Great Gatsby, Chapter 2: Notes
The second chapter of the novel serves as a second introduction. We meet Myrtle and immediately place her and Daisy side by side and the character of Tom is further developed. We are not yet ready for Gatsby.
In chapter 1 we read of a party at the Buchanan’s mansion. In chapter 2 we see another type of gathering – one devoid of class and altogether more tawdry. The city of New York becomes a character in the novel, as does its offspring – the Valley of the Ashes.
- The Valley of the Ashes. ‘ A fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens’ says Nick as he describes the area between New York and the Eggs – and West Egg in particular, being geographically closer to the city. In the 1920s there was massive building and expansion into what are now the western suburbs of the city. In the novel the area is bleak and inhospitable. Pioneers like Wilson and Michaelis have set up businesses here, but there is little hope of success. All is overseen by the ‘Eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg – a poster representing all-seeing fate, the eyes of God, or the failed publicity of a now-dead oculist. The eyes have faded, yet the spectacles retain their harsh yellow paint: the characters in the novel seem to share a moral blindness despite the clear framework of a society in which to function. The message is that materialism has overtaken the wish to cure poor eyesight in the case of Eckleburg and this memorial to empty advertising promises is all that remains.
The area is sealed off from the Eggs by a ‘drawbridge’, as from a castle, and every journey into New York brings the gilded few into contact with the visible reality of life without their advantages. There have been attempts to smarten it up – Nick and Tom cross a ‘whitewashed’ fence before seeing the only buildings – ‘a small block of yellow brick… unprosperous and bare’. Nick’s imagination allows him to consider ‘sumptuous and romantic apartments overhead’, but it is only imagination – reality allows no such fantasy.
- New York: On arrival a (suitable) taxi takes the group to 158th This is a deeply unfashionable area, far removed from the bustle of downtown Manhattan and eminently suited to Tom’s love nest. There is an outward charm – ‘one slice in a long white cake of apartment houses’ says Nick. Myrtle believes herself to be queen here and behaves accordingly. The apartment itself is tiny – a fact accentuated by the wholly inappropriate furniture and furnishings and the repetition of ‘small’ before each item in the description – there is a splendid optical illusion in the excruciating photograph of either a hen or an old lady – nothing is quite what it seems in this novel. There is a bedroom into which Tom and Myrtle vanish to make love as soon as they arrive – Nick is forgotten or ignored as utterly irrelevant. He has not wished to come along, but Tom has collected him to show off.
- Myrtle Wilson (and Wilson).
As befits the owner of this washed out garage, Wilson is initially presented as a ‘blond, spiritless man, anaemic and faintly handsome’ – talk about faint praise! He is a sharp contrast with all around him, including his wife: ‘faintly stout, though she carried her flesh sensuously…’. She seems at ease with her open sexuality, wearing tight dresses and ‘smouldering’. She ignores her husband and flirts with Tom, giving orders in an oxymoronic ‘soft, coarse voice’. She is the visual and auditory antithesis of Daisy. She even avoids the ‘white dust’ which covers all in the vicinity. White is Daisy’s colour and Myrtle can have none of her purity. Both are plants, both pretty and hardy, but only myrtle is a climber and a fleshy plant to boot.
Myrtle is discreet on the train, but her character is clear on arrival – the taxi must suit her sense of elegance and the puppy is bought ‘for the apartment’ with no thought of its well-being. It is the last image of suffering in the chapter – eyes closed against the smoke, a fragile symbol of the thoughtlessness of the wealthy and aspirant wealthy.
She behaves with a ‘regal’ air once a the apartment and treats all with disdain – the comments to Mrs McKee about her clothes and Nick’s sardonic comment that she ‘swept into the kitchen, implying that a dozen chefs awaited her orders there.’ The sense of distance between her and Nick is increased by his continuing to call her Mrs Wilson throughout most of the narrative.
She is given the chance to tell her own story, and is an ashamed in telling Nick how much she was transfixed by Tom’s glamour and sexual allure on the train – he picks her up there and then in the manner of a sexual predator (‘his white shirt front pressed against my arm’) and the pair go off to make love. Elsewhere, the lie about Daisy’s Catholic upbringing is presented by her sister Catherine. Nick does not muse for long but an alert reader must wonder whether this might not be Tom’s story to her in order to explain why he will never leave Daisy for her – as if he would! As all becomes fuddled in drink there is one more scene to be played out. Myrtle, tired and emotional, is taunting Tom about his marriage – since Nick is nearly comatose we never discover why, yet she pushes too far. Her shouts of ‘Daisy, Daisy, Daisy’ are cut short in an act of swift brutality – ‘making a short, deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand’.
As the party dissolves, Nick recalls the scene with the focus clearly on Myrtle – Tom is nowhere to be seen. The woman who avidly reads Town Tattle for the gossip and buys a puppy for appearances sake is last seen trying to prevent her blood from spoiling the hideously pretentious and overdone Versailles tapestries. She clings to her imagined world despite the pain.
- Tom Buchanan
Little is done to flesh out Tom. The selfish bully is now seen in a harsher light. Nick is not allowed to separate from Tom on this journey – it is as though Tom needs to have Nick as some sort of ally in his life and is showing him the secrets of his order – the mistress, the love – nest in town. This confirms and develops Jordan’s comments from Chapter 1, but we also see Tom’s utter disregard for all he deems to be valueless: Wilson is greeted and then openly cuckolded-by-arrangement in his garage, Myrtle is an object to be used at his whim – ‘I want to see you’ – Nick is railroaded into joining the party and then ignored for the love-making on arrival, and Myrtle’s nose is broken swiftly before Tom vanishes from the narrative with no sense of apology or guilt for his actions.
Tom can see that Mr McKee is hoping for an introduction to the East Egg inhabitants to act a sa photographer to society and is quick to duck this challenge, rather cruelly joking that Myrtle will give a letter of introduction. He may well be stringing Myrtle on with the idea that Daisy’s Catholicism is the reason why he cannot leave her, just as he is stringing Wilson on with the story of the car that will never be sold so as to have an excuse to visit the garage.
- The Guests
Catherine, Myrtle’s sister and the McKee’s make up the guest list. Catherine has no roots – living in a hotel with a friend and has recently returned from an ill-fated European trip during which she has lost all her money in a casino. She epitomises the ‘lost generation’ for whom there was little sense of identity in a fast-changing world, but for whom the wonders of Europe and the high life was solely figurative unless one was genuinely wealthy. She does not drink, unusually, and is the source of much scurrilous gossip. She may well be seen as being invited as Nick’s partner in this immoral tale of deceit and despair. She is a source of gossip about Tom and Daisy/Myrtle and works with Mrs McKee to staunch the blood and to clean up the flat at the end of the evening.
The McKee’s are climbers, lured by the presence of East Egg money to try to gain access to the lucrative opportunities there. Mr McKee, effeminate with his shaving foam blot stands no chance against Tom and is easily outmanouvered. He and Nick leave together and as the narrative closes Nick incoherently recalls helping him to bed as McKee tries to drunkenly impress him with his portfolio – West Egg is better than nothing we assume.
His wife is eager to keep up socially with Myrtle! She offers compliments and is sneered at in return being eventually offered the dress she admired. Her response is not recorded. When drunk she is bigoted in the extreme about a lucky escape in love: ‘I almost married a little kyke who’d ben after me for years’.
- Nick Carraway
Little is added to Nick – he narrates and sees, not all but, most of what occurs. His language choice usually gives away his emotional response to all he sees. He is a prisoner of Tom’s through the scene but has one moment of romantic affectation when he imagines the light from this ghastly party being seen by an onlooker from outside: ‘I was within and without simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.’ As ever, Nick is ambiguous – he can be appalled and attracted by the self-same events.
That he is not of the same stuff as Tom can also be seen from his surprising comment on the ‘pastoral’ nature of 5th Avenue. Even allowing for the passage of time, this is an unusual epithet for the high-commerce centre of new York, again suggesting that Nick will see the park and it’s faux-rural aspect before he notices the burgeoning tower blocks and business centres of the city. He is an outsider here too.
Finally, Nick is a carer – he is concerned for the puppy who no one else notices and he removes Mr McKee’s shaving foam before putting him to bed at the end of the chapter – too polite to cause a scene by leaving Nick is the ideal narrator – a watcher and a seer who misses little that goes on. He wants things to be tidy – life is not like that.
After the opening chapter, the callous nature of the moneyed elite is brought home starkly in comparison with the settings of the Valley of the Ashes and of New York. Also it is clear that Tom, and by implication all like him, have no respect whatsoever for anyone they deem to be beneath them. They rule the world and have the right to impose their will an all others.
We are also shown how tawdry ‘real’ life is. The wealthy are beautiful but flawed, a lack of money means that the people trapped in and around New York are potentially beautiful, but no less flawed. No one is quite what they seem – the dog-seller looks like Rockefeller, the McKees are social climbers, Myrtle puts on grand airs. It seems that the city is a source of sadness and dissatisfaction. Through the Valley of the Ashes, the city is beginning to reach the privileged few of the Eggs – despite the drawbridge.