Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

Gatsby ch.3

The Great Gatsby: Commentary

This passage is the beginning of the third chapter of The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald's 1926 novel set in the aftermath of the First World War during the period of booming prosperity that came to be known as the Jazz Age. Although the narrator (Nick Carraway) has already glimpsed* his neighbour standing in his garden late at night, he has yet to meet the enigmatic Jay Gatsby. Having received an invitation to attend a party at his neighbour's house, he here describes the occasion — the lavish* preparations, the milling guests, the abundant food and drink, and the mounting excitement as the party comes to life in the course of the evening.

In a carefully constructed set-piece*, Fitzgerald captures the ebullient* mood of the Roaring Twenties, with its extravagance and spirit of carpe diem, but hints too at its core* emptiness. Scott Fitgerald's rich prose turns the setting for the party into an enchanted magical garden; the treatment of time and rhythm brings the scene alive by creating an intoxicating crescendo which sweeps the reader along; but the detached stance of the narrator intimates that the enchanting allure of the occasion is as insubstantial as it is fake*.

Although the opening sentence refers to Gatsby's house, the actual setting for the party is not inside but outside. In the course of the passage the garden is transformed from the luxurious grounds of a mansion* into an enchanted fairy-tale world.

The scene is marked by a display of absolute abundance: there is hardly a singular noun to be found in the passage, from the gardens (1) themselves to the means of transport to the decorations and to the plentiful food such as myriad spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys (15-16), an abundance underlined by the rhythmic repetition of and stressing the endless variety of party fare* and even the number of instruments in the orchestra (19-20). Equally striking is the use of precise figures to indicate the vast quantities of foodstuff (9, 11-12), as well as the regularity and frequency of the deliveries* and preparations (6, 9, 13), and the number of staff* employed (7-8). These figures are not hyperbolic; they indicate the sheer scale of the profuse extravagance. The hyperbole is in the varied metaphors suggesting a military operation involving a corps of caterers (13), or quantities worthy of ancient Egypt (a pyramid of pulpless halves).

The theme of transformation emerges from the first four paragraphs, which detail the work of chauffeurs and servants, caterers and musicians, as the daytime reality of the garden is transmuted each night into an impossibly colourful enchanted garden: enough coloured lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby's enormous garden (14). The metamorphosis is not merely the result of work and preparation; it is a world created by startling metaphors, a fantasy world of blue gardens (1), yellow cocktail music (28), where a vehicle becomes a brisk yellow bug (6), and food is bewitched to a dark gold (16). As in the fairy tale of Cinderella, the night-time world of feasting and celebration is captivating but fleeting*.

The garden becomes a kaleidoscopic whirl* of colours, lights, music and movement, evoking both the drunken carousing* world of the revellers* and a night-time dream which replaces daytime reality as the earth lurches away from the sun (27). Individual figures are dissolved in a sea-change of faces and voices and colour under the constantly changing light (32-33). The association of alcohol and liquid movement (floating cocktails) calls to mind a drunken ship, a world of hedonism tipping* into Dionysian excess.

Instead of proposing a static description, Fitzgerald injects pace and mounting rhythm into the scene, thus involving the reader in the dizzy* tumult of the occasion. The crescendo effect is built firstly upon the subtle changes of verb tense and aspect. The initial tempo is measured: the use of the preterite in the opening sentence creates a sense of aesthetic melancholy as the narrator harks back* to those summer nights (1); the preterite is maintained throughout the first three paragraphs, combining with adverbial expressions of time such as every Friday (9) and at least once a fortnight (13) to indicate a series of evenings present in the memory of the narrator. The tempo picks up* in the fourth paragraph with a shift* to the present perfect (the orchestra has arrived), bringing the events of that particular evening to the fore*, creating a sense of anticipation. Paragraphs five and six move up two gears*, adopting the narrative present to denote immediacy as the party livens up and then reaches fever pitch* (34-35).

The change in verb tenses is accompanied by the evolving syntax, marked by shorter propositions linked by and, and by the density of verbs of movement (lurches/dissolve/weave/glide/dances). The dominant metaphor is that of liquidity and flow, associated with the ever-moving crowd, but a succession of transferred epithets* delight in making incongruous associations: the bar is in full swing (23); laughter is spilled and tipped out (29); opal trembles (34). The startling use of catachresis (a vehicle scampers (6), the earth lurches (27) hams crowded against salads (15)) and synaesthesia (yellow cocktail music) is characteristic of Fitzgerald's poetic prose. Like the party-goers, the reader is swept along* by the hypnotic swirl* of the imagery.

The narrator, however, is both present, a guest at the party, and detached, an onlooker. The first line of the extract suggests that he observes and listens from a distance (music from my neighbour's house) while the last line too stands back from the hubbub* of the party: The party has begun (37). The musical metaphor indicates that the narrator's voice is not a part of the opera of voices (28) that he describes. In fact, the narrator's stance* is frequently ironic, looking beyond the surface of colour and lights, amazed at the machine for making orange juice (12), the futile laughter (28), and the shallow* hypocrisy of the casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other's names (24-26). The narrative voice goes beyond the focalisation of Nick Carraway; the omniscience and irony serve to undercut* the mounting excitement.

Hence, the passage mixes accelerating tempo and detachment, building up to a climax while encouraging the reader to stand back and observe.

Behind the superficial glamour of the social whirl, the heart of the occasion is empty. In keeping with the title of the novel, the magnificent extravagance of the occasion draws attention to the wealth — and absence — of the host and hero.

The onus is laid firmly upon the material opulence of property and the garish* display of wealth — all Gatsby's, as the very insistent repetition of the possessive adjective underlines in the first paragraph: from the gardens to the guests, from the motor boats to the Rolls Royce, everything and everybody is his (1-7). If the fantasy world of the blue gardens is oneiric, it is Gatsby's dream; if the gaudy display is superficial and false, the epithets must also apply to the host, whose very invisibility detracts* from the sincerity of the event.

The social gathering* is presented as extraordinary and yet repeated through the summer nights, a Sisyphean effort of preparing and clearing up — and all for no obvious purpose. The anonymous guests flit* around the garden like moths (2); they know neither each other nor the host whose hospitality they are enjoying. The absence of any dialogue reduces the exchanges to chatter and laughter (24), coming predominantly from pretty young female guests (17, 25, 30, 36) whose enthusiasm is as bubbly* as it is vain. The climax to the scene points up* its meaningless theatricality: one of the nameless girls begins to dance and is mistaken for Gilda Gray's understudy (37), a pointed dig* at the false cult of celebrity.

The satire of superficial hedonism reveals the extent to which The Great Gatsby is a novel of its time, the Jazz Age. The confident girls evoke bold young Flappers with their fashionable new hairstyles (22-23), revelling in the new social freedoms afforded to women in the twenties. The lone dancer in the closing paragraph is performing one of the wild dances of the period (such as the Charleston), to the tune of the raucous* new music (Jazz) which was then all the rage*. The abundant alcohol (champagne/gin/cocktails) and images suggesting waste* (spilled with prodigality) are ironic reminders that bootlegging and illegal alcohol were rife* during the age of Prohibition. The party-goers seem to fall into two groups — the ebullient Jazz babies with their bobbed hair and confident laughter, described as gypsies (34) and wanderers (30), and an older, more staid generation, described as stouter and more stable (31).

Above all, the brilliantly orchestrated scene evokes the hedonistic high life of the age — and the futility at its core.

This early chapter from Fitzgerald's emblematic Jazz Age novel carries its characters and readers off into an enchanted world, a hyperbolic American dream, but the fairy-tale mood also points to the transience of the period of booming optimism that followed the First World War. The Roaring Twenties are seen as a succession of heady* summer nights, and then condensed into the wild crescendo of one extravagant party. As the plot unfolds, Gatsby's flamboyant wealth and easy charm will prove as beguiling* and false as the party described in this scene. The world of Gatsby's dream, conjured up by Scott Fitzgerald's dazzling* purple passage*, is like a soufflé of words on the point of collapsing*. The swirling images and the ironic narration indicate that even as the evening reaches its sparkling climax, all that glitters is not gold*.

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