The opening paragraphs teach us a lot about Nick and his attitude toward
Gatsby and others. Nick introduces himself to us as a young man from the Midwest
who has come East to learn the bond business. He tells us that he's tolerant,
inclined to reserve judgment about people, and a good listener. People tell him
their secrets because they trust him; he knows the Story of Gatsby. If you read
closely, you'll see that Nick has ambivalent feelings toward Gatsby. He both
loves Gatsby and is critical of him. Nick is tolerant, but that toleration has
limits. He hates Gatsby's crass and vulgar materialism, but he also admires the
man for his dream, his "romantic readiness," his "extraordinary
gift for hope."
Nick makes the distinction between Gatsby, whom he loves because of his
dream, and the other characters, who constitute the "foul dust" that
"floated in the wake of his dreams." Nick has such scorn for these
"Eastern" types that he has left the East, returned to the Midwest,
and, for the time being at least, withdraws from his involvement with other
Having told us about his relationships, Nick now introduces us to the world
in which he lived during the summer of 1999: the world of East Egg and West Egg,
Fitzgerald designed The Great Gatsby very carefully, establishing each of the
locations in the novel as a symbol for a particular style of life. West Egg,
where Nick and Gatsby live, is essentially a place for the nouveau riche. There
are two types of people living here: those on the way up the social ladder who
have not the family background or the money to live in fashionable East Egg; and
those like Gatsby, whose vulgar display of wealth and connections with Broadway
or the New York underworld make them unwelcome in the more dignified world of
East Egg. Nick describes his own house as an eyesore, but it is a smaller
eyesore than Gatsby's mansion, which has a tower on one side, "spanking new
under a thin beard of raw ivy." Words like new, thin, and raw describe some
of the reasons Gatsby's house is a monstrosity.
By contrast, East Egg is like a fairyland. Its primary color is white, and
Nick calls its houses "white palaces" that glitter in the sunlight.
The story actually opens in East Egg on the night Nick drives over to have
dinner with Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Since Daisy is his cousin and Tom, a friend
from Yale, Nick has the credentials to visit East Egg. Their house is "a
cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial Mansion" overlooking the bay. And
the owner is obviously proud of his possessions.
Our first view of Tom Buchanan reveals a very powerful man standing in riding
clothes with his legs apart on his front porch. He likes his power, and like the
potentates of Eastern kingdoms, he expects the obedience of his subjects. We are
ushered into the living room with its "frosted wedding cake" ceiling,
its wine-colored rug, and its enormous couch on which are seated two princesses
in white: Jordan Baker and Tom's wife, Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald controls the
whole scene through his use of colors--white and gold mainly--that suggest a
combination of beauty and wealth. Yet underneath this magical surface there is
something wrong. Jordan Baker is bored and discontented. She yawns more than
once in this very first scene. There is something cool and slightly unpleasant
about the atmosphere--something basically disturbing. Tom talks about a book he
has read, The Rise of the Colored Empires by Goddard. It is a piece of pure
Social Darwinism, advocating that the white race preserve its own purity and
beat down the colored races before they rise up and overcome the whites. Daisy,
who seems not to understand what Tom is talking about, teases him about his size
and about the big words in the book. The telephone rings, and Tom is called from
the room to answer it. When Daisy follows him out, Jordan Baker confides to Nick
that the call is from Tom's woman in New York.
The rest of the evening is awkward and painful as Tom and Daisy try
unsuccessfully to forget the intrusion. Daisy's cynicism about life becomes
painfully clear when she says about her daughter's birth: "'I'm glad it's a
girl. And I hope she'll be a fool--that's the best thing a girl can be in this
world, a beautiful little fool.'"
NOTE: Under the veneer of the white world, there is hollowness. Nick has said
at the very beginning that "Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is
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." Even in this opening chapter, we are getting hints that
Tom and Daisy are part of this foul dust.
In Nick's eyes, Tom and Daisy belong to "a rather distinguished secret
society," whose members have powers the outside world can neither
understand nor control. Nick finds both of them smug and insincere.
The evening ends early, around ten o'clock. Jordan Baker, a competitive
golfer, wants to go to bed since she's playing in a tournament the next day.
Before Nick leaves for West Egg, Tom and Daisy hint that they would welcome his
attention to Miss Baker during the summer.
Nick arrives home, and (in the final paragraph of the chapter) gets his first
glimpse of Gatsby. Gatsby is standing on the lawn, stretching out "his arms
toward the dark water in a curious way." Nick, from his own house, believes
that he can see Gatsby trembling. As Nick looks out at the water, he can see
"...nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might
have been the end of a dock."
NOTE: THE GREEN LIGHT AS SYMBOL This is the first use of one of the novel's
central symbols, the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. What Fitzgerald
seems to be doing is merely introducing a symbol that will gain in meaning as
the story progresses. At this point, we don't even know that the light is on
Daisy's dock, and we have no reason to associate Gatsby with Daisy. What we do
know--and this is very important--is that Nick admires Gatsby because of his
dream and this dream is somehow associated with the green light. The color green
is a traditional symbol of spring and hope and youth. As long as Gatsby gazes at
the green light, his dream lives.
THE GREAT GATSBY: CHAPTER II
The opening description of the valley of ashes, watched over by the brooding
eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, has been analyzed again and again. Fitzgerald's
friend and editor, Maxwell Perkins, wrote to Scott on November 20, 1924:
"In the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg various readers will see different
significances; but their presence gives a superb touch to the whole thing: great
unblinking eyes, expressionless, looking down upon the human scene. It's
magnificent." Later in the same letter Perkins concludes, "...with the
help of T. J. Eckleburg... you have imported a sort of sense of eternity."
How should you approach this famous symbol? Remember, a wide variety of
interpretations have been made and defended over the years.
It's best to begin by placing Eckleburg in his geographical context: the
valley of ashes, located about halfway between West Egg and New York City. The
valley of ashes is the home of George and Myrtle Wilson, whom we'll meet later
on in this chapter. The valley is also a very important part of what we might
call the moral geography of the novel. Values are associated with places. In
Chapter I we were introduced to East and West Egg, the homes of the very rich,
the nouveau riche, and the middle class. The valley of ashes is the home of the
poor, the victims of those who live in either New York or the Eggs. M en,
described by Fitzgerald as "ash-gray," move through the landscape
"dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air."
Apparently the city's ashes are dumped in the valley, and the men who work
here have the job of shoveling up these ashes with "leaden spades."
NOTE: On a more symbolic level, these men are inhabitants of what might be
called Fitzgerald's wasteland. T. S. Eliot's famous poem "The Waste
Land" had been published in 1922, and Fitzgerald had read it with great
interest. There is no doubt that he had Eliot's poem in mind when he described
the valley of ashes. Eliot's wasteland--arid, desertlike--contains figures who
go through the motions of life with no spiritual center. Eliot's imagery seemed
to express the anxiety, frustration, and empt iness of a post-war generation cut
off from spiritual values by the shock of the First World War.
Read the following passage carefully:
The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic--their retinas are
one yard high. They look out of no face, bu t, instead, from a pair of enormous
yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose. Evidently some wild wag
of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens,
and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot t hem and moved
away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain,
brood on over the solemn dumping ground.
Some readers interpret this passage as a description of the god of the modern
world--the god of the wasteland. Keep this d escription in mind in Chapter VIII
when the crazed and jealous Wilson looks at the giant eyes and says, "God
sees everything." For now, early in Chapter II, it is still too early to
make any kind of direct correlation between the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg and the
eyes of God. At this point we have only hints: the size of the eyes, the missing
face, the departure of the original creator of the sign, all of which transform
the eyes into something mythic, something suggesting a superior being who no
longer cares, who is no longer involved with the petty lives of the pathetic
creatures below. The eyes "brood on over the solemn dumping ground,"
offering no help or solace to its inhabitants. The oculist has forgotten the
eyes which he left behind, just as God has for gotten the inhabitants of the
valley of ashes. Many interpretations are possible; you'll want to think about
them as the novel develops.
The action of the second chapter begins as Tom Buchanan brings Nick to George
B. Wilson's garage. Both the garage and t he all-night restaurant of the Greek
Michaelis border the valley of ashes. Wilson's wife, Myrtle, is Tom's mistress.
Pay close attention to these first descriptions of Wilson and his wife, and
you'll learn a lot about who they are and what they stand for. Wilson is
described as "a blond, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome."
He is the embodiment of the valley of ashes: dead inside, a living ghost. The
key words are spiritless and anaemic. He has no energy and no faith. He believes
somehow that do i ng business with Tom will help him; but he understands neither
the power nor the cruelty of the man he is dealing with. Myrtle Wilson is a
sensuous woman in her middle thirties who has the energy her husband lacks.
"There was an immediate perceptible vita lity about her," says Nick.
The fire inside her has drawn her to Tom Buchanan as a lover who can take her
away from the gray and empty prison of the valley of ashes.
Note that Tom takes Myrtle to New York, the fourth major location in the
moral geography o f the novel. If the valley of ashes is the home of
death-in-life--the place where the spiritless and downtrodden live--New York is
the center of the corruption, or, more appropriately, the place where wealth,
corruption, and self-gratification openly meet . Myrtle must ride into New York
on the train in a separate car in deference to the "East Eggers." Why?
Because it is important to keep up a facade of respectability. In New York,
however, where anything is permitted, Tom can flaunt his relationship with M
The group goes to the apartment in Morningside Heights that Tom Buchanan has
rented for his liaisons with Myrtle. What goes on there and how Nick reacts to
what goes on tell us something very important about how Fitzgerald wants us to
view New York.
The party consists of Nick, Tom, Myrtle, Myrtle's sister Catherine, and a
couple named McKee who live downstairs. Nick is really more of an observer than
a participant. He tells us that he has been drunk just twice in his life, and
the second time was th at afternoon. Whether he drinks in order to lose his
self-control and join the others or simply to escape this disordered world is
something you'll have to decide for yourself. Perhaps both interpretations are
correct. In any case, all the guests at the p a rty seem to have something
unnatural or wrong with them. Catherine, the sister, has "a solid, sticky
bob of red hair, and a complexion powdered milky white. Her eyebrows had been
plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle." Mr. McKee is a
pale , feminine man who has just shaved and left a spot of lather on his cheek.
His wife is "shrill, languid, handsome and horrible." Myrtle Wilson
becomes more and more "violently affected moment by moment." The
conversation is absurd and pretentious; everyone tries to impress each other,
and lies flow as freely as the liquor.
Nick tries to leave, part of him wants to be somewhere else, but part of
him--that part that makes him the narrator of this novel--is fascinated by
"the inexhaustible variety of life." He is both repelled and attracted
toward these people. The appearance of Myrtle Wilson's new puppy, "groaning
faintly," is like the entire scene, both funny and sad. Then a crisis
erupts. Myrtle crudely insists that she can say, "Daisy!" any time she
wants, and Tom Buchanan, making a short deft movement, breaks her nose with his
open hand. So this is what happens to those who become entangled with the
Buchanans! Tom, we see, is strong and brutal and absolutely selfish. He is
perfectly happy to enjoy Myrtle i n bed, but at other times she must know when
to keep her place. For challenging the purity of his Daisy, she is punished.
Later, in Chapter VII during the second New York party, we'll see what happens
when Gatsby tries to cross Tom Buchanan.
In two chapter s, Fitzgerald has shown us two different symbolic landscapes:
one, a dinner party in East Egg with Daisy, Jordan, Tom and Nick; the other, a
drunken brawl in New York with Tom, Nick, Myrtle, Catherine and the McKees. The
contrast between the two parties t ells us much about these two worlds and about
the people who inhabit them. Now to complete his introduction to the world of
the novel, Fitzgerald gives us in Chapter III a third party--at the West Egg
Home of Jay Gatsby.
THE GREAT GATSBY: CHAPTER III
Though the novel is called The Great Gatsby, we have neither seen Gatsby
(except for a glimpse of him at the end of Chapter I) nor been given any idea of
why he should be called "Great." Fitzgerald's method is to introduce
Gatsby to us gradually, as a kind of mystery to be solved. We see Gatsby first
through the eyes of others. Catherine Wilson told Nick (in Chapter II) that she
had heard that Gatsby was a nephew or a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm's. Lucille, a
friend of Jordan Baker, thinks that Gatsby w a s a German spy during the war. A
man sitting nearby agrees with her. The world is full of rumors about Gatsby
because no one really knows who he is, where his money comes from, and why he
gives these magnificent parties every weekend. Our job as readers i s to
separate fact from rumor and to discover, with Nick, who Gatsby really is and
why he behaves the way he does. Our job will be to probe behind the vulgar,
violent surface of his world to reveal the man beneath. We are able to do
that--as in real life-- only gradually, for it is never possible to know someone
all at once. The process begins in Chapter III with a portrait of the public
Gatsby, seen through the eyes of his guests. It's not until Chapter IV that
we'll begin to discover the man beneath.
Brigh tness, confusion, magnificence, daring, vulgarity, excess,
excitement--these are the words that describe Gatsby's parties. They also
describe one side of life in America during the 1920s, in the years before the
Great Depression. Gatsby has a Rolls, a sta t ion wagon, two motor boats,
aquaplanes, a swimming pool, and a real beach. People come to his parties and
use these things. Everything is real. Crates of oranges and lemons are delivered
to his door. Beneath canvas tents in the garden are buffet tables gl i ttering
with spiced hams and turkeys "bewitched to a dark gold." Gatsby's bar
is stocked with gin, liquors, and "cordials so long forgotten that most of
his female guests were too young to know one from another." The world of
Gatsby's parties has an aura o f magic about it--not the magic of East Egg, with
its fairytale imagery of princesses in ivory towers, but the magic of the
amusement park, with the promise of fast rides and expensive prizes. Gatsby's
world is a world of infinite hope and possibility. Yo ung girls with laughter
like gold wait for the right man. Middle-aged women, tired of their husbands,
search for lovers. And ambitious men search for the right contact that will
bring them instant fame and fortune.
Nobody knows the host. Nick is "one of th e few guests who had actually
been invited." Fitzgerald builds suspense by making us wonder when we'll
meet Gatsby and what he'll be like when we do. Nick runs into Jordan Baker and
the twins, who talk about Gatsby, but have only false information about h im.
Nick and Jordan go off in search of Gatsby, but discover Owl Eyes instead.
NOTE: OWL EYES Owl Eyes is "a stout middle-aged man, with enormous
owl-eyed spectacles." He is overwhelmed by the fact that Gatsby's Gothic
library is stocked not with the fake , cardboard backs of hooks, but with the
works themselves. He knows that Gatsby has never read the books, however,
because the pages have never been cut. "'This fella's a regular Belasco,'"
Owl Eves tells Nick and Jordan. "'It's a triumph.... Knew when to stop,
too--didn't cut the pages.'"
The reference to David Belasco, the great playwright-producer-director of
realistic plays, is not accidental. Owl Eyes, as Nick refers to him, is the
first to realize the essentially theatrical quality of Gatsby's world. Just as
Belasco was a technician who wanted to get everything right, so Gatsby spares no
expense to build the material world necessary to fulfill his dream. He has
created an extraordinary stage set complete with real books. Owl Eyes, as his
name suggest s, is one of the few to really see and, in some way, understand
Nick and Jordan go back outside to watch the entertainment at midnight. Even
the moon cooperates, floating over Long Island sound like the cardboard moon on
a stage set. In a scene that Nick calls "significant, elemental,
profound," Gatsby appears:
"I'm Gatsby," he said suddenly.
"What!" I exclaimed. "Oh, I be your pardon."
"I thought you knew, old sport. I'm afraid I'm not a very good
He smiled understandingly--much more tha n understandingly. It was one of
those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come
across four or five times in life. It faced--or seemed to face--the whole
external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible
prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be
understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and
assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you
hoped to conv ey. Precisely at that point it vanished--and I was looking at an
elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of
speech just missed being absurd.
Gatsby is a series of paradoxes. He is both a "roughneck" and one
who practic es "elaborate formality in speech." He calls people
"old sport," apparently a habit picked up at Oxford, though at this
point we're still uncertain whether Oxford is just part of the myth. Has he
really gone to Oxford? We, like Jordan Baker, may not belie v e it. But then why
is he picking his words with care? And how did he earn the money to give these
parties? As Nick points out: people don't just "drift cooly out of nowhere
and buy a palace on Long Island Sound." A millionaire who gives parties
conjures u p an image of a "florid and corpulent person in his middle
years." But Gatsby is none of these.
Gatsby is--quite simply--not like anyone else in the world of the novel.
Young, handsome, excessively polite, he seems not to belong to the world he has
created . His smile radiates an inner warmth that his guests don't have. Nick
alone senses it. "Anyway, he gives large parties," says Jordan Baker,
because the party, not Gatsby, is what interests her. But now Nick watches
Gatsby as much as he watches the party. H e notices Gatsby standing "alone
on the steps and looking from one group to another with approving eyes."
Here Gatsby is like a director admiring his play or a religious leader blessing
his disciples. He alone is not drinking. As the party grows more fren zied, he
becomes increasingly separate from it. He is untouched by the corruption of the
The party goes on. People become more drunk and irritable. Husbands and wives
fight over whether to stay or leave. Some wives are lifted, kicking into their
car s. Gatsby goes to answer a telephone call from Philadelphia at 2 A.M. As
Nick leaves to walk home, he encounters Owl Eves, who is unable to get his car
out of the ditch. Neither Owl Eyes nor the car's driver--"a pale, dangling
individual"--seems to be abl e to manage. Nick returns to his own home,
leaving the guests to struggle with their problem.
Nick shifts the focus of the chapter from Gatsby back to himself. He wants us
to know that he's done more with his summer than go to parties. To correct that
fals e impression, he tells us how he usually occupies his time. As he tells us
about his work, his walks through New York City, and his fascination for women,
he gives us a sense that, in some way he is as hollow as the characters he
describes. He seems to ne e d adventure as an escape from loneliness, and
perhaps that is what draws him to Jordan Baker. He is also sexually attracted to
her. He became involved with Jordan around midsummer, he tells us, after a short
affair with a girl from Jersey City. He knows t hat Jordan is dishonest--she
cheated in her first golf tournament by moving her ball to improve her lie.
Whatever Nick's reason for being with her, we're made to feel that somehow
Jordan is not the kind of woman Nick ought to like.
At the end of the chapte r Nick says, "Every one suspects himself of at
least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine; I am one of the few honest
people that I have ever known." This is one of the most talked about lines
in the novel, and it is a hard one to interpret, comi n g as it does right after
Nick's statement that "dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame
deeply." Is Nick using a double standard, arguing that it's all right for
women to be dishonest because they can't help it? How do we reconcile our view
of Ni c k as a reliable and sympathetic narrator when he allows himself to get
involved with such a morally unattractive woman? These are questions raised by
the troubling last pages of this chapter--questions that are answered in a
variety of ways by different r eaders. If you want to question Nick's judgment,
you can certainly find evidence to support that point of view. Yet most readers
have not been too hard on Nick for his relationship with Jordan. The question is
very much an open one.
THE GREAT GATSBY: CHAPTER IV
One of the extraordinary things about The Great Gatsby is that the action of
the novel (call it the plot, if you want) doesn't start until Chapter IV. We
have had three parties, and we have been introduced to all the major characters.
Fina lly, we are allowed to find out why they have been brought together and
what the nature of the story is in which they all share. But before Fitzgerald
begins that story, he has one more set of details to give us: a list of the
people who came to Gatsby's parties during the summer of 1922.
NOTE: THE GUESTS AT GATSBY'S PARTIES Why does Fitzgerald give us a list of
guests nearly three pages long? Perhaps he wants to lend an air of reality to
the parties by listing the guests as they would appear in a newspap er report.
The names seem to come from social registers, movie magazines, businessmen's
directories, and club rosters. Names, as you know, can reveal many things about
a person, such as his religion, his ethnic background, and his social class.
Judging by Fitzgerald's list, just about every type of person is represented at
Gatsby's parties. Names like Flink, Hammerhead, Beluga, Muldoon, Gulick,
Fishguard, and Snell suggest humorously that many of these people have no
backgrounds at all but belong to a vast vulgar crowd of self-made men, all
hungering for success. Fitzgerald's long list of names also makes fun of a
technique used in epics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. In these heroic
poems, we are given lists of warriors. In The Great Gatsby we are give n lists
of guests at parties. Our world of knights and ladies has become much smaller
and much less noble.
The story continues with Gatsby driving Nick to New York for lunch. Gatsby
has decided to use this trip to tell Nick something about himself. Our fir st
reaction, like Nick's, is one of disbelief. Gatsby's words are so full of lies
that it's difficult to know whether anything he says is true. He tells Nick that
he's the son of wealthy people in the Midwest, "all dead now." He
claims to have been educat e d at Oxford. When Nick asks him where in the
Midwest he's from, Gatsby answers, "San Francisco." The lie is so
blatant that we don't know what to make of it. Neither does Nick. Gatsby
continues to describe his life as that of a "young rajah in all the cap i
tals of Europe," collecting jewels, hunting for big game. Then he speaks of
his war experience, his heroism, and the medals he was awarded by various
European governments, "even Montenegro." At this point, when Nick is
most incredulous, Gatsby produces fr o m his pocket his medal from Montenegro
and a picture of himself with cricket bat standing in the quad at one of the
colleges at Oxford. There is thus a bizarre mixture of truth and fantasy in
Gatsby's self-description, and we are forced both to hold him i n awe and to
reserve final judgment on him until we can find out more. The car carrying Nick
and Gatsby to New York seems to fly--gliding through the valley of ashes,
roaring through Astoria. A policeman stops them for speeding, but apologizes to
Gatsby as soon as Gatsby shows him a white card. As the car enters New York,
Nick is struck anew by the appropriateness of that city as a place for Gatsby,
to do business. The suspense over Gatsby's true identity and purpose is
sustained throughout the chapter, fir st at lunch, and then in the tea scene
with Jordan Baker.
NOTE: MEYER WOLFSHEIM At lunch we are introduced to the business side of
Gatsby in the person of Meyer Wolfsheim. Wolfsheim is modeled on the real-life
figure of Arnold Rothstein, the man who helpe d fix the 1919 World Series.
Through Wolfsheim, "a small flat-nosed Jew," we learn about Gatsby's
connections with a shady underworld, and we begin to understand for the first
time where Gatsby's money comes from. The discovery of Gatsby's unsavory busine
ss dealings may taint his dreams for you and make you question his
"greatness." But you may also find that it lends him an air of mystery
Wolfsheim is sentimental about friends but not about business--something we
will learn again at the end o f the novel. He mistakes Nick for one of Gatsby's
business friends and asks him if he's looking for a "gonnegtion." But
when he finds out that Nick is merely a personal friend, he changes the subject.
Wolfsheim has neither education nor class. When Gatsby leaves the room for a
phone call (Gatsby is always leaving rooms for important and mysterious phone
calls), Wolfsheim tells Nick that Gatsby has gone to "Oggsford College in
England." Oxford, as a point of fact, is a university; there is no Oxford
College . Wolfsheim is so uncultured that he's impressed with Gatsby's breeding
and considers Gatsby "the kind of man you'd like to take home and introduce
to your mother and sister." He's so bad at judging other people that he
describes Gatsby as someone who woul d never so much as look at another man's
wife. Nothing says more about Wolfsheim's boorishness and his ruthless battle
for money and power than the fact that he wears cuff links made of human molars.
The scene is full of wonderful ironic touches such as th is, which Nick simply
relates without commenting on.
From Jordan Baker, Nick learns about Gatsby and Daisy. She begins as though
she were telling a fairytale. And indeed it is. The princess in this case is
Daisy Fay, an eighteen-year-old beauty, the most p opular girl in Louisville,
Kentucky. All the officers from nearby Camp Taylor are competing for the honor
of her company. On this particular day, she is sitting in her white dress in her
white roadster (princesses must wear white) with a young lieutenant w ho is
speaking to her with the kind of romantic intensity that princesses adore. His
name is Jay Gatsby. Daisy apparently loves him as much as he adores her, for
she's ready to go to New York to say good-bye to him when he's sent overseas.
And even though she decides to marry Tom Buchanan, she drinks herself into a
state of near stupor on the night before her wedding after having received a
letter from Gatsby.
Jordan goes on to describe the three years of marriage: Daisy's devotion to
Tom and Tom's affairs with a chambermaid in a Santa Barbara hotel. Since we
already know that Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, it doesn't
surprise us that Tom has been unfaithful before. What may surprise us is that
Daisy seems to have been faithful. Is it because o f Gatsby? Does she still love
him? Has she thought about him during the five years between their time together
in Louisville and the day that she hears his name on Jordan Baker's lips? As
Jordan Baker describes it, Daisy has not given Gatsby a thought unt il the
mention of his name jarred her memory. It's hard to say.
In the case of Gatsby, it's not hard to say at all. As Jordan explains,
"'Gatsby bought that house so that Daisy would be just across the
bay.'" And Nick responds in a moment of powerful illum ination: "Then
it had not been merely the stars to which he had aspired on that June night. He
came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless
What Nick realizes suddenly is that Gatsby's house and his lavish life-style
ar e not an ostentatious display of wealth, but a necessary means to the
fulfillment of his dream. Until now Gatsby was a mystery, misunderstood by many,
used by others, reviled as a criminal by still others. Now the truth is
unveiled, and we can understand his desperate yearning for Daisy, and for
everything--youth, love, and so on--that is symbolized by the green light at the
end of dock.
Jordan tells Nick that Gatsby had taken her aside at one of his parties and
had asked her to ask Nick to ask Daisy to Nick's house for a meeting. This
indirection was deliberate, for Gatsby was terrified of seeing Daisy again.
Though Gatsby loves Daisy with an almost unbearable intensity, he doesn't
want to offend her or Tom. He's afraid to ask Nick directly, so he uses Jo rdan
as a go-between. Afraid, also, that Daisy will refuse to come to see him, Gatsby
arranges for Nick to invite Daisy for tea and makes sure Daisy doesn't know
he'll be there, too. Gatsby's elaborate plans show us just how long he has
thought about this moment. His plans also reveal the heart of an innocent
romantic, a novice at love, who is obviously unused to dealing with women or
with situations such as this. We are ready for the central chapter, where the
actual meeting takes place.
THE GREAT GATSBY: CHAPTER V
Nick arrives in West Egg to find all the lights in Gatsby's house blazing and
Gatsby himself walking toward him across the lawn. Gatsby invites Nick to go to
Coney Island. When Nick turns him down, Gatsby suggests a swim in the pool,
which he hasn't used all summer. He never does use the pool until the very last
day of his life--but that's getting ahead of ourselves.
Nick agrees to invite Daisy over. Gatsby suggests waiting a few days so that
he can get Nick's grass cut. Then he offer s Nick some money, not a free
handout, but a "little business on the side." Here Nick's Midwestern
sense of morality helps him make a decision, and he turns Gatsby down.
The day arrives, and it is raining. (Rain in novels is not usually
accidental. Notice , as you read this chapter, how the rain stops conveniently
at just the right moment.) Gatsby is so nervous that he can hardly function. He
has not slept. He is as pale as a high school boy on his first date. Life with
Daisy in Louisville had been so wond erful five years before; now he is
terrified that even should Daisy agree to renew their relationship, it won't be
Daisy arrives looking absolutely beautiful in a three-cornered lavender hat,
"with a bright, ecstatic smile." She is dying to know why Nick has
invited her over. Nick takes Daisy inside, thinking that Gatsby is waiting for
her, but the living room is empty. Gatsby, either unable to face the encounter
or anxious to pretend that he has just dropped over, has gone out into the rain
and w alked around the house. Now he knocks on the front door. Nick opens it and
sees Gatsby, "pale as death," standing in a puddle of water. Both his
paleness and the rain reinforce our sense of his fear, his terrible insecurity,
and his gloom. Gatsby goes int o the living room, leaving Nick in the hall with
us to imagine what the first moment must have been like. Apparently it was
dreadful, because when Nick does come in the room he finds Gatsby in a state of
nerves. Gatsby knocks over Nick's clock (some reader s see this as a symbol of
his attempt to stop time) and then catches it. The scene has an air of desperate
comedy about it; it's funny and not funny at the same time. The characters try
to get through tea, and they try to make conversation. When Nick excus es
himself, Gatsby rushes into the hall after him, whispering, "This is a
Nick sends Gatsby back and goes off by himself for half an hour. When Nick
returns, the rain has stopped, the sun is out, and Daisy and Gatsby are
radiantly happy. Fitzgerald's choice of words to describe
Gatsby--"glowed," "new well-being," "radiated,"
"exultation"--suggest that Gatsby has come alive again. He has
rediscovered his dream. He walks Daisy and Nick over to his house and shows them
NOTE : DAISY AND GATSBY'S SHIRTS Suddenly in this scene the meaning of the
novel's epigraph becomes clear: the four-line poem of Thomas Park d'Invilliers
that Fitzgerald quotes on the title page describes exactly what Gatsby has done.
He has symbolically worn the gold hat; he has bounced high, accumulating
possessions for this moment, so that when Daisy sees them she will cry out, like
the lover in the poem, "I must have you." And Daisy does. She admires
the house, the gardens, the gigantic rooms, the colors o f pink and lavender,
the sunken baths. The princess is astounded. Gatsby overwhelms her with these
tangible signs of his affection and when he takes his shirts, ordered from
England, out of his cabinet and throws them on the bed, she bends her head into
th e shirts and begins to cry. "They're such beautiful shirts," she
sobs. "It makes me sad because I've never seen such beautiful shirts
It seems silly of course to cry over shirts. But it is not the shirts
themselves that overwhelm her but what they symbolize: Gatsby's extraordinary
dedication to his dream. Wouldn't you be moved to tears to find yourself the
object of so much adoration?
In the next scene Gatsby tells Daisy about how he has watched the green light
that burns at the end of her dock. F or so long that light has been a symbol of
his dream--of something he has wanted more than life itself. Gazing at it that
night when Nick first saw him, and throughout the summer, Gatsby must have
believed that if only he could have Daisy he would be happ y for ever. Now
suddenly he has her, the light is just a light again, and Nick wonders if this
person could ever be as wonderful or as magical as Gatsby's idea of her. No
matter what we think of Gatsby or of his dream, we are drawn to him by the sad
knowle dge that dreams themselves are often--perhaps always--more beautiful than
Nick realizes this, too, when he says: "There must have been moments
even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams--not through her own
fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond
her, beyond everything."
Nick leaves the couple as dusk comes and the lights come on in West Egg.
Klipspringer, "the boarder," is summoned from his room to play the
piano. As he plays "Ain't We Got Fun?"--one of the most popular songs
of the day--we sense a strange irony. What the song is describing is terribly
different from what Gatsby and Daisy have at that moment. What they have is so
much more than fun: it's beautiful, more intense, and finally more painful.
There is both a joy and sadness in a love as great as theirs. Klipspringer plays
on, unaware of their feelings. Because Nick is aware, he is wise to leave them
THE GREAT GATSBY: CHAPTER VI
This chapter is as importa nt for what it doesn't do as for what it does. In
a letter to his friend Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald confessed about The Great
Gatsby: "The worst fault in it, I think, is a BIG FAULT: I gave no account
(and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotiona l relations between
Gatsby and Daisy from the time of their reunion to the catastrophe." Now
since the reunion takes place in Chapter V and the catastrophe, in Chapter VII,
the logical place for this account is Chapter VI. Why doesn't it occur?
One reason is that the novel is told in the first person by Nick, and he can
describe only what he sees or what he is told by others. What happens between
Gatsby and Daisy is private; Nick would have no knowledge of it.
Another reason might be that Fitzgerald wants to emphasize not the actual
relationship between Gatsby and Daisy, but Gatsby's dream, and therefore he
decided to focus on the past rather than the present. That may explain why in
Chapter VI Fitzgerald tells the story of Gatsby's life before he met Dais y--not
all of it, but enough for us to begin to understand him.
He was born James Gatz, the son of a North Dakota farmer. He had been sent to
St. Olaf College, a small Lutheran school in Minnesota, but had left after two
weeks, humiliated by the janitor's job he had been given to pay for his room and
board. Having worked in the summer as a clam digger and salmon fisher on Lake
Superior, he returned to find a job. It was a decision that changed his life. On
Little Girl Bay one day he saw the yacht of copper millionaire Dan Cody in
danger of being broken up by a storm, and rowed out to warn him. Cody was
impressed by this boy, who called himself Jay Gatsby, and took him on as
steward, mate, and later as skipper and personal secretary. In this way, Jay
Gatsby was born.
Why did he change his name? In one of the most difficult and important
passages in the novel Nick tells us:
The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his
Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God--a phrase whi ch, if it
means anything, means just that--and he must be about His Father's business, the
service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort
of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to
this conception he was faithful to the end.
NOTE: HIS PLATONIC CONCEPTION OF HIMSELF As a boy Gatsby (still Gatz) had
been a dreamer, and as he grew older, his dreams became more vivid. He dreamed,
as many children do, of a bright, gaudy world where all his fa ntasies would be
fulfilled. On the day that he saved Dan Cody's yacht, he must have seen an
embodiment of everything he wanted. In a strange sort of way Gatsby never
believed that he was just James Gatz. He had an idea of what he wanted to be.
And just as Plato believed that our material bodies are not our real selves, but
only physical images of our ideal or perfect selves. Gatsby had an image of
himself, to which he gave the name Gatsby. From the day that he met Dan Cody he
decided to dedicate his life t o the development of the idea of himself that
existed in his head. And just as Jesus left his family to be about his heavenly
Father's business, so Gatsby left his earthly parents to enter the service of
his God--a "vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty"-- in this case
symbolized by millionaire Dan Cody. Gatsby wanted of course not only to serve
Cody but to be Dan Cody--one of those remarkable self-made men to come along in
America between the 1890s and the years before World War I.
Gatsby, sails with Cody t o the West Indies and the Barbary Coast. He learns
to avoid alcohol when he sees what it does to the older man, and he learns how
wonderful the "good life" can be. He decides to devote himself to the
pursuit of this life, but Cody dies and his mistress El la Kaye uses some legal
device to steal Gatsby's share of the inheritance. Young Gatsby is once again
left penniless. But he has had his "education," and he knows what he
wants to be.
At this point Nick's narrative of Gatsby's youth breaks off (notice how we
get the story of Gatsby's past in bits and pieces), and we return to the
present. It is later in the summer and Nick hasn't seen Gatsby for several
weeks. He drops by Gatsby's house and finds Tom Buchanan there. It's the first
time these two have been t ogether, and the tension between them, though not as
great as it will become, is already strong. Tom has been out riding with a Mr.
and Mrs. Sloane. Gatsby invites them to stay for dinner. Mrs. Sloane, who is
giving a dinner party herself, invites Nick an d Gatsby to join them. Nick
politely refuses, but Gatsby accepts--obviously a breach of etiquette, because
the invitation was meant as a polite gesture, not as a real offer. Gatsby lacks
the social grace to know this; he also wants to be with Daisy. Tom is offended
by Gatsby's poor taste. He also doesn't like the idea that Daisy has been coming
to Gatsby's house without him. "Women run around too much these days to
suit me," he says. "They meet all kinds of crazy fish." Once
again we see Tom's double standa rd (he can do anything he wants) and the
snobbery of the East Eggers, who turn their noses up at someone as unrefined as
Even though he disapproves of Gatsby, Tom agrees to visit Gatsby's house the
following Saturday night rather than let Daisy go there alone. The rest of
Chapter VI describes a second evening at Gatsby's, but this time seen through
Daisy's eyes; and the mood is clearly very different from that of the party
described in Chapter III.
The people Nick enjoyed only two weeks before now seem "septic" to
him. The word septic is very strong; it means "putrid" or
"rotten." Except for the time she spends alone with Gatsby sitting on
Nick's steps, Daisy doesn't have a good time either. The guests seem ill
humored, out of control, false. The c haracters--Doctor Civet, Miss Baedeker, an
unnamed movie star and her director, a small producer with a blue nose--all seem
part of a phony stage play. Nick compares them to the stars who are here one
season, gone the next.
Tom and Daisy argue. Tom is beco ming more and more suspicious about who
Gatsby is and where he gets his money. Gatsby's nothing more than a big
bootlegger, he tells Daisy--which is true. Daisy defends Gatsby with a lie, yet
she captures the essence of Gatsby more honestly than Tom's mer ciless truth.
The chapter ends with a very important scene between Gatsby and Nick after
Tom and Daisy have left. Gatsby feels sad because Daisy didn't have a good time,
but his sadness goes deeper than that. What really upsets him is that he can't
turn ba ck time. "I wouldn't ask too much of her," Nick says.
"You can't repeat the past." "Can't repeat the past?" Gatsby
cries out in desperation. "Why of course you can!" What Gatsby wants
is to obliterate the five years since he last saw Daisy. He wants life t o be as
wonderful and as beautiful as he believed it could be. Like all of us, he wants
to ignore the fact that life is a process of change, and that time never stands
still. If only Daisy would tell Tom, "I never loved you!" If only he
could take Daisy b a ck to Louisville, marry her, and begin their lives together
as though there had been no Tom, no daughter. He must win her to satisfy his own
Platonic image of himself, the ideal self which he associates with his love for
Daisy in Louisville in the autumn of 1917.
NOTE: INCARNATION Fitzgerald uses the word incarnation to make us understand
the meaning of that moment in Louisville. Incarnation means made into flesh, as
in the Christian notion that God became flesh in Jesus Christ. In Louisville on
the autum n night, Gatsby's dream became incarnated in Daisy. Kissing her for
the first time so overpowered him that he knew he must give up everything for
her. Gatsby at that moment "wed his unutterable visions to her perishable
breath." Because he was only human, he had narrowed his dream and embodied
it in something human, something tangible.
The tragedy of Jay Gatsby is his choice of Daisy as the person in whom to
embody his dream. This tragedy, as we saw in "The Author and His
Times," was not unlike Fitzgerald' s own when he embodied his dream in
Zelda. Because of the impossibility of their dreams and the nature of the women
in whom they vested them, both Gatsby and Scott Fitzgerald were doomed to tragic
failure. But that may be why we love them--whether we shou ld or not.
THE GREAT GATSBY: CHAPTER VII
Chapter VII joins all the major characters and geographical locations of the
novel together in a final catastrophe. In terms of the action, it is the most
important chapter in the novel.
Now that Gatsby has won Daisy, he has called off his parties, fired his
servants, and replaced them with friends of Meyer Wolfsheim. His dealings with
Wolfsheim reinforce our fears about what he is doing to make his money. His
retreat from a glittering nightlife shows us how far his obsession with Daisy
has gone. He has dismissed his servants because Daisy has been coming to his
house in the afternoons, and he doesn't want anyone around who will gossip. The
only reason he gave parties was in the wild hope that Daisy, woul d come--and
now she is his.
NOTE: THE WEATHER Fitzgerald carefully orchestrates the weather throughout
the novel. The showdown between Tom and Gatsby, for instance, takes place on the
hottest day of the summer. The late August heat is oppressive. There is nothing
comforting about nature in this modern wasteland; the sun is more a burden than
a nourisher of life.
On the appointed day, Nick arrives for lunch at Tom and Daisy's house. Gatsby
is there; so is Jordan Baker. All the major figures are together if this were
the final scene in a Shakespearean tragedy. The nurse brings in the Buchanans'
daughter. Gatsby is stunned; he had never quite believed the child existed until
this moment. Drinks are served, and everyone tries to be well mannered, avoiding
the issue at hand. But Daisy and Gatsby cannot conceal their love for one
another, and Tom sees it.
Daisy has suggested that they go to New York for the afternoon, and Tom now
takes her up on it. Notice that they choose New York for the confrontation to
come- -the same setting that Fitzgerald used for the drunken party in Chapter
II. There are close parallels between the two parties, not only in the way the
characters behave at them, but in the fact that they have to pass through the
valley of ashes to get the re.
Jordan, Tom, and Nick ride together in Gatsby's car and stop at Wilson's
garage to buy gas. Daisy and Gatsby drive by in Tom's blue coupe, unnoticed by
Myrtle Wilson. What Myrtle does notice from her upstairs window is her lover Tom
Buchanan, sitting i n the yellow Rolls Royce with Jordan. Jordan she takes for
The whole scene at Wilson's garage has an eerie, mythic quality, as though it
were set in a world of its own. Wilson, described literally as
"green," has discovered that his wife has been h aving an affair, but
he doesn't know with whom. Myrtle thinks her husband knows it's, Tom and
watches, "terrified," from the window. Nick realizes that Wilson and
Tom are in identical positions--both having just learned that their wives are
unfaithful. Wi l son wants to take Myrtle away--out West--and Tom begins to feel
his whole world collapsing. Over all this, the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg
"kept their vigil." The eyes seem to mock these characters' feeble
attempts to hide from the truth. The eyes alone s eem to see the corruption and
the decadence beneath the gorgeous facade.
The yellow Rolls catches up with the blue coupe, and they decide to engage a
suite at the Plaza Hotel. It's four o'clock in the afternoon and the heat is
overwhelming. Tom, his ego ba ttered by the day's events, mocks Gatsby for
calling people "old sport," insinuating that Gatsby never went to
Oxford. Gatsby, in a response that delights Nick, simply tells the truth. He
attended Oxford for five months after the war through an opportunit y offered to
some of the officers. Unwilling to let Gatsby get the upper hand, Tom asks him
point blank what his intentions are towards Daisy and starts attacking Gatsby
about his parties and his life-style. Gatsby, pushed into a corner, responds,
"'Your w ife doesn't love you. She's never loved you. She loves me.'"
The two men go after each other, begging Daisy to support them. Gatsby wants
Daisy to say she never loved Tom, never in all the years of their marriage. It
is this effort to deny the past--to sha pe the world according to his
dream--that brings about Gatsby's downfall. Tom admits he has been less than an
ideal husband, but points out "'Why--there're things between Daisy and me
that you'll never know, things that neither of us can ever forget.'" Da i
sy has tried up to this point to support Gatsby, but now she finds herself
turning to Tom. Now that Gatsby's dream has been pierced, Tom finds it easy to
tear it to pieces. He has done some investigating of Gatsby's activities and has
evidence about his " d rug-store" fronts for bootlegging operations.
With each thrust, Gatsby's parries become weaker and weaker, and we can feel
Daisy slipping slowly but quietly back into the protective camp of her husband.
A romantic dream is worth less to her than the secur i ty of a husband,
unfaithful though he may be. For Gatsby there is nothing left but "the dead
dream," which sustains him like a ghostly spirit that fights on after the
body is dead. The party is over. Tom has won. He is confident enough to send
Gatsby and Daisy home together in Gatsby's yellow car; Gatsby can do no more
harm to him. When they leave, Nick realizes that today is his thirtieth
NOTE: NICK'S THIRTIETH BIRTHDAY Nick's birthday, like the green light and the
eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, is one of those symbols that gives the novel's action a
deeper meaning. While we identify emotionally with Gatsby, this is Nick's novel
too, and his birthday reminds us that it is a novel about Nick's growing up. He
came to New York, naive and inexperienced, ha v ing learned about life through
books. The summer's events have taught him about life in a way that no book ever
could--just as the years on Dan Cody's yacht educated Gatsby. The final phase of
his education is learning about death, and death is just aroun d the corner.
Fitzgerald lets us think about death before we know the victim. The suspense
works nicely; for a short time we know neither who is dead nor how the person
died. Michaelis, the young Greek who runs the all-night restaurant next door to
Wilson' s garage, tells the story as he experienced it: Myrtle Wilson, who had
been locked indoors for most of the day by her husband, had rushed out into the
street shortly after seven, frantically waving her arms, only to be struck by a
car coming from New York . The car had paused for a moment and then driven on
into the night. We are not told whose car it was, but we can guess. Nick,
piecing events together from Michaelis' and newspaper accounts, pictures Myrtle
Wilson kneeling in the road, her mouth wide open, her "Left breast swinging
loose like a flap." He wants to emphasize her extraordinary vitality at the
moment of her death and the desperate agony with which she tries to hold on to
When Tom arrives with Nick and Jordan, his first thought is that Wil son will
remember the yellow car from that afternoon. His second thought is that Gatsby
was the driver. Tom has his dreams, small as they may be, and he could never let
himself believe that Daisy might have been at the wheel.
As for Nick, he has had enoug h of all of these Easterners. When he arrives
with the others at Tom's house, he remains outside. Suddenly, Gatsby calls to
him from the bushes. He had been waiting for them to get back, afraid that Tom
might do something harmful to Daisy. Gatsby tells Ni c k that Daisy was driving
and that he has decided to take the blame for her. What other decision was
possible by a man so deeply in love? He is still afraid to leave and sends Nick
to check on Daisy. Nick looks in a window and sees Daisy and Tom sitting op p
osite each other at the kitchen table, eating cold fried chicken and talking. It
is an ordinary domestic scene in sharp contrast to the drama that surrounds
them. They aren't happy, but they are not unhappy either. Nick realizes that
they have accepted ea c h other again and that Gatsby has lost Daisy
irrevocably. She has returned to the protection of Tom's money and influence. He
will take care of her and get her through the crisis. Nick goes home and leaves
Gatsby "standing there in the moonlight--watching over nothing."
The dream is over.
THE GREAT GATSBY: CHAPTER VIII
Chapter VIII begins a few hours later. Nick has been unable to sleep, and
hearing Gatsby come in, he goes over to his friend's house to talk. For the
better part of the chapter N ick is alone with Gatsby in his deserted mansion,
listening to the story of Gatsby's youth, his courtship of Daisy, and his
experiences during the war. The information helps Nick put together the final
pieces of the puzzle that is Gatsby. Now that the dre am is over, the past is
more real to Gatsby than ever. Gatsby hopes that by talking about the Daisy he
knew in Louisville in 1917 he can keep the ghost of his dream alive.
All of us have wanted something we couldn't have, something that was beyond
our reac h. And so, as Gatsby tells Nick about his courtship of Daisy, we can't
help but sympathize with him. We can understand how he felt when he entered
Daisy's home for the first time and fell in love with everything about her. It
was not only Daisy he hungere d for, it was her house and her possessions, too.
The fact that everybody wanted her merely increased her worth in Gatsby's eyes.
He himself was nothing but "a penniless young man without a past." She
stood for everything he was not--for everything he want ed to have and to
become. And so he "committed himself to the following of a grail," and
made marrying Daisy his ultimate goal in life.
NOTE: The grail--or the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper--is what
the knights of the round table were searching for. If they found it, they would
be saved. Fitzgerald uses the word grail to suggest that for Gatsby, marrying
Daisy was a kind of religious quest.
Daisy promised to wait for Gatsby until the war ended. What Gatsby has not
bargained for was Daisy's yout h and her need for love and the attention of
society. She was too frivolous and insecure to stay alone for long, and soon
began going out to parties and dances. At one of them, she met Tom Buchanan, who
seemed safe and strong. She loved Jay, but knew noth ing about him--nothing
about his past or his practical plans for the future. And he wasn't there. So
she married Tom.
The previous chapter took place on the hottest day of the summer. Now it is
early morning. Autumn--symbol of change and of the approach of death--is in the
air. The gardener informs Gatsby that he will drain the pool, because the
falling leaves will clog the pipes. Gatsby asks him to wait a day because he has
never used the pool and wants to take a swim.
Nick says good-bye to Gatsby, turns to walk away, then pauses, turns back,
and shouts "'They're a rotten crowd. You're worth the whole damn bunch put
It's a very special moment that reveals to us why the novel is called The
Great Gatsby. Nick disapproves of Gatsby "from beginnin g to
end"--disapproves of his vulgar materialism; his tasteless pink suits; his
"gonnegtion" with Meyer Wolfsheim; his love of a woman as shallow as
Daisy; his pathetic efforts to win her back by showing off what he has rather
than who he is. And yet he i s not part of the "foul dust." His
"incorruptible dream" has something pure and noble about it, which
sets him apart from the others. Tom, Daisy, Jordan--they belong to the
"rotten crowd" because they are selfish, materialistic, and cruel.
They are without spiritual values or compassion. Gatsby, on the surface, seems
just as far away from beauty and grace. In reality he is nothing more than a
thug. And yet in Nick's eyes--and perhaps in ours--he is "worth the whole
damn bunch put together" because of his to tal dedication to his dream.
When the dream is gone, he has nothing left to live for.
Nick takes the train to New York, but he can't work. He keeps thinking about
Gatsby. Not even Jordan Baker can get his mind off his friend. She tries to meet
him in the c ity for a date, but Nick turns her down--a fact that will
contribute to their eventual break up in the final chapter. Nick is tired of
"the whole rotten bunch," and that includes Jordan.
Unable to reach Gatsby by phone, Nick takes an early train back to W est Egg.
As he passes the valley of ashes, he thinks about Myrtle Wilson's death and
tells us what George Wilson was doing from the time of the accident to the
present moment. Nick has gotten his information from the Greek Michaelis and
from newspaper rep orts.
Michaelis had sat up all night with George Wilson. At the very moment that
Nick and Gatsby were watching the dawn in West Egg, Michaelis and Wilson were
looking at the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, "which had just emerged, pale
and enormous from the d issolving night." To Wilson, the eyes of Dr.
Eckleburg are the all-seeing, all-judging eyes of God. Wilson now believes that
the car that hit Myrtle was being driven by her lover. He has made up his mind
to play God himself and to revenge the murder of hi s wife. It is simply a
matter of finding out who owns the yellow car. His first step is to find Tom
Buchanan; Tom drove the car to New York the day before and will know who was
driving it back from New York when it hit his wife.
By the time Nick gets to We st Egg, Gatsby is lying dead in his pool. The
tragedy is complete. Wilson, having found out from Tom where Gatsby lived, had
gone to Gatsby's mansion and found him floating on an air mattress in the pool.
Wilson had shot Gatsby, then himself.
Nick wonders what Gatsby might have been thinking as he lay on the mattress
in the pool just before Wilson's arrival:
He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and
shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunl ight
was upon the scarcely created. A new world, material without being real, where
poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about...
One key to understanding this difficult passage is the phrase, "material
without being real." What Ni ck means is that for Gatsby, the world is
"material"--it is something he can touch and see and feel--yet it is
completely without meaning for him. Without Daisy--without his dream--to sustain
him he is like a child who wakes up one day and finds himself i n an utterly
frightening and unfamiliar world. Gatsby has lived "too long with a single
dream"; without it life has become absurd. A rose is beautiful because we
feel its beauty, not because it possesses beauty in itself. In the same way, the
green light a t the end of Daisy's dock was special only because it meant
something special to Gatsby. In this new world, which Gatsby encounters a rose
is just a rose and a green light is not more than a green light. Gatsby has been
forced to grow up, or at least to gi ve up his childlike sense of wonder. Unlike
the rest of the rotten crowd, he cannot live without this private vision, and so
he is, in a sense, already dead when Wilson shoots him.
THE GREAT GATSBY: CHAPTER IX
Chapter IX covers the period from G atsby's death to Nick's departure for the
Midwest later that autumn. It is a chapter which allows Fitzgerald to tie
together loose ends and to sum up the larger significance of the novel in a
final poetic passage that has become one of the most famous in American
Nick is still living in the East, but his heart is no longer there. "I
found myself on Gatsby's side, and alone," he says. He tries to bring
Gatsby's friends together for the funeral, but everyone has conveniently
disappeared. Tom and Daisy have gone away, leaving no address. Meyer Wolfsheim
does not want to be involved with Gatsby now that the breath of scandal
surrounds him. No one visits Gatsby's house now except policemen, photographers,
and newspapermen. Finally, on the third day, a telegram arrives from Mr. Henry
C. Gatz of Minnesota, Gatsby's father. He has read of his son's death and is on
his way. (Is there any religious significance in the fact that the father tries
to reach Gatsby three days after his son's death? Gatsby, lik e Christ, has been
scorned by the world and only his father seems to care.) Nick tries to convince
Klipspringer, "the boarder," to come to the funeral, but Klipspringer
has a social engagement in Westport. When he asks Nick to send his tennis shoes,
which he had left at Gatsby's, Nick hangs up on him.
No friends come to the funeral except Owl Eyes, the man who had admired
Gatsby's library back in the third chapter. Why he should care enough to come
makes for interesting speculation: your ideas are as good as any.
As they stand there in the rain--Nick, Mr. Gatz, Owl Eyes, and a few
servants--we cannot help but be appalled by the way his so-called friends have
deserted him when he is no longer of any use to them. You can look at their
desertion, as Nick surel y does, as proof of their moral and spiritual
bankruptcy. Or you can argue that Gatsby, in pursuit of a false dream, has
brought this fate down on himself.
Gatsby's father, of course, has loved his son all these years and followed
his career with special interest. He is proud of his boy and totally unaware of
the darker side of his life. He has saved a picture of his son's house, which he
apparently takes great pride in showing to others as proof of his son's success.
He has also brought along a book, Hop a long Cassidy, which Jimmy owned as a
boy. On the flyleaf is a daily schedule of exercise, study, sports,
"elocution," and work. The schedule, which reads like an excerpt from
Ben Franklin's Almanac, reminds us how deeply Gatsby believed--even as a boy--in
the American dream of success. Like millions of other young Americans, he must
have believed that life rewards those who work hard, and that if he only stuck
to his plan he could achieve whatever he set out to accomplish. Whether
Fitzgerald's novel praise s or condemns this dream is something you'll have to
determine for yourself.
With the account of Gatsby's funeral, Nick's story comes to an end. In the
novel's closing pages, Nick turns in on himself, and talks about his own values
and his preparations for a return to the Midwest.
Before he leaves, Nick ends his relationship with Jordan Baker. The scene
with Jordan parallels the one at the end of Chapter III where they discuss
careless people and bad drivers. In both scenes driving becomes a metaphor for l
ife. Careless drivers stand for those who hurt other people. Jordan is a
careless driver, Nick is not. Is this what drew them together and what
ultimately pulled them apart? Nick's feelings about Jordan are ambivalent
throughout the scene, as they are thr o ughout the book. He is still in love
with her, still attracted to her, yet something in him wants to write an end to
this chapter in his life. She says she's engaged to another man; he doesn't
believe it. We sense that he could probably get her back if he apologized for
his behavior on the phone the day of Gatsby's death. But he won't do that.
Nor will he, at first, shake hands with Tom Buchanan when he sees him on
Fifth Avenue. Although he blames Tom for Gatsby's death--it was Tom who told
Wilson that Gat sby owned the car--he can't really argue with Tom or get mad at
him. Why? Because Tom believes that Gatsby was the driver and that his action
was "entirely justified." Nick probably realizes that his own moral
standards will mean nothing to Tom, and that t he only way to deal with his type
is to turn around and walk away. Nick at this moment sees Tom and Daisy as
careless people who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated
back into their money... and let other people clean up the mess they had m a
de." He calls Jordan careless too--a "careless" driver. Nick's
decision to leave the East is tied up with his reaction of careless people. He
doesn't want to become that way himself. It's uncertain when he finally shakes
hands with Tom, whether he has fin a lly learned to accept others who are
different from himself, thus getting rid of what Tom calls his "provincial
squeamishness"--or whether he is doing only what is proper for a gentleman
to do. In any case, he is now rid of Tom and the world he represents , and can
return to a world of principles and traditions in the Midwest.
There's no way you can understand Nick's final thoughts without having them
in front of you. So, open your books and read Nick's words again. The meaning of
the novel is summed up her e, and the novel is transformed from a story of a
small group of people at a moment of time to a portrait of an entire nation.
It is Nick's last night in West Egg. He has walked over to Gatsby's mansion
and erased an obscene word someone has scrawled on t he deserted house. He walks
down to the beach. As the moon rises and the houses melt away in his
imagination, he thinks of what this island must have looked like to the Dutch
sailors seeing it for the first time in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
It was a new world then--pure, unspoiled. Nick calls it "a fresh green
breast of the new world." Nick realizes that men have always been dreamers,
but that dreamers cannot simply dream. They must have some object or person to
fix their dreams upon. Such w a s this continent, he thinks, in the early days
of the Republic. The idea of America as a land of infinite possibilities was so
magnificent that man was "face to face for the last time in history with
something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." The land--its physical
beauty and its apparently limitless horizons--were worthy of the dream.
We have come to call this idea "the American dream." Jefferson,
Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were only a few of the spokesmen for this dream
who saw in America a h ope for equality and self-fulfillment. This was Gatsby's
dream, too, Nick thinks. For Gatsby the green light at the end of Daisy's dock
symbolized the same American dream that drove the Dutch sailors to the New
World, the Minutemen to Concord, and Thoreau to Walden Pond. Gatsby believed in
the dream, and Nick will always love him for it. But what Gatsby never
understood is that the dream was already behind him, "somewhere back in
that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic ro
lled on under the night." Unable to find an object or a person commensurate
with his capacity for wonder, Gatsby finds Daisy, an unworthy and shallow
substitute for the real dream.
NOTE: Nick seems to suggest that America in the 1920s has lost its way--del
iberately or inevitably. American has become a shallow, materialistic nation,
and the dream for which people fought and about which poets wrote has turned
into a cheap and vulgar substitute for the real thing.
Fitzgerald seems to be saying that what keeps Americans going as individuals
is the belief in that dream, and so they struggle like Gatsby to attain it. But
they are like "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the
past." Americans row and row against the current of time, trying to g e t
back to that dream, bearing themselves backward like Gatsby, who believed the
past could be repeated, but doomed by the hand of time to failure. Whether
Fitzgerald believes Americans can recapture that dream, or whether it's part of
their lost childhood --both as individuals and as a nation--is something you'll
have to decide for yourself.
The Great Gatsby is not, then, just a book about the 1920s. It is a book
about America--its promise, and the betrayal of that promise. Throughout the
book Fitzgerald ha s contrasted Gatsby the dreamer with "the foul
dust" that preyed on his dream. The tragedy of Gatsby is that he still
dreams the dream, but that he is not wise enough or strong enough to see that
Daisy is not worthy of his devotion, of his sacrifice. He c annot step back to
see where he has gone wrong. Nick can. Nick loves Gatsby, but he knows what is
wrong with Gatsby's dream. And so, his education completed, he returns to the
Midwest to begin his own adult life.