In The Great Gatsby, the summers are long and hot, full of parties and people with nowhere to go. The time is languid, a slow crawl across the sky as if the world was slowly petering out. The novel opens on a summer’s morning in 1922, “when valley girls were drowsing happily in bed… dreaming the triumphant dreams of the young” (1). The hot air hangs still, clogging up Daisy’s throat as she hangs out on her porch. The days are long and empty until Gatsby shows up. The time is languid, each chapter pinned perfectly to a moment in summer before it slides impatiently into the next one.
The first chapter ends with Daisy remembering how “her voice floated back to [Nick] through the screen door… full of money” (13) and chapter two opens with “a burst of hot wind… scattering papers across the lawn” (15), almost cruelly rushing you into Nick’s second day at his new job, where he quickly realizes that he doesn’t have much to do there—that his lack of occupation “was made up for by… leisure to look into odd corners and unguarded moment at Gatsby’s” (17). The novel is built around moments, sudden bursts of activity that define an entire summer. The time is languid, the world dying slowly across the vast expanse of a hot afternoon. The stifling heat slows downtime until it comes to a standstill in some unknown autumn—not this one, but another.
The endless wait during long summer days for something to happen parallels how The Great Gatsby is written—the story moves forward with wait-stop pacing, each chapter defined by a single event or conversation before being paused so Fitzgerald can explain what was happening on the other side of town. The time is languid, full of long hot days where nothing much is happening until something does. The events in The Great Gatsby come so quickly that it’s hard to digest them all—the body count rises at breakneck speeds and there are moments when I’m forced to stop reading just so I can try to absorb what the hell happened three pages ago.
The novel drags you along with it, before slamming on the brakes for a page or two of explanation only to speed up again. The pacing is stop-and-go with never enough time for me to catch my breath. The time in The Great Gatsby slows down in some parts but speeds up in others—when Gats says “I wish I could swim in [Daisy’s] pool”, Fitzgerald writes “in the afternoon we all went out to… Daisy’s green little bungalow” (48). The time is languid, but it certainly isn’t stopping for anyone.
Gatsby’s parties happen every Saturday night and The Great Gatsby never misses a chance to remind you that they’re always on East Egg: “He couldn’t take his eyes off Daisy… just as when he had run into her that day [at the Plaza Hotel].” The references to geography are incessant—”the wind blew against Gatsby’s house with a wild appeal” (142) and “[Gatsby] swung around wildly—’ I’ve got $75,000 in celebrated jazz money’— but the bright contemptuous eyes gave him back no sign” (147).
The landscape is so important to The Great Gatsby that Fitzgerald uses it as another character. The houses are like people, each one connected to another like “long necklaces of bright beads… swaying in the hot wind” (129). The time is languid, slow, and sweeping across the landscape like a long afternoon shadow. The world around these characters moves clockwise while they move counterclockwise; everything keeps moving forward except for them.
The days start early at Gatsby’s house where “[o]ne could hear Daisy ordering her breakfast…” (32) and end late with Daisy’s car headlights “…sliding along [Nick’s] bedroom wall” (153). The time is languid, slowing down in Gatsby’s house and speeding up when The Buchanans are around. The rest of The Great Gatsby is spent waiting for the next party to begin—waiting for another stoplight, another conversation with Jordan or Tom, another listless afternoon at home. The time is languid but it never slows down entirely. The only moment that feels unbearably slow comes right before Nick has his “crisis of conscience,” when The Great Gatsby became a tragedy instead of a love story:
“…Gatsby’s big car [is] turning from the main road into his lane… You were supposed to it in this brown dusk when the dust blew about the trees in clouds and the last light The Great Gatsby was coming out of was directly overhead.” (138).
When The Great Gatsby moves into its final act, something that feels like actual time passes. The slow movements are gone; even Daisy’s car is racing toward Tom—the landscape isn’t languid anymore. The sun starts setting later but it still sets. The time in The Great Gatsby slows down during Nick’s crisis of conscience—it speeds up when The Traverses arrive at Gatsby’s house and slows again for Tom to drink “absinthe frappés” (129).
The landscape changes to cut the characters off from the world around them—Nick is “cut off from the white shore” and The Buchanans are cut off from everything when they reach Gatsby’s house. The slow movement of The Great Gatsby comes to a close with a wave that starts in New York, moving out across The Long Island Sound, finally crashing onto Daisy’s green little bungalow. The water rushes in but only for a minute before it recedes to where The Great Gatsby started: New York City.
The time in The Great Gatsby is languid, full of long hot days where nothing much is happening until something does. The events in The Great Gatsby happen slowly at first and then quickly, speeding up when someone new is introduced. The Buchanans enter The Great Gatsby finally after Nick has become familiar enough with The East Egg landscape to know “how enchanting the island could be in June” (29). The time is languid but nothing stops for anyone—not even The Buchanans, who affect everyone around them like they’re an earthquake or a tidal wave.
The Great Gatsby ends with Daisy driving toward Tom and The Buchanans leaving Gatsby behind on his yacht; The Great Gatsby ends where it began: New York City. The characters only slow down when they imagine what might have been if they had taken action sooner rather than later—it’s too late for regrets now. The Buchanans have left The Great Gatsby behind but The Great Gatsby won’t leave The Buchanans behind. The time in The Great Gatsby is languid, sweeping across the landscape like a long afternoon shadow until it rushes past in a wave of water and sound.
The only way to break up the languid movement in The Great Gatsby is by introducing another character; they “move into [The Great Gatsby]’s final act” when they’re introduced (42). From then on, everything is speeding up: Daisy’s voice speeds up, Gatsby’s car speeds toward The Buchanans’ driveway and Tom has finished his absinthe frappés.