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Hello! I'd like to know the meaning of "notorious" and "stunts" in this passage of the...

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coutelle | Valedictorian

Posted March 28, 2013 at 11:09 PM via web

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Hello! I'd like to know the meaning of "notorious" and "stunts" in this passage of the chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby (does "notorious" mean "ill-famed" and form an antithesis with "celebrated"; does "stunts" mean "antics" and / or "frolicking"?)

 

There was dancing now on the canvas in the garden, old men pushing young girls backward in eternal graceless circles, superior couples holding each other tortuously, fashionably and keeping in the corners—and a great number of single girls dancing individualistically or relieving the orchestra for a moment of the burden of the banjo or the traps. By midnight the hilarity had increased. A celebrated tenor had sung in Italian and a notorious contralto had sung in jazz and between the numbers people were doing “stunts” all over the garden while happy vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky. A pair of stage “twins’— who turned out to be the girls in yellow—did a baby act in costume and champagne was served in glasses bigger than finger bowls. 

Thank you.

 

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted March 29, 2013 at 12:20 AM (Answer #1)

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Yours is an interesting and challenging question. I am not at all sure I can answer it correctly, but I would like to try. The passage you quoted described wild parties of the distant past. Fitzgerald, of course, is famous as the chronicler of the Jazz Age, but we can't imagine the reality as well as it could be imagined by readers who were alive when the book was published.

I don't believe that "notorious" was intended as an antithesis to "celebrated" or that it means quite the same thing as "ill-famed." I think Fitzgerald used "notorious" because he didn't want to use "celebrated" twice. The contrast between the two adjectives suggests that the contralto was famous and also had a reputation for leading a wild life, which would have included sexual promiscuity, heavy drinking, probably some use of drugs de jour like cocaine and opium, having an arrest record for things like drunk and disorderly conduct, and undoubtedly for consortion with gangsters. But she would have been more "colorful" than "ill-famed." Somebody who was ill-famed would, it seems to me, have had to be dangerous to others. My guess is that this contralto was somebody like Billie Holiday, who was wild but never hurtful to other people, only to herself. A person could be notorious and likable but not ill-famed and likable.

As far as the other word you ask about,we can only imagine what sorts of "stunts" the guests would be performing when they were heavily intoxicated. They would seem to be antics intended to attract attention. I could imagine men doing acrobatics with other men or with women, dancing on tables, people jumping into the swimming pool with all their clothes on, possibly chug-a-lugging entire bottles of booze. The word "stunts" might have been in common use in those days when a whole bourgeoning slang vocabulary was being inspired by booze and Prohibition. I think your choices of "antics" and "frolicking" are good ones. What Fitzgerald is suggesting is that people were behaving in ways in which very well-dressed people only behaved at such upscale affairs if they had become heavily intoxicated and had lost all their normal inhibitions.

In one of Johh Cheever's stories he tells about a man who had been a champion hurdles runner in college and who would start jumping over the backs of chairs at parties when he was sufficiently drunk. This would be a good example of a "stunt."

Fitzgerald himself was notorious for the "stunts" he performed when he was drunk, and so was his wife Zelda. Some of their "antics" are described in a biography titled Crazy Sundays, which deals with Fitzgerald's years in Hollywood as a studio writer. The book's title derives from one of Fitzgerald's own stories, "Crazy Sunday" (see reference link below). His short story is about one of his "stunts" in Hollywood at a party hosted by highly important studio executives and attended by many of the Hollywood elite.

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