I came across this famous sentence in the 4th paragraph of the 1st Chapter of The Great Gatsby. The original sentence is here.

It's what preyed on Gatsby,what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

Why should the author use the second 'what' instead of "that".

And why should there lack a comma between 'his dreams' and 'that',like this.

It's what preyed on Gatsby,what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams,that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

The grammatical structure of the whole sentence confuses me a lot.

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    I don't know the answer, but the second what sounds like a question to me. "what foul dust floated...?" – WendyG Jul 27 '18 at 10:12
  • @WendyG Thanks.But even if it is a question,should it be like,grammatically,"what kind of foul dust"?(Since i assume that 'foul dust' is a noun phrase and the standard grammar is like "what kind of + noun. ") – dubina Jul 27 '18 at 10:18
  • this is prose, prose doesn't follow the same rules. But seriously no it shouldn't. imagine "what car was it you were driving last week?" the "kind of" is implied we all know that is what you mean, so you don't need to say it. and "what kind of car" is a mouthful to speak, the english are very lazy talkers (just read some place names and then find out how they are pronounced for proof of this) so if a bit of language is awkward to say, and everyone knows you mean it anyway why bother saying it? i am sure there is a proper name for this but I don't know it. – WendyG Jul 27 '18 at 10:24
  • @WendyG Thanks a lot.This grammatical structure is unfamiliar to me before. – dubina Jul 27 '18 at 11:42

what also is a kind of emphatic.

"What big eyes you have, grandmother!" said Little Red Riding Hood.

what foul dust ...

emphasizes foul. The dust is very foul. It is so foul.

Consider this syntactic analogue:

Reporter: Tell me, Little Red Riding Hood, when did you become suspicious?
Little Red: Well, grannie looked especially hairy, and she was drooling more than usual, but it's what the look on her face was telling me, what big eyes she had, that really tipped me off.

In that usage what in what big eyes she had is not unlike emphatic/exclamatory "How":

How right you are!

  • Thanks a lot!They are really analogous.And could you please tell me that,in the case of The Great Gatsby,whether should there be a comma between 'his dreams' and 'that',just like the comma between 'she had' and 'that' in the Little Red Riding Hood.Or both of them are acceptable? – dubina Jul 27 '18 at 14:14
  • @dubina: There are no universally accepted rules for punctuation especially in literary works, where authors use it not always to reflect clausal structures but sometimes to establish a sense of pace or rhythm. So a comma could go there but need not go there. A comma there would (accurately) show that what ...dreams is a clause. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 27 '18 at 14:23

It's a common literary device to describe something twice, but more descriptively the second time around. It helps build and graduate emphasis, making the sentence feel like a sort of verbal crescendo.

I saw him running, racing around the track with utmost determination, and instantly fell in love.

In this case both running and racing around the track with utmost determination describe the same thing and serve the same grammatical function in the sentence, but the latter carries more pathos and feels stronger to the reader. If you were reading it aloud, you'd likely put more emphasis on that part of the sentence than on just running.

It's the same with your sentence - what preyed on Gatsby and what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams refer to the same thing, but the repetition makes the sentence flow better. What might be a little confusing is the slightly archaic structure of the second clause (what + noun + verb) - it's not used often these days, but it could be rewritten as the foul dust which floated... .

  • Thanks a lot ! The 'what+noun+verb' is exactly my crux.And i still have a question.Should there be a comma between 'his dreams' and 'that' ? – dubina Jul 27 '18 at 11:41

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