The novel begins with Nick Carraway, a young man from the Midwest,
introducing himself as a graduate of Yale and a veteran of World War I. He
recalls the events of the summer of 1922 when he moved to New York to learn
the bond business. He tells us that he's tolerant, inclined to reserve judgment
about people, and a good listener. People tell him their secrets because they
trust him; he knows the Story of Gatsby. If you read closely, you'll see that
Nick has ambivalent feelings toward Gatsby. He both loves Gatsby and is critical
of him. Nick is tolerant, but that toleration has limits. He hates Gatsby's
crass and vulgar materialism, but he also admires the man for his dream, his
"romantic readiness," his "extraordinary gift for hope."
Nick makes the distinction between Gatsby, whom he loves because of his dream,
and the other characters, who constitute the "foul dust" that "floated
in the wake of his dreams." Nick has such scorn for these "Eastern"
types that he has left the East, returned to the Midwest, and, for the time
being at least, withdraws from his involvement with other people.
Having told us about his relationships, Nick now introduces us to the world
in which he lived during the summer of 1922: the world of East Egg and West
Egg, Long Island.
The story opens in East Egg on the night Nick drives over to have dinner
with Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Daisy is Nick's cousin and Tom had been in the
same senior society a Yale. Their house is "a cheerful red-and-white
Georgian Colonial Mansion" overlooking the bay. And the owner is obviously
proud of his possessions.
Our first view of Tom Buchanan reveals a very powerful man standing in riding
clothes with his legs apart on his front porch. He likes his power, and like
the potentates of Eastern kingdoms, he expects the obedience of his subjects.
We are ushered into the living room with its "frosted wedding cake"
ceiling, its wine-colored rug, and its enormous couch on which are seated
two princesses in white: Jordan Baker and Tom's wife, Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald
controls the whole scene through his use of colors--white and gold mainly--that
suggest a combination of beauty and wealth.
Yet underneath this magical surface there is something wrong. Jordan Baker
is bored and discontented. She yawns more than once in this very first scene.
There is something cool and slightly unpleasant about the atmosphere--something
basically disturbing. Tom talks about a book he has read, The Rise of the
Colored Empires by Goddard. It is a piece of pure Social Darwinism, advocating
that the white race preserve its own purity and beat down the colored races
before they rise up and overcome the whites. Daisy, who seems not to understand
what Tom is talking about, teases him about his size and about the big words
in the book. The telephone rings, and Tom is called from the room to answer
it. When Daisy follows him out, Jordan Baker confides to Nick that the call
is from Tom's woman in New York.
The rest of the evening is awkward and painful as Tom and Daisy try unsuccessfully
to forget the intrusion. Daisy's cynicism about life becomes painfully clear
when she says about her daughter's birth: "'I'm glad it's a girl. And
I hope she'll be a fool--that's the best thing a girl can be in this world,
a beautiful little fool.'"
When Nick returns home, he sees his neighbor standing alone and staring across
the water at a "single green light, minute and far away." He was
tempted to speak to him but then changed his mind.
The first chapter introduces the main characters of the novel and identifies
Nick as not only being the narrator of the story but also being deeply involved
in the action. He starts the novel by relaying his father's advice, "Whenever
you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this
world haven't had the advantages that you've had." This thought causes
him to hold back in formulating opinions about people that he meets.
It is interesting to note the sharp contrast between Tom Buchanan and the
women, Daisy and Jordan. Tom is described as a "big, hulking physical
specimen" who likes to domineer others. Daisy and Jordan are presented
as being demure and dressed in white, a sign of purity. This is in complete
contrast of their character as the story later reveals.
Fitzgerald designed The Great Gatsby very carefully, establishing each of
the locations in the novel as a symbol for a particular style of life. West
Egg, where Nick and Gatsby live, is essentially a place for the nouveau riche.
There are two types of people living here: those on the way up the social
ladder who have not the family background or the money to live in fashionable
East Egg; and those like Gatsby, whose vulgar display of wealth and connections
with Broadway or the New York underworld make them unwelcome in the more dignified
world of East Egg. Nick describes his own house as an eyesore, but it is a
smaller eyesore than Gatsby's mansion, which has a tower on one side, "spanking
new under a thin beard of raw ivy." Words like new, thin, and raw describe
some of the reasons Gatsby's house is a monstrosity.
By contrast, East Egg is like a fairyland. Its primary color is white, and
Nick calls its houses "white palaces" that glitter in the sunlight.