Where do we go with this one? Must we dither over the old hobby-horse "literally"? Did Gatsby literally glow? Was he heated to the point of incandescence? I'd say that F. Scott Fitzgerald continually uses metaphor, asserting that things are other than what they are, without the prissy distance of clutter words like like and as if, so what does it matter if he intensifies one of these assertions with literally?
He glowed. And he radiated. It filled the room. He's an incandescent light-bulb. There are, I assure you, no fluorescent bulbs in "Gatsby." There are a few candles, including 4 that Daisy snaps out with her fingers. There's particularity about lighting in this book. Daisy prefers the sun. Literally.
I've said before that one thing I've learned, reading "Gatsby" sentences, is that if you're having trouble finding a way in: Look for the light. Today, the light source is obvious: It's the man himself, Gatsby.
But, the truth is, I'm not having trouble finding a way into this sentence. It jumped out at me because of the word "exultation," which is there in the negative: There isn't any exultation, not in word or gesture. It's a situation where Gatsby might have exulted, and the glowing/radiation came right out of his skin.
We were just talking about exulting. We were mock exulting at a minor tribulation that afflicted someone we sometimes slightly pretend we don't like, and then we were mock chiding each other for inappropriate exultation. It was nothing, really. Just some passing amusement at the idea of the flimsy sin of exultation.
The original meaning — OED — of exult, now obsolete, is "To spring or leap up; to leap for joy." That physical image is lost now, and it means — literally, now — "To rejoice exceedingly, be elated or glad; to triumph."
1856 E. K. Kane Arctic Explor. II. viii. 90 We..exult to think we need no catering for the morrow.Don't confuse exult with exalt, which means "to raise up... to lift up" and "to praise, extol, magnify." The elevation-related physical image survives:
1865 A. C. Swinburne Satire to C. in Poems & Ballads 50 As plague in a poisonous city Insults and exults on her dead.
1823 C. Lamb Mod. Gallantry in Elia 184 Exalting his umbrella over her poor basket of fruit.And the metaphorical meaning works too:
1832 Blackwood's Edinb. Mag. Feb. 287 Let the rogues swing, And thus be exalted.
1611 Bible (A.V.) Psalms xxxiv. 3 O magnifie the Lord with me, and let vs exalt his name together.There's one other appearance of exult in "The Great Gatsby." It's not the absence of exultation, and it's not Gatsby, it's Tom. He's talking "incessantly, exulting and laughing." Much better to silently incandesce. Exalt appears once:
I stayed late that night, Gatsby asked me to wait until he was free, and I lingered in the garden until the inevitable swimming party had run up, chilled and exalted, from the black beach, until the lights were extinguished in the guest-rooms overhead.Ah, but that's a whole other fat, juicy sentence. We've had our "Gatsby" sentence today, and it's time to snap out the lights on this post. Figuratively.