Versions of Gatsby’s past

Gatsby’s past life is retold many times, in different versions and with varying degrees of plausibility, within every chapter from Chapter 3 onwards. The repetitions of his narrative are all transmitted via Nick to the reader but come from various sources, including:

  • Henry Gatz
  • Jordan
  • Party guests
  • Tom
  • Daisy
  • Gatsby himself.

Some aspects are corroborated by later narratives, as when Wolfsheim tells the story of how he ‘raised him up out of nothing’ and where details of Gatsby’s past and Daisy’s past coincide. Nevertheless, Nick undermines many of these versions, rejecting or contradicting them, with the effect that no single detail remains indisputable.

Fuelled by the uncertainty, gossip about Gatsby flourishes. Generally it operates on a very simplistic and naïve level (‘One time he killed a man’), and the rumours are often ridiculous, as in the claim that he is ‘second cousin to the devil’ or the:

persistent story that he didn’t live in a house at all, but in a boat that looked like a house and was moved secretly up and down the Long Island shore.

These stories overlap with the work of journalists, as they ‘fell just short of being news’ and inspire reporters to investigate and probe into Gatsby’s life, as in Chapter 6.

Death narratives

Other episodes are retold, such as Wilson’s actions and responses to the death of Myrtle, which are developed and revisited in Chapters 7, 8 and 9. They are reduced by the police to being the actions of ‘a man deranged by grief’ and then still further to ‘He must have been mad’ in the summary offered by Mr Gatz. This story attracts media interest, and Fitzgerald shows clearly how narratives are distorted and simplified by journalists:

Most of those reports were a nightmare – grotesque, circumstantial, eager and untrue … I thought the whole tale would shortly be served up in racy pasquinade.

The story is rescued from becoming a satire (pasquinade) by Catherine’s lies, and, ironically, Nick is relieved and impressed by her skill in convincing the coroner.


The effect of retelling is usually to destabilise a story rather than to strengthen it. Gaps open up, parallels become complicated, chronology is confused, and finally the reader has to abandon hope of discovering the ‘truth’. This foregrounds the fictionality of the text and refuses to allow interpretations which treat the characters or the events as ‘real’ or even ‘realistic’.

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