In Chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby, we finally - finally! - we get to see one of Gatsby’s totally off the hook parties! And, it more than lives up to the hype as far as Nick is concerned. Even more excitingly, we finally get to meet the man, the myth, the legend himself - Gatsby, in the flesh! So why then does this reveal, which the novel has been building toward for 2.5 chapters, seem so anticlimactic?
Read on for our Great Gatsby Chapter 3 summary, covering the highs and lows of the Gatsby Saturday night experience.
Quick Note on Our Citations
Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book. To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.
The Great Gatsby: Chapter 3 Summary
Nick describes watching endless parties going on in Gatsby’s house every weekend. Guests party day and night and then on Mondays servants clean up the mess.
Everything is about excess and a sense of overkill. Each weekend, guests are ferried back and forth to Manhattan by Rolls-Royce, crates of oranges and lemons are juiced, an army of caterers sets up tents and lighting, food is piled high, the bar is overwhelmingly stocked, and there is a huge band playing. It's an even bigger deal than it sounds because all this is happening during the Prohibition, when alcohol was supposedly unavailable.
The first night Nick goes to Gatsby’s for a party, he’s one of a very few actually invited guests. Everyone else just crashes. At the party, Nick is ill at ease. He knows no one. There’s a surprising number of English people at the party, who seem desperate to get their hands on American money.
No one knows where Gatsby himself is. Nick hangs out near the bar until he sees Jordan Baker. Nick and Jordan chat with other party people. A young woman tells them that at another one of these parties, when she ripped her dress by accident, Gatsby sent her a very expensive replacement. They gossip about what this odd behavior means. One rumor has it that Gatsby killed someone, another that he was a German spy.
Food is served, which Nick and Jordan eat at a table full of people from East Egg, who look at this insane party with condescension.
They decide to find Gatsby since Nick has never actually met him. In his mansion, they end up in the library, which has ornately carved bookshelves and reams of books. A man with owl-eyed spectacles enthuses about the fact that all these books are actually real – and about the fact that Gatsby hasn’t cut their pages (meaning he’s never read any of them).
Back out in the garden, guests are now dancing, and several famous opera singers perform. Some partygoers also perform relatively risqué acts.
Nick and Jordan sit down at a table with a man who recognizes Nick from the army. After talking about the places in France where they were stationed during the war, the man reveals that he is Gatsby. Gatsby flashes the world’s greatest and most seductive (not sexually, just extremely appealingly) smile at Nick and leaves to take a phone call from Chicago.
Nick demands more information about Gatsby from Jordan, who said that Gatsby calls himself an Oxford man (meaning, he went to the University of Oxford). Jordan says that she doesn’t believe this, and Nick lumps the info in with all the other rumors he’s heard (that Gatsby had killed a man, that he was Kaiser Wilhelm’s nephew, that he was a German spy, etc.).
The orchestra strikes up the latest number one hit. Nick notices Gatsby looking over his guests with approval. Gatsby neither drinks, nor dances, nor flirts with anyone at the party.
When Jordan is suddenly and mysteriously asked to speak to Gatsby alone, Nick watches a drunk guest weep and then pass out. He notices fights breaking out between other couples. Even the group of people from East Egg are no longer on their best behavior.
Despite the fact that the party is clearly over, no one wants to leave. As Nick is getting his hat to leave, Gatsby and Jordan come out of the library. Jordan tells Nick that Gatsby has just told her something amazing – but she can’t reveal what. She gives Nick her number and leaves.
Nick finds Gatsby, apologizes for not seeking him out earlier. Gatsby invites him to go out on his hydroplane the next day, and Nick leaves as Gatsby is summoned to a phone call from Philadelphia.
He waves goodbye from the steps of his mansion, looking lonely.
Outside, the man with the owl-eyed spectacles from the library has crashed his car. An even drunker man emerges from the driver’s seat of the wreck and is comically but also horrifyingly confused about what has happened.
Suddenly, the narrative is interrupted by present-day Nick. He thinks that what he’s been writing is probably giving us the wrong idea. He wasn’t fixated on Gatsby during that summer – this fixation has only happened since then. That summer, he spent most of his time working at his second or third-tier bond trading company, Probity Trust, and had a relationship with a coworker. He started to really like the crowded and anonymous feel of Manhattan, but also felt lonely.
In the middle of the summer, Nick reconnects with Jordan Baker and they start dating. He almost falls in love with her and discovers that under her veneer of boredom, Jordan is an incorrigible liar. She gets away with it because in the rigid upper-class code of behavior, calling a woman out as a liar would be improper. Nick suddenly remembers the story he had read about her golfing career: Jordan was accused of cheating by moving her ball to a better lie, but the witnesses later recanted and nothing was proven.
When Nick complains that Jordan is a terrible driver, she answers that she relies on the other people on the road to be careful instead of her. Nick wants to take their relationship further, but reigns himself in because he hasn’t fully broken off the non-engagement back home that Tom and Daisy had asked him about earlier.
He claims that he is one of the few honest people that he’s ever met.
So, lots of car accidents, and talk about car accidents, all in the vicinity of alcohol? Can you say foreshadowing?
Key Chapter 3 Quotes
I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby's house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited—they went there. They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island and somehow they ended up at Gatsby's door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission. (3.7)
Gatsby’s parties are the epitome of anonymous, meaningless excess – so much so that people treat his house as a kind of public, or at least commercial, space rather than a private home. This is connected to the vulgarity of new money – you can’t imagine Tom and Daisy throwing a party like this. Or Nick for that matter. The random and meaningless indulgence of his parties further highlights Gatsby's isolation from true friends. As Jordan says later, large parties are great because they provide privacy/intimacy, so Gatsby stands alone in a sea of strangers having their own intimate moments.
A stout, middle-aged man with enormous owl-eyed spectacles was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. …He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
"About that. As a matter of fact you needn't bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They're real…."Absolutely real—have pages and everything. I thought they'd be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they're absolutely real. Pages and—Here! Lemme show you."
Taking our skepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the "Stoddard Lectures."
"See!" he cried triumphantly. "It's a bona fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop too—didn't cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?" (3.41-50)
Belasco was a renowned theatrical producer, so comparing Gatsby to him here is a way of describing the library as a stage set for a play – in other words, as a magnificent and convincing fake. This sea of unread books is either yet more tremendous waste of resources, or a kind of miniature example of the fact that a person’s core identity remains the same no matter how many layers of disguise are placed on top.
Gatsby has the money to buy these books, but he lacks the interest, depth, time, or ambition to read and understand them, which is similar to how he regards his quest to get Daisy.
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. 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. Some time before he introduced himself I'd got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care. (3.76)
Lots of Gatsby’s appeal lies in his ability to instantly connect with the person he is speaking to, to make that person feel important and valued. This is probably what makes him a great front man for Wolfsheim’s bootlegging enterprise, and connects him with Daisy, who also has a preternaturally appealing quality – her voice.
Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply—I was casually sorry, and then I forgot. (3.161)
The offhanded misogyny of this remark that Nick makes about Jordan is telling in a novel where women are generally treated as objects at worst or lesser beings at best. Even our narrator, ostensibly a tolerant and nonjudgmental observer, here reveals a core of patriarchal assumptions that run deep.
Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known. (3.171)
There are layers of meaning and humor here.
First, the humor:
While in Christian tradition there is the concept of cardinal virtues, honesty is not one of them. So here, since the phrase “cardinal sin” is the more familiar concept, there is a small joke that Nick’s honesty is actually a negative quality, a burden.
Nick is telling us about his scrupulous honesty a second after he’s revealed that he’s been writing love letters to a girl back home every week despite wanting to end their relationship, and despite dating a girl at his office, and then dating Jordan in the meantime. So honesty to Nick doesn’t really mean what it might to most people.
Second, the meaning:
What does it mean to have our narrator tell us in one breath that he is honest to a fault, and that he doesn’t think that most other people are honest? This sounds like a humblebrag kind of observation. But also, we need to question Nick’s ability to understand/empathize with other people if he thinks he is on such a removed plane of existence from them. And of course since he just showed us that he is not actually all that honest only a paragraph ago, we need to realize that his narration is probably not completely factual/accurate/truthful. Plus, this observation comes at the end of the third chapter, after we've met all the major players finally - so it's like the board has been set, and now we finallt have enough information to distrust our narrator.
I guess we’re going with “Nick Carraway: World’s Most Honest Liar” on this one?
Chapter 3 Analysis
This is a good time to step back from the plot and the text to see how this chapter connects to the book's bigger picture.
Themes and Symbols
Money and Materialism. Nothing says Roaring 20s excess like the insane party Gatsby throws. In Nick’s description, it’s an explosion of decorations, food, alcohol, music, and anonymous guests who don’t even know the host. This, combined with the over-the-top level of entertainment he provides is jarring even for the wealthy West Egg crowd, and speaks to the materialism and conspicuous display of consumption the novel deplores. It’s interesting that Gatsby orchestrates but doesn’t participate in his extravaganzas – even the guests become display pieces of his wealth as he stands above them and watches.
Society and Class. At the same time, we get a sense of the West Egg/East Egg divide as Jordan Baker’s East Egg friends stick together and do not mix with the rest of the guests, regarding them as vulgar and beneath them.
Mutability of Identity. The beautifully decorated library filled with books that have never been read speaks to Gatsby’s theatrical approach to crafting his new identity. He can create the trapping and appearance of an Oxford man, but doesn’t have the background or inner resources to actually be one. At the same time, the mystery around Gatsby deepens. We get new theories about his background - he killed a man, he was a German spy during the war, he went to Oxford. And we also see him doing all sorts of inexplicable things – taking business phone calls from Chicago and Philadelphia, telling Jordan something secret and fascinating, not actually partying at his own party. At the same time, we get the first glimpse into the “great” Gatsby – that dazzling smile that captivates Nick with its empathy and connection.
Motifs: Sports. We get our second mention of organized sports in Nick’s brief description of a golf cheating scandal that Jordan was involved with. He chalks it up to her general tendency to lie. Golf is the perfect sport for Jordan to play. It is a game that is highly ordered by social rules and customs, so it fits neatly into her lying MO - she relies on the idea that accusing a woman of cheating is seen as ungentlemanly.
Jordan Baker: using the staid rules of the behavior of the upper crust to leverage her golf game, like a boss.
Crucial Character Beats
Nick and Jordan meet the man with the owl-eyed spectacles (a mysterious and yet somehow important minor figure - later, he will be the only person who will show up to Gatsby’s funeral) who shows them Gatsby’s library of unread books. Like the rest of Gatsby’s life, this library is just window-dressing.
We finally meet Gatsby! The title character of the book doesn’t appear until Chapter 3 – and by this point, he’s no longer just a man. He’s a myth and a legend. His actual appearance doesn’t dispel the mystery, but deepens it: why is he getting business phone calls on a weekend? How does a man as young as he is have this kind of money? Why doesn’t he participate in his own party? Why doesn’t Nick describe what he looks like (the way he does every other person in the book)?
The owl-spectacles man and his even drunker companion crash a car that they have no idea how to drive. This alarming combination of driving and alcohol is here played for laughs, but is also an important bit of foreshadowing. The foreshadowing is laid on even thicker when Jordan says that as a careless driver, she relies on other people to watch out for her, and Nick points out the danger of two careless people meeting on the road.
Present-day Nick interrupts his story to let us know that the things that he is describing as significant now didn’t appear so at the time. This both shows how much his fascination with Gatsby has grown over time, and makes the novel’s heavy use of foreshadowing all the more significant.
Nick and Jordan start dating, and he realizes that she is a compulsive liar.
Learn more about what makes Jordan tick in preparation for the next chapter, when she will take over narrator duties for a while.
Consider the role the motifs of music, alcohol, and sports play in the novel.
Think about how Gatsby’s parties have been portrayed in the movie adaptations of this novel, since these are the scenes that have become iconic in the way Gatsby has seeped into the larger culture.
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.