Nick lists all of the people who attended Gatsby’s parties that summer, a roll call of the nation’s most wealthy and powerful people. He then describes a trip that he took to New York with Gatsby to eat lunch. As they drive to the city, Gatsby tells Nick about his past, but his story seems highly improbable. He claims, for instance, to be the son of wealthy, deceased parents from the Midwest. When Nick asks which Midwestern city he is from, Gatsby replies, “San Francisco.” Gatsby then lists a long and preposterously detailed set of accomplishments: he claims to have been educated at Oxford, to have collected jewels in the capitals of Europe, to have hunted big game, and to have been awarded medals in World War I by multiple European countries. Seeing Nick’s skepticism, Gatsby produces a medal from Montenegro and a picture of himself playing cricket at Oxford.
Gatsby’s car speeds through the valley of ashes and enters the city. When a policeman pulls Gatsby over for speeding, Gatsby shows him a white card and the policeman apologizes for bothering him. In the city, Gatsby takes Nick to lunch and introduces him to Meyer Wolfshiem, who, he claims, was responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series. Wolfshiem is a shady character with underground business connections. He gives Nick the impression that the source of Gatsby’s wealth might be unsavory, and that Gatsby may even have ties to the sort of organized crime with which Wolfshiem is associated.
After the lunch in New York, Nick sees Jordan Baker, who finally tells him the details of her mysterious conversation with Gatsby at the party. She relates that Gatsby told her that he is in love with Daisy Buchanan. According to Jordan, during the war, before Daisy married Tom, she was a beautiful young girl in Louisville, Kentucky, and all the military officers in town were in love with her. Daisy fell in love with Lieutenant Jay Gatsby, who was stationed at the base near her home. Though she chose to marry Tom after Gatsby left for the war, Daisy drank herself into numbness the night before her wedding, after she received a letter from Gatsby. Daisy has apparently remained faithful to her husband throughout their marriage, but Tom has not. Jordan adds that Gatsby bought his mansion in West Egg solely to be near Daisy. Nick remembers the night he saw Gatsby stretching his arms out to the water and realizes that the green light he saw was the light at the end of Daisy’s dock. According to Jordan, Gatsby has asked her to convince Nick to arrange a reunion between Gatsby and Daisy. Because he is terrified that Daisy will refuse to see him, Gatsby wants Nick to invite Daisy to tea. Without Daisy’s knowledge, Gatsby intends to come to the tea at Nick’s house as well, surprising her and forcing her to see him.
Though Nick’s first impression of Gatsby is of his boundless hope for the future, Chapter 4 concerns itself largely with the mysterious question of Gatsby’s past. Gatsby’s description of his background to Nick is a daunting puzzle—though he rattles off a seemingly far-fetched account of his grand upbringing and heroic exploits, he produces what appears to be proof of his story. Nick finds Gatsby’s story “threadbare” at first, but he eventually accepts at least part of it when he sees the photograph and the medal. He realizes Gatsby’s peculiarity, however. In calling him a “character,” he highlights Gatsby’s strange role as an actor.
The luncheon with Wolfshiem gives Nick his first unpleasant impression that Gatsby’s fortune may not have been obtained honestly. Nick perceives that if Gatsby has connections with such shady characters as Wolfshiem, he might be involved in organized crime or bootlegging. It is important to remember the setting of The Great Gatsby, in terms of both the symbolic role of the novel’s physical locations and the book’s larger attempt to capture the essence of America in the mid-1920s. The pervasiveness of bootlegging and organized crime, combined with the burgeoning stock market and vast increase in the wealth of the general public during this era, contributed largely to the heedless, excessive pleasure-seeking and sense of abandon that permeate The Great Gatsby. For Gatsby, who throws the most sumptuous parties of all and who seems richer than anyone else, to have ties to the world of bootleg alcohol would only make him a more perfect symbol of the strange combination of moral decadence and vibrant optimism that Fitzgerald portrays as the spirit of 1920s America.
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On the other hand, Jordan’s story paints Gatsby as a lovesick, innocent young soldier, desperately trying to win the woman of his dreams. Now that Gatsby is a full-fledged character in the novel, the bizarre inner conflict that enables Nick to feel such contradictory admiration and repulsion for him becomes fully apparent—whereas Gatsby the lovesick soldier is an attractive figure, representative of hope and authenticity, Gatsby the crooked businessman, representative of greed and moral corruption, is not.
The American Dream
The American Dream (in particular, the failure to achieve it) is one of the most important themes in the novel. It’s established early on in the first chapter when a stranger asks Nick for directions, making him “a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler,” like the brave pioneers who traveled West in hopes of building better lives for themselves. Immediately after that, Nick tells us that he read a series of finance books in the hopes of making his fortune. Fitzgerald uses this juxtaposition of bankers and pioneers to suggest that the American Dream of owning land and making a name for one’s self has been subsumed by the desire to become rich and thereby perpetuate a capitalist system.
This desire to be rich and successful is at the core of Gatsby’s dream of reuniting with Daisy. He was willing to do anything to attain this dream, including getting involved with Mr. Wolfsheim’s businesses. In a brutally ironic twist, the bootlegging that makes Gatsby rich enough for Daisy is also one of the main reasons he loses her, because when Tom tells her about it in Chapter VII she hesitates and thinks twice about leaving him for Gatsby. Gatsby’s dream self-destructs because, like the American Dream as a whole, it has been corrupted by money and power to the point where it is no longer real or viable. In that sense, both Gatsby’s dream and the larger American Dream die even before Wilson pulls the trigger. Gatsby’s death merely cements what we already know.
In this context, “homes” should be distinguished from mere “houses,” of which there are many in the novel, including Nick’s summer house and Gatsby’s palatial estate. With the one exception of Jordan, whose idea of home we’re not privy to, the main characters are itinerant, in the sense that they leave their childhood homes and spend most of their adult lives moving around, never really making new lives for themselves. Gatsby, for instance, runs away from home, leaving behind the name Jimmy Gatz. Nick also leaves home at the beginning of the novel, only to return at the end, while Daisy and Tom, who had to leave Chicago because of one scandal, have to leave East Egg because of another. Like Klipspringer, the boarder, they all go wherever is most convenient.
In the opening passages of the novel, Nick relates a piece of advice that his father gave him in his “younger and more vulnerable years”: to remember whenever he wants to criticize someone that “all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages [he’s] had.” That his own father tells him that he should be less critical of others suggests that he’s an inherently critical person and that his privilege and wealth (his family owns a successful wholesale hardware business) have made him myopic, insensitive to the struggles of others and unwilling to admit that his point of view might be flawed. Fitzgerald inserts this bit of advice at the beginning to color Nick’s narration, making it less reliable but at the same time far more personal. He introduces Nick as a flawed, intelligent, and often poetic narrator, but the reader, finding beauty in his narrative voice, is inclined to keep reading anyway, even when he says conceitedly, “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known,” at the end of Chapter III.
In Chapter I, Gatsby is described as having an “extraordinary gift for hope,” meaning that he has a sensitivity to life and a sense of its possibilities that surpass those of others. His hope is more or less synonymous with his ability to dream (if not with his dream itself). The people who live in the Valley of Ashes, then, are “hopeless” specifically because they’ve lost most of their ability to dream and realize their dreams. George Wilson’s only hope of a better life is to sell off Tom’s car and use the profits to move out west with Myrtle. When this last shred of hope dies, his only real desire is to kill the person responsible, whom he mistakenly assumes to be Gatsby. In that sense, Chapter VIII, when Wilson shoots Gatsby, is an account of what happens when hope dies.
Life and Death
Fitzgerald establishes the themes of life and death late in Chapter II, when the drunk party guest crashes the car with Owl Eyes in it. Thus, cars become symbols of death or, when the characters aren’t crashing them, of one’s social status. In Chapter V, during the tour of Gatsby’s house, Nick thinks he hears Owl Eyes’s “ghostly” laughter emanating from one of the many rooms. It is almost as if Gatsby’s house has become a giant, empty tomb where he awaits his death.
In Chapter V, when Daisy and Gatsby rekindle their love, Nick refers to her...
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