Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Great Gatsby discussion: Chapters 1 – 3

What do you say about The Great Gatsby that hasn’t been said a thousand times already? Still, here I am posting on the book. I had never read the book, so I’m coming to it fresh instead of having a teacher tell me what I’m supposed to see in it. I’m interested to see if that makes a difference in how I react to it.

So in the first three chapters we meet:

Nick Carraway: “In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.”

Tom Buchanan: “Now, don’t think my opinion on these matters is final,” he seemed to say, “just because I’m stronger and more of a man than you are.”

Daisy Buchanan: “Well, I’ve had a very bad time, Nick, and I’m pretty cynical about everything.”

Jordan Baker: “No, thanks,” said Miss Baker to the four cocktails just in from the pantry, “I’m absolutely in training.”

George & Myrtle Wilson

The sign of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s (OK, really just a symbol and not a character)

And finally, after much anticipation, Jay Gatsby

We are also introduced to the four main geographical locations, each fraught with symbolism: East Egg, West Egg, the Valley of Ashes, and New York City.

There is a lot going on, and once again I don’t expect anyone to cover everything, but let us know your thoughts on the first three chapters in the comments!


Dwight said...

Many of the themes and symbols in the book are introduced early. I won’t pretend to cover all of them at any time. A few I found interesting include the differences between appearances and reality (Nick finds out early on that the glamorous East Egg hides a lot of secrets), the juxtaposition of geographical locations (‘opposites’ in each chapter), the heavy symbolism of the different locations (the valley of ashes as the detritus of the Eggs and NYC’s moral decay, for example), and the emptiness of the era (Gatsby’s party, among many other things).

One of my favorite techniques was waiting to fully meet Gatsby until the third chapter (not counting the glimpse at the end of Chapter 1). You read a lot of conflicting rumors about him before then, and to some extent it actually makes meeting him anticlimactic. But the character still remains an enigma at this point, with more questions raised about him than answered.

There are so many symbols that I’m only to mention one scene I really liked—where Nick meets “Owl Eyes” in Gatsby’s library:
“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”

Belasco was well known during the age as “the Bishop of Broadway,” a fitting allusion for Gatsby’s elaborate productions, starting with the current party but echoing through his whole life. The fact that Owl Eyes expected to find a fake library temporarily masks the other shams we find out about regarding Gatsby. And obviously helps in the aura and rumors surrounding him.

It took me a while to appreciate the use of Nick as the narrator. His detachment from the East and West Egg denizens, as well as his basis in the Midwest echoing through his opening statement about his father’s advice, you’re supposed to find him trustworthy. Yet he easily betrays other people’s trust. His development in the book eventually became as interesting to me as the story he unveiled.

OK, that’s a lot, and not a lot of depth on any of it. And there is so much more going on…

Dwight said...

Posted on behalf of Barry, who is having trouble signing in:

here are some scattered impressions on the opening chapters. Feel free to post them for me if you wish:

Fitzgerald is a master of capturing the ephemeral dynamics of social contact. Note the change in the psychological and dramatic planes once Nick is informed about the adultery at the heart of the Tom/Daisy marriage. Casual reference shapes a budding awareness of Gatsby’s connection to Daisy, and the gradual awareness of Jordan Baker’s celebrity is clarified.

Our first impression of Gatsby, as he looks across the water at Daisy’s dock and its green light) is pregnant with suggestiveness beyond language:

I decided to call to him. Miss Baker had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an introduction. But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

The sordid scene in New York , giving us a snapshot of the Tom/Myrtle affair fills Nick with such revulsion that he gets drunk for only the second time in his life.

The party scene is superbly realized, capturing the social status of the participants, the unspoken open lawlessness of the proceedings (alcohol being a banned substance during prohibition) and an increasing suspense in the character of Jay Gatsby fueled by gossip, innuendo, Nick’s first meeting with Gatsby, and Gatsby’s as yet unknown reason for drawing aside Jordan Baker.