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Five illuminated stories

A literary journey in search of twentieth century light

Published: 17 Oct 2019
There are lights that have made literary history. From the green light at the end of the dock on the far side of the Long Island bay that Jay Gatsby gazes at from his mansion, to the light bulb that Atticus Finch fixes up outside the town jail; light in literature can be a symbol - of conscience illuminating the darkness of ignorance - or an element that evokes fond and loving memories. Here are five great lights that illuminate twentieth century literature.
Five illuminated stories
1. The green light at the end of the dock

Written by Francis Scott Fitzgerald and published for the first time in 1925, The Great Gatsby is set in New York and Long Island. It is considered to be one of the best depictions of the Roaring Twenties, as well as a sort of spiritual autobiography. One of the best-known works of the twentieth century, this short novel paints a portrait of the American dream and its disintegration. Every evening, Jay Gatsby looks out of his window at a green light on the horizon on the far side of the bay. Jay Gatsby knows that the light stands at the end of the dock below the house where Daisy, the woman he loves, lives. It is the summer of 1922 and Gatsby finally convinces the love of his youth to meet him again. But nothing is the same as before: «Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one. Gatsby’s dream, and perhaps the American dream itself, had come to an end.

Five illuminated stories
2. A pool of red and undulating light

First published in 1987, Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. It was written by Toni Morrison, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 and died this year on the 5th of August.

Set after the end of the American Civil War, Beloved tells the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver who flee Kentucky to escape from slavery.

There is a scene, in the first chapter of the novel that is immersed in a pool of red and undulating light. Sethe lives in Cincinnati at 124 Bluestone Road along with her daughter Denver and the ghost of her elder sister who died when she was just two-years-old. When Paul D, one of the slaves from the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky, appears at the door of number 124, Sethe cannot believe her eyes. She invites her old friend in for something to eat. But when Paul D crosses the threshold and finds himself immersed in that eerie red light, he realises immediately that an evil spirit is present. Sethe reassures him, however, that it is not evil, but sad. And when he does step inside, Paul D realises that she is right: «It was sad. Walking through it, a wave of grief soaked him so thoroughly he wanted to cry.»
Five illuminated stories
3. The electric light of the café

Published for the first time in Scribner’s Magazine in March 1933, Ernest Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place tells the story of an old deaf man who is drinking in a late-night café while two waiters wait impatiently for him to go, so they can shut up for the night.

The light that makes this story so distinctive is electric and includes the city’s street lamps and the lighting inside the café. The older waiter thinks it is essential, as there are people like the old man and himself who need cafés to be open late at night. Because these places give comfort to «all those who need a light for the night», or are looking for a refuge that is not only well-lit, but also clean and tidy.

The older waiter speaks to himself as he closes up the café and Hemingway lets him meditate on nothingness and how life has no meaning. After all, «light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.»
Five illuminated stories
4. A light bulb to beat the darkness

«As we walked up the sidewalk, we saw a solitary light burning in the distance. – That’s funny, – said Jem, – jail doesn’t have an outside light. –
– Looks like it’s over the door, – said Dill. A long extension cord ran between the bars of a second-floor window and down the side of the building. In the light from its bare bulb, Atticus was sitting propped against the front door. He was sitting in one of his office chairs, and he was reading, oblivious of the nightbugs dancing over his head.»

Here a single light bulb succeeds in illuminating dark times. The passage comes from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and is now recognised as a classic of modern American literature. The light bulb in question is the one Atticus Finch uses to read by while he stands guard outside the jail where Tom Robinson, a man of colour accused of rape, is imprisoned. Atticus becomes Tom’s defence lawyer as he is convinced that he is innocent, and the light bulb outside the jail that illuminates the night symbolises his attempt to push back the dark veil of racism that hangs over America.
Five illuminated stories
5. The light of a magic lantern

«They had indeed hit upon the idea, to distract me on the evenings when they found me looking too unhappy, of giving me a magic lantern, which, while awaiting the dinner hour, they would set on top of my lamp; and, after the fashion of the first architects and master glaziers of the Gothic age, it replaced the opacity of the walls with impalpable iridescences, supernatural multi- coloured apparitions, where legends were depicted as in a wavering, momentary stained-glass window.».

In Swann’s Way (Du côté de chez Swann), it is not only the famous Madeleine cake that the narrator of In Search of Lost Time recalls when he remembers his childhood in Combray, there is also a long description of a magic lantern. This curious toy that still fascinates children today, is the heir of the Gothic stained- glass window and a precursor of the cinema. It consists of transparent forms painted on a lamp, which throws moving images onto the walls when it is rotated around a lighted candle.