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Best Summary and Analysis: The Great Gatsby, Chapter 8

Posted by Dr. Anna Wulick | May 4, 2016 3:00:00 PM

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In Great Gatsby Chapter 8, things go from very bad to much, much worse. There’s an elegiac tone to half of the story in Chapter 8, as Nick tells us about Gatsby giving up on his dreams of Daisy and reminiscing about his time with her five years before. The other half of the chapter is all police thriller, as we hear Michaelis describe Wilson coming unglued and deciding to take bloody revenge for Myrtle’s death.

Get ready for bittersweetness and gory shock, in this The Great Gatsby Chapter 8 summary.

 

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 8 Summary

That night Nick has trouble sleeping. He feels like he needs to warn Gatsby about something.

When he meets up with Gatsby at dawn, Gatsby tells Nick nothing happened outside Daisy’s house all night. Gatsby’s house feels strangely enormous. It’s also poorly kept - dusty, unaired, and unusually dark.

Nick advises Gatsby to lay low somewhere else so that his car isn’t found and linked to the accident. But Gatsby is unwilling to leave his lingering hopes for Daisy. Instead, Gatsby tells Nick about his background - the information Nick told us in Chapter 6.

 

Gatsby's narrative begins with the description of Daisy as the first wealthy, upper-class girl Gatsby had ever met. He loved her huge beautiful house and the fact that many men had loved her before him. All of this made him see her as a prize.

He knew that since he was poor, he shouldn’t really have been wooing her, but he slept with her anyway, under the false pretenses that he and she were in the same social class.

Gatsby realized that he was in love with Daisy and was surprised to see that Daisy fell in love with him too. They were together for a month before Gatsby had to leave for the war in Europe. He was successful in the army, becoming a major. After the war he ended up at Oxford, unable to return to Daisy.

Meanwhile, Daisy re-entered the normal rhythm of life: lavish living, snobbery, lots of dates, and all-night parties. Gatsby sensed from her letters that she was annoyed at having to wait for him, and instead wanted to finalize what her life would be like. The person who finalized her life in a practical way that made sense was Tom.

 

Gatsby interrupts his narrative to again say that there’s no way that Daisy ever loved Tom - well, maybe for a second right after the wedding, tops, but that’s it.

Then he goes back to his story, which concludes after Daisy's wedding to Tom. When Gatsby came back from Oxford, Daisy and Tom were still on their honeymoon. Gatsby felt like the best thing in his life had disappeared forever.

After breakfast, Gatsby’s gardener suggests draining the pool, but Gatsby wants to keep it filled since he hasn’t yet used it. 

Gatsby still hopes that Daisy will call him.

Nick thanks Gatsby for the hospitality, pays him the backhanded compliment of saying that he is better than the “rotten crowd” of upper-class people (backhanded because it's setting the bar pretty low to be better than "rotten" people), and leaves to go to work.

At work, Nick gets a phone call from Jordan, who is upset that Nick didn’t pay sufficient attention to her the night before. Nick is floored by this selfishness - after all, someone died, so how could Jordan be so self-involved! They hang up on each other, clearly broken up.

Nick tries to call Gatsby, but is told by the operator that the line is being kept free for a phone call from Detroit (which might actually be Gatsby's way of clearing the line in case Daisy calls? It's unclear). On the way back from the city, Nick purposefully sits on the side of the train car that won’t face Wilson’s garage.

 

Nick now tells us what happened at the garage after he, Tom, and Jordan drove away the day before. Since he wasn't there, he's most likely recapping Michaelis's inquest statement.

They found Myrtle’s sister too drunk to understand what had happened to Myrtle. Then she fainted and had to be taken away.

Michaelis sat with Wilson until dawn, listening to Wilson talk about the yellow car that had run Myrtle over, and how to find it. Michaelis suggested that Wilson talk to a priest, but Wilson showed Michaelis an expensive dog leash that he found. To him, this was incontrovertible proof of her affair and the fact that her lover killed Myrtle on purpose.

Wilson said that Myrtle was trying to run out to talk to the man in the car, while Michaelis believed that she had been trying to flee the house where Wilson had locked her up. Wilson had told Myrtle that God could see everything she was doing. The God he’s talking about? The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg on the billboard near the garage.

Wilson seemed calm, so Michaelis went home to sleep. By the time he came back to the garage, Wilson was gone. Wilson walked all the way to West Egg, asking about the yellow car.

 

That afternoon, Gatsby gets in his pool for the first time that summer. He is still waiting for a call from Daisy. Nick tries to imagine what it must have been like to be Gatsby and know that your dream was lost.

Gatsby’s chauffeur hears gunshots just as Nick pulls up to the house. In the pool, they see Gatsby’s dead body, and a little way off in the grass, they see Wilson’s body. Wilson has shot Gatsby and then himself.

 

body_pool.jpgSo the moral of the story is, if you have a nice pool, try to use it more often.

 

Key Chapter 8 Quotes

She was the first "nice" girl he had ever known. In various unrevealed capacities he had come in contact with such people but always with indiscernible barbed wire between. He found her excitingly desirable. He went to her house, at first with other officers from Camp Taylor, then alone. It amazed him--he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity was that Daisy lived there--it was as casual a thing to her as his tent out at camp was to him. There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year's shining motor cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered. It excited him too that many men had already loved Daisy--it increased her value in his eyes. He felt their presence all about the house, pervading the air with the shades and echoes of still vibrant emotions. (8.10)

The reason the word “nice” is in quotation marks is that Gatsby does not mean that Daisy is the first pleasant or amiable girl that he has met. Instead, the word “nice” here means refined, having elegant and elevated taste, picky and fastidious. In other words, from the very beginning what Gatsby most values about Daisy is that she belongs to that set of society that he is desperately trying to get into: the wealthy, upper echelon. Just like when he noted the Daisy’s voice has money in it, here Gatsby almost cannot separate Daisy herself from the beautiful house that he falls in love with.

Notice also how much he values quantity of any kind – it’s wonderful that the house has many bedrooms and corridors, and it’s also wonderful that many men want Daisy. Either way, it’s the quantity itself that “increases value.” It’s almost like Gatsby’s love is operating in a market economy – the more demand there is for a particular good, the higher the worth of that good. Of course, thinking in this way makes it easy to understand why Gatsby is able to discard Daisy’s humanity and inner life when he idealizes her.

 

For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the "Beale Street Blues" while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.

Through this twilight universe Daisy began to move again with the season; suddenly she was again keeping half a dozen dates a day with half a dozen men and drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed. And all the time something within her was crying for a decision. She wanted her life shaped now, immediately - and the decision must be made by some force - of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality - that was close at hand. (8.18-19)

This description of Daisy’s life apart from Gatsby clarifies why she picks Tom in the end and goes back to her hopeless ennui and passive boredom: this is what she has grown up doing and is used to. Daisy’s life seems fancy. After all, there are orchids and orchestras and golden shoes.

But already, even for the young people of high society, death and decay loom large. In this passage for example, not only is the orchestra’s rhythm full of sadness, but the orchids are dying, and the people themselves look like flowers past their prime. In the midst of this stagnation, Daisy longs for stability, financial security, and routine. Tom offered that then, and he continues to offer it now.

 

"Of course she might have loved him, just for a minute, when they were first married--and loved me more even then, do you see?"

Suddenly he came out with a curious remark:

"In any case," he said, "it was just personal."

What could you make of that, except to suspect some intensity in his conception of the affair that couldn't be measured? (8.24-27)

Even though he can now no longer be an absolutist about Daisy’s love, Gatsby is still trying to think about her feelings on his own terms. After admitting that the fact that many men loved Daisy before him is a positive, Gatsby is willing to admit that maybe Daisy had feelings for Tom after all, just as long as her love for Gatsby was supreme.

Gatsby is ambiguous admission that “it was just personal” carries several potential meanings:

  • Nick assumes that the word “it” refers to Gatsby’s love, which Gatsby is describing as “personal” as a way of emphasizing how deep and inexplicable his feelings for Daisy are.
  • But of course, the word “it” could just as easily be referring to Daisy’s decision to marry Tom. In this case, what is “personal” are Daisy’s reasons (the desire for status and money), which are hers alone, and have no bearing on the love that she and Gatsby feel for each other.

He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever. (8.30)

Once again Gatsby is trying to reach something that is just out of grasp, a gestural motif that recurs frequently in this novel. Here already, even as a young man, he is trying to grab hold of an ephemeral memory.

 

"They're a rotten crowd," I shouted across the lawn. "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together."

I've always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we'd been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time. His gorgeous pink rag of a suit made a bright spot of color against the white steps and I thought of the night when I first came to his ancestral home three months before. The lawn and drive had been crowded with the faces of those who guessed at his corruption--and he had stood on those steps, concealing his incorruptible dream, as he waved them goodbye. (8.45-46)

It’s interesting that here Nick suddenly tells us that he disapproves of Gatsby. One way to interpret this is that during that fateful summer, Nick did indeed disapprove of what he saw, but has since come to admire and respect Gatsby, and it is that respect and admiration that come through in the way he tells the story most of the time.

It’s also telling that Nick sees the comment he makes to Gatsby as a compliment. At best, it is a backhanded one – he is saying that Gatsby is better than a rotten crowd, but that is a bar set very low (if you think about it, it’s like saying “you’re so much smarter than that chipmunk!” and calling that high praise). Nick’s description of Gatsby’s outfit as both “gorgeous” and a “rag” underscores this sense of condescension. The reason Nick thinks that he is praising Gatsby by saying this is that suddenly, in this moment, Nick is able to look past his deeply and sincerely held snobbery, and to admit that Jordan, Tom, and Daisy are all horrible people despite being upper crust.

Still, backhanded as it is, this compliment also meant to genuinely make Gatsby feel a bit better. Since Gatsby cares so, so much about entering the old money world, it makes Nick glad to be able to tell Gatsby that he is so much better than the crowd he's desperate to join.

 

Usually her voice came over the wire as something fresh and cool as if a divot from a green golf links had come sailing in at the office window but this morning it seemed harsh and dry.

"I've left Daisy's house," she said. "I'm at Hempstead and I'm going down to Southampton this afternoon."

Probably it had been tactful to leave Daisy's house, but the act annoyed me and her next remark made me rigid.

"You weren't so nice to me last night."

"How could it have mattered then?" (8.49-53)

Jordan’s pragmatic opportunism, which has so far been a positive foil to Daisy’s listless inactivity, is suddenly revealed to be an amoral and self-involved way of going through life. Instead of being affected one way or another by Myrtle’s horrible death, Jordan’s takeaway from the previous day is that Nick simply wasn’t as attentive to her as she would like.

Nick is staggered by the revelation that the cool aloofness that he liked so much throughout the summer - possibly because it was a nice contrast to the girl back home that Nick thought was overly attached to their non-engagement - is not actually an act. Jordan really doesn’t care about other people, and she really can just shrug off seeing Myrtle’s mutilated corpse and focus on whether Nick was treating her right. Nick, who has been trying to assimilate this kind of thinking all summer long, finds himself shocked back into his Middle West morality here.

 

"I spoke to her," he muttered, after a long silence. "I told her she might fool me but she couldn't fool God. I took her to the window--" With an effort he got up and walked to the rear window and leaned with his face pressed against it, "--and I said 'God knows what you've been doing, everything you've been doing. You may fool me but you can't fool God!' "

Standing behind him Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg which had just emerged pale and enormous from the dissolving night.

"God sees everything," repeated Wilson.

"That's an advertisement," Michaelis assured him. Something made him turn away from the window and look back into the room. But Wilson stood there a long time, his face close to the window pane, nodding into the twilight. (8.102-105)

Clearly Wilson has been psychologically shaken first by Myrtle’s affair and then by her death - he is seeing the giant eyes of the optometrist billboard as a stand-in for God. But this delusion underlines the absence of any higher power in the novel. In the lawless, materialistic East, there is no moral center which could rein in people’s darker, immoral impulses. The motif of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes runs through the novel, as Nick notes them watching whatever goes on in the ashheaps. Here, that motif comes to a crescendo. Arguably, when Michaelis dispels Wilson’s delusion about the eyes, he takes away the final barrier to Wilson’s unhinged revenge plot. If there is no moral authority watching, anything goes.

 

No telephone message arrived but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o'clock--until long after there was any one to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about . . . like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees. (8.110)

Nick tries to imagine what it might be like to be Gatsby, but a Gatsby without the activating dream that has spurred him throughout his life. For Nick, this would be the loss of the aesthetic sense - an inability to perceive beauty in roses or sunlight. The idea of fall as a new, but horrifying, world of ghosts and unreal material contrasts nicely with Jordan’s earlier idea that fall brings with it rebirth.

  

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For Jordan, fall is a time of reinvention and possibility - but for Gatsby, it is literally the season of death.

 

The Great Gatsby Chapter 8 Analysis

Now let's comb through this chapter to tease apart the themes that connect it to the rest of the novel.

 

Themes and Symbols

Unreliable Narrator. However much Nick has been backgrounding himself as a narrative force in the novel, in this chapter, we suddenly start to feel the heavy hand of his narration. Rather than the completely objective, nonjudgmental reporter that he has set out to be, Nick begins to edit and editorialize. First, he introduces a sense of foreboding, foreshadowing Gatsby’s death with bad dreams and ominous dread. Then, he talks about his decision to reveal Gatsby’s background not in the chronological order when he learned it, but before we heard about the argument in the hotel room.

The novel is a long eulogy for a man Nick found himself admiring despite many reasons not to, so this choice to contextualize and mitigate Tom’s revelations by giving Gatsby the chance to provide context makes perfect sense. However, it calls into question Nick’s version of events, and his interpretation of the motivations of the people around him. He is a fundamentally unreliable narrator.

 

Symbols: The Eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. The absence of a church or religious figure in Wilson’s life, and his delusion that the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are a higher power, underscores how little moral clarity or prescription there is in the novel’s world. Characters are driven by emotional or material greed, by selfishness, and by a complete lack of concern about others. The people who thrive - from Wolfshiem to Jordan - do so because they are moral relativists. The people who fail - like Nick, or Gatsby, or Wilson - fail because they can’t put aside an absolutist ideal that drives their actions.

 

The American Dream. Remember discussing variously described ambition in Chapter 6, when we saw a bunch of people on the make in different ways? In this chapter, that sense of forward momentum recurs, but in a twisted and darkly satiric way through the Terminator-like drive of Wilson to find the yellow car and its driver. He walks from Queens to West Egg for something like six or seven hours, finding evidence that can’t be reproduced, and using a route that can’t be retraced afterward. Unlike Gatsby, forever trying to grasp the thing out he knows well but can’t reach, Wilson homes in on a person he doesn’t know but unerringly reaches.

 

Society and Class. By the end of this chapter, the rich and the poor are definitely separated - forever, by death. Every main character who isn’t from the upper class  - Myrtle, Gatsby, and Wilson - is violently killed. On the other hand, those from the social elite - Jordan, Daisy, and Tom - can continue their lives totally unchanged. Jordan brushes these deaths off completely. Tom gets to hang on to his functionally dysfunctional marriage. And Daisy literally gets away with murder (or at least manslaughter). Only Nick seems to be genuinely affected by what he has witnessed. He survives, but his retreat to his Midwest home marks a kind of death - the death of his romantic idea of achievement and success.

 

Death and Failure. Rot, decay, and death are everywhere in this chapter:

  • Gatsby’s house is in a state of almost supernatural disarray, with “inexplicable amount of dust everywhere” (8.4) after he fires his servants.
  • Amidst the parties and gaiety of Daisy’s youth, her “dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor” (8.19).
  • Nick’s phrase for the corruption and selfishness of the upper-class people he’s gotten to know is “rotten crowd” (8.45), people who are decomposing into garbage.
  • Gatsby floats in a pool, trying to hang on to summer, but actually on the eve of fall, as nature around him turns “frightening,” “unfamiliar,” “grotesque,” and “raw” (8.110).
  • This imagery culminates in figurative and literal cremation, as Wilson is described as “ashen” (8.110) and his murder-suicide as a “holocaust” (8.113).
By the way, remember that when Fitzgerald uses the word “holocaust,” he isn’t talking about what happened in Nazi Germany - he is writing about 20 years before WWII. Instead, the word “holocaust” here means a sacrificial offering that is burned on an altar - unrooted to any specific religion, Wilson’s actions evoke an atavistic, pagan ritual sacrifice.

 

 

body_rot.jpgSomething is very rotten in the state of Denmark… uh, Long Island. That rotten thing? The rich.

 

Crucial Character Beats

  • Nick has a premonition that he wants to warn Gatsby about. Gatsby still holds out hope for Daisy and refuses to get out of town as Nick advises.

  • Nick and Jordan break up - he is grossed out by her self-involvement and total lack of concern about the fact that Myrtle died the day before.

  • Wilson goes somewhat crazy after Myrtle’s death, and slowly becomes convinced that the driver of the yellow car that killed her was also her lover, and that he killed her on purpose. He sets out to hunt the owner of the yellow car down.

  • Wilson shoots Gatsby while Gatsby is waiting for Daisy’s phone call in his pool. Then Wilson shoots himself.

     

What’s Next?

Think about the novel’s connection to the motif of the seasons by comparing the ways summer, fall, and winter are described and experienced by different characters.

Get a handle on Gatsby’s revelations about his past by seeing all the events put into chronological order.

Move on to the summary of Chapter 9, or revisit the summary of Chapter 7.

 

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Dr. Anna Wulick
About the Author

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.



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