Thursday, May 7, 2015

Forms of Adaptational Writing and How They Challenge Scholarly Analysis

I've just been attending another conference - the international F. Scott Fitzgerald event held at my home university.  The details are accessible at  It's been a tiring day listening to a variety of papers on a selection of topics, but inevitably the main focus of attention has centered on THE GREAT GATSBY, not just because it's Fitzgerald's best-known work, but because it has been adapted so many times for different media.  Even non-literary specialists can contribute to this type of event, especially if they're into the most recent version starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The opening speech offered a close analysis of time in THE GREAT GATSBY, using the image of the broken clock in Nick Carraway's house in Chapter Five of the novel as a starting-point for a complex evaluation encompassing Einstein's theory of relativity as well as modernist concepts of science.  I admired the speaker for his dedicaton as well as the close structure of his piece, each point carefully illustrated with quotations from the text.

As the presentation unfolded, however, and the speaker talked about the interiority of Fitzgerald's prose, I began to wonder whether his form of academic discourse really could demonstrate how and why the novel has exerted such a particular fascination on readers worldwide ever since it first appeared in 1925.  I remember reading it for the first time in 1976, when I had to do a paper for my "O" Level English Literature course on "Flawed Heroes," and made a labored comparison between Fitzgerald's piece and Thomas Hardy's THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE.  Since then the novel has never failed to move me close to tears, through repeated readings and viewings of adaptations across different media - radio, cinema, television.  The theme of Gatsby's basic optimism and trust being gradually exposed in a world of surfaces has always seemed enduringly popular in any world devoted to capitalist values.

While reading the novel or watching an adaptation, I believe that Fitzgerald's prose appeals to us not just on a conscious but on a subliminal level, reminding us of just how difficult it is to adapt to new environments, especially the kind of environments whose inhabitants remain largely indifferent unless you are fabulously wealthy.  It is Gatsby's trşumph, but ultimately his tragedy, that he seems to adapt to the world of Long Island high society, but discovers to his cost that he can never be part of it.  His exploits are ours; whenever we move to a new culture, either by emigrating or simply shifting to a new city (or even suburb), we have to learn how to adapt ourselves, while the worlds we inhabit have to adapt likewise to accommodate us.

Such issues, I think, help to explain why THE GREAT GATSBY is a great work of literature, prompting us to look beyond the words on the page and imaginatively empathize with what Fitzgerald is trying to tell us.  It's a prime example of what might be termed the "beyond-wordism" of great texts, engaging our subjectivities and prompting us to find a lot of ourselves in Gatsby.  We all have our Gatsbyesque stories to tell; they might not be as spectacular as Fitzgerald's, but they are similar in tone and outcome.

Listening to the speaker offering a Leavisite exegesis of Fitzgerald's text, I wondered whether perhaps this form of analysis might miss the novel's subliminal quality: detail might overwhelm the design, so to speak. I certainly admired what the speaker had done, and the amount of time and energy he had spent putting the piece together, but I did feel there was something Casaubonesque about it, reminiscent of that unfortunate character in George Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH who spends his entire life imprisoned in an ivory tower and becomes all but impervious to the life unfolding around him.

What I'm saying is that perhaps close textual analysis is counter-productive to the experience of a novel or film or any fictional text.  Maybe we should learn to sit back and let them wash over us; to savor the brilliance of the writing and understand how it has the capacity to change our lives, or at least make us reflect on our existing lives and learn how to adapt to new experiences.  Leave aside scholarly objectivity and let subjectivities roll - or, better still, forget the distinctions between the two and just ENJOY!!

1 comment:

  1. Sitting between the two perspectives (literally right now) I think that stylistics and a more holistic and emotional response can work well together. To use film as an example, we can pause a film to explore the mise en scene of one frame but if the frame is not spinning past us and telling a story, then it's no longer really 'the film' and there is danger it might be taken out of context. However, when used to illustrate some of the ways the text works on us, affects us, it can be really useful and doesn't have to disintegrate the overall experience.