The Great Gatsby By F. Scott Fitzgerald Summary and Analysis Chapter 8

Summary

Nick wakes as Chapter 8 opens, hearing Gatsby return home from his all-night vigil at the Buchanans. He goes to Gatsby's, feeling he should tell him something (even he doesn't know what, exactly). Gatsby reveals that nothing happened while he kept his watch. Nick suggests Gatsby leave town for a while, certain Gatsby's car would be identified as the "death car." Nick's comments make Gatsby reveal the story of his past, "because 'Jay Gatsby' had broken up like glass against Tom's hard malice." Daisy, Gatsby reveals, was his social superior, yet they fell deeply in love. The reader also learns that, when courting, Daisy and Gatsby had been intimate with each other and it was this act of intimacy that bonded him to her inexorably, feeling "married to her." Gatsby left Daisy, heading off to war. He excelled in battle and when the war was over, he tried to get home, but ended up at Oxford instead. Daisy didn't understand why he didn't return directly and, over time, her interest began to wane until she eventually broke off their relationship.

Moving back to the present, Gatsby and Nick continue their discussion of Daisy and how Gatsby had gone to Louisville to find her upon his return to the United States. She was on her honeymoon and Gatsby was left with a "melancholy beauty," as well as the idea that if he had only searched harder he would have found her. The men are finishing breakfast as Gatsby's gardener arrives. He says he plans on draining the pool because the season is over, but Gatsby asks him to wait because he hasn't used the pool at all. Nick, purposely moving slowly, heads to his train. He doesn't want to leave Gatsby, impulsively declaring "They're a rotten crowd . . . You're worth the whole damn bunch put together."

For Nick, the day drags on; he feels uneasy, preoccupied with the past day's adventures. Jordan phones, but Nick cuts her off. He phones Gatsby and, unable to reach him, decides to head home early. The narrative again shifts time and focus, as Fitzgerald goes back in time, to the evening prior, in the valley of ashes. George Wilson, despondent at Myrtle's death, appears irrational when Michaelis attempts to engage him in conversation. By morning, Michaelis is exhausted and returns home to sleep. When he returns four hours later, Wilson is gone and has traveled to Port Roosevelt, Gads Hill, West Egg, and ultimately, Gatsby's house. There he finds Gatsby floating on an air mattress in the pool. Wilson, sure that Gatsby is responsible for his wife's death, shoots and kills Gatsby. Nick finds Gatsby's body floating in the pool and, while starting to the house with the body, the gardener discovers Wilson's lifeless body off in the grass.

Analysis

Chapter 8 displays the tragic side of the American dream as Gatsby is gunned down by George Wilson. The death is brutal, if not unexpected, and brings to an end the life of the paragon of idealism. The myth of Gatsby will continue, thanks to Nick who relays the story, but Gatsby's death loudly marks the end of an era. In many senses, Gatsby is the dreamer inside all of everyone. Although the reader cheers him as he pursues his dreams, one also knows that pure idealism cannot survive in the harsh modern world. This chapter, as well as the one following, also provides astute commentary on the world that, in effect, allowed the death of Gatsby.

As the chapter opens, Nick is struggling with the situation at hand. He grapples with what's right and what's wrong, which humanizes him and lifts him above the rigid callousness of the story's other characters. Unable to sleep (a premonition of bad things to come) he heads to Gatsby's who is returning from his all-night vigil outside Daisy's house. Nick, always a bit more levelheaded and sensitive to the world around him than the other characters, senses something large is about to happen. Although he can't put his finger on it, his moral sense pulls him to Gatsby's. Upon his arrival, Gatsby seems genuinely surprised his services were not necessary outside Daisy's house, showing again just how little he really knows her.

As the men search Gatsby's house for cigarettes, the reader learns more about both Nick and Gatsby. Nick moves further and further from the background to emerge as a forceful presence in the novel, showing genuine care and concern for Gatsby, urging him to leave the city for his own protection. Throughout the chapter, Nick is continually pulled toward his friend, anxious for reasons he can't exactly articulate. Whereas Nick shows his true mettle in a flattering light in this chapter, Gatsby doesn't fare as well. He becomes weaker and more helpless, despondent in the loss of his dream. It is as if he refuses to admit that the story hasn't turned out as he intended. He refuses to acknowledge that the illusion that buoyed him for so many years has vanished, leaving him hollow and essentially empty.

As the men search Gatsby's house for the elusive cigarettes, Gatsby fills Nick in on the real story. For the first time in the novel, Gatsby sets aside his romantic view of life and confronts the past he has been trying to run from, as well as the present he has been trying to avoid. Daisy, it turns out, captured Gatsby's love largely because "she was the first 'nice' girl he had ever known." She moved in a world Gatsby aspired to and unlike other people of that particular social set, she acknowledged Gatsby's presence in that world. Although he doesn't admit it, his love affair with Daisy started early, when he erroneously defined her not merely by who she was, but by what she had and what she represented. All through the early days of their courtship, however, Gatsby tormented himself with his unworthiness, knowing "he was in Daisy's house by a colossal accident," although he led Daisy to believe he was a man of means. Although his original intention was to use Daisy, he found out that he was incapable of doing so. When their relation became intimate, he still felt unworthy, and with the intimacy, Gatsby found himself wedded, not to Daisy directly, but to the quest to prove himself worthy of her. (How sad that Gatsby's judgment is so clouded with societal expectation that he can't see that a young, idealistic man who has passion, drive, and persistence is worth more than ten Daisys put together.)

In loving Daisy, it turns out, Gatsby was trapped. On one hand, he loved her and she loved him, or more precisely, he loved what he envisioned her to be and she loved the persona he presented to her — and therein lies the rub. Both Daisy and Gatsby were in love with projected images and while Daisy didn't realize this at first, Gatsby did, and it forced him more directly into his dream world. After the war (in which Gatsby really did excel), Gatsby could have returned home to Daisy. The only difficulty with that, however, would have been that in being with Daisy, he would run the risk of being exposed as an imposter. So, rather than risk having his dream disintegrate in front of him, he perpetuated his illusion by studying at Oxford before heading back to the States. Daisy's letters begged him to return, not understanding why he wasn't rushing back to be with her. She was missing the post-war euphoria sweeping the nation and she wanted her dashing officer by her side. Eventually Daisy moved again into society, feeling the need to have some stability and purpose in her life. However, Daisy's lack of principle shows when she is willing to use love, money, or practicality (whichever was handier) to determine the direction of her life. She wanted to be married. When Tom arrived, he seemed the obvious choice, and so Daisy sent Gatsby a letter at Oxford.

The letter, it turns out, brought Gatsby back stateside. It is as if now that Daisy was married he could return and not have to fear being found out. He could carry his love for Daisy around with him, knowing full well that she was unobtainable. Although Gatsby isn't likely to admit it, in a way, Daisy marrying Tom was the perfect solution to his situation because now that she was married to another, she need never know how poor he really was. After returning to the U.S., Gatsby travels to Louisville with his last bit of money, and there the quest begins in earnest. From this moment, he spends his days trying to recapture the beauty that he basked in while with young Daisy Fay.

Upon hearing Gatsby's true story, Nick cannot help but be moved and spends the rest of the day worrying about his friend. While in the city, Nick tries desperately to keep focused on his work, but can't seem to do so. What he has realized (through Gatsby's story and the events of the previous night), and part of what is troubling him, is that he has come to know the shallowness of "polite society." Gatsby, a dreamer from nowhere, has passion and genuinely cares about something, even if it is a dream, and that is more than can be said for people like the Buchanans and Jordan Baker. In fact, when Jordan phones Nick at work he is unwilling to speak to her, finding himself more and more irritated by her shallow and self-serving ways. In rejecting her (the first man ever to do so) Nick has grown, not only seeing what dark stuff that socialites are really made of, but possessing the courage to stand against it.

Midway through the chapter, Fitzgerald shifts focus to the valley of ashes and has Nick recount what had gone on there in the hours prior. George Wilson has become overwhelmed with grief at the loss of his wife. Directly contrasting Tom Buchanan (who is unable to experience a heartfelt emotion), George is devastated and overwhelmed by emotion. His neighbor, Michaelis, tries to console him, but nothing seems to help. George lives in an effectual wasteland, void of spirituality, void of life, and when in his grief he tells Michaelis of his last day with Myrtle, he turns to the giant billboard above him. In what is perhaps his most lucid statement in the whole book, Wilson explains the purpose of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg's enormous eyes. They are the eyes of God, and "God sees everything."

Wilson's grief knows no bounds and while Michaelis sleeps, he heads in to town, eventually tracking Gatsby down and killing him while he floats on an air mattress in his swimming pool. Fitzgerald has made clear earlier in the chapter that autumn is at hand, and it naturally brings with it the ending of life — natural and human, both. Wilson, still overcome by grief and the bad judgment it invokes, finds his way to Gatsby's house (tipped off by Tom, as Nick discovers in Chapter 9) and kills Gatsby, mistakenly thinking that he is responsible for Myrtle's death.

Gatsby's death, alone in his pool, brings forth a couple of distinct images. On the one hand, his death is a rebirth of sorts. Gatsby has done nothing more than follow a dream, and despite his money and his questionable business dealings, he is nothing at all like the East Egg socialites he runs with. One admires him, if for no other reason than his ability to sustain a dream in a world that is historically inhospitable to dreamers. His death has, in a sense, removed him from his mortal existence and allowed him rebirth into a different, hopefully better, life. As Nick says, Gatsby "must have felt that he had lost the old warm world" when his dream died, and found no reason to go on. In that sense, Wilson's murdering him is a welcome end. On another level, Gatsby's death at the hands of George Wilson makes his quest complete. His dream is completely dead, but he can make one more chivalric gesture: He can be killed in Daisy's stead. By lying in the pool, Gatsby is doing nothing to protect himself, as if he is saying that he won't refuse whatever is ahead of him. In some sense, Gatsby helps Wilson by refusing to be proactive in his own defense. Until the very end, Gatsby remains the dreamer, that most rare of jewels in the modern world.

Glossary

pneumatic filled with compressed air.

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