February 3, 2013

"He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room."

There's today's sentence from "The Great Gatsby," in the long-running Althouse blog show called The "Gatsby" Project.

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.
1865   A. C. Swinburne Satire to C. in Poems & Ballads 50   As plague in a poisonous city Insults and exults on her dead.
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:
1823   C. Lamb Mod. Gallantry in Elia 184   Exalting his umbrella over her poor basket of fruit.
1832   Blackwood's Edinb. Mag. Feb. 287   Let the rogues swing, And thus be exalted.
And the metaphorical meaning works too:
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.

21 comments:

kentuckyliz said...

Did he start the "literally" abuse? Deserves to be spanked.

Ann Althouse said...

"Deserves to be spanked."

Literally? Or with trap drums and bongos.

kentuckyliz said...

Hey! They're doing America the Beautiful at the Super Bowl. Just like I said earlier that I preferred.

I like Jennifer Hudson.

Café thread for superbowl commercial commentary?

I need to start fixing some game snacks.

Ann Althouse said...

I mean banjos.

Howard said...

Dithering is always a mistake. Unless you join Pajamas Media.

wyo sis said...

I literally puked when he literally glowed. A new well-being did NOT fill the room.

gadfly said...

Although it has been known for many years that all living creatures produce a small amount of light as a result of chemical reactions within their cells, the glow is imperceptible to the human eye.

But I suppose that no one told F. Scott Fitzgerald - and even if told, he would use the word picture anyway.

edutcher said...

An excellent, expressive, well-thout out sentence.

I like it.

edutcher said...

s/b thought, not thout.

Thorry.

john said...

Well, if polar bears can literally walk down main street ...

Dante said...

"People who speak in metaphors should shampoo my crotch."

As Good as it Gets.

betamax3000 said...

I'll catch the next round; I was busy parsing a sentence in a previous thread. School is Hard.

lomar1234 said...

He obviously meant literally in the figurative sense, not literally literally. Fitzgerald was way ahead of his time to pick up on this and should be commended, literally. In a figurative sense.

Chip Ahoy said...

Tiny Gastby radiates and glows.

sydney said...

Well, it's fiction, so he can make his character do anything he wants. Literally.

Smilin' Jack said...

Verb: glow (third-person singular simple present glows, present participle glowing, simple past and past participle glowed)

1.To give off light from heat or to emit light as if heated.
The fire was still glowing after ten hours.
2.To radiate some emotional quality like light.
The zealots glowed with religious fervor.
The new baby's room glows with bright, loving colors.
You are glowing from happiness!
3.To gaze especially passionately at something.
4.To radiate thermal heat.
Iron glows red hot when heated to its melting point.
After their work out, the gymnasts faces were glowing red.
5.To shine brightly and steadily.
6.To sweat
Women glow, men sweat.


As is apparent from meanings 2, 3, and 6, it is quite possible for a person to literally glow. Pedantry is not a very useful tool in analyzing Gatsby, especially inaccurate pedantry.

m stone said...

Pregnant women, to some men, "literally glow."

traditionalguy said...

Angel of the morning and light bearer were names used for the archangel Lucifer before he fell.

chickelit said...

kentuckyliz said...
Did he start the "literally" abuse? Deserves to be spanked.

"Lilly, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet."
~Opening sentence in James Joyce's The Dead, published 1914 in Dubliners.

chickelit said...

@KentuckyLiz: The abuse of literally might have been a coded wink and nod which novelists gave each other at the time to indicate new expressions of style.

According to the Wiki regarding the Joyce quote:
She is not, in this instance, "literally" run off her feet, and neither would Joyce have thought so; rather, the narrative lends itself to a misuse of language typical of the character being described.

William said...

The green light was litorally just beyond the dock on the far shore.