I'd like to know the precise meaning of "stand by" in the following passage from the chapter IV of The Great Gatsby, knowing that "retribution" means punishment: “I’ll tell you God’s...

I'd like to know the precise meaning of "stand by" in the following passage from the chapter IV of The Great Gatsby, knowing that "retribution" means punishment:

“I’ll tell you God’s truth.” His right hand suddenly ordered divine retribution to stand by.

Does it mean "to assist him", "to help him" or "to stand ready", "to wait" or something else?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the most significant developments in chapter four is the legend of Gatsby.  He introduces this by way of conversation with Nick.  It becomes clear that Gatsby is aware of all the constructions that surround him.  He appropriates this in talking to Nick about his background and his identity:

So he was aware of the bizarre accusations that flavored conversation in his halls.

“I’ll tell you God’s truth.” His right hand suddenly ordered divine retribution to stand by. “I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West — all dead now. I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years. It is a family tradition.”

Gatsby's raising of the right hand is important.  It is a gesture that "orders divine retribution to stand by."  Fitzgerald's wording of such a phrase indicates that Gatsby would only have to order "divine retribution to stand by" because he is lying.  The use of the phrase "stand by" means to wait or to refrain from acting.  Through the invocation of "God's truth," Gatsby raises his hand to hold off on divine retribution seeking action against him because he would be offending "God's truth" by lying, or at the least, constructing truth as what he would like it to be.  Later on in the narrative, the truth is established when Nick finds out about Gatsby and his background.  Gatsby's construction of being from "some wealth people in the Middle West" who are "all dead now" is not an accurate one. He raises his hand to delay or to communicate a sense of waiting to divine retribution.

I do think that the wording contains thematic significance.  The world we have seen thus far through Nick's eyes holds little transcendent truth. Everyone speaks as if there are profound beliefs, but it becomes clear that there are none.  Everyone can be bought and there is little real moral currency that exists between people.  Gatsby's invocation of God is interesting because while he is lying and engaging in a form of deception, he cannot be seen as a bad sort in comparison to the Tom Buchanans or Jordan Bakers of the world.

Chapter four details a world that contains a "purposeless splendor." Interestingly enough, Gatsby's own purpose is one of recreation of identity and reinvention, helping to enhance the idea that “a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing.”  Gatsby's invocation of the divine is an attempt to recreate something lasting and meaningfully transcendent in a world of contingency and temporality.  He wishes to hold off on divine justice, asking it to "stand by," until he can complete "his Platonic conception of himself."  Gatsby wants to create a life with Daisy.  This becomes his definition of a substantial creation.  It is distinctive because no one else in this "purposeless splendor" wishes to create anything lasting.  Gatsby invokes God in the process of seeking something transcendent in a world that is far from it. Gatsby must do this by engaging in lying, adding yet another layer to the word choice and spiritual elements in this passage.  The use of the "divine retribution" and "God's truth" along with Gatsby raising his hand to stop or to delay it is a reflection of a paradigm in which something meaningful is sought to be created in a world that lacks any and all meaning.

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