How truthful was Gatsby when he relayed the story of his life to Nick in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby?
In chapter 4 of The Great Gatsby, Jay tells Nick a version of his life story with facts that are as strange as they are exaggerated. Nick, however, is smart enough to differentiate between the kinds of information that Gatsby volunteers. Even though he is smitten with Gatsby, he could perceive what may be true, what may be “possibly” true, and what is simply outrageous.
He looked at me sideways — and I knew why Jordan Baker had believed he was lying. He hurried the phrase “educated at Oxford,” […] as though it had bothered him before. And with this doubt, his whole statement fell to pieces, and I wondered if there wasn’t something a little sinister about him, after all.
Jay was not truthful. The first set of lies that he tells Nick is that he (Jay) comes from a rich family, that his parents died, and that he came to money by inheritance. He immediately throws in the Oxford education and tells Nick that this is a family tradition. This last part, as previously discussed, Nick does not buy. However, he is respectful enough to at least offer Jay his listening ear.
Gatsby is relentless in telling his story. He moves on to the incredible tale of a journey throughout Europe where he lived on his own as a “rajah.” Jay talks about hunting big game, collecting jewels, and painting things. To this, Nicks reacts,
I managed to restrain my incredulous laughter. The very phrases were worn so threadbare that they evoked no image except that of a turbaned “character” leaking sawdust at every pore as he pursued a tiger through the Bois de Boulogne.
It is in chapter 6 where Nick relates the whole truth that Gatsby confessed to him during a moment of “confusion” much later on. Since Nick is reminiscing about his time with Gatsby, he makes this pause in the narrative to explain Gatsby’s real story, and then continues to narrate the rest of the story as it was in progress.
Moreover he told it to me at a time of confusion, when I had reached the point of believing everything and nothing about him. So I take advantage of this short halt, while Gatsby, so to speak, caught his breath, to clear this set of misconceptions away.
“Jay Gatsby” was actually born James Gatz. He came from a poor family, and he was taken under the wing of Dan Cody, for whom he worked in many different things. In fact, Cody had so much appreciation for Gatsby that he had included him in his (Cody’s) will. Gatsby, however, was never able to receive anything because he was sabotage by Cody’s mistress upon the man’s death.
Nevertheless, Nick shows a degree of compassion for Gatsby even though the story about who he truly was distanced itself enormously from the fantasy that Gatsby tried to create in the eyes of his peers.
He invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end [...] For over a year he had been beating his way along the south shore of Lake Superior as a clam-digger and a salmon-fisher or in any other capacity that brought him food and bed.
While Jay’s dishonesty is quite evident, he is fortunate to count on Nick’s admiration. This admiration rehabilitates Gatsby’s dignity somewhat and elicits some sympathy in the reader. After all, if Nick passes no judgment upon the man who lies to his face, who are we to judge?
Gatsby was never really honest with Nick when he discussed his background. Gatsby relayed many details about his life: he went to Oxford, was from the Midwest, and inherited family money, just to name a few. Perhaps the only real details that Gatsby relays deal with Dan Cody and the time he spent on his yacht. The truthful details about Gatsby’s life come from other sources, namely Jordan Baker and Henry Gatz, Jay’s father. Jordan gives Nick the details about Gatsby’s past with Daisy and reveals that Gatsby’s motivation for moving to West Egg was to be close to Daisy. After Gatsby’s death, his father is able to give Nick a better picture of who Jay Gatsby was a child and young man.