Sunday, June 4, 2017

Great Gatsby Read-Along: Chapter II

Gatsby may be "the man who gives his name to this book" (p. 2), but he's nowhere to be found in this chapter.  Oh, he does get name-checked, but we spend this chapter learning about the very broken people living near Gatsby, and near Nick.  And we learn some interesting stuff about Nick too.

So what is up with this Tom Buchanan guy, huh?  He's met Nick a couple of times over the years, and today he invites Nick to go hang out with him and his mistress, Myrtle, in their little love nest in the city.  Just like he brings Myrtle to restaurants to force his friends and acquaintances to acknowledge that he has a mistress, he has to flaunt her in front of Nick too.  I get the feeling that Tom is somehow trying to show everyone how powerful he is -- he has the power and right to have a mistress, and no one can stop him.  Which makes me suspect he's trying to convince himself of his power, more than anyone else.

And what's up with Nick, come to think of it?  He's Daisy's cousin, for Pete's sake, but he gets invited to hang out with her husband's twinkie-in-the-city?  I mean, he gives us readers the distinct impression that he finds this whole Tom-has-a-mistress thing distasteful, even icky, but he totally goes along with Tom and Myrtle to their place.  He says he wants to leave, but when he gets sent out to buy cigarettes, thus being given the perfect exit -- he could just take the train home -- he comes back.  And he doesn't just come back, he hangs out in the living room alone while Tom and Myrtle get it on elsewhere in the apartment.  Later, he insists, "I wanted to get out" (p. 37), but every time he tries to leave, people get in an argument and he ends up staying, so I'm not all that convinced that he actually wants to leave.

I see Nick as an observer.  He's happier watching life than participating in it, I think.  He finds Tom and Myrtle yucky, but he wants to watch them.  He'd rather watch people having an affair than have one himself -- remember in the last chapter, he said he'd recently abandoned a relationship with a woman people thought he was going to marry.  It's like he finds life and relationships messy and weird, and doesn't want to touch them, but he also finds them fascinating and wants to look at them.

And I think Nick also hates being alone.  He's almost always hanging out with someone else in this book.  He was supposed to be sharing his rented house with someone, but that person decided at the last minute not to live there, so now he's lonely.  So he gravitates toward people.  He's got nobody else to be with that day, so he stays with Tom and Myrtle and their increasingly drunken bunch of pals rather than go home alone.

As for Myrtle, I feel very sorry for her.  She doesn't respect her husband, she clearly only likes Tom because he gives her a good time and has lots of money, and nobody takes her seriously.  And then to top it off, her "sweetie" (as Myrtle's sister Catherine calls him) is an abusive drunk who breaks her nose.  Why?  Because she wouldn't do as he said and stop saying his wife's name.  Tom wants to control everyone and everything -- remember how he moved Nick around like a checker on a checkerboard in chapter one?  At the beginning of this chapter, Nick says, "his determination to have my company bordered on violence" (p. 25).  If people don't willingly do as Tom says, he will make them do it.  Swell guy Daisy married.

So anyway, one theme in this book that intrigues me is the idea that appearances are deceiving.  Nick appears to want to leave, but really he wants to stay.  Myrtle married Mr. Wilson because she "thought he was a gentleman" (p. 37), but when it turned out that he married her wearing a rented tuxedo, she realizes he wasn't what she thought.  His appearance deceived her.  Myrtle appears to want to own a dog, but really she just wants to show off to Nick that she can get Tom to buy her anything she wants.  We'll see this theme crop up again.

Have you been paying attention to the colors used in this book?  Blue and yellow get mentioned a lot, often together.  So do red and white --  Tom and Daisy live in a red-and-white house, and here Myrtle's sister has red hair and a white complexion.  And we get two instances of blue and yellow being paired up.  First is that freaky billboard with the giant eyes.  Giant blue eyes behind giant yellow spectacles, peering out at the world in silent omniscience.  Second is Mr. Wilson, Myrtle's husband, who has blond hair and light blue eyes.  Not entirely sure why these colors get paired up a lot, unless it's pointing to a certain blue car and a certain yellow car that will be important later on?  Any ideas?

Favorite Lines:

At 158th Street the cab stopped at one slice in a long white cake of apartment-houses (p. 30).

I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life" (p. 38).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Myrtle tells Nick that her sister Catherine is "said to be beautiful by people who ought to know" (p. 30).  Similarly, Jay Gatsby is said to be "great" by Nick Carraway, a person we assume ought to know.  We spend this whole book being told about people by Nick, rather than seeing them for ourselves.  Why do you think Fitzgerald chose to filter his characters through a narrator this way?  How would the story be different if it were told in third person?

From the 1949 film version starring Alan Ladd as Jay Gatsby

30 comments:

  1. A lot of the points you made, I didn't see when I first read The Great Gatsby, but on this second read-along, I'm seeing more and more intricate themes and underlying meanings.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Laura, this is definitely one of those books where I peel back more layers every time I read it.

      Delete
  2. Wait, please help me with the end of ch. 2. What's going on? I know you said Nick doesn't like to be alone, but is it because of his drunken state that he ends up crashing at a neighbor's pad (in a very weird situation)-- or was there something else that I missed. The narration is broken up, like the memory of a drunk person would be, and it is awkward.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for asking this question. I was almost convinced that my copy of the book was missing a page.

      Delete
    2. Ruth, I think the events at the end of chapter two are prompted more by Nick's innate helpfulness than his dislike of being alone. And yes, I think it's written brokenly to simulate the disorientation of drunkenness, but I don't think we're supposed to think Nick and Mr. McKee were in a compromising situation, if you know what I mean.

      I assume Mr. McKee invited Nick down to look at his photograph collection he's been bragging about, and Nick politely agreed to go with him. Once there, McKee decided to go to bed, but then still wanted to show the photos to Nick, and decided to do both at once because drunk people make no sense at all. And yes, there's definitely awkwardness -- Nick communicates that pretty clearly. But to me it sounds like he doesn't spend the night there, he leaves and winds up sleeping it off at the train station, because he wakes up there.

      That's how I read it, anyway. Hoping other people weigh in on this!

      Delete
    3. Yes, that's right -- he woke up somewhere else, which happens occasionally when one has been drinking. Thank you. I think I prefer thinking that Nick was or is just polite and concerned about people. Makes me feel better. Thanks.

      Delete
    4. Ruth, I have never been drunk, but I know people who have, and I remember one of them saying that one morning after a big party, he woke up and thought, "Where am I? And whose clothes am I wearing?" Drinking really messes with your head, and I think that also, Nick only recalling fragments of that night shows that he had imbibed to the point where he can't really remember what happened anymore. He somehow went here, he somehow woke up there.

      Really, for a booze-hound party-boy, Fitzgerald has written a very powerful indictment of alcohol abuse in this book, showing off all the damage it can cause. I'll be delving into this more in future posts, but one of the things I really like about this book is how it shows just what sorts of terrible things result from bad behavior.

      I just finished watching the 2013 movie adaptation, and they use a song in it that says "A little party never hurt anybody" over and over, which I thought was brilliant, because this whole book shows so clearly just how much the partying mentality can hurt people. They think they'll be fine, but they definitely will not be.

      Delete
  3. One second before I comment on the chapter... Alan Ladd plays Gatsby?!?! I bet he would be a great Jay Gatsby! I have to search for that movie version. The only version I've seen is the one with Robert Redford, and I didn't really like him as Gatsby.

    That's interesting how you pointed out how Nick is an observer. I mean, it's an obvious because he's narrating the story, but it's interesting that he wants to be an observer. I only noticed the places when Nick could have gone home because I read your post before reading the chapter. If I hadn't read your post first, I would not have noticed that part of the story. I see Nick as a biased observer and his memories are definitely less accurate because they have been altered by the events that will occur in the future. Maybe in the moment Nick's disgust of Tom and his mistress was not as great as it was when he writes this story, which is in the future. What do you think?

    I think the story would be more accurate if it was told from a third person, but it would not have the same charms. When Nick gets drunk at Gatsby's party in the next chapter, it's almost as if you can picture the scene like Nick and the other party goers, who are drunk. Nick also looks at some situations with rose colored glasses, like when he first describes meeting Daisy and how the curtains were moving. I love those descriptive sentences. If the book was in third person, would those type of sentences lose some of their magic because it was told from a third person?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ekaterina, yes indeedy! Alan Ladd played Gatsby, and he was basically born for the part. You can watch the full thing on YouTube at the moment. I wrote a long review of it right here. I haven't seen the Redford version yet, but I'm kind of on a quest to see as many versions as I can this month, so I've put a hold on that one at the library. I know a lot of people who don't like that one, but my mom does, so I'll give it a whirl.

      I agree that Nick is a biased observer. You make a great point that it could be later events have changed Nick's feelings toward that party at Tom & Myrtle's. I hadn't thought of that!

      Nick definitely adds a huge chunk of charm to this story. He's one of the only characters I really like at all, so having him narrate it makes me like the book better.

      Delete
    2. Doggone it, it's off YouTube now. Hmph. I believe this airs on TCM sometimes, though. You can buy it on DVD from Amazon, too.

      Delete
    3. Oh! I wish the film was one YouTube. Maybe it will come back? If that doesn't happen, then I'll watch it through Amazon. :-)

      I'm curious to see what you think of the '70s version. Will you post a review after we finish reading the book?

      Delete
    4. Ekaterina, I wish it was too! But definitely just check for it now and then, as sometimes these things pop up for a brief time.

      I HOPE to have time to watch and review the '70s version this month. I watched the 2013 version about a week ago and still haven't had time to finish writing up even a cursory post about it, so we'll see.

      Delete
  4. I think the roaring twenties is a time of great changes and uncertainty. Tom is worried by these changes; the arrival of immigrants for example (his "civilizations's going to pieces" speech). So he was restless, I can see it now. His (or his classs) domination is threatened. His brutishness is perhaps his way to show off power (and as you said, to convince himself of his power).

    I began to think that Myrtle is similar to Gatsby. She wants to be somebody. She thought Wilson is rich, but his appearance deceived her. And when she entered her and Tom's appartment, she became somebody else. Falseness is everywhere.

    Nick is interesting. He is disgusted, but nonetheless he keeps being involved. I think it is how Fitzgerald was thinking too. He enjoyed the luxury, the drinks (he is a severe drunkard!), but deep down his Catholicism accused him of falling to sin.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fanda, that's such a great observation about all the change being what's really eating at Tom. I can totally see him as a person who does not handle change well at all, in his personal life or in the world around him.

      Interesting that you see similarities in Gatsby and Myrtle. I'm going to think about that a bit, but my first inclination is to say yes, you're quite right. They do mirror each other, in more ways than just the fact they come to a tragic end as a result of Tom's philandering.

      And yes, I see a lot of Fitzgerald in Nick. One of those two books we're reading with this talked about Fitzgerald calling this a Catholic story originally -- I think it was in Careless People? The author thought he removed the Catholic elements, but I agree with you that there's a sense of guilt and need to do penance for sins that feels very Catholic running through the story.

      Delete
  5. I found more than a little gross, how Tom takes Nick along to the apartment like it's some perfectly normal thing (and how Nick goes, for that matter). Blech. :P So far, even though I'm really enjoying the *writing* in this book, there aren't really any other redeeming qualities. (Does it get better?)

    ~Eva

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, it says a lot about the mentality of these people that Tom thinks this is a-okay. Nick at least has the moral sense to be uncomfortable.

      Well... define "better." More moral? More happy?

      Are you looking for a happy ending? Are you looking for a lesson on the vacuousness of endlessly pursuing pleasure? Are you looking for a study in how selfish people destroy things and people? Are you looking for nice people being nice to each other? Cuz you'll find two of those here, and not find two of them here.

      It's kind of like reading Oliver Twist. You've got one nice kid surrounded by all manner of awful people.

      Delete
  6. This another example of where I suspect Nick of insincerity. I think everyone in the book is insincere, everyone has a persona, and he is trying to pretend not to that he isn't insincere, that he is real . . . or is trying to convince himself or us that he is not. I think if he was truly disgusted with people he wouldn't hang out with them. I feel like everyone is putting on a charade and many of them out of insecurity (Nick, Tom, and Gatsby) or impotent power or vanity (Myrtle, Daisy, Jordan) or a mix. Nick seems very weak, that is his major characteristic. He gets mixed up with so many women, but he tries to blow it off, like he isn't messing around.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Livia, it's true -- Nick is not a reliable narrator. He wants desperately for people to like him, so he will put forth what he thinks will make them like him.

      On the other hand, I know from experience that when you're new to a place and you're hanging out with basically the only people you know there, and then they start doing something you don't approve of, it's very hard to say, "Hey, I'm not cool with this." It's even hard to say that to people you know really well, sometimes. And I'm a strong-willed, strong-minded person... Nick isn't.

      But I disagree that Nick is "messing around" with women the way we would use that phrase today. When he says he had "a short affair" with a girl who worked for accounting, I don't think that means "had sex with them behind someone else's back." I'm pretty sure that means "love affair," like "short dating thing." Not like he's running around cheating on people with other people, which is what "messing around" means, at least in my experience?

      Delete
    2. I have to disagree about Nick, I think the innuendo increases, but because I finished the book, and I have so many thoughts, I will wait until the end discussion or perhaps do a post. What is interesting about this book is that you can more easily discuss and analyze it because it is short (but like I've said, I think it is both overrated and over-analyzed, but here I go anyway :P), so I am focuses on Nick this time (in part due to this discussion). I don't think I gave him quite the attention he deserved if any at all. I think I wrote him off as the pointless narrators in Sherlock Holmes and Wuthering Heights.

      Delete
    3. Livia, disagreements are inevitable -- no two people will view a story the same way.

      Perhaps it's because I only read Gatsby for the first time after I had finished college, but I don't think it's been over-analyzed. Certainly not more than any other famous piece of writing. And because every person who reads it brings their own thoughts and interpretations to it, as I said above, I think people can continually find fresh and interesting things to say about it. Otherwise, why bother ever discussing books at all? Why host or join read-alongs like this, have book groups, or even casually talk about books with your friends?

      The first time I read Gatsby, when I was about 24, I was very disappointed. I came to it expecting it to blow my mind or alter my life or, at the very least, be obviously wonderful. It was so famous, so well-respected, so beloved. And after that first reading, I felt let-down. But when I went back to it about ten years later and read it again, I realized that this was a much subtler, deeper, and more nuanced book than I had first observed. As I re-read it, I marveled at Fitzgerald's craftsmanship. I'm doing the same now.

      And by the way, I thoroughly and unequivocally disagree with your statement that Dr. Watson is a "pointless narrator" in the Sherlock Holmes stories. If that is your view, I am convinced you are missing the point of those books.

      Delete
  7. I like Nick's observations. And the question of whether he is detached or in the middle of everything. Personally, I think it's both. I've heard Nick described as a moral compass to Gatsby. I've never really gone along with that although I suppose once we get to the end of the novel there might be some evidence. I think his role as a casual observer and then maybe a not so casual observer is much more fascinating. And I think his seeming to go with the flow somehow emphasizes the disillusionment of so many of the characters. No real purpose.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dale, I think that Nick is kind of standing in the eye of the storm, watching everything go to pieces around him, and he's just stuck there going, "What on earth?" So often he seems to be stationary while others are moving -- in chapter 4, he just sits at that restaurant table while Wolfshiem comes and goes, Gatsby goes and comes -- Nick's standing still watching.

      I don't think Nick's exactly a moral compass for Gatsby, though. He's not a Jiminy Cricket. Or maybe he almost might wish he HAD been that for Gatsby? But he never had the means, motive, or opportunity to break out of being an observer? Just kind of tossing ideas here at this point...

      Delete
    2. No I don't think Nick is a moral compass either, but the lack of morals seems to eventually get to him at the end. But we can wait til we get there. Great posts! Thanks for hosting this!

      Delete
    3. Dale, yes -- I'm reminded of that line from Hamlet that the purpose of playacting (or fiction in general, IMHO) is "to hold a mirror up to nature." I think Nick kind of serves to hold a mirror up to the other characters, but most of them turn a back on his reminder of the error of their ways. Gatsby doesn't. At least, that's kind of how I remember it!

      Delete
  8. So far I find the writing somewhat confusing and sluggish but also fascinating because I think in a way it reflects the way Nick sees his surroundings... But I love these read-along posts to help me understand it all. :)

    Hmmm. I think this story would be really dull in third person because, like I mentioned, the narration really puts the reader into the scene through Nick's perspective.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Meredith, glad the posts are helping you! I actually was very disappointed by this book the first time I read it -- I didn't really "get" it, and I expected some kind of bit, triumphant ending from it because it had been touted to me as a Great American Novel for so long.

      I think so to -- Nick the narrator is a big part of why this book works.

      Delete
  9. "Broken" is the perfect word to describe the people in this chapter.

    I think Nick, as the narrator is a big part of what makes the book great, if a third person narrator was used it would all feel a bit flat in comparison. And then the whole question whether Nick's observations and descriptions of people are reliable opens up a new level of character interpretations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Rose. I'm pretty fascinated by broken and damaged people, which is probably part of why this book interests me so much.

      I agree -- Nick's personal charm is part of why the book is enjoyable. But it definitely means we have to remember we're getting his interpretation of events.

      Delete
  10. I don't think I understand why, but I love this chapter. And Nick is a lot like me with his being an observer of life. And I can kinda understand his sticking around when he wants to go too. If I were okay with it morally (which I think he is, though he finds it distasteful) I would have stuck around too, out of some kind of morbid fascination.

    Also, Myrtle probably thought she'd got a gentleman when she and Tom started up, but then he breaks her nose.

    I love the descriptions in this chapter. The whole book has fantastic descriptions, but I think this one is particularly saturated with favorites. The valley of ashes, then Wilson, and Myrtle, then the party -- it's nonstop!

    Filtering the information makes the readers feel like observers -- not sure why that's important but I think it is? Somehow it's very effective. Maybe because we're supposed to be passing judgement on characters we don't know, and that's how it happens in real life? The second hand information is also very different from the first hand information we eventually get too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sarah, isn't it intriguing how one chapter can just pull you inside it, and others push you away? I'm trying to finish chapter 7 for today's post, and I keep just... not wanting to read it.

      Such a good point about Myrtle being wrong about the gentlemanly qualities of Tom as well. She certainly goes through some disillusionment herself. Though she never sees Wilson for who he is, a decent guy who is good to her.

      Fitzgerald's descriptions wow me too, especially in these first few chapters.

      I think you're right that we're being forced to be observers, almost like reading about this in a newspaper. I think it makes the book feel more "real." But also keeps us from quite emotionally engaging with some parts -- like Gatsby standing off on his own and watching the party.

      Delete

What do you think?

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)