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Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: The Great Gatsby

March 22, 2014
This is a library copy with a giant blood(?) stain on page 102.

Even a great author can write an occasional bad sentence.

When I first read The Great Gatsby decades ago, I didn’t question anything about it.  Everybody I knew who read books said it was a great book, so I assumed I was reading a great book.  As far as I was concerned, if F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote it, if Hemingway or Steinbeck or Twain or Dickens wrote it, then whatever it was must have been great.  I didn’t question these things.  Who was I to question the writing of a great novelist?

I started reading The Great Gatsby a couple weeks ago, but I had to stop because of some of the sentences.  I don’t know how critical to be of sentences in a great, influential book.  I hesitate commenting on The Great Gatsby because I criticized Holden Caulfield last week, and I don’t want to come across as constantly nit-prickety.  But at the same time, if anybody (or any book) can be criticized, it’s The Great Gatsby.  It’s not like F. Scott Fitzgerald is going to have his feelings hurt.

I know I have my fair share of bad sentences in my own writing.  Whenever I edit anything I’ve written, I cringe at poor word choice, poor sentence structure, and stilted dialogue.  But I have a time-consuming job that has nothing to do with writing.  I have a family that I spend time with.  I write when I get the chance.  I don’t get all day to bang away at a keyboard, and I don’t get to hang out with cool, famous people at cafes at night and talk about the world (or talk about whatever cool, famous people talk about).  Heck, I don’t even have an editor.  I am the editor.  Being my own editor is like being my own lawyer, so I know what I am.  But I don’t have much choice.

I promise, I wasn’t looking for sentences to criticize or complain about.  I was just reading The Great Gatsby when I noticed the first bad sentence early on (p. 11 in my copy) when Tom Buchanan is introduced:

“Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of leaning aggressively forward.”

Why is that a bad sentence?

I could maybe understand explaining that Tom Buchanan had two eyes.  It seems unnecessary because most people have two eyes, but that’s okay.  It’s the “shining, arrogant eyes.”  If I had written “shining, arrogant eyes” in college, my writing instructors would have explained to me that eyes cannot be shining or arrogant (maybe I could have gotten away with “shining” if the eyes were reflecting in the dark).  There might be an arrogant expression on a person’s face, but eyes by themselves are not arrogant.  And then to have two arrogant eyes?  Maybe if Tom had had one arrogant eye when he had two eyes, that would have been worth mentioning.  A person with one shining, arrogant eye and one dull, normal eye… now THAT’S someone worth describing.

After thinking about that bad sentence for a few minutes, I continued reading.  Then a couple pages later , I ran into another bad sentence, this one describing Jordan Baker:

“She was extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless and with her chin raised a little as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall.”

Why is that a bad sentence?

I get the impression that this was a rough draft sentence that Fitzgerald never went back to finish.  She was balancing SOMETHING on her chin.  The word “something” is kind of vague.  If I had written that in college, my writing instructor would have demanded that I come up with another word for “something.”  “Something” is what you write when you’re not sure what word you want to put in in its place.  I kind of want to know what that something could have been.  If I am going to write that a character has her chin raised like she were balancing something that was likely to fall, I should be able to think of something that could be balanced on a chin.  A napkin?  A cocktail glass?  Several cocktail glasses?  A book?

If The Great Gatsby were 800 pages long, I could understand “something” being in the book.   But The Great Gatsby is short.  F. Scott Fitzgerald was a professional writer.  When I was in college, I couldn’t use the word “something” without getting chewed out.  If F. Scott Fitzgerald could get away with using the word “something” in a universally acclaimed work of literature, I at least want to point it out.  And I want to know, what could have been balanced on her chin that was quite likely to fall?

Yes, I know I get bothered by trivial things.  I can’t finish reading The Great Gatsby because Tom Buchanan has “two shining, arrogant eyes” and Jordan Baker raises her chin “a little as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall.”  Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and grouchier.  Maybe it’s because I’m writing more than ever, so I notice things that I wouldn’t have picked up on before.  Either way, it’s probably a miracle that I finish reading any books at all.  Before I read any further, I must know if these sentences are bad, or if I am a bad reader.

Am I being too critical?  Was my college writing instructor too critical?  Without his criticism, I never would have become this critical.  Is The Great Gatsby such an awesome novel that it can no longer be criticized?  Am I just a crank who uses any lame excuse to not finish a book?

While I ponder these questions, I’m going to balance a copy of The Great Gatsby on my chin.  Despite it being such a small book, I believe it is quite likely to fall.

  1. i don’t think you’re being too critical 🙂
    that’s a funny way to end your article 🙂

  2. You know, I love The Great Gatsby. And I love Tender is the Night. But Fitzgerald wrote some truly awful, outlandish sentences.

  3. I’ll grant you the shining, arrogant eyes. I can’t imagine them not spinning in opposite directions for some reason. I feel like he’s one step away from a cartoon character, or a circus clown. But I think if you replace the “something” with anything more specific, you would take the emphasis off the character herself and shift it to the thing, whatever it is. It would be distracting. As it is, the sentence describes her vividly in a way that seems in accordance with how people carried themselves in films of the time. Most times you would want to be more specific, but not this time, I think.

    • Fair enough. Before you commented, I thought the “shining, arrogant eyes” was more defensible than the “something on it which was quite likely to fall,” but I understand what you mean. It sounds kind of strange when you read it aloud, though.

  4. Further proof that F. Scott was human and writing is very subjective. Thanks for the eye opener

  5. I could forgive him a couple sentences…. But SADLY there are more. Many more. In college I had a professor that would pick certain books and ask us to read them and find no less than 3 mistakes in the book. I thought this was odd until I REALLY read them. Most of them were by well known authors. The exercise wasn’t to prove anything more than the fact that writers are human and editors are even more human. 🙂 The Great Gatsby was one of the books we had to read and find mistakes in. I can’t even remember how many there were by the end. STILL it’s an amazing book if you can overlook the mistakes once you’ve found them (seriously it’s hard!!!) IF you do manage to try to balance the book on your chin I DEMAND video or pictures. 😉

    • The thing is, as writers we get so used to looking for ways to improve our own writing that it’s tough to change that mentality when reading just for fun. I think it depends on the book. When I read schlock (and I read a lot of schlock), I don’t think I pay attention to stuff like that. But when I have to put effort into the reading like I do with classic literature, I think I’m more likely to pay attention to stuff like word choice and sentence structure.

  6. I notice this quite a lot in old literature. I find certain sentences stick out like a sore thumb and it makes me cringe. If I ever did that in my writing I’d get in so much trouble.

  7. It’s been a long time since I read The Great Gatsby. Now I’m tempted to go back and read it again. I think sometimes authors get away with bad grammar because the sentence creates a feeling, correct or not, and to change it would alter the effect. But because I appreciate good grammar, I see where you are coming from. I guess it’s a little bit like lyrics in music (except for the incorrect use of “I” instead of “me” to make something rhyme – I hate that!), when songs have something that is clearly bad grammar, but the lyrics evoke just the right emotion. Maybe if you create the right amount of emotion, then the grammar goes out the window.

  8. Completely agree! And brilliant. So true, also for academic writing. They want meaning not just a bunch of weird words strewn together that appear “pretty”! hehe 😉

  9. Reblogged this on SM CADMAN✍ and commented:
    So true. Brilliant 🙂

  10. I was once told to remember every rule a creative writing instructor gives you can be broken if you want to. I adore The Great Gatsby, and though the sentences may seem ‘bad’, it’s like everything else with art, your view on it is going to be subjective.
    I tend to think that it is the oddities that give writers their voice, and if we were to comply with what is seen as ‘good’ writing we would never have any variation in works.
    You raise some very interesting points though.

  11. russwilliamsfreelance permalink

    It’s a slippery slope, this- careful you don’t end up reading through your college writing instructor’s eyes all the time or else you might end up finding it difficult to enjoy any book at all. Yes, language has barriers and restrictions, but without that human element present in literature it becomes mechanical and boring. Remember what Leonard Cohen said: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

    • You’re right, this can be taken too far. I’m not going to read all of The Great Gatsby and highlight every sentence that I think has a slight problem (the public library wouldn’t appreciate that since I’m using their copy). But it’s interesting that an acclaimed book has sentences that are… are… questionable.

  12. I agree. Last year I posted a blog,”Loathing Gatsby,” which elicited little comment. I didn’t pick out these sentences which are atrocious English(American) and are painful to read.
    You are being fair and accurate, not a grouchy crank. If there are cranks around it’s F Scott and his boosters, who believe one does not have to write sensibly to be popular and cool. Indeed, nothing he wrote was very good. F Scott is at the lead of people with little or no talent who have remained in the public eye for dubious reasons.

    • I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as you in your assessment of F. Scott’s talents, but I think it’s fair to point out poorly written sentences or argue about whether or not these sentences are written poorly. I’d rather argue about the writing of famous authors than pile on some defenseless writing students who are just trying to get by for the semester (which I witnessed numerous times).

    • Fortunately history has already made its judgement based on fact: like TGG OR DONT LIKE IT, SUIT YOURSELF.

  13. Oh, no you di’int!
    You did NOT just take apart a classic because of a couple of crappy sentences!

    Okay – the two shining arrogant eyes is very disturbing. The whole sentence creeps me out. Using the word “two” is bizarre, “shining” is bizarre, the way it “established dominance” instead of just “dominated” – yes, it’s awkward, wordy and strange.

    But still – it’s a CLASSIC. I’m not sure how many other books deconstruct the American Dream AND appear on most high school syllabi – so can we just leave this one alone?

    Did I use the plural of syllabus correctly, Captain Critical?

    • Oh for sure. Because everyone knows that all books on a syllabus (sorry, read this one high school) are always shining examples of good literature. Seriously? Evolve. 😉

      • Okay – put down the crack pipe!

        I never said that books that are on the high school syllabus are “shining examples of good literature.” Are you on drugs?

        I work in education. The books they make kids read SUCK.

        But apart from the fact that we need to change that, as the junior curriculum currently stands in my home state, this is probably the only book that teaches the kids anything about anything.

        The rest of the syllabus is Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and all that useful, relevant literature.

        At least if they have to read The Great Gatsby, they learn that if getting rich, even through ill gotten gains, and chasing married women is your primary objective life, you may just end up DEAD.

        I stand by what I said.

        • ? But you’re assuming that this is on a college syllabus. Like in the 100’s? 200’s? if, by American standards. Here those aren’t. Or weren’t when I was in school. And please don’t compare Chaucer to that!?! Yes, the benefit of Chaucer is actually in examining the language that was used. Words that are now even viewed as profane. To examine the evolution of the mode of communication over time. 😉

        • So then perhaps what student should be examining is Fitzgerald’s life. Even his life with Zelda. Who also wrote. Whom he cheated on when she had Schizophrenia and was ill…Far more interesting. And yes, she came from a very entitled background. Just sayin’ 🙂

        • And fps (ruh-roh, Internet prose!) dontcha know crack is whack?! RIP Keith Haring 🙂

    • I think it’s time we started engaging all students in new literature. Books that mean something and that question without imposing censorship (which is actually the true issue anyways or indoctrination…) Free from cognitive bias. Opulence even from the entitled life that Fitzgerald lived, during the 1920’a-30’s Jazz era…?! That they’re reading -now-…(?!?)

    • @samara: But I will applaud you on your novel use of language. It appears that at least this has arrived in the 21st century. And as language is only human, so is our communication…Welcome to the future 😉 Und, ya-huh I deed!

    • I promise you (in fact, I promise promise PROMISE promise you) that I will never say anything negative about A Wrinkle in Time.

      • Because then I would be so sad, and I would have to quit you. And I don’t want to quit you – you’re too adorable!

        There are a lot of problems with The Great Gatsby, but for teens, it beats The Canterbury Tales, which are the literary equivalent of ground glass.

  14. Aside from the arguments that literature is, among many other things, supposed to take readers to a place outside their comfort zone, while at the same time allowing them to identify via its “realism,” it’s okay to recognize that there might be some rules when it comes to how to use words some might see as indecent. After all, how we use words is what gives them—or removes—their power in the first place.

    But it’s okay to break those rules, if you know what they are and why, in the pursuit of better writing (and reading), you are breaking them. The results might be better than good—they could be great.

    Despite of having been banned or challenged over the years,Great Gatsby is a piece of art. The sign of any great book is that it has been banned for its corrupting influence on youth.

  15. Fitzgerald drank – a lot. That may explain why some of his stuff is brilliant and some is barely readable. Nevertheless, my teachers showed us how to parse every word in a novel for its meaning and placement. It totally ruined reading for me. Now I go for the environment the writer is trying to develop. These sentences are bad, but they do paint a picture.

    • Exactly! And totally agree. 😉 To me, it shows the opulence of that Art Deco period and perhaps this is why it often reads of too much ornateness/purple prose…But as with most things in the writing/literary world (as even words are), it’s open to interpretation.

      He did drink a lot and it was post WW1, so people were taking broader cultural chances on artistic endeavours. Whether it was with writing, jazz or even the fashion from that period, it certainly was roaring. 😉

    • No one, to my knowledge, who understands literary critique has ever said some of FSF is “barely readable” and I’ve read just about every word he ever wrote, including his letters and notebooks!

  16. He was drunk. . .

    But I don’t really mind. If this is not the place to use ‘”something”, can the word even have a use? I, for one, am grateful F. Scott specified two eyes, otherwise, “something” might have been missing (like 1 of the traditional 2 eyes).

    I still love Gatsby. I feel that writing teachers think they have to prove themselves by being over-critical. They try to maintain the illusion that they have control over the language. Silly peoples. . .


    • ?? By using the word “eyes” it already denotes that there are indeed, TWO OF THEM! To add “two” to eyes, made it REDUNDANT. Go on with your bad-self…Pff on flippant people Post-script: yes, this reply wasn’t trite ;P Holy doodle…

    • Unless you have a third eye? *examines the centre of your forehead* 😉 No dice…

  17. I have similar issues whenever I read Charles Dickens. Love me some Charlie, but the man could use 827 words to describe the wallpaper. I hate to criticize him, but perhaps some *slight* trimming would’ve been helpful.

    • If I had started a story with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” my writing instructor would have said something like:

      “Make up your mind and start the story. And quit ending your sentences with commas!”

  18. Ha! Great. I hated Gatsby because, as in most of Fitzgerald’s ramblings, NOTHING HAPPENS! Gatsby couldn’t die fast enough. (Perhaps that was the emotive point of the book, but perhaps I give Fitz too much credit.) Anyway, thank you. Your chosen sentences have given me reason to hate it even more. I can’t wait until they make it into another movie in 30 years so I can not see that one too.

    • If they make another one, that will be the fourth version (that I know of) that I haven’t seen. Now, I don’t hate The Great Gatsby (right now I’m kind of ambivalent), but if I did hate it, and I found myself in a situation where I had to explain why I hated it (which I don’t), I’d start with these two sentences.

  19. The Meh Gatsby.

  20. Here it is !

    The last sentence was killer. And yes, your college critics are all out of their mind. We should continue writing in gibberish. Its the only way to be sound. Otherwise the blogosphere will get lost in actually making sense. Shame.

  21. Reading the book is what is really important. I must confess that I do like book covers though – it’s one of those areas that people like to argue about because some people think it makes you seem fickle. But, the way I see it is the cover is the first thing that draws my eye. I also admit that I would pass over a book with a movie-tie in cover for two reasons. One, I like to see the original cover art – I read a lot of SFF and some of the covers are works of art! two, I find it a bit lazy just sticking a scene from a film on the book. Actually, three reasons – three, if I haven’t read the book I want my own imagination to be at work – if there’s an actor on the front I will automatically associate the character in the book with that actor and have the voice and face constantly in mind when reading. However, all my reasons aside – if the movie tie in edition was the only option, or for example if someone bought me a copy of a book with that cover I’d still read it. Just wouldn’t consciously choose to buy it myself.

  22. No, there is no excuse for Gatsby except that Fitzgerald did not care. When it was published he was drunk, on the 20 year bender that finally killed him. Professional writer? HA!
    You can tell Gatsby did not care because every edition from every publisher is taken from the original printing.
    Just to note, I agree with everything you said but you are charitable. I posted a review of Gatsby on wordpress about three years ago. It’s called LOATHING GATSBY.

  23. Gabriela S. F. permalink

    Although I’ve seen a few imperfect sentences in “The Great Gatsby,” I find that these two examples shouldn’t be considered as such. The first excerpt is a case of personification. Sure, this technique is usually exemplified with fully inanimate, non-human objects (i.e lightning danced across the sky), but attributing “person” adjectives to single parts of the human body also fits into the definition. For example, the phrase “angry brows” is frequently used to evoke an image of thick, dark, maybe angled eyebrows, etc.; it’s not incorrect, simply a form of figurative language. Perhaps one of your professors would have criticized such word choice in an area outside of creative writing, but it’s valid in literature like this. For the second excerpt, the focus of the sentence is the character’s posture. The word “something” was used intentionally so that the imagery invoked isn’t focused towards whatever object was being balanced. Professors criticize (what my teacher called) “dead words” (such as “stuff,” “fun,” etc.) when more vibrant vocabulary would enhance the meaning of a text, but, in some rare instances, lack of specificity is beneficial. It all depends on what emotional response an author wants from their readers.

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