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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Book Notes
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This chapter is as important 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 emotional 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 Daisy-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 which, 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.


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 fantasies 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 to 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 to 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 Ella 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 together, 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 and 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 standard (he can do anything he wants) and the snobbery of the East Eggers, who turn their noses up at someone as unrefined as Gatsby.

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 characters-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 becoming 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 merciless 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 back 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 to 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 back 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.


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 autumn 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 should or not.

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