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Fitzgerald strongly connects time in the novel with location, as if time were an entire setting in itself. Fitzgerald tips his hand early; after Nick provides a description of himself and what we assume are his motives in coming to New York, he makes an immediately important time reference:
Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water, and the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans. (10)
Nick wants to relate the “history” of the summer, not its events, its characters, or “just” a story. This is to be a history, events frozen in time and examined and re-examined. Nick sets the stage for the novel’s treatment of time – despite the often frivolous characters and situations, this story bears more than a superficial reading. The Eggs gain enough historical importance to rival New York City itself. Fitzgerald shrinks his focus to a geographical area while simultaneously expanding its meaning in time.
The past plays a major role, perhaps the most major role, in the concept of time presented in Gatsby. Tom was a “Big Man on Campus” in the past, while Gatsby was both a poor farm boy and Daisy’s lover; Daisy was a flighty socialite with no family to tie her down; all of them were naïve Midwesterners whose lives, they now believe, were far better in a past they can’t help but romanticize. It is precisely this romanticizing of the past that enables Fitzgerald to write such a powerful novel – in allowing his characters to wallow around in their pasts, he reminds later generations of readers that neither the 20s nor his books should be romanticized. They should be taken for what they are, and made relative to the present day. The (possibly unintentional) consequence of this attitude is an audience that extends beyond the 20th Century.
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Fitzgerald’s characters are not only obsessed with time, they seem to embody it. Tom Buchanan is obsessed with history, reading books like The Rise of the Colored Empires that offer historical explanations for his inability to rise above the life he lives. Tom is Old Money, hopelessly stuck in the past, trying to live up to his ancestors’ wealth by amassing his own. He can never recapture his youth, so he seeks to recreate the excitement of those days by having a mistress on the side.
Daisy, too, is stuck in the past, a pre-feminist remnant of an age in which women were expected to act “a certain way.” She tolerates Tom’s affair, and stands out in stark contrast to Jordan Baker’s contemporary “flapper” persona. Daisy is as confined as Jordan is liberated, and she can’t live a life without a man to run it for her. Her true complication comes when two opposite aspects of her past – Tom and Gatsby – compete for her affection. In each, she sees qualities lacking in the other. For a woman who is defined by men, her own definition of herself comes into question.
Myrtle Wilson seems to have a fairly solid definition of herself, and she and her husband George are fully in the present. Living in the Valley of Ashes, they can’t help but see the world as it is, as it goes by the windows of their garage. Myrtle is usually willing to put up with the complications of seeing a married man in exchange for the material possessions George can’t give her. However, when she complains in her “secret” apartment in the city, the past literally smacks her in the face. Presumably, George would never do that to her, devoted as he is. That devotion, and the reality of his situation, causes George to snap at the end of the novel.
Gatsby, of course, the victim of George’s misplaced rage, represents the future. His past is colorless and best forgotten; James Gatz got to where he is in the beginning of the novel by focusing on the future and building toward it, by any means necessary. He desperately wants to make Daisy part of his future (He is, after all, building it to share with her, which hopelessly entangles his past with his future), but she can’t commit to his far-reaching vision. Gatsby’s world falls apart when he realizes the future he envisions simply can’t happen.
Nick’s progression as a narrator provides a yardstick by which the other characters’ relationships to time can be measured. In the beginning, he is purely a product of his Midwestern past; by the time he acclimates himself to New York and meets Myrtle Wilson, he is very much in the present. At the end of the novel Nick must reconcile his own future by returning to the site of his naïve past a wiser, more jaded person. Nick, in this sense, shares all the other characters’ perspectives of time, allowing us to watch time unfold.
Fitzgerald uses a number of repeated images to represent time in Gatsby; one of the most telling is the clock in Chapter 5. Gatsby and Daisy are meeting at Nick’s house for the first time, and the three are sharing an awkward conversation:
Gatsby, his hands still in his pockets, was reclining against the mantelpiece in a strained counterfeit of perfect ease, even of boredom. His head leaned back so far that it rested against the face of a defunct mantelpiece clock, and from this position his distraught eyes stared down at Daisy, who was sitting, frightened but graceful, on the edge of a stiff chair.
"We've met before," muttered Gatsby. His eyes glanced momentarily at me, and his lips parted with an abortive attempt at a laugh. 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, his elbow on the arm of the sofa and his chin in his hand.
"I'm sorry about the clock," he said.
My own face had now assumed a deep tropical burn. I couldn't muster up a single commonplace out of the
thousand in my head.
"It's an old clock," I told them idiotically.
I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor. (91-2)
The clock is a symbol of many things – Gatsby’s dream of having Daisy for himself, Daisy’s hope for a better life, Nick’s desire for the dramatic change that never comes, or even just their lives slowly ticking away. When Gatsby almost breaks it, the moment is shattered. None of the three characters will be the same again after the clock drops. Gatsby becomes uncharacteristically clumsy around Daisy, who has no idea what to say or do. Nick, too, is at a loss, coming up with something “idiotic” to say just to keep the conversation moving. The last line, though, foreshadows the ending of the novel: “I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor.” In this one moment, past, present and future all seem to meet and crash together in an impossible explosion of emotion and loss. From here, all is downhill.
In a very important sense, The Great Gatsby is all about time – its effects on people, its importance in our lives, and most particularly its status in the American consciousness. We see time in a linear fashion – broken up into discrete units for appointments, life plans, meetings and goals. Fitzgerald shows us lives all along that line, perhaps suggesting that the most successful American life is one that should see time in more flexible terms. As such, Nick may be seen as the only true successful character in the novel, as he is able to move across the various timelines, interact with the characters who inhabit them, and retain his sense of self in the end. Nick, as it turns out, is not a slave to time. Fitzgerald seems to be encouraging his readers to break their own chains and take the time to enjoy the lives they have while they have them.