As The Great Gatsby opens, Nick Carraway, the story's narrator, remembers his upbringing and the lessons his family taught him. Readers learn of his past, his education, and his sense of moral justice, as he begins to unfold the story of Jay Gatsby. The narration takes place more than a year after the incidents described, so Nick is working through the filter of memory in relaying the story's events. The story proper begins when Nick moves from the Midwest to West Egg, Long Island, seeking to become a "well-rounded man" and to recapture some of the excitement and adventure he experienced as a soldier in WWI. As he tries to make his way as a bond salesman, he rents a small house next door to a mansion which, it turns out, belongs to Gatsby.
Daisy Buchanan, Nick's cousin, and her husband, Tom, live across the bay in the fashionable community of East Egg. Nick goes to visit Daisy, an ephemeral woman with a socialite's luminescence, and Tom, a brutish, hulking, powerful man made arrogant through generations of privilege, and there he meets Jordan Baker, the professional golfer and a girlhood friend of Daisy's. As the foursome lounge around the Buchanans' estate, they discuss the day's most pressing matters: the merits of living in the East, what to do on the longest day of the year, reactionary politics, and other such shallow topics. When Tom takes a phone call, Jordan informs Nick that Tom's mistress is on the phone. Tom, known for his infidelities, makes no pretense to cover up his affairs. As Tom and Daisy work to set up Nick and Jordan, they seize the opportunity to question him about his supposed engagement to a girl back home. Nick reassures them there is no impending marriage, merely a series of rumors that cannot substitute for truth.
Upon returning home that evening, as he is sitting outside, Nick notices a figure emerging from Gatsby's mansion. Nick's initial impulse is to call out to Gatsby, but he resists because Gatsby "gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone." It was while watching Gatsby that Nick witnesses a curious event. Gatsby, standing by the waterside, stretches his arms toward the darkness, trembling. This gesture seems odd to Nick, because all he can make out is a green light, such as one finds at the end of a dock, across the Sound. Looking back at the mysterious figure Nick realizes that Gatsby has vanished.
Fitzgerald opens his novel by introducing Nick Carraway, the story's narrator. Nick has, by his own admission, come "back from the East last autumn," jaded and embittered by his experiences there. The reader knows immediately that the story has already taken place and that Nick is telling it to us through the filter of time. He is distanced from the events at hand and is recounting them by way of memory. It is imperative that readers trust him, then, because time can distort memories, and the reception to the story hinges largely on his impartiality and good judgment.
As a means of establishing faith in the narrator, Fitzgerald carefully develops Nick and positions him both within and without the dramatic situation, creating a dynamic and powerful effect. From the very beginning, even before learning about Gatsby, "the man who gives his name to this book," Fitzgerald gives details about Nick. In his "younger and more vulnerable years" (suggesting he is older and wiser now), his father gave him advice that he has carried with him ever since: "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one . . . just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had." The implications are strong: Nick comes from at least a middle class family that values a sense of moral justice. In this was, the reader is encouraged to trust Nick and to believe in his impartiality and good judgment; a biased narrator will make the narrative reactionary, not honest, so stressing his good judgment is crucial. To ensure that readers don't think Nick is superhuman in his goodness, however, Fitzgerald gives him a mortal side. Nick's reservation of judgment about people is carefully calculated ("snobbish," as he even says) and even Nick, the rational narrator, can be pushed too far. His tolerance has a limit, and it is the challenge to this limit that forms the basis of the book at hand.
As the chapter continues, more of Nick's background is discussed: the way in which he was raised and his moral character. Nick continues to sell himself, informing the reader that he is an educated man, having graduated from New Haven, home of Yale University. He comes from "prominent, well-to-do people in this Middle Western city for three generations." This seemingly simple detail is crucial. It qualifies Nick to be part of the action which he will unfold — a tale of socialites, money, and privilege — while also keeping him carefully apart. He has come from the Midwest, which for Fitzgerald is a land of perceived morality. Nick has moved East, and disgusted, returns to the Midwest. The reader knows that Nick is not only upset over the action that he will unfold, but he is downright offended by the moral rancor of the situation. Readers, wanting to believe in their own moral fortitude, find themselves siding with Nick, trusting him to exercise the same sound judgment they themselves would exercise.
The story begins. It is 1922, and Nick has moved East to seek his fortune as a bond salesman, a booming, thriving business that, he supposes, "could support one more single man." Fitzgerald introduces one of the novel's key themes, wealth, upon Nick's arrival in the East. Nick settles in West Egg, rather than East Egg, living in a small rental house adjacent to Gatsby's mansion, paying $80 per month, rather than the $3000 to $4000 per month for which the houses around him rent. This detail immediately encourages readers to see the difference between the "haves" and the "have nots." Although both Eggs have beautiful mansions, East Egg is home to "old money," people whose families have had great wealth for generations. West Egg, although also home to the rich, was home to "new money," people whose wealth was recently earned, as well as to working class people such as Nick. On another level, the delineation between the Eggs can also be a metaphorical representation of the sensibilities of people from the Eastern and Western parts of the United States.
The story's first adventure, and the one that comprises a large portion of Chapter 1, is Nick's visit with his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, at their mansion in East Egg. The visit not only introduces the other characters crucial to the story, but it also presents a number of themes that will be developed in various ways throughout the novel. Daisy and Tom appear in stark contrast to the image of Nick: Whereas he is relatively industrious (after all, he came East by himself to make his fortune rather than staying home and doing what is expected of him), the Buchanans live in the lap of luxury. Arriving at the mansion, Nick is greeted by Tom, dressed in riding clothes. Tom is an impressive figure, dressed for a sport linked closely with people of wealth and means ("effeminate swank" as Nick calls it). He stands boldly, with "a rather hard mouth," "a supercilious manner," "two shining arrogant eyes," and speaks with "a touch of paternal contempt." Clearly, Tom is not a gentle and sensitive man. Rather, he is harsh and powerful, caring little for social equality and protocol. He has rank and privilege and that's the way he wants to keep it. The first words out of his mouth — "I've got a nice place here" — bring home his inbred superiority as well. As the story unfolds, Tom serves as a foil to Gatsby, marking a striking contrast from Gatsby's newly found wealth and dreamy nature.
Fitzgerald sets the women, Daisy and her friend Jordan Baker, in a dreamlike setting, emphasizing their inability to deal with reality. Both young women, dressed entirely in white (suggesting purity or, in contrast, a void of something such as intellectualism), are engulfed by the expansiveness of the room in which they are sitting. In one of Fitzgerald's many evocative and imagistic passages, he notes how both women's dresses are "rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house." As Tom shuts the windows and the breeze dissipates, "the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor." Hardly could a more languid image be created. These are not people who concern themselves with eking out a living.
As the scene unfolds and they begin conversation, the superficial nature of these socialites becomes even more pronounced. Daisy speaks in a voice known for its ability to draw people in (a voice that Gatsby later defines as having money in it). She appears she hasn't a care in the real world, with fulfilling her own whims. The conversation at the dinner furnishes a few key details: This collection of East Eggers focuses on matters of little practical or significant importance and when they do speak of what they perceive to be weighty and meritorious matters, the parts of themselves they reveal are not flattering. For instance, when Tom chooses to discuss politics, he reveals himself not just as one who discriminates against people on the basis of class (a classicist), but also a racist. He comes from a land of privilege and unlike Nick, doesn't subscribe to the adage about withholding judgment because not everyone has had the same advantages. For Tom, all that matters is that he has had advantages; everything he does in the book comes from his selfish attempt to keep himself in a certain strata while denying anyone else access, even his mistress, who is introduced in Chapter 2.
Another key theme introduced at the dinner party is that of societal expectation. Much of The Great Gatsby centers on appearances and the rift between who or what one is and who or what society wishes or expects. Fitzgerald has already given a sense of this dichotomy when first introducing the Buchanans: They're expected to be gracious and generous, but instead seem shallow and superficial. Just as Nick prepares to head home for the night, Daisy calls for him to wait because she "forgot to ask [him] something, and it's important." "We heard you were engaged to a girl out West," Daisy begins. Nick denies the rumor flatly: "It's a libel. I'm too poor" (curiously, his response also brings home another of the story's key themes — wealth — and as the story unfolds, money and marriage are at its heart). Daisy insists, "But we heard it . . . we heard it from three people, so it must be true." Nick, aware of what they are referring to, reveals that the hometown gossip over his engagement was, in fact, part of what brought him East; he had "no intention of being rumored into marriage." Nick, strong enough to withstand social pressure, becomes a striking contrast to the people introduced throughout the rest of the story who will, time after time, succumb to the power of suggestion, oftentimes to dire ends.
Nick, strangely "confused and a little disgusted" as he drives home, finds an equally curious sight waiting for him when he arrives at his house. While sitting outside, he sees Gatsby's silhouette as he crosses to the water. Nick, seeing something in Gatsby's behavior that suggests he wishes to be alone, remains in the shadows watching. Gatsby proceeds to the water and stretches out his arms toward the water, trembling. Nick, looking to see what Gatsby was gesturing to, finds nothing but "a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock." This single green light has gone on to become one of the most famous symbols in all of American literature (see the Chapter 5 commentary for an explanation). It appears here, in Chapter 5, and again at the book's end. The light marks Daisy's house — Gatsby's gesture toward it, as the later chapters show, is a gesture of love.
New Haven City in southern Connecticut; home to Yale University.
The Great War World War I
Midas and Morgan and Maecenas Midas, in Greek Myth, the king of Phrygia granted the power of turning everything that he touches into gold; J.P. Morgan (1837-1913), U.S. financier; Gaius Clinius Maecenas (70-8 BC), Roman statesman and patron of Horace and Virgil.
Goddard's The Rise of the Colored Empires an allusion to Theodore Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy (1920).