Now that I am a MFA student in Creative Writing (Fiction) at Queens University, I am required to write a few short comparative literature essays about the books we read and the seminars we attended. I figured, might as well post these essays here, too, right?
My first essay is about the Treatment of Time in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The seminar on the subject was taught by Queens MFA program director Fred Leebron. Please note, the tone of the essay is intentionally informal. This is by no means meant as a full exploration of the subject.
THE TREATMENT OF TIME IN THE GREAT GATSBY AND IN COLD BLOOD
Both Fitzgerald’s and Capote’s treatment of time in The Great Gatsby and In Cold Blood help to create the tone of each novel as well as affect the level of suspense. Each uses summary (speeding up time) and scene (slowing down time) to call the reader’s attention to specific events, thus conveying the significance of those events. In Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses flashback sequences strategically throughout an otherwise linear novel to inform the reader and raise the stakes of specific plot lines. In In Cold Blood, Capote interrupts his linear timeline to return to events that occurred in the narrative past, though he presents them primarily as scene from a 3rd-person perspective and not as 1st-person flashback as does Fitzgerald. This effect is used to create suspense in a story that, because it is nonfiction and public knowledge, would otherwise be predictable and even boring.
In Gatsby, Fitzgerald adopts a dreamy tone that implies the characters are unconcerned by the passage of time. His transitions in time are often vague and only related to one another by offhanded reference. Take, for instance, Nick’s relationship to Jordan Baker: “For a while I lost sight of [her], and then in midsummer I found her again” (62). Another example is his relationship to Gatsby himself: “I had talked with him perhaps half a dozen times in the past month and found, to my disappointment, that he had little to say” (68-69). In each of these examples, references to time are vague: “for a while,” “midsummer,” “perhaps half a dozen times in the past month.” In addition to developing tone, the lack of specificity in time helps to develop character. The reader determines that the characters are unconcerned by the passage of time, and that, besides a few major events, each day of the summer is much like the last. This is bolstered by Nick’s description of Gatsby’s parties as well as the lazy, lackadaisical way in which most of the main characters approach their day-to-day lives.
Capote, on the other hand, addresses time in In Cold Blood with journalistic precision. Even in scenes that involve firsthand flashbacks, told through interviews, Capote grounds the reader with specifics. For example, when he interviewed Sadie Truitt about the day after the Clutters died: “In Mother Truitt’s profession, Sunday is a workday like any other. On November 15, while she was waiting for the westbound ten-thirty-two…” (67). In just two sentences, Capote grounds us on the exact date, the exact day of the week, and very near the exact time of day. It is an extremely effective technique that creates suspense because of what we already know—that the Clutters were murdered on November 14, a Saturday, in the middle of the night. This precision convinces the reader to trust our narrator, which, in order for this work of nonfiction to succeed, is a necessity.
In Cold Blood’s overarching narrative structure acts almost as a spiral, exploring the details surrounding the act of murder, the reactions of the townspeople and the murderers alike, grounding us with exact dates and times, invoking our sympathy and anticipation, spiraling closer and closer to the event that earned the book its title. The Clutters are dead by page 58, and yet we don’t see the act of their murders in scene until pages 236-246. After that, it is the almost perverse desire to see what happens to the criminals, with whom in some way we have come to sympathize, that drives the reader to the end of the novel.
In short, I would agree that the treatment of time in a novel is in fact one of—if not the—most important aspects of the narrative structure. Time informs our understanding of characters, the narrator, and the tone. It creates or subdues suspense, the driving force behind many successful novels. How an author treats time can mean the difference between a successful novel and an unsuccessful one.