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


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 newspaper 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 given 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 first 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 educated 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 capitals 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 from 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 in 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, first at lunch, and then in the tea scene with Jordan Baker.


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 helped 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 business 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 and romance.

Wolfsheim is sentimental about friends but not about business-something we will learn again at the end of 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 would 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 this, 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 popular 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 who 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 of 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 until 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 illumination: "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 splendor."

What Nick realizes suddenly is that Gatsby's house and his lavish life-style are 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 Jordan 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.

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