When I was a second year in college I took a survey course on American modern literature taught by a man I admired. I wasn’t opposed to the subject matter but it wasn’t why I was taking the course. The course’s true appeal was social climbing and a chance to get closer one really great crush. (I alternately love and hate this as a literary trope, as in, in The Flamethrowers, when Reno moves to New York City in pursuit of a bad boy from art school.) One day I had a revelation while my professor, who you should imagine physically and dispositionally as the English teacher from Boy Meets World, was talking about the infamous pile of shirts in Gatsby’s closet.
Suddenly he stopped: “What if the shirt” (long pause) “is just a shirt?”
This blew. my. fucking. mind. Of course! The shirt doesn’t need to be a literary symbol for the scene to function. Sometimes a shirt is “just” a shirt.
Recently I found an unexpected reiteration of “What if the shirt is just a shirt” in abbot Nilus’s 5th century interpretation of Genesis:
It was the desire of food that spawned disobedience; it was the pleasure of taste that drove us from Paradise. Luxury in food delights the gullet, but it breeds the worm of license that sleepeth not. An empty stomach prepares one for watching and prayer; the full one induces sleep. (Abbot Nilus, Tractatus de octo spiritibus malitiae, chap 1, p.79, col. 114B, trans. by Musurillo, “Ascetical Fasting,” p. 16)
Really takes the wind out of your sails, doesn’t it? Maybe the apple was just an apple, something to fill the stomach and cause pleasure.