The drive from long Island to Manhattan is the hinge of veracity upon which the entire book swings. Gatsby tells Nick his life story so that he will not fall for any of the false rumors going on about him. (69) Gatsby makes several claims about himself.
Gatsby comes from a wealthy Midwestern family. All of his family is dead. He was educated at Oxford. His ancestors were educated there.
The San Francisco Ploy
Nick eventually claims to believe all to this, even though he doubts it as it is being told. The most incredible part of this exchange is when Nick asks Gatsby what part of the Midwest he comes from. Gatsby answers, “San Francisco,” to which Nick simply replies, “I see.” (70)
Nick’s response is more bizarre than Gatsby’s answer. Not only is San Francisco not in the Midwest, but Nick never challenges this remark. It is as if Gatsby is saying that all of his claims are as true as San Francisco is a Midwestern town. Nick’s response is his agreement to go along with the lie. Gatsby has his story which is just as real as his name, one sprung from his own Platonic conception of himself. Our narrator Nick has agreed to be his accomplice.
The individual claims Gatsby affirms for himself are easy to dissect. First, he says he came from a wealthy family. This is as much a lie as when Nick says the same thing about himself. When Gatsby shows Nick his house, he tells him that it took three years to earn the money to buy the house, (95) which may be true, but contradicts his claims of inheriting his wealth. Nick asks about this seeming contradiction.
The problem with lies is the difficulty of consistency, and here Gatsby is caught in a lie, which he tries to explain away. Gatsby says he did inherit money but lost in the big panic of the war, whatever that means. He says that he owned drug stores, but doesn’t now. (95)
In the days of prohibition grain alcohol was sold over the counter, supposedly medicinally, at certain kinds of drug stores. This seems to be the kind of stores Gatsby owned, which makes him nothing more than bootlegger, just as Tom claims.
Nick’s willingness, even his eagerness, to lie on behalf of Gatsby is evident in one particular paragraph. In an attempt to lump all of the rumor together about Gatsby and tell the reader to forget them all, Nick starts with, “He’s a bootlegger.” (65) Two things stand out about this claim. Fist of all, it’s true. Second of all, no one ever claimed this about him.
Nick moves on to one of claims of Gatsby’s past, but packages it in idiocy as if to say the claim is absurd. He notes, “One time he killed a man who found out that he was nephew to von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil.” (65) Nick intentionally lumps the truth of his bootlegging with the clear error of his German political ties.
Instead of being wealthy, Gatsby’s folks were “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people.” (104) Nick meets his father, Henry Gatz, just before the funeral. Not only is he not wealthy, but he is also not dead, even though Gatsby said as much. Despite this, Nick lies and tells Henry, “He never told me definitely that his parent were dead.” (172)
Gatsby’s claims about college seem to be some of the most interesting as they play out in the book. He chokes on “educated at Oxford” like the phrase bothers him. (69) It should bother him, seeing that he did not even spend two full semesters there. When Tom confronts him on his Oxford education, Gatsby says, “I only stayed five months. That’s why I really can’t call myself an Oxford man.” (136)
Nick seems to see some sort of verification in this remark, when the reader sees more obfuscation. While he truthfully tells Tom that this technicality is why he cannot call himself an Oxford man, it hasn’t stopped him from claiming that before.
Amongst all the rumors regarding Gatsby, rumors that begin with “I heard” or some sort of qualifier, Jordan says, “He told me once he was an Oxford man.” (53) Unless Jordan also deserves to be branded a liar, when she seems to be the truthful foil to Nick, this shows Gatsby to be the one who lied to her. Also, Meyer tells Nick, “He’s an Oggsford man.” (76) Clearly, he heard Gatsby make the same claim that Jordan did, which shows Gatsby to be a complete liar, and Nick his complicit promoter.
That drive to the city was important for a few reasons. Not only is Nick introduced to Meyer and informed about the subject of an afternoon tea with Jordan, Nick is initiated into a world of duplicity Gatsby had been living with for the past few years. Gatsby lies to Nick, let him know it was a lie, and Nick agrees to repeat the lie with a simple “I see.” This is based on more than Nick’s general dishonesty, and affects how the reader filters his interpretation of the novel through Nick’s fraudulence.
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Here are some more articles regarding The Great Gatsby you can find here on A Word Fitly Spoken:
- “The Reliability Of Nick Carraway: Part One – The Naysaying Narrator” (10.9.12)
- “Why The Great Gatsby Is The Best American Novel” (6.21.12)
- “What Made Daisy Faye Buchanan & Jay Gatsby So Attractive And Attracted To Each Other?” (8.28.12)
- “Who Shot Jay Gatsby?” (3.4.13)