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I am reading The Great Gatsby, and came to be curious as to what "the protecting canvas unrolled from Gatsby’s grave" means in the following sentences:

As we started through the gate into the cemetery I heard a car stop and then the sound of someone splashing after us over the soggy ground. I looked around. It was the man with owl-eyed glasses whom I had found marvelling over Gatsby’s books in the library one night three months before.

I’d never seen him since then. I don’t know how he knew about the funeral, or even his name. The rain poured down his thick glasses, and he took them off and wiped them to see the protecting canvas unrolled from Gatsby’s grave.

Only the narrator Nick, Gatsby's father, and a priest went to the cemetery where Gatsby was to be buried. However, as they went into the cemetery, a man came in, who turned out to be the man whom Nick met in one of Gatsby's parties.

In this part, I could not understand what was the "protecting canvas" and how it unrolled from Gatsby's grave. I guessed, since it was raining, the canvas cloth was covering the pit in which Gatsby was to be laid down. But as people arrived, the cloth was now "unrolled." So I wonder why it was described as the "protecting" canvas.

I would very much appreciate your help.

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There's no great mystery to this: it literally means what it says.

Newly-dug graves are often covered with canvas to protect them from the rain. Otherwise, the dug earth would turn to mud. This is especially true before the coffin is lowered into the hole. Not only is the expanse of bare earth greater, but making the hole blend in with the green grass makes it less frightening and worrying for the mourners to behold.

Here's an example:

enter image description here

The phrasing ...

The rain poured down his thick glasses, and he took them off and wiped them to see the protecting canvas unrolled from Gatsby’s grave.

... is slightly odd, and at first, glance makes it sound as though the man is watching the canvas unrolling. But it's only some confusion around the tense. You can also read it as meaning "he saw the canvas, which was already unrolled" or that "he saw the canvas, which someone was in the process of unrolling".

The canvas is being unrolled, presumably, so that the grave can be filled.

  • Thank you so much for the clear explanation, Matt thrower! The image especially made me imagine the scene immediately. Then, since the quote says the canvas was unrolled "from" Gatsby's grave, can I take that someone who was in the process of unrolling the cloth spread it from the middle to the edge of the grave? And, since you said that the canvas was being unrolled "so that the grave can be filled," I became curious whether the canvas takes an essential part in the process of burial. By any chance, when the coffin is buried, is the canvas buried inside the pit, too, without being removed? – Pasta Addict Apr 12 '18 at 14:43
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    @PastaAddict No idea, I'm afraid. I imagine you'd need to ask an undertaker. – Matt Thrower Apr 12 '18 at 14:48

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