January 3, 2013

"They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house."

I decided to pluck something from Chapter 1 for today's entry in the "Great Gatsby" project. I randomly selected the sentence that appears above. You must believe me that it is indeed random, and yet someone had just emailed me to say he liked the Gatsby project and:
When I was a Harvard Freshman in 58-59, I took the required freshman English class and the instructor was an expert on Gatsby....

At one point while we were reading Gatsby for the class, he remarked "Have you noticed that whenever you see Daisy in the novel, she is wearing white?"
Now, how can my correspondent believe that I randomly picked a sentence with 2 women in white? But, on my purest honor, I did. We're focusing on sentences, so I don't know or care whether Daisy was one of the 2 women. I won't presume, though I will presume that the 2 entities known as "They" are women, given that they are wearing dresses. We must bring our knowledge of what is possible and what is probable to the enterprise of reading, even as we bear down on an isolated sentence. One or both of "them" might be a transvestite male (or a nonhuman), but I'm going to presume 2 women (or girls).

The "they" is perplexing in another, more disturbing way, because it reappears halfway through in "as if they had just been blown back." We're given a simile that asks us to picture the women, in their white dresses, flying around the house at some earlier moment. They — the women — look like they just landed, as their dresses are "rippling and fluttering" from a recent "short flight." But to say "their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back" is to create ambiguity, the possibility that the "they" was "their dresses," and we might feel called upon to picture the dresses, by themselves, flying around the house before getting blown back onto the 2 erstwhile naked women. The flying-around-the-house image is fantastical, so we can't tap our our knowledge of what is possible and what is probable, and yet, somehow we know it was the women in their dresses who seem as if they'd just flown around the house and gotten blown back in.

I think the problem of 2 possible antecedents for the second "they" is a writing error, and this Gatsby project is premised on the greatness of the sentences. I hate to be the one to have to say a good editing eye would have seen that ambiguity, but the greatness of the sentence-writing doesn't require a complete absence of error, and the logic of the sentence precludes the dresses flying around the house on their own because we can't picture the dresses getting back on the women without losing the "rippling and fluttering" action caused by the flight and landing. So enough of that. Stop picturing naked women waiting while their dresses fly around the house.

It was the women, so magical and light, like birds or butterflies, that flew around the house. They could fly, but they didn't fly far, only around the house which they got blown back into. These women don't have much ambition or power on their own. They are housebound, even though they can fly. They do an orbit of the house and then a breeze sweeps them back in. But here they are, so pretty in their fluttery white dresses. And of course, they only look as if they'd taken that charmingly domestic flight. The truth is they are sitting together in the house, and they haven't been going anywhere. But there is a breeze, a breeze that might blow a butterfly into the house, and it ripples their flimsy dresses.

42 comments:

edutcher said...

Sounds like P-40s at Midway.

Fandor said...

The women are...something pure or angelic...and wild...the summer wind attempting to tame them... a tantilizing vision captured by a few strokes of a pen.

mccullough said...

It's tough not to picture that famous Marilyn Monroe scene with the subway grate blowing up her dress.

That said, the image here is well done in that it evokes some purity, frivolity, and angelicness, as well as some sexuality.

Old Dad said...

Prof. Althouse:

Your experiment has potential, but without context, this analysis is absurd.


Without context, there are no antecedents. The "dresses" might suggest females. Let's so stipulate. They could be babies, or paper dolls, or white witches, or Kleenex, ad nauseam.

We know damn well that the image refers to Jordan and Daisy. Now it's fun to imagine them fluttering like paper dolls, or Kleenex, or white witches through an airy East Egg mansion, just now come to light on their respective sofas, posing artfully, as if they were balancing saucers on their chins.

mccullough said...

It also evokes Gemini, which is appropriate for the time of year and also represents duality, a big theme in the book.

deborah said...

Sounds like witches.

Michael said...

The breezy casualness, the insouciance of the two women, Daisy and Jordan, sets the theme of the drama: the carelessness and moral emptiness of their class. Two bored rich women on a couch wearing white and soon to toy with the narrator's heart and Gatsby's.

Patrick said...

It's got a tag, now - cool.

Sooner or later, I'll have something to add to this project. Until then, don't mistake silence for lack of interest.

Surfed said...

Gatsby lived on the water. Women's dresses are forever fluttering and being blown from wind across the water. Wind across water with no breaks (trees, buildings, etc.) is a much steadier and more constant presence. What I wonder about is Daisy wearing white when she may have been a high end escort. Stopping to take a look back at period photographs of that coastal set of people and in that particular time frame, white is a predominant color. Even for the men.

mccullough said...

Surfed, its summer.

CWJ said...

Pedantic CWJ says, there were no P-40s at Midway. Well at least if you are referring to the battle of the same name. They were Brewster Buffalos.

Lem said...

The rippling reminds me of the throwing-a-rock-in-the-water ad.

The words "as if" make me think that the rippling and the fluttering were not created by any wind... but by the girls themselves... the girls were effervescent... 2.(of a person or their behavior) Vivacious and enthusiastic.

I realise that the the words "as if" are written later in the sentence... so a limited, literal, Scalia-like reading might preclude "as if" from covering the rippling and the fluttering.
But, if the magnitude of coming upon angels is to be appreciated... what happened before and what happened after the words "as if" are the same thing.
A thing of transcendence... a thing of beauty.

Surfed said...

@edutcher - rendered a P-40 this last year. Tunsian campaign of '42. Couple of guys my age commisioned it for their father who piloted one. Without looking into my files I'm thinking it was a Kittyhawk. I have the IJN Kirishima (1942) on the ways now for half of a commission - the other half being the USS Washington.

Mid-Life Lawyer said...

They are in white because it's summer and that is why the great doors are open with the breeze coming through. They are light - carefree, youthful, not weighed down by worry. So light that they could have been picked up by a slight gust and blown around the house and back into the window without upsetting a thing.

wyo sis said...

It sounds so light and airy. As if the story were going to be frivolous.
White and light and floaty and nothing bad could ever happen in such an ideal setting.

Or, a person who knows the story could see an attempt to set up a false image to later make the contrast between the appearance and the reality even more obvious or disgusting like whipped cream covering something rotten.

CWJ said...

This is one of my favorite scenes. The fluttering dresses evoke birds settling their plumage after a flight. It also suggests the lithe figures of the women described. As full figured women are perhaps not so easily pictured in flight.

Surfed said...

@mccullough - It's beena 4 decades (at least) since I cracked open Gatsby. Twice was enough. I'm just playing along here... Tanx for the correction.

Lem said...

That Scalia jab is probably not fair... I have no idea how Scalia reads, other that what I've heard... and what I've heard is that he reads "as if" he is a Scrooge.

Lem said...

...the great doors are open with the breeze coming through.

Where is that in the sentence?

sydney said...

I picture fairies from the old illustrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries with their ephemeral wings and dresses. Magical.

sydney said...

Fairies like this.

CWJ said...

That too Sydney - good one.

Ann Althouse said...

"Where is that in the sentence?"

If you go beyond the sentence (at the link) you'll see there were open windows and breeze inside the house. Then the windows are closed. It's a big deal!

CWJ said...

OK, quibble time. Though I like ann's supposition that "they" might refer to the dresses. The use of "they" here is not so obvious a mistake. Flight implies control in the air so imagining "they" refers to the dresse, presupposes additional fantasy/magic to the quote which in itself is not there.

P. S. Naked women requires lack of undergarments. Not that I'm against the image.

The Godfather said...

A little off subject, but: When I was in college (Harvard --this matters for the story) in the early '60's (this also matters for the story), I had several friends who were candidates for Rhodes scholarships. One of the questions the interviewers were expected to ask was: Name 10 books that you would recommend that a foreigner read in order to understand the United States.

Everyone believed that you would be disqualified immediately if you listed any non-fiction.

The universal first choice was The Great Gatsby.

I was not all that impressed by The Great Gatsby at the time (I liked Tender Is The Night more than Gatsby, but I didn't think either one captured America -- I'd have picked Lewis, Main Street), but then I wasn't a candidate for a Rhodes.

But my girl friend (later my first wife) came up with what I thought and still think was a much better answer: The Yellow Pages of the phone book. Less pretentious, more creative.

deborah said...

"Two bored rich women on a couch wearing white and soon to toy with the narrator's heart and Gatsby's.


No. No one walks away a hero in this book. If anything, Jordan and Daisy are solid citizens compared to Gatsby and Tom.

Lem said...

Oh well, I'm the one in a flight of fancy then.

Rob said...

I reckon it is the dresses that, in the simile, are blown back in, after their flight--on the women, or conceivably all by themselves--around the house. Rippling, fluttering, blown back. It's the "in" that seems unnecessary and confusing. Max Perkins, why weren't you doing your job?

edutcher said...

CWJ said...

Pedantic CWJ says, there were no P-40s at Midway. Well at least if you are referring to the battle of the same name. They were Brewster Buffalos.

Not to mention TBDs. Not an expert on WWII Navy planes, granted, I just remember Chennault's line about Warhawks taking on Zeroes.

wildswan said...

I know this book so well it's hard to turn off the "front story" so to speak. But OK, say this was an image in a movie in another language - then what would I see? I think it would seem light-hearted and fun. Even the extravagance of the language is in the direction of fun. Not the least bit ominous. It seems clanky to say things like - "but what's it all about?" or "wait till you know more!". Like pinning a butterfly - don't do it - and so that makes the book more interesting because you live in the different moments as you do in life.

CWJ said...

Rob, but the "in" is there. Wishing it away just won't do. So pick your poison. what do you want to edit? Blaming Max Perkins just won't do. He was editing a book, not a sentence. On the basis of the sentence, its the women, not the dresses.

So I assume you'd prefer that the "in" was gone. I could live with that. In fact, on a sentence only basis it is perhaps a more satisfying fantasy.

Michael said...

The Godfather. I have found that people who attended Harvard College let you know it within five minutes of meeting. You have set a new record. Harvard does not figure into the story at all. Nor does the era. Otherwise an excellent story and a great answer.

Ralph L said...

I have found that people who attended Harvard College let you know it within five minutes of meeting.
Funny that Fitzgerald drops a "New Haven" in the fifth or sixth paragraph, and several more later.

Flying was a new and very big deal in 1925, especially for the glamorous rich. Unmarried young ladies wore white evening gowns at the time, so perhaps this wardrobe choice is supposed to indicate Daisy regrets her marriage?

If the wind had blown the window sashes into the ladies' heads, we could have had a Totolly different story.

Chip Ahoy said...

I am so cross with myself right now my head is about to explode.

I'm very mad at the art world right now, and how they organize and talk about things.

There is an artist who captures this nicely I think but for the life of me I cannot come up with his @#!#% name. And I couldn't before either. And other people like you can come up with his name like that *snap* and that's the part that pisses me right off.

He's fanciful. Paints women in diaphanous gowns on patios and terraces of neoclassical architecture in exceedingly unlikely places, at the tops of rocky crags at the edge of creation where one wrong move is certain death, and always with rich layered contrasty blue/orange light. They evoke fanciful ideas of culture smashed against nature at elevation. The women's gowns flow. And he's very popular too. See his stuff everywhere. Like the old fashion Morton's salt girl style, sort of.

Seventeen trillion Google image searches using all the above parameters produces every single painting of Western world through history, of nature, of cliffs, of women in diaphanous gowns, of oil painting history, the history of styles of painting nature, Naturalism, Hudson School, Beau Arts, I've now seen every picture of cliffs, terraces, patios, iridescent twilights, craggy cliffs, over and over, the same results reappearing in widely different searches, and nothing, NOTHING on the guy, and I'll bet you already know his name and that's what's killing me.

None of my awesome search ninja tricks worked.

I've looked at lists of painters until my eyes bled.

I'm not even going to look back here because you'll blurt his name out with the greatest ease because he's so famous and that will REALLY piss me off.



XRay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Dolan said...

The "they ...their ...they" construction is a pretty good, and perfectly grammatical, means of conveying the intended sense. Surely, this is Ann's spoof on what a particularly tone-deaf student in that Harvard class back in 58-59 might have offered as textual criticism. Well, everything except the riff on transvestites and such -- even the Har-frosh of the day would never have suggested such a reading of this little snippet from Fitzgerald.

Richard Dolan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wyo sis said...

Someone better figure out the artist Chip is looking for because now I'm getting a little obsessed as well.

Thomas Lawrence perhaps?

The Godfather said...

Michael, you can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much.

Anyway, I thought the environment and the era were relevant to the story. If I'd gone to Princeton, that would have worked just as well as Harvard. But I don't think I'd have heard the same comments about Gatsby at Ohio State. Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps Ohio State students are just as pretentious as Harvard students.

Penny said...

Is Chip thinking about Maxfield Parrish?

wyo sis said...

Maxfield Parrish sounds good. Fits the criteria.

traditionalguy said...

Sounds like women of the rich whose work is to be the exotic birds of paradise being kept inside their husband's cage.

To a southerner, that sounds normal. We like our colorful birds chirping in cages where we can show them off.

The cheerleader costumes of the 1950-60s were from that genre complete with pom pom wings affluter and chirping cheers.