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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald Chapter III Summary
This chapter opens with a general description of another party scene, this one set at Gatsby’s mansion. Nick describes how “there was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights” with sunning on the beach, diving into the pool, drinking champagne, and dancing to the orchestra from early evening until the wee hours of the morning. Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce becomes a shuttle bus for the party-goers, and cars were still parked five deep in the drive. A “corps of caterers” arrives once a week to set up buffet tables filled with gourmet treats, and the main hall is transformed into a bar complete with brass rail and every type of liquor. Nick then describes more specifically the first party that he attends at his neighbor’s house. Gatsby has sent his chauffeur next door with a formal invitation to Nick to attend a “little party” on Saturday night. Nick accepts the offer, dresses in white flannels, arrives at Gatsby’s around 7:00, and wanders, rather ill at ease, among the swirls of unknown partyers. He is delighted to find Jordan Baker among the guests, greets her warmly, and remains by her side for much of the evening.
During the course of the party, Nick looks several times unsuccessfully for Gatsby in order to formally introduce himself; he overhears much talk about the host, including rumors that he is an Oxford graduate, that he has killed a man, and that he served as a German spy during the war; he also learns that Gatsby has sent an expensive dress to a young lady as a replacement for one torn at a previous Gatsby gathering. He visits the library and meets a middle-age man, who has been drinking for a week and who wears “enormous owl-eyed spectacles” (recalling the image of T.J. Eckelberg). The man is absolutely amazed that the titles in Gatsby’s library are actually real books with real pages. He then exclaims, “It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! — didn’t cut the pages.” It is as if this drunken gentleman knew the real Gatsby and believes he is hiding behind a facade that includes his mansion, his parties, and his library.
At midnight, the party is still going strong with dancing, music, and “stunts” in the garden. Nick notes that “the hilarity had increased. . .while happy vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky.” Nick is sitting at a table with Jordan and an unknown man of his approximate age. The man tells Nick that his face looks familiar, and the two of them discover that they had both been in the Third Division during the war. The gentleman then warms towards Nick, calls him “old sport” repeatedly, and asks him to take a ride in his newly purchased hydroplane on the next morning. After accepting the invitation, Nick is surprised to learn that this gentleman is Jay Gatsby himself. Nick then notes the warmth and reassurance of his neighbor’s smile that seems to be an appearance that vanishes too quickly. When Gatsby leaves to take a phone call, Nick admits to Jordan, “I had expected that Mr. Gatsby would be a florid and corpulent person in his middle years.” He then asks Jordan to tell him more about this mysterious man. Jordan simply replies, “He’s just a man named Gatsby,” a classical example of understatement.
Later at the party, Nick has a chance to study his host from a distance and without detection:
Gatsby was standing alone on the marble steps and looking from one group to another with approving eyes. His tanned skin was drawn attractively tight on his face and his short hair looked as though it were trimmed everyday. I could see nothing sinister about him. I wondered if the fact that he was not drinking helped to set him off from his guests, for it seemed to me that he grew more correct as the fraternal hilarity increased.
As Nick makes these observations, he and Jordan are interrupted by a butler sent by the host. Mr. Gatsby has requested to see Jordan, so she takes her leave. Alone again, Nick surveys the degenerating party scene. The orchestra has left, but the room is still crowded. A drunken red-headed woman is singing loudly and weeping at the same time. Most of the women are fighting with their husbands or dates about leaving the party, and two women are physically carried out. As Nick prepares to leave the party himself, Jordan emerges from the library with her host and tells Nick, “I’ve just heard the most amazing thing,” building even more suspense about the mysterious Gatsby. Nick promises to call Jordan and then bids Gatsby goodnight with new apologies for not having known him earlier in the garden. Gatsby says, “Don’t mention it,” and reminds Nick of their morning hydroplane plans.
As Nick turns towards his home next door, he finds an accident has just occurred outside. A car has left Gatsby’s drive, run into a wall, and lost its wheel. The first person to emerge from the wreck is Owl-Eyes, the drunken man with the spectacles found earlier in the library. When questioned about the accident, he “washes his hands of the whole matter,” just as he washes his hands of his careless, drunken behavior and lack of moral responsibility. He is followed out of the car by the driver, “a pale, dangling individual,” an apparition of a man (with flashback to the valley of ashes). He is also quite drunk and cannot quite understand that the wheel is gone from the car, rendering it undrivable. Nick, disgusted with this drunken scene of destruction and the attendant cacophony of impatient horns, goes home. As he glances back to Gatsby’s mansion, he is struck by the sudden emptiness he sees and by the isolated figure of the host waving upon the porch.
Nick closes the chapter with explanations about himself, to fill in his life between the parties. Most of his time is spent working at Probity Trust and studying about investments. He says he is learning to like the “racy feel” of New York, but dreams of finding a romantic attachment. He also admits that he sometimes, in the hustle and bustle, feels a “haunting loneliness” in himself and others, and personally longs for “gayety and…intimate excitement.” He also reveals that he has dated Jordan Baker during the latter part of the summer and developed a tenderness for her. He was shocked, however, to learn that she was “incurably dishonest” and terribly careless. At least Jordan admits that she “hates careless people. That’s why I like you.” Despite their mutual interest in one another, the noble Nick puts the brakes on their relationship because he has still not settled his feelings for the girl at home. Nick believes that relationship had to be “tactfully broken off before I was free.” Nick ends the chapter by proudly stating he is the only honest person he knows.
This chapter presents the third meaningless party in a row for Nick Carraway, and this one, held at Gatsby’s mansion, has similarities to and differences from the small, classy dinner party at the Buchanan’s and the raucous, drunken gathering at Myrtle’s apartment. Like the party at the Buchanan’s, Gatsby’s party is held in a mansion, is attended by denizens of the fashionable Egg Islands (including Jordan and Nick), is well prepared, is filled with vacuous chatter, and ends in fighting. (Tom and Daisy fight over his mistress at the end of the dinner; the husbands and wives at Gatsby’s fight about leaving the party.) In contrast to the small dinner party, this one is a huge gathering, complete with orchestra and dancing, and it drags on forever in a drunken stupor until the wee hours of the morning. In that respect, Gatsby’s party is more like the one at Myrtle’s. Although her party is an impromptu gathering, like Gatsby’s it is crowded, filled with inane conversation, and ends in a drunken, disastrous scene. (There is a definite comparison between the carelessness of Tom’s breaking Myrtle’s nose to the carelessness of the broken wheel on the automobile.) Fitzgerald, through Nick Carraway’s narration, is showing the sad emptiness of the parties (symbolic of the rich) and the lives of the people who attend them. After the fun and frivolity of the evening comes the reality of life: the news of Tom’s mistress spoils the dinner party, Tom’s violence breaks up Myrtle’s party; the automobile accident mars Gatsby’s party –and on Monday morning, the gardeners and the butlers (and other non-wealthy souls) will be left to repair the “ravages” from the party and the damage caused by the wealthy.
Gatsby’s party is described in greater detail than the other two parties in order to introduce the character of the host and to emphasize the purposeless nature of his gatherings. Most of his guests have not been invited to the party but have been brought by others or just drop in. With no moral consciousness, they drink Gatsby’s liquor and eat his food without even attempting to meet him or express appreciation (in contrast to Nick who is obsessed with finding Gatsby and introducing himself). The women, purposefully dressed in silvers and golds (symbolic of money), only pretend to have fun. (They even weep as they sing.) There are no real relationships here, only inane chatter, wild speculation, and drunken antics; it is a false appearance of happiness that covers up the lack of moral responsibility and misery of the soul.
The whole swirling party scene is orchestrated by Jay Gatsby, who like his party, appears to be a splendid illusion. He has borrowed the design for his mansion from France; he has created an impressive library filled with real books that are never opened or read; he gives wild parties in which he never really participates; he speaks with elaborate formality saying words of little meaning; and he flashes a vibrant, understanding smile that quickly vanishes to reveal the true Gatsby. Just as the party lies to cover up the misery beneath, underneath Gatsby’s smooth appearance, Nick recognizes “a young roughneck.” But Gatsby is not a party-goer by nature. He stands alone, distant from the action. The first image of him in the book was at the end of Chapter 1, standing in isolation in the darkness with hand outstretched to the green light. In a similar manner, at the end of this chapter, he stands alone on his porch, waving from a distance to his last departing guests. Gatsby does not join in with the drinking and merriment, but orchestrates it all for a purpose, for he is an incurable romantic, a man with a dream.
Jordan Baker, who appears repeatedly through the night at Gatsby’s party and is described in shades of gold, is the perfect representation of the wealthy who attend his gatherings. She tells Nick that she loves Gatsby’s parties, for they are “large and intimate,” seemingly contradictory words. Like many in attendance, she is haughty in demeanor, contemptuous of others, impersonal in relationships, and adrift in life. With no permanent home, family, or occupation, she floats without purpose from golf tournament to golf tournament, from party to party, and from Daisy’s house to her aunt’s. Jordan, like most of the other inhabitants of the Egg Islands, has no moral decency. She borrowed a convertible, left it out in the rain with its top down, and then lied about it. She listened to Gatsby’s private story, promising secrecy, then immediately tempts Nick about it and tells him to call her for more information. At her first golf tournament, she moved her ball from a bad position in order to win during the semi-final round. Nick recognizes her weakness and describes her as “incurably dishonest” and capable of subterfuge. He also sees her as a totally careless person. When he accuses her of being a rotten driver, she says that others just need to keep out of her way, as if she is the most important person on the road or in the world. Nick quizzes her further and asks, “Suppose you met somebody just as careless as yourself.” Jordan shrugs off his question and ironically claims that she avoids all careless people.
Dressed in white flannels (as a symbol of purity) at the party, Nick Carraway is a complete contrast to Jordan Baker and the other wealthy party-goers. In this chapter, Nick’s Midwestern upbringing and “provincial inexperience” once again come into play, for their mix has given him moral decency and firm roots. He is appalled at the extravagance of Gatsby’s gatherings and pities the eight servants and gardeners who must clean up the “ravages” each Monday morning. Even though invited to this particular party, he feels bad about being present and not knowing the host; therefore, Nick seeks out Gatsby throughout the evening in order to introduce himself and express his appreciation. He cannot relax and enjoy the party until everything is put in order. In a similar manner, his everyday life must be orderly. He works very hard at Probity Trust, eats the same kind of lunch each day, takes his dinner each evening at the Yale Club, and studies books on investments and securities each evening (unlike Gatsby, who never opens a book in his library).
He dates Jordan Baker for a while during the summer, but is bothered by her careless approach to life and her incurable dishonesty. He puts the brakes on the relationship because of their differences and because he feels guilty about the girl back home with whom he has not made a clean break. Nick closes the chapter by describing himself as “one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” The irony of his claim is that at this point in the story, he is not totally truthful with himself. He lies about Jordan, saying her dishonesty “made no difference to me,” and he lies about the East, saying he has begun to like New York “the racy, adventurous feel of it.” He has not yet come to reckon with the importance of his past and his need to return home to the moral order that gives life meaning.