Here we are in Chapter Three. You're a third of the way through the book! And, finally, we get to a Gatsby party and we get to meet Jay Gatsby. By "we" I mean Nick. And by "meet" I mean talk to. I don't think he knows Gatsby at the end of this chapter any better than he did before.
Really, at this point in the novel, we've had three party scenes. We've had the floating, white, untouchable dinner party at the Buchanans, the grey, cramped, sweaty, earthy party in the apartment. And now Gatsby's party: harlequin, held under changing lights. Gaudy with primary colors.
(This is the main reason I think it's important for Daisy to have dark hair — it makes it immediately clear that she doesn't belong in Tom's world. If the mistress ringing him up at dinner wasn't enough of a clue.)
But really, for this chapter, which is a meaty one, I want to talk about two new technologies that made Fitzgerald nervous. Moving Pictures and Moving Vehicles. Cinema and Cars. We get both in heavy doses in Chapter Three.
First, for the cinema. I've said elsewhere on this blog that great stories always envision and necessitate new technologies, never the other way around. But I think that photography may be the one exception to that rule. The moderns were all a little obsessed with still photography and cinema — with the way that you could capture and manipulate images to show exactly and only what you wanted to show. With collages and fragmentation. Surface and depth. Hyper-realism and distortion. Some embraced the new art form wholeheartedly and gleefully. Gertrude Stein. Picasso. Others were more wary, like Fitzgerald.
If you think about it, it's really fascinating that the previous generation of writers, the Victorians, is the last generation that we have no photographic record of — the early moderns like Emily Dickinson have all been captured on film for us. And the books of Fitzgerald's generation are the first that can rightly be called cinematic.
So what does all this have to do with Chapter Three? Everything. This chapter is the most cinematic of any in the book (Chris...do you want to chime in here?) It's really no wonder that the trailer for the new film opens and closes with this party scene:
But, more importantly, I see in this chapter an uneasy tension between image and story...between surface and depth. I think this chapter sets up one of the central questions of the book: Which is more powerful? The calculated image Gatsby projects? Or the stories that circulate behind his back? What do you guys think?
We see this tension in several places. In the story of the dress that Gatsby sends to the young woman. In the scene in the library with the owl-spectacled man. He thinks he's on a movie set (metaphorically-speaking), and is genuinely surprised and impressed to discover the books aren't props. What verisimilitude!
This is also what makes me the most nervous about the upcoming film — though I will go see it. What if...what if Luhrmann makes the same mistake that everyone in the novel is making? What if he mistakes scene for story?
If the first two-thirds of the chapter reflects an uneasiness with cinema (and the stars and instant celebrity it can create), the last third reflects an uneasiness with cars. We have our first wreck — complete with a prophetic confusion about who was driving. And then Nick and Jordan have a conversation about driving...and Nick also thinks about their relationship in automotive terms. Shifting the relationship. Putting brakes on desires.
This conversation is what I like to call a Key Scene when I teach. All novels have a key scene — which is merely a short (sometimes even off-handed) conversation between two characters near the beginning of a book. Usually in the first three chapters. In the conversation, the two characters have a disagreement. In Huckleberry Finn, Tom and Huck argue about how they're going to run their band of imaginary robbers. Tom is a romantic; Huck is a realist. In Sense and Sensibility, Eleanor and Marianne argue about the nature of love. Is it a calm and self-controlled respect (Sense) or is it a wild, abandoned feeling (Sensibility). Or is it a little of both? The Key Scene expresses the theme of the book in a highly distilled form...and clues the reader in to what's at stake.
Here, Nick and Jordan argue briefly about driving. I leave it to you. Why is this the Key Scene? What two worldviews are colliding here? What's at stake?
Tack-on #1: I love the woman who appears at her husband's side "like an angry diamond." This image somehow makes no sense (what would an angry diamond look like?) and yet I can see it perfectly. A lovely surprise. Are there any arresting images that jumped out at you in this chapter?
Tack-on #2: At the very end of this chapter, Nick insists that he is one of the only honest people he has ever known...right after telling us that he's been sending letters back home signed "Love, Nick" to a woman he doesn't love. Does he do this other places in the book? Say one thing and do another? Do you think he's self-aware?