In this post, I will continue my analysis of The Great Gatsby with an analysis of its eponymous character, Jay Gatsby. We will talk about such burning questions as whether or not Gatsby was truly great, and what made him “all right” in the end. Because there is so much to discuss, this will be posted in two parts.
Disclaimer: This post will obviously contain spoilers. If you haven’t done so, read the book (it’s super short, it won’t take you long), then return and we shall discuss.
Page numbers are taken from the 2004 Scribner paperback edition.
In the introductory post, I explained the first impression that we get of Gatsby, based on Nick Carraway’s judgement of him.
The next information we get about Gatsby is a description of his house. This is significant because this is exactly the basis on which Gatsby wishes people to form their impression of him: the things he owns. And his house makes quite an impression indeed:
The one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard–it was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby’s mansion. Or, rather, as I didn’t know Mr. Gatsby, it was a mansion, inhabited by a gentleman of that name. (5)
When I do my symbols and themes post, we will discuss Gatsby’s house as a symbol and contrast it with the Buchanans’.
The first time we actually see Gatsby himself is when Nick observes him at night, standing on his lawn. At first, he seems like a confident, wealthy man, almost arrogant:
Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens. (20)
But then, just as Nick is about to call out to his neighbour, Gatsby does something that is unusual:
…he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone–he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. (20, 21)
Nick sees the object that Gatsby is reaching for, a green light at the end of someone’s dock across the bay. Then, Gatsby has disappeared, leaving Nick in the “unquiet darkness” (love that description). Suddenly, Gatsby is not an arrogant rich man surveying his share of the sky. He is wistful, grasping for something that he cannot have. Whatever it is, he wants it so badly that he trembles.
Here, we get a glimpse of that dream that Nick mentions during his judgement of Gatsby. This is also one of the most famous symbols in the book, and when we discuss themes and symbols, we’ll look into it a little deeper.
In the third chapter, we get a description of Gatsby’s parties and all the preparation that goes into them. These parties are no small affairs. They are enormous and loud and full of music, laughter, and chatter.
But there is something interesting about the guests at these parties:
I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited–they went there…they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with an amusement park. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission. (41)
There is something impersonal about Gatsby’s parties. In fact, not all of the guests even meet Gatsby. The sentence about the amusement park rules of conduct is obviously meant to convey the wild, unrestrained spirit that prevails at these parties, but it also reinforces the impersonal nature of them. Amusement parks are open to everyone, and so are Gatsby’s parties.
Once Nick is at the party, we are privy to a conversation in which guests share stories and rumours about their host, some of them outrageous, all of them conflicting.
After that, there is an intriguing scene that takes place in the library. Nick finds the owl-eyed man standing there, concentrating on Gatsby’s books, amazed that they are real, and not fake, cardboard books.
“What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too–didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?” (46)
It’s true that his amazement is partially the ramblings of a man who admits he has been “drunk for about a week,” but the books are significant because they show that Gatsby does not cut corners. This grand spectacle he has set up is realistic to the last detail–and yet, the fact that it its “thoroughness” and “realism” need to be remarked upon suggests that it is, after all, just an elaborate facade. Add to that the fact that the books haven’t been read.
As the party continues, a man strikes up a conversation with Nick and turns out to be Gatsby. And we get this brilliant description of him:
He smiled understandingly–much more than 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. (48)
Gatsby has a quality about him that is innately reassuring. It is as if his entire being is urging people to believe in him. Further:
It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour. It understood you just so 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 convey.
When someone smiles at you like that, you would want to return the favour, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you unconsciously believe in him, wouldn’t you form your impression of him according to that which he wishes to convey? That is the power that Gatsby has.
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. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.
Nick is still able to discern that perhaps Gatsby is not quite what he seems to be. And Nick isn’t the only one with doubts. As we saw earlier, the other party guests believe all kinds of crazy rumours about him. And when Gatsby is called away by the butler, Jordan Baker tells Nick that Gatsby told her he was an Oxford man, but that she doesn’t believe it. Nick asks her why.
“I don’t know,” she insisted, “I just don’t think he went there.”
Something in her tone reminded me of the other girl’s “I think he killed a man,” and had the effect of stimulating my curiosity. (49)
There is something about Gatsby that is a little off, despite his reassuring smile, but people have trouble putting their finger on it.
When the party has ended, we catch a glimpse of how alone Gatsby really is, despite having so many people come to his parties.
A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.
After Nick attends two more parties, rides in Gatsby’s hydroplane, and makes use of his beach, Gatsby shows up one day in his car and tells Nick they’re going to lunch. As they are riding along, there is a revealing exchange.
We hadn’t reached West Egg Village before Gatsby began leaving his elegant sentences unfinished and slapping himself indecisively on the knee of his caramel-colored suit.
“Look here, old sport,” he broke out surprisingly, “what’s your opinion of me, anyhow?”
A little overwhelmed, I began the generalized evasions which that question deserves.
“Well, I’m going to tell you something about my life,” he interrupted. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea of me from all these stories you hear.” (65)
Gatsby is anxious to have control over Nick’s opinion of him. And yet, as he begins to tell Nick about his life, he fails to convince.
He looked at me sideways–and I knew why Jordan Baker had believed he was lying. He hurried the phrase “educated at Oxford,” or swallowed it, or chocked on it, as though it had bothered him before. And with this doubt, his whole statement fell to pieces, and I wondered if there wasn’t something a little sinister about him, after all.
He continues with a rather fantastical recounting of the major events in his life, and Nick clearly doesn’t believe him, after that first slip-up. And yet:
My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines.
Even though Gatsby’s stories aren’t believable and everyone knows he’s probably lying, they are so fascinating that people want to believe them. It’s like his smile.
To back up his story, Gatsby produces a medal that he was presented in the army and a picture of his Oxford days. Even though these souvenirs seem to authenticate his story–and Nick’s thought on the matter is, “Then it was all true,”–when you think about it, it just makes the whole thing more suspicious.
I mean, since when has anyone felt the need to carry proof with them in their pockets that they are a war hero or went to Oxford? The harder someone tries to prove something, the less believable it is.
But Nick is convinced.
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all…”
Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.
There is something about the unique atmosphere of New York City that makes even the most incredible people and events seem completely plausible. That, no doubt combined with Gatsby’s “eternal reassurance.”
Then there is the scene with Wolfsheim, who is more than a little shady, and the fact that Gatsby is in business with this man implies that perhaps Gatsby, too, is a bit shady.
Gatsby arranges for Jordan Baker to speak to Nick, and we find out the real reason that Gatsby is so concerned with what Nick thinks of him. He has a favour to ask: for Nick to invite Daisy to his house and let Gatsby come over, too. Not only have we learned Gatsby’s motivation for cultivating an acquaintance with Nick, but also his motivation for everything he has done:
“I think he half expected her to wander into one of his parties, some night,” went on Jordan, “but she never did.” (79)
All of it, the parties, the mansion, the elegant manners–everything right down to the real books on the shelves of his library have been for one reason: to impress Daisy Buchanan. And now?
He had waited five years and bought a mansion where he dispensed starlight to casual moths–so that he could “come over” some afternoon to a stranger’s garden. (78)
When Nick returns home, Gatsby has been “glancing into some of the rooms.” We can imagine him anxiously readying every inch of his house for Daisy–after all, Gatsby is into the small details.
We see Gatsby’s anxiety in the way he prepares Nick’s house for the occasion, declares that she isn’t coming when she doesn’t arrive right away, and leaves Daisy in the living-room all alone, telling Nick that it’s all a terrible mistake.
But after Nick leaves them alone for half an hour, he returns to find an altered Gatsby.
He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room. (89)
Gatsby is so close to his dream, but will it be enough? We’ll continue this discussion in part 2.
- What are your impressions of Gatsby?
- Why do you think people go to his parties, despite believing such awful things about him?
- What is it about Gatsby that makes him unbelievable, and why do you think someone might dismiss these concerns, choosing to believe in him anyway?
- What do you think of Gatsby’s single-minded pursuit of Daisy Buchanan?
Thanks for reading!