Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
Summer in West Egg is a series of parties for Nick, and perhaps the best of all is one Gatsby invites him to at the beginning of this chapter. Nick has been observing the parties for weeks by this time and knows something of what happens there: the driveway begins to fill with cars, invited and uninvited guests come and go and stay to all hours of the night, listening to music from the orchestra, drinking cocktails mixed with the juice of hundreds of lemons and oranges supplied by a fruiterer on a weekly basis; fights break out; relationships begin and end; guests swim and fall into the pool; these parties are, in short, raucous, and Nick is happy to receive a personal invitation from Gatsby himself, who sends a chauffeur to invite him one Saturday.
Nick arrives to find that none of the guests know where Gatsby is and furthermore that they’re affronted that he would ask. It’s immediately apparent that none of these people are there for Gatsby and that none of them can be considered his friends. Jordan Baker, who appears just as Nick moves toward the bar, has no clue as to Gatsby’s true whereabouts, but doesn’t seem to mind gossiping about him beside the pool with two girls dressed in yellow. One of them tells Nick and Jordan that Gatsby sent her a brand new dress after she tore her old one at another of his parties. No one has any idea who the man really is. Some say he was a German spy in the war. Others think he killed a man. Nick doesn’t know what to think about Gatsby, and this fuels the mystery that Fitzgerald has been building about Gatsby from the start.
After the first supper (there’s a second after midnight), Nick and Jordan attempt to find Gatsby and spend some time exploring his large stately mansion, meeting a man described simply as wearing owl-eyed spectacles and having been drunk for a full week. Owl Eyes points out with some surprise that the books in Gatsby’s library are real. He was expecting them to be fake, which is to say, he thinks Gatsby’s fake and this is all an elaborate façade constructed to hide his true self. Naturally, Nick and Jordan find this all rather absurd and, after shaking Owl Eyes’ hand, leave him to dry out in the library while they continue their search. Downstairs, dancing has started up again, and Nick sits at one of the tables to watch. He strikes up a conversation with another man at the table, bonding with him about fighting in World War I, before the man finally reveals that he’s Gatsby. Their exchange is awkward and unexpected and quickly gets interrupted by an important business call from Chicago. After Gatsby’s sudden departure, the orchestra begins to play a popular (fictional) jazz composition.
Not long after Gatsby leaves, his butler comes to say that he’d like to speak with Jordan. Nick, alone now, heads up to a ballroom above the terrace, where one of the girls in yellow is crying and playing the piano, devastated by a fight she had with her husband. Indeed, every woman there seems to be having a fight with her husband. Nick thinks it’s probably time to leave, and while he’s waiting for a servant to fetch his hat he sees Gatsby and Jordan, who are returning from their private conversation. Jordan refuses to tell Nick what they talked about, at least for the moment, and together they spend some time trying to extricate themselves from the party, which has resulted in a car accident that has trapped many cars in the driveway. It seems old Owl Eyes was in the car when it veered into a ditch, and the driver, too wasted to understand what’s happened, doesn’t realize that the steering wheel has broken off. It’s a strange end to an already over the top party.
Nick then makes a point of saying that life in West Egg isn’t just about parties. He also works and studies investments during the week, eats dinner at the Yale Club, and for a while can be seen around town with Jordan Baker. Unfortunately, Nick sours a little on Jordan because of a story he remembers hearing about her cheating in a golf tournament. This leads Nick to make the statement: “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” Nick is completely sincere. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, has already established that Nick can be a very critical and judgmental person, so he may not be the best judge of his own character.
Nick also reveals that there was a girl back home who was getting perhaps too attached, and that he made sure to break it off. He mentions this only in passing, so that it’s easy to miss it. This suggests that there are many aspects of his character that he would like to keep hidden.
Belasco. David Belasco, namesake of the Belasco Theatre in New York City, was a theatrical producer, director, and playwright. His theatrical productions were well-known for their acute attention to detail, which included installing a functional laundromat in one production and adding scent to another. Owl Eyes refers to Gatsby as “a regular Belasco,” meaning that his entire house is a kind of set where he’s putting on a performance.
Castile. A powerful kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula in what’s now modern-day Spain. In the Middle Ages, Castile was a rich and imperious state, home to many great families and artists. Their clothing was particularly vibrant, which Fitzgerald alludes to when he says some ladies at the party were wearing “shawls beyond the dreams of Castile,” meaning that they’re even richer and more luxurious than those found in Castile.
Gilda Gray and the Ziegfeld Follies. Gilda Gray, a famous dancer and actress from the 1920s, well-known for the “shimmy,” which became popular during the Jazz Age. In 1922, she appeared in Florenz Ziegfield’s namesake “Follies,” a long-running series of theatrical Broadway productions that included dance, music, vaudeville, and dramatic and comedic performances. Ziegfield’s Follies were world-renowned, and appearing in them was a sign of enormous talent and skill. It’s no wonder that the guests at Gatsby’s party are excited by the prospect of meeting Gilda Gray’s understudy.
“Jazz History of the World” by Vladimir Tostoff. A fictional composition Fitzgerald made up for this novel. “Tostoff” may be a clever bit of word play on Fitzgerald’s part, indicating that he casually “tossed off” the fake name.
John Lawson Stoddard’s Lectures. Stoddard, an American writer, was famous for his “lectures,” or travelogues, in which he wrote about his adventures in various foreign countries. Volume One, which Owl Eyes pulls from the shelf, concerns Stoddard’s time in Norway, Switzerland, Athens, and Venice. Fitzgerald refers to it because it gives Gatsby’s private library both legitimacy and importance, suggesting that, even if Gatsby hasn’t read the books, he has the sense to buy them.
False appearances. Fitzgerald uses Owl Eyes’ expectation that the books in Gatsby’s library are fake to prime the reader for the revelation that Gatsby has been keeping secrets from people and might not be who he says he is. For more on Gatsby’s true identity, see Chapter VI.
Car crashes. This chapter marks the first car crash in the novel. It’s notable in that it becomes absurd, was caused by excessive alcohol consumption, and results in no serious injuries. For information about the second car crash, see Chapter VII.
Books. Fitzgerald continues to develop books as a symbol in this chapter, once again using books as both tools of character development and symbols of one’s social status. Gatsby’s library, as Owl Eyes points out, is full of books that he expected to be fake, but which turned out to be as real as he is. Fitzgerald uses the owl-eyed man’s astonishment at this to suggest that Gatsby might be a fake and that, if so, he’s a very successful one.
Colors. In this chapter, the color yellow becomes more prominent, appearing in the dresses of the two women in yellow, in the paint of Gatsby’s station wagon, in the turkey skin and “yellow cocktail music” and skinny flutes of champagne that float around the party on ornate silver platters. It’s clear, from these descriptions, that yellow has been associated with opulence and money, the same way gold is associated with riches.
Eyes. In contrast to Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes, which gaze out over the valley of ashes like those of an all-knowing but altogether indifferent god, the owl eyes of the drunken party guest in this chapter are symbols of blindness or a failure to see the truth of what’s right in front of you. His expectation that the books will be made of cardboard and subsequent astonishment at finding them to be real indicates to the reader that things aren’t always as they appear, and that even God’s eyes can be blind to a person’s true intentions.
Performance. There are many performances in this chapter (the gypsy’s dance number, the orchestra’s jazz numbers, and the woman in yellow’s piano playing), but the most important performances are those from people pretending to be something they’re not. This could be said of all the guests at this party, who, in attempting to have fun and make connections, pretend to be happier and more successful than many of them actually are. Jordan Baker, for instance, cheated at a pro golf tournament once, but acts like a champion. Nick pretends not to think much of the parties he attends, but that’s all he can write about. And Gatsby, too, pretends to be someone greater and richer than he is. For more on Gatsby’s true identity, see Chapter VI.