And so we come to Chapter Four. In which Nick has to assess and reassess Gatsby. Several times.
The chapter opens with a long list of names. Moths who wander and float through Gatsby's mansion all summer. A long train of people from all walks of life who drift in and out, and automobile violence #2: an off-handed reference (pun intended) to a man who got so drunk at a party that he passed out in the gravel, where a car ran over his hand.
And then Gatsby shows up in his gorgeous, creamy yellow car to take Nick to lunch in the city. Nick initially describes him in terms similar to Tom. Shifting. Restless. Impatient. But here's the thing. Nick misreads Gatsby entirely here. It's really not his fault. Gatsby intends to be misread.
This entire chapter basically takes place in cars, with an interlude in a restaurant, and is book-ended by two tales of two pasts.
First, Gatsby tells Nick the story of his past, which Nick says feels like "skimming through a dozen magazines." It is a tale of aimless, unanchored wandering. Of casual encounters on foreign shores, collecting rare jewels. Trying to die in the war. I think it's funny that Nick doesn't believe the story, thinks it rings false and sounds threadbare, until he sees one picture. Then, he instantly believes (there's that fascination with photographic evidence and that tension between story and image again). And why did Gatsby have those souvenirs with him anyway? He carries them all the time? Right.
(At this point, Nick happens to glance out of the car, recall himself from the storied past, just long enough to see Myrtle straining at the gas pump "with panting vitality" and three "modish negroes" with a white chauffeur. The inexhaustible variety of life as viewed from a car window.)
What is more interesting is the fact that Nick strains to believe the opulent, surface-level particulars of Gatsby's past (even though he's seen the parties with his own eyes) but has no trouble at all believing the drifting, aimless structure at the core of the story. As they glide into New York he observes: "Even Gatsby could happen."
But Gatsby didn't happen. Gatsby didn't just land here, or drift into a party, or chance upon his house. Gatsby was driven.
At the end of the chapter, we get the second tale from the past. It is the story of Daisy and Gatsby, but it is also the story of Daisy and Tom. Notice all the cars here. Nick and Jordan are in a car as she wraps up the story. Daisy and Gatsby are in a car when they fall in love. Tom and the hotel chambermaid are in a car when he wrecks and gets caught in the papers (automobile violence #3, for those who are keeping score).
Daisy and Gatsby's story is sad and romantic and tragic. It is the grand romance that, as Jordan says, "every girl wants." But I want to focus on the story of Daisy and Tom, because it's a nice mirror of Gatsby's story. Or, I should say, Gatsby's made-up story is a nice mirror to their story.
They get married with strings of pearls and strings of cars and purpose and pomp and circumstance. They put on a good show. But then they drift. To the South Seas. Santa Barbara. Oh yeah. They have a baby. Cannes. Chicago. New York. Keep in mind, they are 30-ish (Tom) and 23 (Daisy) and they have lived in four cities in four years. They are young and rich and wild...and restless, wreckless, careless.
But Gatsby is not. He has been copying them, but he is not them. Even though he has taken on the shape of restlessness — mimicking its form, surrounding himself all summer with drifters and floaters — his substance is something else altogether. He doesn't take what's right next to him, be it a chambermaid at the hotel he's in or a lower-class woman on the train to New York. As Meyer Wolfsheim says, he is "careful with women." He has no interest in slumming it. And Nick begins to see all of this as "the end of some inevitable chain" and "no coincidence at all."
Poor Nick. He's had a rough day of it. First, he learns that something like fixing the World Series doesn't just happen. That it's planned. Carefully. Single-mindedly. And then he learns that Gatsby has the same single-vision. Gatsby is no longer enveloped in a "womb of...purposeless splendor" like everyone else he knows. The ride has been disconcerting; his world view has been shaken.
Even though he told Jordan at the end of Chapter Three that she needs to be more careful, we get the sense that he's never actually known a careful, planning person in his life. And, as he looks into the scornful, dispassionate face of the girl who happens to be sitting beside him in the car, he can't even begin to imagine it.