The craft of editing and revising a manuscript is often described as a process of discovery. As a writer continues to look at a creative work and polish it for publication, revisions and other changes are inevitable. F. Scott Fitzgerald, while revising his novel The Great Gatsby, made several significant changes to the first chapter of the novel. In particular, the addition of the green light to the end of the first chapter (Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby 64) introduces an important metaphorical image and foreshadows many of the events that occur throughout the rest of the novel. This and other alterations to the final paragraph of the first chapter alter the atmosphere of the entire chapter, leaving the reader unsettled and off balance.
In earlier versions of The Great Gatsby, there is no mention of the green light in the final passage of the first chapter. One draft version the final passage of the first chapter of The Great Gatsby reads:
"I got to my feet and was about to call out when suddenly I saw [Gatsby] stretch out both hands toward the skin in a curious way—and as far as I was from him I could have sworn that he was trembling. Involuntarily I looked up. When I looked down again he was gone, and I was left to wonder whether it was really the sky he had come out to measure with the compass of those aspiring arms." (Fitzgerald, Facsimile of a Manuscript 37)
This is a lovely passage and it is quite well written, but its imagery is at once both too benign and too soothing for the end of the first chapter. The term “aspiring arms” is soothing, calming, and induces a sense of comfort and relaxation in the reader. It is a settled image, a peaceful image. In addition, the use of the word “gone” to describe how Gatsby disappears as Nick glances away for a brief instant is benign, doing nothing to contribute to the imagery or emotion that could be present in the final moments of the first chapter.
In Trimalchio, the imagery is quite different in the final passage of the first chapter. It is closer to the published version, using many of the same images Fitzgerald ultimately decides to keep in the final version. Specifically, the end of the first chapter reads:
"But I didn’t call to [Gatsby] for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and as far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—there was nothing to be seen except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Mr. Gatsby he had gone, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness." (Fitzgerald, Trimalchio 20)
The Great Gatsby is structured using a series of metaphorical images. One of the most powerful of these images, the green light, is introduced in the final passage of the first chapter. This reference to the green light remains in the final published version of the novel. Since the end of a dock would often have been marked with a single light, it makes sense for Fitzgerald to add the light to the setting of this scene.
However, the green light does more than simply make sense in the scene. It performs a symbolic function and has many metaphorical meanings. On one level, the light at the end of the dock is simply a warning, both to people and to boats on the water. This warning can be applied to Gatsby. He should not pursue Daisy but chooses to do so anyway. He ignores every warning throughout the novel. This passage, where Nick sees the green light, foreshadows much of what will occur throughout the novel, mostly concerning the romantic relationship between Gatsby and Daisy and how poorly their association ultimately ends.
The color green itself is a significant addition to the final passage of the first chapter. Green is indicative of envy, hope, new life, and wealth. All of these themes come into play in later chapters of The Great Gatsby. Gatsby envies the upper classes, covets Daisy, and generally wants those things he cannot have or is not entitled to. He hopes to win Daisy, and through her to achieve a new life for himself, a life he has always sought but has had difficulty attaining. Gatsby also strives for wealth, willing to go to many lengths to achieve this wealth. The green light, which appears in the final passage of the first chapter, suggests those goals Gatsby hopes to achieve.
The green light, in many instances, is associated with Daisy. She gives out green cards (Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 123) for kisses in “Chapter VI” and she herself is wealthy. In addition, green is related to the sirens of ancient Greece. These sirens would beckon sailors to their deaths, much as Daisy beckons Gatsby. In a sense, Daisy is a siren, and by adding the green light to the final passage of the first chapter, Fitzgerald is making a direct reference to Daisy and foreshadowing the events that occur in later chapters.
Finally, green is mentioned in the last chapter. “Gatsby believed in the green light” (Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 176), reached for the unattainable, and though he did not get what he wanted, Nick admires him for the effort. Green is the symbol of hope, sometimes fruitless hope, and the mention of the green light in the first chapter gives the rest of the novel a sense of anticipation, intriguing the reader and drawing him or her deeper into the story.
Though the addition of the green light to the final passage of the first chapter is significant, it is not the only change to this passage that has an effect on the reader. The term “unquiet darkness” is unsettling, giving the entire chapter a disconcerting atmosphere. The reader is left off balance and just a little uncomfortable. This is a more powerful image than “aspiring arms” and sets the reader up for the chapters to follow.
In the final published version of The Great Gatsby, the passage remains almost identical to what it was in Trimalchio. This passage reads:
"I didn’t call to [Gatsby], for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of the dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness." (Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 64)
The notable difference here is the use of the word “vanished” to describe Gatsby’s absence. This is not a casual word. By saying that Gatsby vanishes, Fitzgerald shrouds Gatsby in a sense of mystery and power. Gatsby becomes like a magician, and this idea is repeated throughout the novel.
There are many differences between the first available drafts of The Great Gatsby and the final product. What Fitzgerald “cut out of it both physically and emotionally would make another novel” (Fitzgerald, “Introduction to Modern Library Reprint” 140). The changes made to the final passage of the first chapter take what might have been a soothing and gentle piece and transforms it into something unsettling and disturbing. This leaves the reader off balance and prepared for the atmosphere and general theme of the rest of the novel. Fitzgerald “thoroughly and expertly practiced the craft of revision” (Eble 81) when revising this paragraph to create a powerful and moving passage.
Eble, Kenneth E. "The Craft of Revision: The Great Gatsby." In F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Criticism. Ed. Eble. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. 81-92. Print.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Ed and Introd. Michael Nowlin. Peterborough : Broadview Editions, 2007. Print.
_ _ _. The Great Gatsby: A Facsimile of the Manuscript. Ed and Introd. Matthew Bruccoli. Washington : Microcard Editions Books, 1973. Print.
_ _ _. “Introduction to the Modern Library Reprint of The Great Gatsby.” 1934. In F Scott Fitzgerald on Authorship. Ed. Mathew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman. 139-41. Print.
_ _ _. Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby. [c. 1924] Ed. James L.W. West III. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.
Kuehl, John. Creative Writing and Rewriting: Contemporary American Novelists at Work. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967. Print.