A Description of Sylvia Plaths Copy
of The Great Gatsby
by Park Bucker
The most sought-after rare books are often copies annotated or inscribed by authors. The books that an author actually reads, and then annotates in the margins, can be important to literary history, for they reveal how an author intimately responded to a piece of literature. The Matthew J. and Arlyn Bruccoli Collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald at the University of South Carolina contains many such items, including Fitzgeralds annotated copy of Joyces Ulysses. This particular volume represents an association book for it connects two great authors of the twentieth century and records the reactions of one genius to another. The collection also connects Fitzgerald to writers outside his generation with Sylvia Plaths annotated copy of The Great Gatsby.
Published in 1949 by Grosset & Dunlap as an inexpensive hardcover, this edition of The Great Gatsby was probably used by Plath in her studies either in high school or college. According to biographer Steven Gould Axelrod, Plath wrote essays on Fitzgerald while attending Smith College from 1950 to 1955. The volume bears her bookplate and includes many underlines and annotations in manuscript on 13 pages. She used two colors of ink, which would suggest multiple readings and/or classroom notes. Like many students Plath underlined the first appearance of major characters. She also noted passages with vivid descriptions, as one would expect from a poet.
Some of her annotations may have been at the direction of a lecturer. She underlined Jordan Bakers description of Gatsbys galas: I like large parties. Theyre so intimate. At small parties there isnt any privacy (60) and wrote Good in the margin. Next to a paragraph in which Nick presents the names and detailed descriptions of Gatsbys party guests, Plath wrote Solidarity of Specification [her quotes] (74).
She wrote Flamboyant romantic next to the paragraph in which Nick recognizes Gatsby in an Oxford photograph and subsequently believes in the glories of his past: Then it was all true. I saw the skins of tigers flaming in his palace on the Grand Canal; I saw him opening a chest of rubies to ease, with their crimson-lighted depths, the gnawings of his broken heart (80).
Plath underlined Daisys famous prediction for her daughter: And I hope shell be a foolςthats the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool (21). Beside the following paragraph containing Daisys line Ive been everywhere and seen everything and done everything Plath wrote LEnnui. Plath also titled two of her early poems Ennui.
Some of her comments relate directly to the action. Near the end of the novel, Plath wrote Tom responsible for Gatsbys death (215) next to Nicks final confrontation with Daisys husband. Indicating that she may have read the novel more than once, Plath also described events in the margin that had not yet occurred in the text. At the beginning of Chapter VII Nick endures a sweltering train ride from New York to West Egg. Plath underlined all the images relating to the temperature and wrote oppressive heat (136) in the margin. Next to the paragraph containing the line: That anyone should care in this heat whose flushed lips he kissed, whose head made damp the pajama pocket over his heart! (137), Plath commented 3 deaths/blood in dustς/Gatsby in pool,/Wilson kills self. Plath would have had to know the novels conclusion to connect Nicks hot commute with Myrtles later murder along the same hot, dusty road.
Some of Plaths annotations go beyond mere plot description or classroom notes. She commented heavily on the scene that dramatizes Daisys relationship with her daughter Pammy. When the small girl tells her mother that she got dressed early, Daisy answers Thats because I wanted to show you off. (140). Plath drew a line beside Daisys response and wrote stage property in the margin. When Pammy asks Wheres Daddy? (140) Daisy ignores her and explains instead to Gatsby, She doesnt look like her father. Plath underlined Daisys next sentence, She looks like me. In the margin Plath wrote No real relation to the child. In one of her most famous poems, Daddy (1962), Plath would angrily examine a parents objectification of a child.
In one comment Plath expresses herself through metaphor. At the end of Chapter VII, after the murder of Toms mistress, Nick sees the Buchanans through their kitchen window speaking intimately, almost conspiring together (175). Nick leaves, passing Gatsby in the driveway. Plath underlined the final sentence in the chapter So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlightςwatching over nothing. In the margin underneath Plath wrote knight waiting outsideςdragon goes to bed with princess (175). With this note Plaths annotation rises from mundane commentary to incisive interpretation. Many of Plaths later poems employ fairy-tale allusions, usually with the inverted imagery she employs here.
The volume represents a fascinating piece of evidence of Fitzgeralds rising reputation and influence in the early 1950s, as well as the academic background and tastes of a major American poet. Many more associations could be made between the images and passages Plath cites and her later poetry. This book presents the possibilities for later scholars to explore.
Although Sylvia Plath and F. Scott Fitzgerald rarely inhabit the same sentence, their association should not appear strained. A young, intense poet would naturally be drawn to the lyric quality of Fitzgeralds prose. Plaths appreciation of The Great Gatsby would remain conjecture were it not proven by the physical evidence of this particular copy.
This article originally appeared in the 1995 Fall/Winter issue of
Yemassee, the literary magazine of the University of South Carolina.
Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
This page updated December 11, 2003.
Copyright 2003, the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina.