The Great Gatsby Contents
Synopsis of Chapter 1
Narrator Nick Carraway discusses his family background and recent experiences, including college (university), the Great War, moving to the East (of the USA), settling in his new house and going into the ‘bond business’.
Nick having rented a small house on the promontory of West Egg, the action begins with his visit to the East Egg house of his distant cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan, whom Nick knew from College as a skilled footballer from a wealthy family. He also meets their guest Jordan Baker, who confides that Tom has a mistress. During the visit Nick observes and gains some insight into the nature of the Buchanans’ relationship. When he returns to his rented house at night, he notices his neighbour, Jay Gatsby, making a mysterious gesture towards Daisy’s house in the ‘unquiet darkness’.
Commentary on Chapter 1
Given that Nick has subsequently returned from his time in the East, which was ‘last autumn’, the story recounted here is retrospective, yet rendered so vividly that we forget he is no longer present. Issues of perspective are highlighted in the first part of this chapter and profoundly affect the rest of the novel. However, Fitzgerald is subtle in raising these issues, deliberately leaving the reader with the difficult decision of which ‘window’ to choose.
turning over in my mind ever since - The first idea that Nick presents us with has the effect of destabilising readers’ judgements from the outset.
Whenever you feel … you’ve had - Criticism, meaning here the negative assessment of someone’s ideas or achievements, is undermined by the mitigating factor of disadvantage. The opening few lines create uncertainty in the reader and a sense of only having partial knowledge of the meanings.
victim … unjustly accused - The ineffectiveness of his father’s advice is demonstrated by what has happened to Nick at college among his peers, and establishes him as the recipient of ‘plagiaristic’ and ‘marred’ revelations. In conferring a sense of superiority on the holder, it’s also condemned as ‘snobbish’. Nick thus undermines himself and his father still further.
reserving judgements - Nick reveals that he does not always follow his father’s advice himself, further destabilising the reader.
in uniform and at a sort of moral attention for ever - Nick’s experience in the East has made him yearn for moral certainties.
Only Gatsby - In yet another change of direction, Nick then exempts Gatsby from this decision, introducing his character at a point where the reader has already been so disorientated that they no longer know how they should regard the narrative.
represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn - Gatsby is introduced negatively.
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures … something gorgeous about him … find again - Nick changes tack and is positive about his neighbour, within a conditional framing clause. Can we trust anything Nick says? He has twisted and turned endlessly in this opening page of the novel, and concludes by making a judgement on Gatsby, which is tied up very closely with his subjective and possibly unreliable reactions to events which are not yet revealed to us:
My family - Nick recounts his family history, leading to his experience in the Great War (America’s involvement in the 1914-18 conflict started when she declared war on Germany in 1917) and explaining his restlessness and eventual arrival East in Spring 1922.
so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young, breath-giving air - Nick’s initial experiences are very positive and there is a strong sense of ambition (‘high intention’) to succeed at many things. However, this is immediately undercut with the phrase, ‘that most limited of all specialists, the ‘well-rounded man’’ and the final comment:
Midas and Morgan and Maecenas - Nick refers to:
- King Midas for whom, according to Greek legend, everything he touched turned to gold
- J.P.Morgan (April 17, 1837 – March 31, 1913), an American financier and banker of enormous wealth
- Maecenas (29 April 70 BC – October 8 BC), a Roman politician whose name was a byword for wealth and generosity to the arts.
Characterisation in Chapter 1
As a narrator he is often deemed to be ‘unreliable’ or ‘unstable’ by critics, noting his complex use of time, setting and slippery language. He introduces his own judgements but also undercuts these so that the reader is unable to determine the most reliable interpretation. He seems to be disillusioned by his experiences in New York and its environs, but the reason for this is given in only metaphorical terms (‘foul dust’).
Daisy is portrayed as self-absorbed and indulged. At one point in Chapter 1, she exclaims, ‘Sophisticated – God, I’m sophisticated!’ as she explains to Nick how she responds to Tom’s infidelity and her sense of being ‘utterly abandoned’. Nick’s private reaction is that she should simply leave Tom, but she claims to embrace a defiant, scornful cynicism instead, so she wishes her daughter would be a ‘beautiful little fool’ in order to succeed in this world and sees everything as ‘terrible’. These reactions are then revealed to be false, as Nick realises that the ‘absolute smirk on her lovely face’ signals her insincerity. Moreover, she is complicit with Tom, ‘as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged.’ Nick is left feeling ‘confused and a little disgusted’ by his insight into the lives of the Buchanans, and the reader has been subjected to many mercurial shifts in values and emotions. Her claims to have had a ‘bad time’ and to have become cynical are both undercut by Nick’s comments and language as he ‘felt the basic insincerity of what she had said’. He feels he has been tricked by her and Tom together. This may be seen as a foreshadowing of the key deception whereby Daisy’s killing of Myrtle is concealed, leaving Gatsby to take the blame and the consequences.
Nick presents her as physically attractive, knowledgeable and independent. She is not married and seems to have the freedom to do as she pleases, prompting Tom to question the role of her family in restraining her.
Tom is characterised in physical terms, although he is also said to ‘nibble at the edge of stale ideas’. Horses are used as symbols of masculine power – Tom brings ‘a string of polo ponies’ to the East and the description of his riding clothes accentuates his ‘enormous power’ and ‘cruel body’.
Fitzgerald also uses a semantic field of aggression: ‘hard’, ‘supercilious’, ‘arrogant’, ‘dominance’, ‘aggressively’ and ‘brute’, ‘hulking’, ‘violently’, which is combined with Tom’s interest in supremacist texts. This is quite shocking, especially to a modern audience, and Fitzgerald perhaps uses the insecurity of the age to reflect Tom’s inner anxieties about power and wealth.
Finally, there is evidence of domestic violence: Daisy accuses him of hurting her knuckle, which Tom initially denies but does not continue to do so. He endures Daisy’s teasing but reacts strongly to her use of the word ‘hulking’ as an adjective to describe him. This passage seems to foreshadow the incident with Myrtle where he breaks her nose for repeatedly saying the word ‘Daisy’.
Nick’s neighbour is absent from this chapter until the very end, yet is mentioned frequently, in both Nick’s description and in the dialogue before dinner is served. His introduction as a presence into the novel is shadowy and anonymous, signalling the ways in which he will elude being clearly identified. This is reinforced by his disappearance at the end of this description:
The setting in which he is introduced is magical and set apart from the social experience that Nick has just had at Daisy’s house:
This all contributes to a sense of Gatsby as special and mysterious. The ‘single green light’ to which he gestures is not here identified as Daisy’s dock, so is more easily seen as a symbol rather than a specific marker of Gatsby’s desire.
Investigating Chapter 1
- Who might we want to criticise in this novel?
- Of whom might Nick be critical?
- Do they fit the criteria of not having ‘the advantages that you’ve had’?
- Do you assume that the ‘advantages’ are monetary?
- What other kinds of advantage might there be?
- ‘he meant a great deal more than that.’ What more do you think Nick’s father meant?
- Could the idea of criticism be extended to include literary criticism or interpretation?
- Look more closely at the characters of Daisy and Tom. At the end of the novel, Nick comments that they are ‘careless people’. Can you find any evidence showing them to be careless or corrupt?
- Does this comment extend to Jordan or Nick himself?
- Consider the structure of this chapter – how does Nick order his recollections and his thoughts here?
- What narrative devices does he use?
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