In chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby, what is Nick's encounter with Gatsby like?

Nick's encounter with Gatsby in chapter 3 is strange and somewhat bewildering. Nick sits at a table with a friendly-looking man and they talk about their time in the war. Eventually, the man reveals himself to be Gatsby. Nick is embarrassed that he didn't recognize the host. However, Gatsby smiles winningly at Nick and makes him feel better about the whole situation. When the smile disappears, Nick recognizes him as an "elegant rough-neck," a façade of a person.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At the beginning of chapter three, Nick Carraway receives a personal invite to attend one of Jay Gatsby's magnificent summer parties. This is quite odd considering Gatsby's guests typically simply show up to the soirees. Later that evening, Nick strolls over to Gatsby's party; he is astonished by the spectacle. Initially, Nick is completely alone. He wanders to the bar where he notices the young, ambitious guests planning to rub elbows with elite, wealthy members of society. Eventually, Nick spots Jordan Baker. The two spend the majority of the evening searching for Gatsby and listening to the frivolous banter and rumors about him from various guests.

Unfortunately, Nick cannot seem to find Gatsby. Giving up, he proceeds to sit down at a table where he strikes up a conversation with a friendly man. The man says that Nick looks familiar. The man asks if Nick was in the Third Division during the war. They proceed to carry on a pleasant conversation as they reminisce about various small villages in France. The man then invites Nick to take a trip with him on his hydroplane, and asks Nick if he is having a gay time. Nick says that he has been enjoying himself but finds it awkward that he has yet to meet the host of the party. At this moment, Gatsby reveals that he is the host, which surprises Nick and catches him off guard. Nick immediately apologizes. Gatsby proceeds to smile and assures Nick that he thought Nick knew who he was the entire time. Nick goes on to offer a memorable description of Gatsby's smile by saying,

He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on YOU with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. (Fitzgerald, 53).

Shortly after Gatsby reveals his identity, he excuses himself from the table to take a call from Chicago. Overall, Nick's introduction to Jay Gatsby is rather comical and strange. Nick had no idea that he was speaking to Gatsby, which contributes to his enigmatic, ambiguous nature. Nick also finds Gatsby's smile appealing. Gatsby's magnetic personality and friendly disposition fascinate Nick.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Nick's first meeting with Gatsby is actually kind of funny. Gatsby is throwing a party -- one of his giant parties that fills his mansion with people from all over. Nick is accorded the special honor of actually being invited -- most of Gatsby's guests just show up. So Gatsby is singling Nick out, even though has never met him. Later, at the party, Nick is a little non-plussed because, among all these people, there is no sign of Gatsby himself. Finally, after meeting up with Jordan Baker, he falls into conversation with a stranger:

“I was still with Jordan Baker. We were sitting at a table with a man of about my age and a rowdy little girl, who gave way upon the slightest provocation to uncontrollable laughter. I was enjoying myself now. I had taken two finger-bowls of champagne, and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound. At a lull in the entertainment the man looked at me and smiled.

“Your face is familiar,” he said, politely. “Weren’t you in the Third Division during the war?”

“Why, yes. I was in the Ninth Machine-gun Battalion.”

“I was in the Seventh Infantry until June nineteen-eighteen. I knew I’d seen you somewhere before.” 

The exchange some more talk; the man invites nick to go with him in his hydroplane in the morning. Then Nick says:

“This is an unusual party for me. I haven’t even seen the host. I live over there ——” I waved my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, “and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation.” For a moment he looked at me as if he failed to understand.

“I’m Gatsby,” he said suddenly.

“What!” I exclaimed. “Oh, I beg your pardon.”

“I thought you knew, old sport. I’m afraid I’m not a very good host.” 

Nick is embarassed by the accidental meeting, but Gatsby is completely understanding. He smiles:

“It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished — and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.” 

It is characteristic of Fitzgerald, I think, that Gatsby's whole persona is captured in this one smile. The smile that "understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood" is like a mirror -- in a way, looking at Gatsby is like seeing your own best image reflected back onto yourself. Once the smile fades, the impression goes, and we see Gatsby, maybe, for what he really is, an "elegant rough-neck." Like Gatsby's books, which are described earlier in the chapter as a masterpiece of fakery (“What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too — didn’t cut the pages.”), Gatsby himself is a facade.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team