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What Does the Clock Gatsby Knocks Over Symbolize?


The novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald are rich in symbolism. The author uses symbolism as a literary device to convey core messages of his works in moments both monumental and small. One of the most talked about symbols in all of his novels is the mantle clock in “The Great Gatsby”. In Chapter 5 Jay Gatsby is visiting the home of Nick in which he is preparing to reunite with Daisy—Gatsby’s love interest and a woman who married another man while Gatsby was off in the world trying to make something of himself because he wanted to offer Daisy wealth and power. Scholars and readers alike offer various interpretations of the symbolism in Gatsby knocking the clock off the mantle and catching it before it could break.

Time as a Crutch

Some view the mantle clock as a crutch symbol. We all know that Gatsby wanted to go make something of himself and acquire mass wealth before presenting himself to Daisy as a suitor. After making his money Gatsby contacts Nick, Daisy’s cousin, and executes a time-consuming plan to get to know his neighbor so he can make preparations for a private party to serve as an occasion for being reunited with Daisy. Fitzgerald describes Gatsby waiting rather impatiently with “his head leaned back so far that it rested against the face of a defunct mantelpiece clock” (pg. 87). The act of leaning against a clock can symbolize that Gatsby is using time as a crutch to support his hopes of winning Daisy after having lost her. (see reference 1)

"Time is Money"

Some critics believe that Fitzgerald may be using the clock symbol and Gatsby’s act of knocking the broken timepiece over to suggest there are more important things in life than the pursuit of money. The fact that the clock is broken may symbolize that his money doesn’t matter; that failing to make a human connection through time was what really lost Daisy to another man. “The Washington Post” makes an interesting observation that, “Tom and Daisy smashed up things and creatures […] and retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together”. The author suggests that Fitzgerald’s preoccupation with those who have money is complicated. (see reference 2). But time seems suspended as a complicator and fits well within the symbol of "time is money".

Never Letting Go

The clock may also symbolize Gatsby’s inability to let Daisy go. Gatsby had spent all previous time amassing wealth to win Daisy over. That the clock is broken symbolizes his efforts to win her were broken and a complete waste of time. After catching the clock to keep it from breaking Gatsby apologizes profusely to Nick, who assures him it doesn’t matter because the clock is already broken. However, Gatsby carefully places it back in its place like a precious object. Some view this as a symbol of Gatsby’s refusal to let time go. (see reference 3)

Cronos Complex

Some may argue the clock is a symbol of Gatsby’s “Cronus Complex”. Cronus was the Greek god of time and had the power to control it. (see resources further reading 1) Time is a major theme that runs throughout Fitzgerald’s novel. When Gatsby caught the broken clock and saved it from smashing apart, some may view this as his attempt to change fate as dictated by time. But this is futile, as Nick makes it very clear that the clock is already broken and shows no concern that it almost splintered to pieces. If readers view this as Gatsby trying to control time, the broken clock can further symbolize his Cronus complex, considering that Gatsby’s death resulted from time he spent waiting for Daisy to call him. Gatsby’s wasted time resulted in him being shot suggesting time was not his puppet to control.

About the Author

Jen Saunders is an entrepreneur and veteran journalist who covers a wide range of topics. She made the transition to writing after having spent 12 years in England where she studied and taught English literature.

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