What is the meaning of "patent" in "patent cabinets" in Chapter 5 of The Great Gatsby?

"Recovering himself in a minute he opened for us two hulking patent cabinets which held his massed suits and dressing gowns and ties, and his shirts piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high."

Expert Answers

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"Patent" has three basic definitions.

  1. Government documentation and protection for an invention or manufactured good.
  2. Leather that is processed to be hard and shinny, usually used for shoes and belts.
  3. An action or statement that is readily observable and clearly noticeable: a patent display of anger.

The use of "patent" in The Great Gatsby, Chapter 5, that you refer to can only be the first or second definition: a government protection or a hard, shinny leather. It is possible that the cabinet was made of hard, shinny leather but it is not the most reasonable supposition. Prestige cabinets for expensive clothing tend to be of high quality wood, especially woods, like cedar, that have natural insect repellent properties. Thus while it is not impossible the cabinet was made of patent leather, it is not probable that it was, in fact, it is improbable that it was.

Logic narrows the probable definition of patent in "patent cabinet" down to the first definition: government documentation and protection for an invention or manufactured good. Thus the patent cabinet was one manufactured by someone that was so unique and original in functionality, design, materials and construction that it warranted a government issued patent protecting it from duplication by other manufacturers for a given number of years, allowing the inventor/designer exclusive profitability from the sale of the cabinet.

An interesting point to consider is why Fitzgerald would allude in such vague terms to the patent cabinet in The Great Gatsby. One reason is that, since it is under patent, it is new, popular and well known among the crowd Fitzgerald associated with and with the group he anticipated as his reading audience: educated, wealthy, privileged, famous, leisure for reading.

Another reason is that this sort of vague allusion sets a prestige level for Fitzgerald as an author as well as for Gatsby and Nick. It may give Fitzgerald prestige because he associates in the right circles and can make the right cultural allusions. Its gives Gatsby prestige because he owns the latest and best furniture. It gives Nick prestige because, while he is from a lower socio-economic level, he is himself well versed in the latest and the best.

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