In chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby, protagonist Nick finally meets the titular character—his next-door neighbor Jay Gatsby—at one of Gatsby’s bacchanalian parties. They initially trade war stories before Nick realizes that the man with whom he is speaking is Gatsby. Nick notices the host’s fleeting smile of charm before it quickly vanishes. He then notes,
I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Sometime before he introduced himself I'd got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.
Through Nick’s perceptive observation, Fitzgerald reveals a crack in Gatsby’s armor or glossy exterior of class. The author suggests that Gatsby is not actually from the refined, Ivy-League-educated society; instead, he is actually a “rough-neck” trying to pretend to be something he is not. The most accurate way for Fitzgerald to describe this camouflaged (with wealth) bumpkin is with the oxymoron “elegant…rough-neck.” Gatsby’s barely disguised attempt to appear formal and sophisticated is “absurd” or laughable.
Even before learning that that fellow war veteran is Gatsby, Nick clearly senses that the host is working to choose “his words with care.” This perception reveals that Gatsby’s performance is not seamless and natural, but awkward and unsuccessful.
This encounter is the first time that Nick and we the readers actually meet Gatsby. Since we do not know much about him yet, we feel a bit wary or suspicious of this mysterious man. Nick’s description sets up a bit of unease: we are made aware that Gatsby does not seem to be what he tries to appear to be. His façade is fake and by extension, he seems deceptive. On the other hand, we feel a bit sorry for Gatsby, since he looks a little kid pretending to be a grown-up.
In chapter 6, our suspicions are confirmed. Nick learns that Jay Gatsby is really James Gatz of North Dakota, descended from “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people.” After witnessing the glamour and prestige of wealth, Gatz renames himself, rejects his roots, moves East, and tries to enter into high society and woo his elusive love, the aristocratic Daisy.
The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father's Business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty. So 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.
So Fitzgerald has the readers ultimately feel pity for Jay Gatsby; he does not have a true, stable self-identity. He can only be and do what serves “a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty”—wealth and all its trappings—all in a hopeless attempt to win Daisy. Gatsby spends his life in pursuit of the futile goal of not being true to himself; instead he only covets an unattainable identity and love.