Beating the Clock: Jay Gatsby and Quentin Compson’s Struggle Against Time


I wrote the essay adapted below for my American Literature Survey class at Grove City College. I chose to write about The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner because I noticed that the way both novels dealt with time was profoundly interesting.

Trigger Warning: This essay discusses serious topics such as suicide.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!


The passage of time is inevitable, an insurmountable obstacle for fictional characters and modern-day individuals to wrestle with. Depending on one’s perspective, temporality can be viewed as a threat or an opportunity. If the limited nature of time is accepted, then individuals can adjust their lives accordingly—they can make the most of each moment and manage their time. However, there are a number of those who, when faced with the mechanical thrum of a clock, miss the meaning and value of time altogether and instead try to escape its influence or control it. In trying to micromanage and reset time, these characters instead become like puppets, using their time to struggle futilely against the ticking hands of a clock. This monomaniac obsession with time is manifested in Jay Gatsby from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Quentin Compson from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. By chronicling the tragic lives of these two characters, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner offer the modernist take on temporality as a component of the human experience, and demonstrate how the pervasive and constant measurement of time contributes to an ultimate sense of helplessness that can only be overcome by blind idealism, submission, or death.

Both Gatsby and Quentin are obsessed with a particular stretch of time that has already occurred. Unable to return to that time, they are instead fixated by it, and those treasured moments are revisited constantly through their memories. Gatsby is primarily concerned with manipulating time to avoid acknowledging change. Quentin wants either the traditional values of the past to be permanent and reiterated in the present, or to escape time altogether.

The narrative structure of The Great Gatsby is ironic because as Tony Magistrale and Mary Jane Dickerson assert, it “reveals time as a malleable and fluid concept, juxtaposing past and present” (118). Fitzgerald experiments with loosely chronological storytelling to narrate the occurrences in the life of a man unable to escape the strict linear progression of time. Inthe novel, time is rarely tangible and orderly until it comes into contact with a life-changing event, and then all subsequent events are regarded as derived from that event, and all prior events are seen as leading up to it. This is evident in the kiss the young Gatsby shares with Daisy, which is described as an “incarnation,” a form of reverse-apotheosis that brings the ambitious Gatsby into brief contact with reality and all its implications (Fitzgerald 111). What Gatsby does not realize is that in entering into a relationship with Daisy, he is falling in love with a woman as transient as her namesake flower. Instead, he mistakes the ideal for the person and believes he has acquired “the golden girl,” a refined, timeless, precious woman immune to change (Fitzgerald 120). Elsewhere, Nick explains that when Gatsby fell in love with Daisy, he saw her “gleaming like silver, safe and proud” (Fitzgerald 150). The tragedy of this moment is that he fails to realize that life is not like Keats’ Grecian Urn, a poem that Fitzgerald admired because “an extraordinary genius paused at that point in history and touched it” (“Letter to Francis Scott Fitzgerald”). Touched by Daisy, Gatsby feels like his life has been transfixed at this pivotal moment and is thereafter impervious to time.

This failure to recognize impermanence leads Gatsby to relive and romanticize the past constantly, because in his mind the present should be indistinguishable from the past. In his moment of incarnation, Gatsby’s life is re-ordered in terms of the relationship. When Gatsby reunites with Daisy after the war, she has already been married to Tom for years. Daisy has had a child, and her voice, though it rings with all the charm Gatsby remembers, is hollowed out with artificiality. Gatsby nonetheless perseveres with his intentions to elope with her. Nick is the first to express doubt about Gatsby’s ability to erase the intervening five years, claiming “You can’t repeat the past,” to which Gatsby replies, “Why of course you can!” (Fitzgerald 110). Gatsby has full faith in his ability to “recover…some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy, since all could be restored if he simply “could once return to a certain starting place” (Fitzgerald 110). When Daisy returns into his life during their first tryst, Gatsby is so flustered that he nearly knocks a clock off the mantelpiece – they are all deluded into believing it had “smashed in pieces on the floor” for a brief moment, as if the world had entered a moment of stasis and what time had stolen from Gatsby seemed recovered (Fitzgerald 87). It is an illusion, however. According to Berman, the clock is still “telling time (but not the right time) while it is falling”; time surges onward, unswayed by romance (49).

When Daisy presents her daughter before the assembled company, Gatsby “kept looking at the child with surprise” as if he hadn’t “ever believed in its existence before” (Fitzgerald 117). Gatsby further demonstrates his unwillingness to acknowledge the passage of time and the existence of change by prompting Daisy to say that she never loved Tom Buchanan. She eventually consents, but takes it back almost immediately. “Even alone I couldn’t say I never loved Tom,” Daisy explains, and Gatsby loses his confidence but not his dream (Fitzgerald 133). Even wealth, which he has sacrificed his energy and later reputation to secure, cannot allow him to transcend time. Gatsby’s green light may have, as Nick surmised, been the “future that year by year recedes,” or it may have been that Gatsby himself was inadvertently retreating from it, chasing its reflection instead by attempting to transpose the past into the present and the foreseeable future (Fitzgerald 180).

Like Fitzgerald, Faulkner experiments with the natural progression of time. Vickerey offers this explanation of Faulkner’s use of time in his novels: “Objectively, time exists and continues weaving its patterns regardless of the presence or absence of any one person; subjectively, it is dependent for its very existence on the individual’s awareness of it” (192). In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner shifts from past to present to trace the deterioration of Quentin Compson’s mind, which is primarily caused by Quentin’s acute awareness of time. Quentin abhors change just as much as Gatsby, but he is more disturbed by mechanical time, a human construction based off of the concept that time is measurable, and made necessary by the human desire to control and rationalize the abstract.

Mechanical time can be considered as in contrast to natural time, which is more “cyclic,” and less concerned with “the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial” (Vickerey 193, Faulkner 51). Quentin continually “attempts to construe his experience of natural time in terms of his obsession with mechanical time” (Vickery 193). As a result, he is fascinated and disturbed by clocks and watches. Near the beginning of his narrative section, Quentin suddenly breaks his watch by smashing the glass and ripping off the hands; afterwards, he is aggravated by its continual ticking which is unhindered by the loss of its hands. Time is not something physical or personal that he can suspend or defeat through force, it is above and beyond his control. The watch by its existence suggests that humans are able to in some way control time by quantifying it, but when Quentin demonstrates that mindset by his attempt to destroy the watch, aware that anything man-made can usually be destroyed by man, but forgetting that the mechanical watch is not synonymous with time itself. He finds that the passage of time is inevitable even if he cannot see a clock, or if none of the clocks in the shop he visits are set with precision, but continues in his delusion. “I was in time again, hearing the watch” Quentin muses (50). Eventually he fully recognizes that mechanical time is not the same as natural time, and attempts to remove himself from both through suicide.

Like Gatsby, Quentin is obsessed with a certain stretch of time and a female character. This girl is his sister Caddy, and his life revolves as much around past experiences with her as Gatsby’s life was defined by his relationship with Daisy. As memories continue to invade Quentin’s consciousness before his imminent suicide, he recalls Caddy climbing the pear tree looking in at a funeral, her various lovers, her marriage to Herbert Head, and a failed suicide pact between the two of them. Quentin seeks to “restore and preserve the fixed world of his childhood with his sister” and to “prevent time from defiling their ideal past” (Korenman 10, 5).

Similar to Fitzgerald, Faulkner admired Keats and considered him his favorite poet, and  as Korenman points out, “the stasis he seeks closely resembles that of the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn” (10). Childhood for Quentin was a time steeped in values and traditions that were not reflected in larger society, which he realizes through the pessimistic, nihilistic ramblings of his father. Quentin’s beliefs are manifested in a chivalric, rather than religious or moral, code. Quentin romanticizes the time before Caddy’s sexual maturity and divorce, attempting to play the part of the noble gentleman protecting the virginity of his sister. His physical strength and influence do not match his convictions, so rather than being a modern-day knight in shining armor, he is merely a “half-baked Galahad of a brother,” losing quickly to every man he challenges on the behalf of his sister (Faulkner 73).

Caddy herself does not encourage Quentin’s chivalric behavior, arguing that marriage is her only option regardless of what her brother thinks about her future husband’s expulsion from Harvard (Faulkner 76). She does not regard sexual experiences as pleasurable, and the inexplicable sexuality of her character in light of that derails Quentin. Their father further disillusions Quentin by insisting that “purity is…contrary to nature” and that “men invented virginity” which is a state “like death” (Faulkner 77, 52). Constantly aware of “the long diminishing parade of time,” Quentin embraces idealism as a method of enforcing stasis, but just as Gatsby hoped to restore the past by going back over it to find where he could start over, Quentin futilely attempts to guard the moments of his childhood, which time has already robbed him of (Faulkner 51).

According to Messerli, Quentin understands the past to be “extra-temporal”; in other words, he treats the past as if it “exist[ed] in the present” (21). Unable to let go of the past, he cannot live fully in the present. Vickerey describes the tragedy of Quentin aptly as a product of “the disparity between [Quentin’s] actual youth with its anticipation of the future and [his] psychological and genealogical old age with its memories” (198). As Quentin’s father claims that “you cannot bear to think that someday it will no longer hurt like this,” Quentin repeats the word “temporary” like a refrain, to which his father eventually responds by saying “was the saddest word of all there is nothing else in the world” and “its not despair until time” (Faulkner 118). Through Quentin’s entire section, he breaks off what he is doing to engage in mental arguments with his father, who represents an alternative for dealing with the unforgiving and unrepeatable nature of time—submission. However, submission to the influence of time is not an option for Quentin; he craves immutability, and time necessitates change. There is only one remaining option in Quentin’s monomaniacal mind. “Quentin….is unable to accept becoming and must fight against it, attempting to stop time, to fix it finally by his own death” (Messerli 34).

The ultimate consequence of Quentin and Gatsby’s inability to handle mutability and the irretrievability of the past is untimely death. Strangely, both characters end their lives in water. Quentin, who has been notably walking within a shadow all day, drowns himself. Gatsby is shot in his pool, as shadows are cast over his vision of a future with Daisy. Water, which is typically evocative of life and baptism, represents in this case an escape, a vast and cold emptiness marked by absence of time and society, impersonal and ancient.

Faulkner does not depict the moment of Quentin’s suicide, although it is confirmed by other characters later in the narrative. After a day of wandering, Quentin jumped into the river, carrying weights in his pockets so that he would never rise again. By doing so, he disproves his father’s conviction that Quentin will eventually lose his horror at the degeneration of society by cutting his life off before he can be desensitized to the immorality of the world. Gatsby’s death is described as a “holocaust,” which has connotations of sacrifice (Fitzgerald 162). (The word would not be associated with genocide until after WWII, and The Great Gatsby was published in 1925.) At the time, Gatsby had devoted the last five years of his life to reliving the past, and Daisy had failed to live up to his expectations. In the wake of Daisy’s fall, he must come to a decision. His dream must be relinquished if he is to be able to live in the present. Instead, even then he attaches himself firmly to his ideals, and with his death he himself is delegated to the past, confined to the memories of Nick, his small circle of acquaintances from East Egg, and a few ungrateful partygoers.

Quentin’s death is not a victory over time. At the bottom of the river, he is free from the awareness of mechanical time, but natural time will continue to operate on him after death, and his life will be one more name in the declining Compson family tree, affixed in history. Neither did Gatsby’s death free him from time. As Nick would likely contend; Gatsby’s death was merely the climax of the story. Gatsby was once one of the “boats against the current,” striving to reach the unattainable, but with his demise in water, his control has finally been relinquished, and all that is left is for him to be “borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Fitzgerald 180).

Works Cited

  • Benson, Jackson J. “Quentin Compson: Self-Portrait of a Young Artist’s Emotions.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 17, no. 3, Jul. 1971, pp. 143-159. JSTOR, doi:
  • Berman, Ronald. “Fitzgerald: Time, Continuity, Relativity.” The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, vol. 2, no. 1, 2003, pp. 33-50. JSTOR, doi:
  • Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Edited by Michael Gorra, 3rd Norton Critical ed., 2014.
  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner’s, 2004.
  • —. “To Francis Scott Gerald.” 3 Aug. 1940. Selected Letters by F. Scott Fitzgerald,
  • Fobes, Alexander S. “F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, and the Watch for Spots of Time.” The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, vol. 11, no. 1, 2013, pp. 80-98. JSTOR, doi:
  • Korenman, Joan S. “Faulkner’s Grecian Urn.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 7, no. 1, 1974, pp. 3-23. JSTOR,
  • Magistrale, Tony, and Mary Jane Dickerson. “The Language of Time in ‘The Great Gatsby.’” College Literature, vol. 16, no. 2, 1989, pp. 117-128. JSTOR, doi:
  • Messerli, Douglas. “The Problem of Time in ‘The Sound and the Fury’: A Critical Reassessment and Reinterpretation.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 6, no. 2, 1974, pp. 19-41.
  • Vickerey, Olga W. “Faulkner and the Contours of Time.” The Georgia Review, vol. 12, no. 2, 1958, pp. 192-201. JSTOR,
  • Weisgerber, Jean. “Faulkner’s Monomaniacs: Their Indebtedness to Raskolnikov.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, 1968, pp. 181-193. JSTOR, doi:

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