Adverbs in the Kingdom of Gatsby

Since it is Nanowrimo Month, I thought I would do something writerly in honor of all you heroes who are creating masterpieces.

It was as if Scott Fitzgerald had suddenly discovered the adverbs of manner. You know, those -ly words that reveal how an action took place, those pesky words we writers are urged again and again to avoid like the rats who brought in the black death in the Middle Ages, those words. The ones Stephen King advised against in his book, On Writing. He especially hates the word “zestfully”, but so far I haven’t seen a “zestfully” pop its pretty little head up out of the pages of The Great Gatsby.

Many of the pages of Gatsby have at least a few of the adverbs. Sometimes more, much more. Normally I would say that this language doesn’t work. The writer’s just being lazy. But this is Fitzgerald and some of his finest music and he knows the secret that rules are made to be broken. Especially if you’re a writer as good as Fitzgerald.

You see it’s not Fitzgerald speaking on the pages of his masterpiece. It’s the narrator and observer, Nick Carroway, who is telling the story in the first person way Somerset Maugham used to great effect in a number of his novels.

Now I can hear some of you out there saying, “That’s no excuse.” Of course, it’s not an excuse. It is technique, it is style. Nick’s the voice we hear throughout the tale of disillusionment and loss, and he’s telling it in his own language. Just to be sure that this use of adverbs was purposeful, I checked another of Fitzgerald’s novels, Tender is the Night. I didn’t read it all the way through, though I intend to soon. I did a quick perusal of the first chapter. Those pesky devilish -lys are rare.

No, Fitzgerald is much too good a writer to be sloppy with those adverbs. He’s a writer who can make his prose sing, a novelist who gives his readers such wonderful lines as:

“wherever people played polo and were rich together.”

“A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug making a shadow on it as the wind does on the sea.”

“It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of speech that will never be played again.”

And these are just in the first chapter. This is no accident. This is a master hard at work to give his reader pleasure, such pleasure.

20 thoughts on “Adverbs in the Kingdom of Gatsby

  1. This was a really interesting post. I wish to learn more. Would you know of any good analyses of The Great Gatsby’s prose (adverbs, metaphor, alliteration, poetry, etc.) in any form (article/book/etc.)? Thanks!

  2. Normally, I’d criticize an author for the use of too many adverbs. But I’d make an exception for Fitzgerald. He is someone I look up to and sometimes foolishly try to emulate. When I do, I feel like I’ve committed a crime. He is a master with words and he’s insanely intelligent.

  3. “This is a master hard at work to give his reader pleasure, such pleasure.” And deliver, he does. Thank you for this, as Fitzgerald is far and away my favorite. As you read Gatsby you can feel Nick’s rapid speech and breathing come straight from the pages. I agree with you, though I hadn’t made the connection prior to reading your post- those are Nick’s adverbs. Well done! Karen 🙂

  4. This post reminded me of my Fitzgerald phase after I was introduced to him as a freshman in college. I couldn’t get enough. I read your last sentence and thought amen and amen.

    • Fitzgerald is a writer you either get or you don’t get. There is a poetry to Gatsby that few other writers can match. Having read it ten times, I appreciate it more each time. Hemingway, who was a darn good writer, once proclaimed Fitzgerald the better writer.

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