Curriculum Vital

The Education Umbrella Guide to The Great Gatsby 
Chapter three summary and analysis

This chapter summary and analysis is part of the Education Umbrella guide to The Great Gatsby. Free to download or store in our Education Cloud, our guide contains everything students need to understand F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous jazz age tale.

Questions? Comments? Contact Ross: rgrainger@educationumbrella.com

Summary

Nick observes the lavish preparations for Gatsby's parties, which involve huge quantities of fruit and other foods, an array of decorations and a Rolls Royce taxi for the guests. In the early evening an orchestra arrives and the party begins.

When he first attends one of Gatsby's parties Nick feels special because Gatsby has actually invited him, whereas most guests, he learns later, are ‘brought’. At the same time he feels uneasy, partly because he doesn't know anyone, but also increasingly because he cannot find Gatsby or learn anything about him. When he asks people if they have seen Gatsby they tersely reply that they have not. Just as he is becoming frustrated he spots Jordan Baker.

With the party in full swing, Jordan and Nick join some other guests in the garden and begin speculating about Gatsby. One of the girls present believes that he spied for Germany during World War I, while another feels certain that he has killed a man. Eventually, Jordan and Nick set off alone to search for Gatsby.

During their search Nick and Jordan encounter a drunken man in Gatsby's library who is amazed that the hundreds of books are real. Still without Gatsby, they return to the party and join one of the tables to take some champagne. One of the men at the table recognises Nick from the army. After a brief chat, the man invites Nick to join him on his new hydroplane the following morning. In the course of their conversation Nick inadvertently leads the man to reveal that he is Gatsby. As he is apologising for not being a good host, Gatsby receives a telephone call from Chicago.

Gatsby appears some time later, standing alone on the marble steps and looking happily at the guests as they enjoy themselves. Nick wonders if Gatsby's uniqueness comes from the fact that he doesn't drink. A butler then informs Jordan that Gatsby would like to speak with her alone.

While she is gone, Nick observes the drunken behaviour of some of the guests. About an hour later Jordan returns, saying that Gatsby has told her an ‘amazing’ secret. Nick apologises to Gatsby for not having recognised him. Gatsby insists it was nothing. As they are about to say goodbye, Gatsby is told that he has a phone-call from Philadelphia.

Walking down Gatsby's driveway to return home, Nick comes across a car that has crashed into a wall, causing one of the wheels to fall off. The passenger is the drunken man from the library. The driver is so drunk that he believes he can simply reverse the car and drive away.

Once home, Nick says that the story so far gives the false impression that he does little except go to parties. He then describes his work habits, ending with the moment that he leaves his office around sunset and feels alone in the city. He sees couples heading to the theatre and wishes he could be part of them. His final thoughts centre on Jordan Baker, his relationship with a young lady in his home town, and that he must end the latter before he can romantically pursue the former.

Analysis

There was music from my neighbour's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

This passage features a contrast of wealth and happiness with subtle hints of death and misery. Consider first the insect imagery: ‘In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths.’ Even today, nobody is sure why moths frantically reach for a light. After pupating from the caterpillar stage, most moths live for barely two weeks, in which time their only objective is to mate. It would perhaps, therefore, be fair to add ‘and vice versa’ to Nick’s description: moths come and go from Gatsby’s blue gardens like drunk and frivolous party guests. 

Later in the passage Nick notes that Gatsby’s station wagon ‘scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains.’ The insect imagery again suggests something both robotic and fragile, and the yellow colour adds to the sense that Gatsby's world is stark and unsubtle.

The guests have fun on the beach, either swimming or riding in the motor-boat, but there is danger: '[H]is two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam.' The thin front of a boat does 'slit' the water, rather like a sharp knife.

Finally, the morning after all this apparently harmless fun, Gatsby's servants ‘toil’ to ‘repair the ravages of the night before.’ ‘Toil’ and ‘ravage’ create the sense of an army that has occupied the house and enslaved its occupants.

There is also a hint of death in a passage that comes as Nick, Jordan and several other guests speculate about Gatsby's past:

She narrowed her eyes and shivered. Lucile shivered. We all turned and looked around for Gatsby. It was testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him from those who found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world.

That mentioning Gatsby’s name makes two of the guests shiver paints him as a ghost-like figure. He draws loud and unsubtle people into his world of bright colours, but when it comes to discussing the man himself people dare not speak too loudly: only when speculating about Gatsby do people show restraint and politeness, which is ironic given that Gatsby’s parties allow them to behave with wild abandon. 

*

Suddenly one of these gypsies in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and moving her hands like Frisco dances out alone on the canvas platform. A momentary hush; the orchestra leader varies his rhythm obligingly for her and there is a burst of chatter as the erroneous news goes around that she is Gilda Gray's understudy from the "Follies." The party has begun.

Following his use of 'gyp' in the previous chapter, Fitzgerald once more captures the prejudice of the jazz age: ‘[O]ne of these gypsies’ refers to one of the many ‘confident’, uninvited girls who swirl from group to group with little class or decorum.

As in the previous chapter there is clattering jewellery and a sense of vulnerability: ‘trembling opal’ on a woman dancing alone. Opal is a gemstone that contains many sparkling colours, a fittingly shifting piece for a ‘gypsy’.

The cultural references create a strong sense of absurdity bordering on madness: ‘Frisco’ refers to Joe Frisco, an American vaudeville performer of the 1910s well known in New York City and Chicago; Gilda Gray was a popular actress of the same era who popularised a dance known as the shimmy; ‘Follies’ is a reference to Ziegfeld Follies, a 1920s New York theatre production, from the French word folie, which can mean craziness, or mental illness.

Note how much Fitzgerald conveys in just three sentences, and that the final sentence contains only four words. He also creates urgency by shifting the tense from past to present.

*

‘You’re a rotten driver,’ I protested. ‘Either you ought to be more careful or you oughtn’t to drive at all.’

‘I am careful.’

‘No, you’re not.’

‘Well, other people are,’ she said lightly.

‘What’s that got to do with it?’

‘They’ll keep out of my way,’ she insisted. ‘It takes two to make an accident.’

‘Suppose you met somebody just as careless as yourself.’

‘I hope I never will,’ she answered. ‘I hate careless people. That’s why I like you.’

This light yet profound piece of dialogue between Nick and Jordan says much about the Highballs society of the East coast, and was used by the eminent professor of American literature Sarah Churchwell in the title of her book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby. 

The passage contains first Jordan’s admission that she is ‘careless’, and her belief that Nick is careful, a claim Nick furthers in the following paragraph when he says, ‘But I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires’. However, to get involved with the careless and somewhat dubious Jordan, to say nothing of Gatsby, is foolish of Nick, adding to the sense that he is a ‘naïf’ narrator.  

In addition, Nick’s remark ‘Suppose you met someone as careless as yourself’ creates an ominous sense of anticipation, for the reader knows that a number of ‘careless’ people are on a collision course.

Note also another effective use of an adverb, ‘lightly’. This shows Jordan’s alarming insouciance at driving – and indeed living – carelessly.  

Questions? Comments? Contact Ross: rgrainger@educationumbrella.com