Close reading: A single line of The Great Gatsby

Following up from our exercise in class, you can find after the break the piece that I wrote in the allotted time. It is by no means perfect, but I was quite glad to see that you managed to get most of the major points that I had also considered. Clearly, I didn’t hear your whole essays, but it’s important to make your argument clear and persuasive in excercises such as this – evidently, the amount of evidence is small in this passage, but it is concise and carefully structured, and so supports a number of arguments.

“Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.”
The change in tone and swift brutality of this sentence marks it as a significant one within the context of the chapter. Linguistically, it is spare and purposeful, showing none of the poetic license or wordplay that Fitzgerald has previously employed. It is strident with a sense of purpose – he does not “hit her and break her nose”; rather, the very purpose of the movement is to break it – a telling difference. The language is, like the movement itself, “short [and] deft”, belying an economy and surety of movement, telling us a great deal about Tom’s character. It is, in essence, a perfect portrait in miniature – curt, brutal, efficient, and with a sense of his own surety which can, and will, be maintained with quiet, vicious force at a moment’s notice.

The use of Tom’s full name, “Tom Buchanan”, lends a disinterested air to the retelling, further underlining the factual nature of the event. This serves only to shock further – there is no room in this sparse sentence for any unreliable narrator, any sense of judgement or blame. The tone is, naturally, misleading, sleight of hand on Fitzgerald (and Nick’s) part – the mere act of reporting it, of including the deed in the narrative, invites judgement from the reader. Given the casual brutality of the act and of its telling, it is clear what that judgement should be.

The preceding lines, which give us the cause of his anger, are immediately redolent of Daisy’s teasing in the preceding chapter. She repeats the word “hulking” at him, but, as his wife and, we can assume, knowledgeable of his temper (or perhaps she is protected insomuch as she is truly a member of his social class?), she knows when to cease her torment. The unfortunate Myrtle, however, whether through her own lack of sense or merely because she does not know Tom in the same way, oversteps the boundary, and is dealt with efficiently.

Tom clearly knows how to achieve a desired result with the minimum of effort, and that result has the capacity for the utmost cruelty. The short, efficient sentence is just that; a sentence laid down by Tom as judge, juror and executioner. It is notable that Nick’s narration contains no note of perdition or remorse from Tom after the event, and his silence on the matter is as effective a judgement on Tom’s character as the act itself.

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~ by mrprestney on January 16, 2009.

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