The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925)

There was a small picture of Gatsby, also in yachting costume, on the bureau—Gatsby with his head thrown back defiantly—taken apparently when he was about eighteen.
‘I adore it,’ exclaimed Daisy. ‘The pompadour! You never told me you had a pompadour—or a yacht.’
‘Look at this,’ said Gatsby quickly. ‘Here’s a lot of clippings—about you.’
They stood side by side examining it. I was going to ask to see the rubies when the phone rang, and Gatsby took up the receiver.
‘Yes.… Well, I can’t talk now.… I can’t talk now, old sport.… I said a small town.… He must know what a small town is…. Well, he’s no use to us if Detroit is his idea of a small town….’
He rang off.

In The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, drifts through a multitude of social gatherings, splicing together voices previously overheard and presently recollected. The disruptive potential of the telephone is integral to his narrative, with the very first get-together that Nick describes—the Buchanans’ dinner party—foregrounding this significance. This relatively placid occasion is shattered by uninvited phone calls from Tom Buchanan’s mistress; presumably dissatisfied with Tom’s response to her initial call, she rings up the house yet again. Those present lapse into silence, neither able to ignore nor acknowledge the brazen insistence of ‘this fifth guest’s shrill metallic urgency’. 

Throughout the novel, the telephone threatens narrative stability with its intimations of things both unsayable and unsaid. Having finally managed to win Daisy’s admiration in the extract above, Gatsby is careful to divert her attention away from his past. Yet, it is the ringing telephone, heralding the unsavory business behind his ascension to the ranks of America’s nouveau riche, that diminishes his tentative triumph. Unseen and essentially forgotten, Nick notes Gatsby’s terse refusal to discuss his work in Daisy’s presence—a futile bid to hang up on the very truth anchoring his self-made decadence. 

by Chua Jia Wen