I'd like to know the precise and metaphoric meaning of "lapped up" in the following passage from the chapter Eight of The Great Gatsby: Until long after midnight a changing crowd lapped up against...

I'd like to know the precise and metaphoric meaning of "lapped up" in the following passage from the chapter Eight of The Great Gatsby:

Until long after midnight a changing crowd lapped up against the front of the garage while George Wilson rocked himself back and forth on the couch inside.

 Does it mean "to follow one another in little waves" or does "up" have a specific meaning ("eagerly")?

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The portion in which the crowd "lapped up" against the side of the garage involves Nick's retelling of Myrtle's death. He focuses on how the event was initially perceived.  In detailing "what happened at the garage" after we left the night before, Nick describes how people congregated at the garage in the aftermath of Myrtle's passing.

Nick had already preceded this description with a mistrust of people.  It is in this chapter where Nick calls out to Gatsby that he is better than "the whole damn bunch put together."  Even though Nick is speaking about a particular group of people, it has already become clear that the view of an outward- driven society is evident.  This same perception is present in how Nick describes the initial energy after Myrtle's death.  Nick describes the scene as collecting people who possessed a voyeuristic fascination with what transpired.  The chatter surrounding Myrtle's "tragic achievement" was something Nick describes as "forgotten," reflecting how people seized on it for an instant as gossip and fodder, only to forget its significance.   Adding to this is how Nick describes someone who was either "kind or curious" driving Myrtle's sister away after she fainted.  This description further adds how people were fascinated with the event.

It is in this context in which Nick describes the crowd outside of the garage.  The crowd that "lapped up" was eager and curious as to see what was happening.  Nick describes possessing little in way of real or substantive understanding.  While someone would occasionally peer in at George and mutter "poor thing," the crowd collected is curious and wants to know what happened.  In a bitter example of "enquiring minds want to know," Nick's description details a society driven by celebrity and the rise of gossip.  It is an outer- directed entity, looking to cast their gaze upon something and someone to occupy their time and attention.  It is for this reason that the term "lapped up" is important.  The "changing" description of the crowd further solidifies the idea that the crowd assembled is interested in the spectacle of the event, more concerned with focusing their attention on external reality and almost gawking at it than doing anything significant with it.

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Note that it was a "changing" crowd. People would go up to the garage out of curiosity, then leave because there was little to see. They would be replaced by later arrivals who were being pushed, like wavelets, by the crowds arriving behind them. It was not a turbulent scene because it was not an event of major importance. The metaphor "lapped up" suggests a fairly orderly coming and going over a long period of time. It also seems to suggest that the curiosity-driven crowd members are lapping up the spectacle provided by the aftermath of the tragedy, not exactly "eagerly," but patiently in order to quench their thirst for anything of interest in their boring lives.

The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary gives many definitions of "lap." The most appropriate here is:

"to take in food or drink with the tongue"

The sound that an animal makes when lapping with its tongue resembles that of wavelets breaking at the shore of a placid body of water. The waves are describes as "lapping" because they sound like an animal lapping and might be said to resemble little tongues lapping at the shore. This meaning of the word seems to be an example of onomatopoeia. That sound also suggests that the people in the scene in Gatsby are like little waves moving up in lines to break against the front of Wilson's garage.

It is a minor incident, and the crowd keeps changing because it provides so little of interest. It is only one of the countless such incidents to be seen in passing in a big city, involving unexplained mishaps and tragedies in the lives of strangers never seen before and never to be seen again.

Here is an excerpt from "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by William Butler Yeats, one of his best-known and best-loved poems:


I will arise and go now, for always night and day.
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core. ”

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Fitzgerald probably says "lapped up against" rather than just "lapped against" because the front of the garage would present a solid barrier against which water would splash upward, which water would not do if it were only lapping against a shoreline. The crowd is being implicitly likened to a small body of water surging toward the shore and then lapping in little wavelets which make a sound, for example, like a dog lapping water. In fact, the front of the garage is not only a physical barrier but a legal, moral, and psychological barrier because it represents private property.

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The Great Gatsby

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