Disrupted chronology

Spiralling through time

The spiral of timeThe overall direction of the narrative in The Great Gatsby is forwards, however a close examination of the chronology reveals that this is disrupted by repeatedly returning to the past. Although the dominant narrative covers the events of June to October 1922, the timescale of the novel is broad, incorporating the arrival of the Dutch sailors 300 years earlier (the historical record indicates 1624) up until 1924. 

Many of the disruptions are achieved seamlessly and occur within sections of dialogue as characters refer backwards (and very occasionally forwards). There are also some points at which Nick draws attention to his manipulation of time or simply jumps backwards to a different time. References to dates and times are often embedded within the text, unobtrusively presented within dialogue or at the end of a passage, so that the effect can appear vague. These are generally consistent, although there are some aspects of this extremely complex novel where Fitzgerald appears to have made errors with the chronology, such as the age of Pammy. The most striking aspect of the structure is its incessant movement from one time period to another, tending to return to the past while building a picture of a brief time in 1922. This is very much in keeping with the idea expressed in the final line of the novel, where the verb ‘beat’ has the same form in both the past and present tenses:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 opens the novel with a consideration of several time periods:

  • What Nick calls his ‘younger and more vulnerable years’
  • Nick’s college life
  • ‘last autumn’ (referring to 1922 and thereby implying that the narrator’s present is 1923)
  • The founding of the Carraway family
  • Nick’s graduation in 1915
  • The First World War
  • Nick’s move to the East in the spring of 1922
  • The life of Daisy and Tom before they came to the East including references to college, Chicago and France
  • The evening of Nick’s visit to the Buchanans’ house in East Egg, a fortnight before June 21st
  • Several conversations at this visit which refer to the past, including Daisy’s reference to a recent injury caused by Tom and Daisy’s account of her words when Pammy was born.

The constantly shifting time settings create a sense of fractured reality, and a reality that is dependent on its relationship to the past. 

Chapter 2

In Chapter 2, there is more steady forwards movement within the year of the main action, 1922, as Nick focuses his narrative on the events of a train journey, a visit to Wilson’s garage and a visit to Tom’s New York apartment. This is all set ‘a few days before the Fourth of July’ on a ‘Sunday afternoon’. The party at the apartment continues until around midnight, after which Nick leaves the apartment, visits Mr McKee’s apartment and then waits for the train at four o’clock in the morning. Time is handled in a linear fashion for most of this chapter, although there are some brief anecdotes told by Myrtle and Catherine which refer to past events. However, the most striking feature of this chapter is its speeding up of time:

It was nine o’clock – almost immediately afterwards I looked at my watch and found it was ten.

This is intended to reflect the confusion caused by Nick’s drunkenness as well as a sense of loss and even futility:

People disappeared, reappeared, made plans to go somewhere, and then lost each other, searched for each other, found each other a few feet away.

Chapter 3 

Chapter 3 focuses on Gatsby’s parties, offering a generalised present-tense account which becomes a specific past-tense description of Nick’s first visit to Gatsby’s house in 1922 on a Saturday evening ‘a little after seven’. The events of the evening are narrated in chronological order, until Nick meets Gatsby and there are some minor disruptions to the linear progress of the story. They begin to discuss the First World War and, when Gatsby leaves, Nick and Jordan discuss his past. The narrative then returns to the rest of the party events. Nick ends the chapter by reviewing what he has narrated so far. This meta-narrative seeks to reposition the three main events (the visit to Daisy and Tom, the visit to New York and the visit to Gatsby’s house) as ‘merely casual events in a crowded summer’. Nick goes back in time to present a generalised account of his activities over the summer, including his habits whilst in New York and then an overview of his relationship with Jordan, without any precise details of the time other than ‘midsummer’.

Chapter 4 

Chapter 4 opens with a brief account of visitors to Gatsby’s house ‘on Sunday morning’ and then shifts to Nick’s record of the guests, noted on a train timetable dated ‘July 5th 1922’. This record occasionally digresses to tell mostly gruesome stories of events that befell the guests at other times, such as ‘young Brewer, who had his nose shot off in the war’. This is intended as a generalised account, with the date given as a guide, but then Nick’s narrative becomes very specific again, ‘At nine o’clock, one morning late in July’ when Gatsby comes to Nick’s house to drive him to New York. The journey is a ‘disconcerting ride’ which includes a detailed conversation on the topic of Gatsby’s past. 

Here is our first major disruption in the chronology of the novel, as the ‘story’ about Gatsby’s family, his Oxford education, living in all the capitals of Europe and serving in the army in the First World War, is told. This serves as a preamble to Gatsby’s ‘big request’ which is to be revealed later by Jordan. Nick rejects Gatsby’s account at almost every turn, mocking and unpicking its factually incorrect details:

‘What part of the Middle West?’ I inquired casually.
‘San Francisco.’
‘I see.’

The next event in this chapter returns to the 1922 setting, and takes place in ‘a well-fanned Forty-second Street cellar’ where Nick, Gatsby and Wolfsheim have lunch. Again, stories are told about the past: 

  • Rosy Rosenthal’s death
  • Wolfsheim’s involvement in the World’s Series
  • Gatsby’s time at Oxford. 

When Nick spots Tom Buchanan in the restaurant, he introduces Gatsby, who then disappears. 

At this point, there is an abrupt shift in setting as Nick tells us he is with Jordan at the Plaza Hotel, and the narrative goes back to ‘one October day in 1917’. Jordan, via Nick, recounts Daisy’s relationship with Gatsby, focussing on:

  • Jordan’s first encounter with Gatsby in Daisy’s car
  • Daisy’s recovery from his departure
  • Her marriage to Tom in June 1919 which is almost called off
  • The subsequent experiences of Tom’s infidelity
  • Daisy’s maternity in April 1920 (the only inconsistency here is that Pammy is said to be three years old in 1922).

Jordan’s account brings us up to the recent past of ‘about six weeks ago’ when Daisy realised that Gatsby was ‘the man she used to know’. 

We then return to Nick’s narrative and the 1922 setting, where Jordan explains the events which took place at the party in Chapter 3, when Jordan left to speak to Gatsby for about an hour but didn’t disclose what this was about. Jordan now reveals Gatsby’s intentions and how Nick is to assist in bringing Daisy to a reunion with Gatsby. Nick concludes by noting a change of location and time, to Central Park at twilight, where he kisses Jordan.

The effect of breaking the chronology

The effect of these major disruptions is to create tension as Gatsby’s plan is emerging, but also to create mystery and doubt surrounding Gatsby himself. Although Nick’s initial supposition was that the proximity of Gatsby to Daisy was a ‘strange coincidence’, it is actually demonstrated to be deliberate, and Gatsby is ‘delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendour’. The careful structuring of the text achieves this, but also forces the reader to constantly revise their understanding of characters, as new pieces of information are provided. 

Chapter 5

Chapter 5 is at the centre of the novel, and proceeds chronologically, following on from the evening with Jordan in Chapter 4 as Nick returns to his house at ‘two o’clock’ in the morning. Nick then details the entire episode of the reunion on another day between Gatsby and Daisy, noting the time of day throughout, and moving from Nick’s house to Gatsby’s, where Nick leaves the couple at the end of the afternoon. There are some minor disruptions to the chronology as Daisy and Gatsby briefly refer back to the past (‘We haven’t met for many years’) and Gatsby comments on his past businesses and his time with Dan Cody.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6 is, by contrast with Chapter 5, almost entirely retrospective. It begins with an account of a journalist seeking information in 1922, but quickly goes back to the time when James Gatz is seventeen and transforming himself into Jay Gatsby, narrated by Gatsby via Nick. The account refers to his encounter with Dan Cody, his parents, his time on Lake Superior, his time at the Lutheran College of St Olaf’s, and further details of the five years he spent with Cody. All these events are out of order but combine to present a picture of Gatsby’s ambition and opportunism. At the end of this account, Nick announces that this is a ‘halt’ in the narrative and reveals that this story was told:

very much later, but I’ve put it down here with the idea of exploding those first wild rumours about his antecedents, which weren’t even faintly true.

Such a comment is highly confusing, particularly since we don’t discover when Gatsby actually narrates these events until it is referred to in Chapter 8 and the story is continued there. It is also confusing because it doesn’t achieve the aim of ‘exploding those first wild rumours’ since Nick has related these already in the preceding chapters. Nick’s meta-narrative also undermines this account as he says it was told:

when I had reached a point of believing everything and nothing about him.

After the ‘halt’, there is a shift forwards in time of ‘several weeks’ during which Nick spends time with Jordan in New York, and the narrative resumes at Gatsby’s house ‘one Sunday afternoon’ in August (we are given the detail of ‘August foliage’ at the end of the episode). Tom, Mr Sloane and a lady arrive on horseback, but the encounter is very tense, as Tom and Sloane are reluctant to socialise with Gatsby and leave him behind. Nick uses Tom’s concern ‘at Daisy’s running round’ to link this episode neatly with a subsequent party at Gatsby’s house, this time attended by Tom and Daisy ‘on the following Saturday night’. Daisy briefly comments on Gatsby’s past, offering the information that he ‘owned some drugstores’ in response to Tom’s cynical question ‘Who is this Gatsby anyhow?’ 

Chapter 6 then reverts back to the past as Gatsby argues with Nick that it is possible to repeat the past:

‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

Nick’s narrative uses ellipsis at this point, and shifts to an account of ‘one autumn night, five years before’ in Louisville, when Gatsby kissed Daisy. The narrative is Gatsby’s, but retold in the third person by Nick, and then we are shifted back to 1922 as Nick comments that, ‘even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something’ which he fails to grasp from his own past ‘a long time ago’. 

Chapter 7

It’s possible to regard the end of Chapter 6 as a turning point in Gatsby’s story, since Chapter 7 opens with the idea of failure, and focuses on the story of Tom’s climactic confrontation with Gatsby, leading to the death of Myrtle and the reconciliation of Tom and Daisy. 

The chapter is mostly chronological again, detailing Nick’s visit to Gatsby’s house where he discovers that the servants have changed, explained by Gatsby as due to Daisy’s frequent visits (‘I wanted somebody who wouldn’t gossip’). It is hinted that Daisy and Gatsby have planned a revelation of their relationship, and Nick goes to Daisy’s house expecting a ‘rather harrowing scene’. The time setting is a day that is ‘almost the last, certainly the warmest, of the summer’ and Nick describes a train journey at noon, followed by another ellipsis and the information that Gatsby and Nick are waiting at the door of Daisy’s house. The train journey is not connected with the arrival at East Egg, but establishes the heat and emotional confusion of this chapter. 

The image of Daisy and Jordan mirrors the introduction of these characters in Chapter 1, but the inclusion of Gatsby in the scene builds tension. Pammy is also included briefly, meeting Gatsby and Nick. The group consider their plans for the afternoon and, as Daisy laments, ‘the next thirty years’. It is rare for characters to consider the future, apart from Gatsby’s plans to realise his goals (which are at least partly concerned with repeating the past), and Jordan immediately dismisses Daisy’s sense of futility:

Don’t be morbid… Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.

The narrative then proceeds chronologically as the group drive to New York, with Tom stopping briefly at Wilson’s garage, arrive at the Plaza Hotel, argue and then return to Long Island, during which journey Myrtle is killed. There are some disruptions to the chronology of this account:

  • Gatsby’s past is questioned at several points
  • Wilson recounts his discovery in ‘the last two days’ that Myrtle is having an affair
  • Daisy recalls details of her wedding to Tom in June 1919
  • Tom argues with Gatsby about the facts of their respective relationships with Daisy
  • Nick looks ahead to a ‘decade of loneliness’ having remembered that it is his birthday. 

The narrative then switches to a parallel story, that of Myrtle’s death, narrated by Michaelis ‘at the inquest’ (by this method, Fitzgerald moves simultaneously forward and backward in time). This account then converges with the story of Tom, Nick and Jordan as they arrive at the garage after the accident. Finally, the events of the accident are retold by Gatsby, providing further details of how Myrtle was killed. Nick ends the chapter back in the main time setting by spying on Tom and Daisy in their house and noting their ‘natural intimacy’.

Chapter 8

Chapter 8 resumes the narrative where Chapter 7 ended, being set in Gatsby’s house from dawn the following day until a time after nine o’clock, when Nick leaves to go to work. During this episode, we are informed that Gatsby delivers the narrative that has been told already in Chapter 6 (about Dan Cody) and the chapter continues with details about his relationship with Daisy between 1917 and 1919, when she meets Tom and sends a letter to Gatsby in Oxford. 

Nick’s subsequent account of his time at work includes a conversation with Jordan and an attempt to contact Gatsby; he then goes back in time, first to his train journey to work and then further back to ‘what happened at the garage after we left there the night before.’ He overtly signals this digression to the reader, ‘Now I want to go back a little’. 

Nick’s retrospective narrative is a second example of parallel storylines converging, as Wilson’s movements through the night and the next day converge with Gatsby’s through that same day, up to the point where Wilson shoots Gatsby at the pool. Notably, the narrative of Wilson includes his own retrospective version of the events leading to his wife’s death, creating a complex narrative structure of stories within stories, each of them circumstantial and uncertain. 

Chapter 9

Chapter 9 moves the time setting two years forwards to 1924 (this is possibly problematic as Chapter 1 seems to be the ‘present’ time and refers to 1922 as ‘last autumn’). Nevertheless, the narrative is retrospective as Nick ‘remembers that day’ and continues with the account of events following Myrtle’s death in 1922. He revisits the narrative of Wilson’s actions, with a public version being aired in court, and then returns to the events immediately following the discovery of Gatsby’s body, presenting these in chronological order. 

The arrival of the telegram from Henry C. Gatz occurs ‘on the third day’, and he himself follows (we’re told it’s a ‘warm September day’). The next marker of time is the ‘morning of the funeral’ and there is a brief disruption as Nick goes to New York where Wolfsheim tells him more of his memories about Gatsby ‘just out of the army’. Returning to the house, Nick listens to Mr Gatz’s stories of the past as well, and then we are back to the narrative of the funeral. 

The narrative then shifts to a time when Nick was in prep school and then in college, to focus on his memories of returning to the West in holiday times and to contrast this with his idea of the East. 

Finally, the novel returns again to October 1922 and Nick’s final encounters with Jordan, then Tom in New York, and his last visit to Gatsby’s house and the beach. Each of these encounters involve a retrospective element: 

  • Jordan discusses the time when Nick ‘threw [her] over on the telephone’ and reminds Nick of an earlier conversation about ‘bad drivers’
  • Tom recounts his version of the events involving Wilson and tells of his own subsequent ‘share of suffering’
  • Nick imagines he can still hear the parties at Gatsby’s house, and his meditation on the beach spans the time of the first Dutch arrivals to America, ending with Gatsby’s experience ‘when he first picked out the green light’ and his journey to that point.
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