The ending scene of the party in chapter 3 includes a car accident. This is significant and symbolic for a few reasons.
The car itself is a developing symbol in the story because it exemplifies the age. The twenties were a fast time and the automobile helped propel this era. The car symbolizes how people spent money. Cars were a status symbol.
This particular accident occured at Gatsby's house. It happened because the person who was driving should not have been driving.
This accident foreshadows another accident later. This accident is treated with nonchalance. The accident is related to other accidents that characters are in because of their involvement in relationships.
All of the accidents that occur in cars demonstrate a growing concept about the people: they are careless with their lives like they are with these big moving items that have great power to hurt people. Sometimes the injury is small, but we all know the ultimate injury can be death.
The party at Gatsby's house was full of show. He wanted to show everyone that he had made it in life. He wanted to impress Daisy, and this is where Gatsby tries to get Jordan to help in his quest to see Daisy. Everyone at the party is superficial and only there because it suits their needs in some way. At the end of the party, Nick sees that there has been an automobile accident.
"But as I walked down the steps I saw the evening was quite over. Fifty feet from the door a dozen head lights illuminated a bizarre and tumultuous scene. In the ditch beside the road, right side up, but violently shorn of one wheel, rested a new coupe which had left Gatsby's drive not two minutes before. The sharp jut of a wall accounted for the detachment of the wheel, which was now getting considerable attention from half a dozen curious chauffeurs. However, as they had left their cars blocking the road, a harsh, discordant din from those in the rear had been audible for some time, and added to the already violent confusion of the scene."
This scene foreshadows things to come. The accident that happens in chapter three is only the beginning of automobiles being used in a tragic way. In this accident, like the others to come, someone is driving who shouldn't be, and there is no one who accepts accountability for what they have done. This seems to be a theme throughout the novel. The characters all take chances and no one is held accountable. This scene sets the stage for far more tragic occurrences that are to come.
Several events unfold in this scene, all of which provide the basis for some greater understanding of characters and the setting in which they find themselves: we have a drunken car wreck as the last revelers leave Gatsby’s wild party; we have Gatsby himself, who seems to care not a whit about the drama unfolding in his driveway; and we have Nick, our narrator, who hold himself apart from the scene even as a large crowd of partygoers is gathered around the site of the crash.
The significance of the crash itself has been explained the other educators’ answers to this question. To place it all in context, The Great Gatsby takes place during the Roaring Twenties, a post-war era when the world was migrating from agricultural centers to urban, industrialized centers, when an excess of wealth led to an excess of free time and an intense desire to fill that void left by hard labor with adventure. This adventure is characterized in the book by these wild parties and intense social hours, by the recklessness and disregard of wealthy society, manifested by the car crash in this scene. A woefully inebriated man was driving, which is another indication of the recklessness of the era, and his passenger is too bewildered by the situation to express that he was not the one driving. All he can do is repeat that “It happened, and that’s all I know;” and that “I wasn’t even trying.” This is an indication of the general feeling in America at the time, and one that permeates the book, settling on the shoulders of all the characters like a fine dust – they’re being whirled around in this new, fast culture, gaining momentum without even being fully aware of themselves or what they’re doing – they’re blinded by the materialism, by the novelty of it and the freedom of it, and they’re just along for the ride. All the guests at Gatsby’s parties are just along for the ride, unaware that they’re pawns in his game or that they’re pawns in the cultural explosion of entertainment that defined their generation.
In contrast to the lack of awareness of themselves and the nebulousness of their roles within society, we get a strong characterization of Gatsby and Nick, and their relationship, in the events immediately preceding and following the scene with the car. As the crowd hovers around the wrecked vehicle, “the figure of the host…stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.” He is not involving himself in this chaos, even though it is unfolding on his own property. This indicates that, even though he has become a part of this high society, he is not akin to its other members. Unlike the partygoers, he is not floating mildly and aimlessly in a culture of excess, but is very much grounded by his desires. His revelry is purely goal-oriented; it is business. He is manipulating the social code of the day, standing just outside the circle, rather than within it, and every so often giving it a little spin with his hand to keep it moving.
In addition to this characterization of Gatsby, we get to know a little bit more about our narrator. He feels embarrassed to be one of the last to leave the party, since he doesn’t know Gatsby well at all, but as Gatsby wishes him good night, “suddenly there seemed to be a pleasant significance in having been among the last to go, as if he [Gatsby] had desired it so all the time.” So here we see the personal investment Gatsby has in his friendship with Nick, and an indication that they both are somehow alien to the games the rich people play. This ties in well with the final lines of the chapter, in which Nick states, somewhat despairingly, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” This scene does much to help the reader locate Nick in the grand scheme of the story, as well as to give the reader confidence in him as a narrator. He is not a natural part of this world of big parties and extravagance any more than Gatsby himself is a natural part of it, and thence, perhaps, Gatsby’s affinity for him.