Time in “Winter Dreams” moves according to two competing models: Fitzgerald juxtaposes a linear concept of time with a cyclical one. In the linear narrative, Dexter moves from Minnesota to the East Coast and becomes wealthy—his career progress, which occurs in tandem with his aging, is straightforward. However, Fitzgerald also uses the cyclical nature of time, depicted through the seasons, to tell the story of Dexter’s lack of emotional maturation. From the moment he is introduced as an eager, ambitious teenager, Fitzgerald presents Dexter as someone in a perpetual cycle of hope and melancholy, nurtured by his “fleeting brilliant impressions of the summer at Sherry Island.” This cycle is associated with Dexter’s “winter dreams,” which, like the winter season itself, are recurrent and cannot be captured or sustained. While Dexter’s business career makes a linear progression, his psychological state is cyclical. He regularly returns to the island, both physically and in his imagination, until he “awakens” from his dream at the end of the story and realizes that he can no longer return.
Winter is important to the narrative both structurally and symbolically. The story begins and ends in winter, which suggests that Dexter’s journey from being an ambitious youth in Minnesota to a successful East Coast businessman (who is realizing the emptiness of his life) forms a natural cycle. When the story beings, Dexter describes “the long Minnesota winter” as something that “[shuts] down like the white lid of a box,” leaving everything, particularly the golf course, covered in snow. Though it offends Dexter to see a site of so much activity become so “desolate,” he eagerly skis over the course, which he can usually access only for work. At this moment, he feels a part of the rarefied world that the golf course represents, even though that world only truly exists in summer. Dexter’s winter dreams, just like his relationship to the golf course in winter, seem delusional.
Indeed, at the end of the story (which occurs during another winter), Dexter must reckon with the fact that even though he has achieved tremendous success, his life will never be the one he imagined. He will always, in some sense, be skiing on the golf course in winter—that is, imagining himself to be a part of something that only exists in his imagination. This revelation that his winter dreams will not be fulfilled comes after he learns, once and for all, that he will never marry Judy. This is fitting, as Judy is associated with summer, which is the season when the members of the glamorous Sherry Island Golf Club flaunt their wealth, and also the season that first inspired Dexter’s winter dreams.
The first time Dexter sees Judy is during the summer, and he notices “a sort of glow…shining through her thin frame,” as well as a “feverish warmth.” Their subsequent romantic encounters occur only during the summer—when the weather cools, so do her passions, and when the warmth inevitably returns, so does she. When Dexter last sees Judy, he describes her as a “slender enameled doll in cloth of gold.” Years later, while contemplating the news of her decline, Dexter watches the evening sun “[sink] in dull lovely shades of pink and gold.” The pink that he had seen in Judy’s “feverish” cheeks and the “gold color” he had noticed on “her neck’s soft down” have faded just like the day’s sun, which parallels Dexter’s acknowledgement that those summers have truly ended and his winter dreams are dead.
Dexter cries then, not only because his realization marks the end of something warm and beautiful, but also because his awareness that he can never return to those summers—just as one cannot relive a day—means that time must march forward, toward eventual darkness. The sun, like Judy, had faded, leaving only the closed gates and “the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time.” The gates refer to those that enclosed the golf club, but they also evoke images of the gates of cemeteries, as well as those which mark the entry to the after-life. Fitzgerald leaves the reader, then, with the awareness that time must move forward, while dreams are cyclical illusions—just as winter and summer cannot coexist, Dexter’s winter dreams can never be his reality.
Time, Progress, and Repetition ThemeTracker
Time, Progress, and Repetition Quotes in Winter Dreams
Some of the caddies were poor as sin and lived in one-room houses with a neurasthenic cow in the front yard, but Dexter Green’s father owned the second best grocery-store in Black Bear—the best one was “The Hub,” patronized by the wealthy people from Sherry Island—and Dexter caddied only for pocket-money.
He became a golf champion and defeated T.A. Hedrick in a marvelous match played a hundred times over the fairways of his imagination, a match each detail of which he changed about untiringly—sometimes he won with almost laughable ease, sometimes he came up magnificently from behind. Again, stepping from a Pierce-Arrow automobile, like Mr. Mortimer Jones, he strolled frigidly into the lounge of the Sherry Island Golf Club—or perhaps, surrounded by an admiring crowd, he gave an exhibition of fancy diving from the spring-board of the club raft….
Now, the quality and the seasonability of these winter dreams varied, but the stuff of them remained. They persuaded Dexter several years later to pass up a business course at the State university—his father, prospering now, would have paid his way—for the precarious advantage of attending an older and more famous university in the East, where he was bothered by his scanty funds…. He wanted not association with glittering things and glittering people—he wanted the glittering things themselves. Often he reached out for the best without knowing why he wanted it—and sometimes he ran up against the mysterious denials and prohibitions in which life indulges. It is with one of those denials and not with his career as a whole that this story deals.
He did not consider it necessary to remark that he had once carried Mr. Hart’s bag over the same links, and that he knew every trap and gully with his eyes shut—but he found himself glancing at the four caddies who trailed them, trying to catch a gleam or gesture that would remind him of himself, that would lessen the gap which lay between his present and his past.
Summer, fall, winter, spring, another summer, another fall—so much he had given of his active life to the incorrigible lips of Judy Jones. She had treated him with interest, with encouragement, with malice, with indifference, with contempt…. She had insulted him, and she had ridden over him, and she had played his interest in her against his interest in his work—for fun. She had done everything to him except criticise him—this she had not done—it seemed to him only because it might have sullied the utter indifference she manifested and sincerely felt toward him.
A sort of dullness settled down upon Dexter. For the first time in his life he felt like getting very drunk. He knew that he was laughing loudly at something Devlin had said, but he did not know what it was or why it was funny. When, in a few minutes, Devlin went he lay down on his lounge and looked out the window at the New York sky-line into which the sun was sinking in dull lovely shades of pink and gold.
The dream was gone. Something had been taken from him. In a sort of panic he pushed the palms of his hands into his eyes and tried to bring up a picture of the waters lapping on Sherry Island and the moonlit veranda, and gingham on the golf-links and the dry sun and the gold color of her neck’s soft down. And her mouth damp to his kisses and her eyes plaintive with melancholy and her freshness like new fine linen in the morning. Why, these things were no longer in the world! They had existed and they existed no longer.
For the first time in years, there were tears streaming down his face. But they were for himself now…. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.