Princess Daisy:

A Description of Sylvia Plath’s 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 Fitzgerald’s annotated copy of Joyce’s 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 Plath’s 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 Baker’s description of Gatsby’s galas: “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy” (60) and wrote “Good” in the margin. Next to a paragraph in which Nick presents the names and detailed descriptions of Gatsby’s 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 Daisy’s famous prediction for her daughter: “And I hope she’ll be a foolςthat’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (21). Beside the following paragraph containing Daisy’s line “I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything” Plath wrote “L’Ennui.” 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 Gatsby’s death” (215) next to Nick’s final confrontation with Daisy’s 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 novel’s conclusion to connect Nick’s hot commute with Myrtle’s later murder along the same hot, dusty road.

    Some of Plath’s annotations go beyond mere plot description or classroom notes. She commented heavily on the scene that dramatizes Daisy’s relationship with her daughter Pammy. When the small girl tells her mother that she got dressed early, Daisy answers “‘That’s because I wanted to show you off.’” (140). Plath drew a line beside Daisy’s response and wrote “stage property” in the margin. When Pammy asks “‘Where’s Daddy?’” (140) Daisy ignores her and explains instead to Gatsby, “She doesn’t look like her father.” Plath underlined Daisy’s 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 parent’s objectification of a child.

    In one comment Plath expresses herself through metaphor. At the end of Chapter VII, after the murder of Tom’s 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 Plath’s annotation rises from mundane commentary to incisive interpretation. Many of Plath’s later poems employ fairy-tale allusions, usually with the inverted imagery she employs here.

    The volume represents a fascinating piece of evidence of Fitzgerald’s 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 Fitzgerald’s prose. Plath’s 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.
 


WORK CITED

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

 


Fitzgerald Centenary Comments

This page updated December 11, 2003.
Copyright 2003, the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina.
URL http://www.sc.edu/fitzgerald/essays/plath.html