But we quickly move to more serious stuff, particularly the true story of Gatsby's background. Or, more truthfully, what Nick Carraway believes is the truth about him, that he was in fact a nobody named James Gatz who reinvented himself as Jay Gatsby and has been ever since living as "the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent" (p. 104).
I did this as a teenager, did you? Make up a different version of myself who was all the things I wasn't, and imagine all kinds of great stuff about myself. Like I was a movie star who made films with all my favorite real-life movie stars. Or I owned a giant ranch back in the Old West and employed all my favorite fictional cowboys from all kinds of old TV shows and movies. Great fun.
But I never did what James Gatz did. I never tried to actually live out one of my dream lives. I was happy enough in my real life that I contentedly left my pretending inside my head. James Gatz was not. Maybe that's because my parents are very loving people who raised me in a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, while Gatsby's parents "were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people" (p. 104). Or maybe it's just that I'm a completely different sort of person than he was -- I'm content to spin amazing fantasies to this day, but I don't feel the need to experience them.
Random thing: that "small Lutheran college of St. Olaf's in southern Minnesota" (p. 105) where Gatsby attended for two week -- it really exists. I know, because I myself attended a small Lutheran college in a different southern Minnesota city. Cowboy was on our debate team, and he debated people from St. Olaf's. I've been on the campus once or twice, though I forget why.
Anyway, James Gatz became Jay Gatsby one fateful day when he rescued a rich dude named Dan Cody who anchored his yacht in the wrong part of Lake Superior.
|(Alan Ladd and Henry Hull in the 1949 movie version)|
And he's oblivious to the fact that this woman carelessly invited him to her dinner party, but has no desire to have him there. He thinks an invitation means you're wanted. After all, when he invited Nick over, it was because he wanted Nick to be there. Gatsby misses out on social cues because he's not from that same level of society. If he married someone and they had kids, their kids would likely turn out like Nick -- knowing how to move in this rich world. But even coming into that higher society as a teen was too late for Gatsby to learn everything.
Then Tom and Daisy go to one of Gatsby's parties, and it's a disaster. Nothing goes right, no one enjoys themselves -- Gatsby's dream of having Daisy at his side is one step closer, but it's not the way he imagined it. What had been fun and amusing at the last party "turned septic on the air now" (p. 113), even for Nick.
Interestingly, it's not Gatsby alone who misunderstands something in this chapter. He has his socially awkward mistake earlier, but at the party, it's Daisy who fails to understand the fun that people are having. She's "appalled by its raw vigour that chafed under the old euphemisms" (p. 114) -- she's from the traditional, moneyed world that is rapidly falling to the wayside in the wake of Modern Life.
I love how Nick jumps to Gatsby's defense when Tom says he must be a bootlegger. I do identify a lot with Nick in this book, I've come to realize. That swift loyalty, especially.
And at last, we get to Gatsby's very, very famous proclamation about time. "'Can't repeat the past?' he cried incredulously. 'Why of course you can!'"(p. 117). Gatsby's convinced himself that, by the sheer force of his own will, he can erase what happened before and start over again with Daisy. After all, he's acquired this fortune, this house, this fame just because he decided to -- why shouldn't he be able to get the life he's dreamed up for himself and Daisy too, just because he decided to?
Last thought. In the structure of a play, at least in the classical structure, there's always a climax, also called a crisis, which is basically the point of no return. The one spot where something happens, and everything after that will be determined by that one action. Hamlet believing the Ghost. Ilsa walking into Rick's bar. Frodo standing up and saying he will take the ring to Mordor. Everything after is a result of that decision. Literature quite often has that spot too, and you could argue that for The Great Gatsby, the climax was in the previous chapter, when Gatsby sees Daisy again. Or even when Nick agrees to have Daisy over to tea. But I think you could also argue that no, the climax for this story happened five years before it began. It could have been "when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath" (p. 118). Everything that happened after that, including all of this book, was set into motion that one night, with that one kiss. What do you think? That can be one of our Possible Discussion Questions for today.
It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment (p. 111).
(More) Possible Discussion Questions:
When Tom appears at Gatsby's for a drink, Nick says that "the really surprising thing was that it hadn't happened before" (p. 108). What do you suppose Nick means by that?
Why doesn't Tom want to me known as "the polo player" at Gatsby's party?