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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Book Notes
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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 was 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 is 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.

Brightness, 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 station 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 glittering 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 of 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. Young 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 the 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 him. Nick and Jordan go off in search of Gatsby, but discover Owl Eyes instead.


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 suggests, is one of the few to really see and, in some way, understand Gatsby.

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 host." 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. 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 convey. 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 practices "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 believe 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 up 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. He 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 frenzied, he becomes increasingly separate from it. He is untouched by the corruption of the world.

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 cars. 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 able 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 false 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 need 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 that 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 chapter 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, coming 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 Nick 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 readers. 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.

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