Saturday, June 10, 2017

Great Gatsby Read-Along: Chapter IV

I need you to know up-front that I have been awake since 4:40am, and I have hosted a yard sale with 4 of my friends from 6am to noon, and my feet hurt a lot.  Also, I have not had as much caffeine as I would like.  You've been warned.

I mean, we open with the sentence, "On Sunday morning while church bells rang in the village alongshore, the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby's house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn" (p. 64).  Well, if that's not an indictment of the moral hollowness of these people, I don't know what is.  Of course, it seems Nick's one of those worldly folk and there at Gatsby's, not in church.  Tsk tsk.

Interesting that Gatsby is so restless, isn't it?  "He was never quite still" (p. 67).  I think that's an outward sign of his inner discontent, his constant searching and yearning and needing.

It's also interesting that the one point of Gatsby's narrative that Nick doesn't question at all is his assertion that San Francisco is part of the Middle West, as they call it here?  I mean, dude, Nick is a Midwesterner himself.  He surely knows Frisco is on the West Coast.  Gatsby ought to know that too, come to think of it.  Why does he say that city, not some innocuous, actual-Midwestern city like, I don't know, Minneapolis or Omaha?  The more we think we learn about Gatsby, the less we actually know about him.  It's like we keep trying to walk toward him, but he keeps moving away from us, so we never see him any more clearly.

But Gatsby tells Nick something during that car ride that I think is absolutely true, and a huge piece of understanding why he does the things he does all through this story.  He says, "I didn't want you to think I was just some nobody" (p. 71).  Gatsby seems, to me, to be striving constantly to be somebody.  This will come up again toward the end -- I'm thinking of a specific line of Tom's -- but even here it's so telling, isn't it?

And Nick doesn't really shine in this chapter, does he?  I mean, he says, "I was sure the request would be something utterly fantastic, and for a moment I was sorry I'd ever set foot upon his over-populated lawn" (p. 71).  Dude, you think Gatsby's all cool until he asks you for a favor, and then you don't want to bother with him?  I mean, how utterly fantastic could it be?  You think he wants to have you impersonate him at the next party?  Swim with sharks?  Marry his sister, supposing he has one?  Nick, Nick, Nick.  I'm not very pleased with you in this chapter.  But I know I'm cranky and tired, so maybe that's part of it.

So then there's this guy Wolfshiem.  He's like a bad caricature stepped out of a different story into this one, isn't he?  Like he just came from rehearsing The Merchant of Venice and forgot to get out of character or something.  This chapter is one of the places Nick really feels like a piece of a faraway world, with his casually derogatory attitude toward blacks and Jews.  So much of this book feels current, doesn't it?  But not this.  Maybe we have progressed a little over the past almost-hundred years.

There are two instances in this chapter of people making weird judgement calls about other people, ones we either already know to be erroneous, or will learn by the end of the chapter are off.  First, Gatsby says that Jordan Baker is "a great sportswoman, you know, and she'd never do anything that wasn't all right" (p. 75), but Nick already told us in the last chapter that Jordan is a habitual liar and has possibly cheated at golf.  So either Gatsby doesn't know much about Jordan, or he thinks Nick doesn't.  And then Mr. Wolfsheim says Gatsby "would never so much as look at a friend's wife" (p. 76), and yet, by the end of the chapter, we know he wants to meet up with Daisy semi-secretly.

But then again, Daisy's not "a friend's wife," I guess.  He does shake hands with Tom when Nick introduces them, but then he slips away.  You know, the more I think about it, the more I think Gatsby refuses to know more about a person than fits into the narrative he's pre-constructed.  Nick = helpful = friend = trustworthy, because Gatsby needs him to be.  Jordan = sportswoman = honorable = trustworthy, because Gatsby needs her to be.  Tom = embarrassing = bad = disposable, because Gatsby needs him to be.  Anything that doesn't fit with his idea of how things should go, he discards or ignores.

Poor, poor Jay Gatsby, living in his dream world.

Favorite Lines:

He lifted up the words and nodded at them -- with his smile (p. 70).

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the movie cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of nonolfactory money (p. 72).

He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor (p. 83).

Possible Discussion Questions:

What is up with this gigantic list of all the people who went to Gatsby's parties while Nick lived next door to him that summer?  Why did Nick write it down in the first place?  What compels him to share it with us?  And why, if this story takes place only a year or two earlier than when Nick writes it down, is that list so worn out it's "disintegrating at its folds" (p. 64)? 

8 comments:

  1. I think Gatsby does try to force himself to believe things, perhaps even tries to force people to be these things with his personality, but he is more right than he knows about Tom who is in my (very strong) opinion, the worst character.

    And Gatsby's intense trying to be "somebody" is part of what is so pitiful about him.

    You know, something you said about Nick in one of the earlier posts added to what I think of him just made me think that perhaps Nick sees himself in Gatsby in some ways, that is why he doesn't ditch him. They are both trying to fit in. Neither really knows what they want in some ways.

    And despite Fitzgerald's stereotyping and bias, I do think perhaps he used Tom's more blatantly racist statements and paranoia to critique that attitude a little. But then he could have been so smug himself that he was only critiquing Tom's paranoia and so have been just as bad.

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    1. Livia, I think Nick definitely sees some of himself in Gatsby. And Gatsby sees some of himself in Nick. They both recognize a kindred spirit, in some ways. Nick is a bit like what Gatsby used to be, young and sometimes idealistic, but he's also the insider that Gatsby wishes he was. And Nick sees his potential self in Gatsby -- the person who is always watching, never participating, even in the parties he himself throws.

      If you're going to count Gatsby as a satire, then the most satirical thing I find in it is Tom's attitudes on race. He's all white supremacist, but he's a poor excuse for a human being. Nick's supposed to be the good, kind of pure person, but he's a bit worried about the black people in the car reversing social and racial roles and having a white chauffeur, and he's put off by Wolfsheim (though possibly more because the dude is creepy than because he's Jewish?).

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  2. I've always enjoyed the lists, but you ask a good question! Why? Maybe it has something to do with Nick's observing nature. He doesn't just observe but he documents, too! Maybe its a momento of this era in his life which I do think had a major affect on him - whether good or bad I'm not sure. I'm just throwing out ideas, now!

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    1. Dale, that's a good point -- Nick's an observer, almost like a reporter. And he took some notes. That does make sense for why he wrote them down, anyway.

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  3. I wonder whether the lists were Nick's attempt at self-importance. "I attended some of these parties and these well-heeled people were there." Does he peruse the lists, reminding himself of better times, hence their worn out appearance? The lists were weird and seemed out of place and reminded me of all the begats in the Bible. The caricatures and characterizations were not only Nick's. Fitzgerald was certainly a product of the prejudices of his time.

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    1. Sue, that's a thought too. He's trying to show off who he's hung out with, like how people now share selfies of themselves with a celebrity in the background.

      Fitzgerald definitely was a product of his times, and likely held views we would consider unacceptably racist today, but I'm always careful not to ascribe to an author the thoughts and attitudes that belong to the characters they write. I mean, I've written a character who says terrible things about Native Americans, and I certainly would hate to have people assume that means I believe those things!

      Everything in Gatsby is filtered through Nick. If anything, I would suggest Fitzgerald is pointing out how Nick thinks he's better than Tom, but he's got some of the same underlying issues, and thus trying to show the hypocrisy of polite society.

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  4. I think appearances are deceiving in this book, and Nick is trying to tell us not to form distinct opinions on each character. In the previous chapter, I thought Gatsby was secure with himself or comfortable being in his shoes, but in this chapter he is anxious for Nick to believe the past he tells him. My brain is getting muddled thinking of all the intricacies of the characters.

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    1. Ekaterina, that's so true that no one is quite what they seem to be at first in this book.

      Gatsby himself fascinates me because we never seem to get a distinct picture of him. He's always just a little vague and elusive -- just when we think we know what he's like, something happens to contradict our ideas. It's some amazing writing.

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What do you think?

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