Among the masterstrokes of craft one finds in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald is his deft creation of complex, multi-character scenes. Whether it is the Gamma Psi sorority dance at Delmonico’s in the short story, “May Day,” or the raucous summer lawn parties in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald portrays social gatherings in ways that incorporate both their intimacy and their expansiveness. Another captivating group scene, also from Gatsby, depicts a much smaller-scaled affair—an impromptu cocktail party of six people that is held at the apartment of millionaire Tom Buchanan’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson. But in Fitzgerald’s hands, this comparatively minor scene is writ large. Through the use of setting-as-character, dialogue, and the insightful first-person narration of Nick Carraway, the author succeeds in crafting one of the more vivid and memorable chapters in the novel—and my personal favorite, as a matter of fact.
The action of this chapter, the second one in the book, takes place on a Sunday afternoon. Tom Buchanan and Nick are taking the train into New York City when, at a routine stop along the way, Tom brusquely announces: “We’re getting off …. I want you to meet my girl.” Buchanan, a narrow-minded, brutish, former Yale man—whom the narrator describes as “forever seeking … the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game”—has for some time been stepping out on his wife, Daisy. His mistress, Myrtle, is the unsatisfied wife of a dowdy mechanic, George Wilson, whose auto garage is but a short walk from the train stop. In a private moment at the garage, Tom Buchanan instructs Myrtle to take the next train into the city, where it is understood they will meet up at the modest apartment he has secured for their frequent rendezvous.
The second-floor apartment in the city is hardly an innocuous literary setting, however. Rather, Fitzgerald uses his descriptive talents to render it a character of sorts, giving it a critical role in the creation of tension. With only four tiny rooms, the living space is tight by anyone’s standards. But the author enriches readers’ understanding with further, deeper details, depicting the flat as also being “crowded to the doors” by garish living-room furniture that is “entirely too large” and a serious impediment to movement. Even the upholstery design is used for effect: The tapestried “scenes of ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles” are busy enough to call up the illusion of unwanted party crashers. So even before the other guests arrive, the confined, discomfiting character of Tom’s and Myrtle’s illicit getaway is already well established. Though inanimate by definition, the apartment space becomes a causative agent for what is to come.
Besides Nick Carraway, who is practically dragged into this by Tom, three other guests are summoned to the spur-of-the-moment festivities: Myrtle’s sister, Catherine, an outgoing redhead “said to be very beautiful by people who ought to know”; Mr. McKee, an effeminate photographer in “the artistic game” who arrives with a spot of shaving cream still on his cheekbone; and, finally, McKee’s wife, whom Nick describes as “shrill, languid, handsome and horrible.”
Tom Buchanan—who had spent his entire life in a milieu of people who “played polo and were rich together”—is clearly slumming in the context of this crowd, as, for that matter, he also is with Myrtle Wilson. But in this particular instance, whiskey serves as an effective democratizer, and over the next several hours, the revelers consume two quarts of it.
“I have been drunk just twice in my life,” Nick Carraway discloses to readers, “and the second time was that afternoon.” Consequently, his narration of the cocktail party unfurls in a “dim hazy cast” that actually enhances its authenticity.
Of course, Carraway’s creator, the alcoholic Scott Fitzgerald, was doubtless a veteran of similar parties in real life; so he is perhaps especially qualified to render in prose this heightened level of intoxication and the complex, almost surreal situations that arise under its influence. In several instances, Fitzgerald uses narrative to illustrate the addlebrained behaviors and time-space distortions typical to inebriation. He describes, for example, the liquor-induced transformation of Myrtle Wilson’s personality from the proletarian, “intense vitality” of their earlier meeting at the auto garage to the present haughtiness of a would-be society matron. In a “high mincing shout,” Myrtle now lectures the partygoers on money, and the lifestyle it purchases, as though she actually knows something about it. She also complains of the building’s elevator operator, whom she had ordered to fetch ice, exclaiming: “These people! You have to keep after them all the time.”
Fitzgerald’s description of the profound change in Myrtle also serves provides readers with an impressionistic image of the distorted scene unfolding in the cramped apartment:
Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air.
Another example of time-space confusion is found in narrator Carraway’s patchy recollection of how, throughout the long evening, the various partygoers “disappeared, reappeared, made plans to go somewhere, then lost each other, searched for each other, found each other a few feet away.” Similarly, in a brief scenario that follows an argument—during which Tom Buchanan slaps Myrtle and breaks her nose—the narrator uses the same fuzzy impressionism to depict the chaotic aftermath:
Then there were bloody towels upon the bathroom floor and women’s voices scolding, and high over the confusion a long broken wail of pain….[Mrs. McKee] and Catherine…stumbled here and there among the crowded furniture with articles of aid, and the despairing figure on the couch bleeding fluently and trying to spread a copy of “Town Tattle” over the tapestry scenes of Versailles.
Not surprisingly, Tom’s violent outburst brings the festivities to an abrupt end. As the women attend to the injured Myrtle, the photographer McKee, who had passed out some time ago, awakens and starts off “in a daze toward the door”—but not before Nick Carraway had finally taken a handkerchief and “wiped from his cheek the remains of the spot of dried lather that had worried [him] all afternoon.”
Scott Fitzgerald was the consummate observer, a man who spent his adult life filling notebooks with real-life scenarios and overheard bits of conversation. This, in part, explains his extraordinary ability to craft multi-character scenes. And it stands to reason that his first-person narrator in The Great Gatsby is imbued with a similar curiosity, as well as a knack for conveying his impressions. The drunken scene of Myrtle Wilson’s New York apartment party stands as an example of this shared facility. Throughout the ill-fated gathering, Nick Carraway, like his creator, sits back and takes it all in, feeling at once “enchanted and repelled” by what he sees and hears going on around him, ever satisfying his personal fascination for “the inexhaustible variety of life.”