium, literally means "eyebrow"-- from parts super meaning "above" and cilium meaning "eyelid." Supercilium meant contemptuous and superior behavior for a long time, however, and the connection is the stereotypical motion of raising an eyebrow to express these attitudes.
"His wife was shrill, languid, handsome and horrible. She told me with pride that her husband had photographed her a hundred and twenty-seven times since they had been married." (used to describe Mrs. McKee, Chapter 2)
Languid is an adjective that describes something lacking energy, spirit or liveliness. In the first sentence of this quote, Fitzgerald has set up a set of four words describing the same person that are almost contradictory. Shrill sounds are high-pitched and squeaky, and can be full of annoying energy. This is in opposition to languid, which is a very low-energy, slow, quiet word, without the liveliness of shrill. It is possible to be shrill and languid at the same time, but it is difficult.
Handsome and horrible aren't direct antonyms either; they are qualities that can exist in the same person. However, it may be something of a surprise when a handsome person is also horrible, depending on your experience with the handsome. Nick Carraway is describing a woman, Mrs. McKee, who is difficult to stand any way you look at it. In shrill, high-energy mode, she is insufferable, but it gets no better when she slows down to a languid pace. The next sentence, about her pride at being photographed, confirms this attitude and mocks Mrs. McKee. Maybe taking a picture, if you're an artist, is something to be proud of, but being the subject of a picture isn't really something to take pride in.
"He was balancing himself on the dashboard of his car with that resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American -- that comes, I suppose, with the absence of lifting work or rigid sitting in youth and, even more, with the formless grace of our nervous, sporadic games. This quality was continually breaking through his punctilious manner in the shape of restlessness." (used to describe Jay Gatsby, Chapter 4)
A punctilious person is precise and detail-oriented, with the additional sense that they never let anything escape their attention or let things get out of control. This passage describes Gatsby himself, and is a nice miniature portrait of one of Gatsby's struggles throughout the novel. He tries to adopt a punctilious manner, but every once in awhile, as in this scene when he is balancing on the dashboard of his car, he lets this orderly mask slip and reveals the spirit within.
Gatsby is caught throughout the novel between wearing this mask, adopting a pose, or letting his "real" personality out. Nick describes the youthful games as "nervous" and containing a "formless grace" but those words could just as easily describe the men playing them -- Gatsby in particular. Gatsby would be nervous about whether anyone can see through the mask he hides behind. This is a good example of Fitzgerald using adjectives assigned to activities one engages in, or even to body parts (like Tom Buchanan's "hard" mouth above) to reflect the character of the person who possesses those parts or engages in those activities. What a person does is important, but the description of how they do it is often very revealing of their character.
The Great Gatsby is one of the great works of modern American literature. It earns this distinction not because of its elaborate plot, or because of the opinions of some people in an English Academy. Fitzgerald's choice of words evokes associations and connections so that full-blooded portraits of the characters are in place practically the first time the reader meets them, before the characters have even uttered a word. One Hundred and Twenty years after his birth, Fitzgerald's characters are as alive as ever.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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