Chapter 3

Synopsis of Chapter 3

The chapter opens with a description of Gatsby’s parties and his hospitality. Nick is invited and attends, where he meets Jordan again, and has several conversations with other guests. Some of the guests gossip about Gatsby and the origins of his wealth. Jordan and Nick search for Gatsby, ending up in the library, where they meet a man with owl-eyed spectacles who enthuses about the books being real. 

Beacon Towers 1920, an inspiration for Gatsby's homeNick eventually meets Gatsby, having mistaken him for one of the guests. Jordan is summoned to speak privately with Gatsby, and meanwhile Nick witnesses several scenes of drunken marital discord. As he is leaving, a car crashes into a ditch. Nick’s final view of the party is of Gatsby’s isolation and the emptiness of the house. 

Nick then reflects on the events he has narrated so far, which comprised ‘three nights several weeks apart’ and claims that these are not representative of his experiences overall in New York over that summer. He gives a more generalised picture of his life, especially focussing on New York at night. He also recounts his developing relationship with Jordan and comments on her deceitfulness and carelessness, ending the chapter with a comment that he himself needs to disentangle himself from a relationship ’back home’, while also claiming that:

I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

Commentary on Chapter 3

In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths - This romantic and glamorous image of Gatsby’s parties, using colour imagery and a simile, establishes Gatsby’s parties as superior to the New York experience of Chapter 2. The scale is immense – quantified to impress the reader:

  • two hundred oranges
  • a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums.

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun - Light is an important feature of the party, here defying nature.

moving her hands like Frisco - Joe Frisco (1889 – 1958) was an American vaudeville performer famous for his jazz dance routine.

Image of Gilda GrayGilda Gray (October 24, 1901 – December 22, 1959) was a Polish American actress and dancer who became famous for her dance called the shimmy. In 1922, the setting for the events of Chapter 3, she was the headline performer in the box office hit, Ziegfeld Follies.

I’ll bet he killed a man - Gatsby inspires sensationalist gossip, placing him as a German spy, a murderer and an American soldier during World War I. As a whole, the novel does little to resolve the enigma of Gatsby, of which this is an early example. Gatsby himself has not yet appeared in the novel, except viewed at a distance in the darkness at the end of Chapter 1. 

Gatsby’s library / Owl Eyes - Nick’s description of the ‘high Gothic library’ emphasises its lack of authenticity, precisely because it is so realistic: ‘probably transported complete from some ruin overseas.’ Nick and Jordan meet a man there who is drunkenly contemplating the room. Owl Eyes, as Nick later dubs him, exhibits great cynicism in examining the books and ascertaining that ‘They’re real’, then celebrating the achievement of realism. Owl Eyes still observes that ‘if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse’ which has clear implications for Gatsby himself.

It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. – Owl Eyes describes Gatsby as being like David Belasco (1853 – 1931), a theatrical producer contemporary with Fitzgerald well known for his illusions of naturalism on stage.

I was brought by a woman named Roosevelt – Fitzgerald continues name dropping, mentioning a member of the one of most prestigious New York families – two members of the Roosevelt clan were American presidents.

I’m Gatsby… I thought you knew, old sport. I’m afraid I’m not a very good host. When Gatsby finally speaks to Nick, it is without introducing himself and leads to this awkward revelation. Nick’s description of him at this point focuses on his smile and presents it as having a quality of knowingness:

It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

The extended description of the smile leads to a narrative volte-face: ‘Precisely at that point it vanished…’, which prefigures the disappearance of Gatsby himself a few moments later, prompted by a telephone call from Chicago.

an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. This is Nick’s first direct description of Gatsby, which combines positive and negative aspects in an uneasy balance. The terms ‘elegant’ and ‘roughneck’ seem contradictory, but hint at a narrative of self-improvement, whereby Gatsby transcends his class to achieve the high status associated with the mansion and the party. Nick completes his representation of Gatsby with the final comment:

Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.

Following this, he and Jordan also indulge in speculation about Gatsby’s origins and credentials, with Jordan rejecting the story of Gatsby’s Oxford background.

Gatsby, standing alone … formed with Gatsby’s head for one link Gatsby is often presented by Nick as being isolated from others, and even when surrounded by guests at his own party, he is set apart. 

women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands – Nick observes a series of scenes arising from marital discord and infidelity: the weeping singer who has ‘had a fight with a man who says he’s her husband’; the hissing ‘angry diamond’ of a wife who recognises that she must compete with a ‘young actress’; and the argumentative wives who are ‘lifted, kicking, into the night’ by their sober husbands. Jordan later ‘tantalises’ Nick by referring to an ‘amazing’ story which she has promised to keep secret. The context of marital dysfunction, usurpation and reclamation, may suggest that the story is of a similar nature. The story is deferred until the next chapter and does indeed lead to catastrophically disrupted relationships.

a bizarre and tumultuous scene Nick’s final experience at the party is of a car crash, and many aspects of this foreshadow the crash involving Myrtle.

violently shorn of one wheel… the amputated wheel The language here anticipates the physical damage done to Myrtle when she is hit by Gatsby’s car.

A man in a long duster – in the early days of motoring, drivers exposed to the elements covered up their clothes by wearing a loose-fitting, long, light coat known as a duster coat, often made from buff coloured canvas or linen.

‘I wasn’t driving. There’s another man in the car.’ The crowd misidentifies Owl Eyes as the ‘criminal’ in this car crash, and he has to exonerate himself by pointing to the true culprit. When this happens to Gatsby, later in the novel, he protects the identity of Daisy as the culprit, and has to experience the consequences of this.

A sudden emptiness … gesture of farewell. Gatsby’s pathos derives from his loneliness and yearning, and this elegiac moment in the novel underlines the superficiality and transitory nature of Gatsby’s parties. 

merely casual events - Nick retreats from this part of the narrative here, focussing for the remainder of the chapter on his working life in New York and his relationship with Jordan, and denying that the events he has related so far were as prominent in his life as they might seem to the reader. 

I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others … wasting the most poignant moments of night and life. Nick depicts life in New York as busy, crowded, adventurous and exciting, but also highlights his exclusion from it, creating a sense of melancholy which echoes the earlier image of Gatsby isolated in the midst of his own party. 

Then it was something more - Nick’s account of the relationship with Jordan emphasises that he ‘wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.’ 

Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply… Nick accepts Jordan’s dishonesty in terms of her femininity, but notes that it stems from being unable to accept ‘being at a disadvantage’. Jordan, as a sportswoman, is extremely competitive, which is a valued personal quality in American culture, and the idea of her cheating, which is echoed in Chapter 4 by the idea of Meyer Wolfsheim having fixed the World’s Series, goes to the very heart of the cultural tension between gaining supremacy and retaining integrity.

you’re a rotten driver Nick’s criticism of Jordan leads to a discussion of ‘careless’ people, and Jordan’s comment that ‘it takes two to make an accident’, which both illustrates her irresponsible attitude in expecting others to ‘keep out of my way’, and presents the concept that disaster strikes when careless people collide with each other. This association between driving and social responsibility has already been introduced with the car crash at the party, but is developed at several key points in the novel, most notably in the car crash which kills Myrtle.

I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known. Nick’s self-assessment follows a brief consideration of his dishonourable behaviour within an existing relationship (he refers to it euphemistically as ‘that tangle back home’ and a ‘vague understanding’ from which he must extricate himself). Thus Nick seems to exhibit his own dishonesty while claiming to be honest. As in Chapter 1, this kind of comment not only destabilises our opinions of the other characters, but also undermines our confidence in Nick as a narrator.

Investigating Chapter 3

  • What are the connotations of moths? (used at the start of the chapter)
  • How many colours are included in the description of the party?
    • What are their connotations?
  • How are the female party guests referred to in Chapter 3?
  • Nick notes ‘the sea-change of faces and voices and colour under the constantly changing light.’ Can you find other examples of water imagery to describe groups of people?
  • Movement and change are strongly emphasised in the description of the party. What are the implications of this for the rest of the novel?
  • Examine the car crash description.
    • How is sound used in this passage?
    • What techniques are used to convey the confusion which has caused this accident?
    • How does Nick respond to this confusion and what does this remind you of?
  • How is Jordan important as a character in this novel?
    • Consider her role in narrating the story, as well as the salient features of her personality.
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.