In F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, how might one explain the sentences in which Nick discusses turning thirty?
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Near the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, Nick (the narrator) is heading back to Long Island in a car driven by Tom Buchanan. Jordan Baker is the other passenger. Suddenly Nick realizes that it is his thirtieth birthday. Considering this fact, he foresees
the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair. But there was Jordan beside me, who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age . . . .
So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.
These sentences seem significant for a number of reasons, including the following:
- The word “promise” is used ironically, since the future Nick imagines seems anything but promising.
- The theme of loneliness is one of the most important themes in the novel as a whole, and it is once more reiterated here. Gatsby, after all, is motivated to pursue Daisy because he feels essentially lonely without her in his life.
- In referring to the “thinning list of single men to know,” Nick seems to assume that he will remain single throughout his thirties and that there will be a diminishing number of other single men whom he can befriend. Most other men in their thirties (he seems to think) will have wives and children as the chief focus of their lives. Nick seems to assume that this will not be true of Nick himself.
- The reference to a “briefcase” seems to imply that Nick imagines his future life as involving a hum-drum middle class existence.
- The fact that Nick seems to anticipate a lessening of enthusiasm as he grows older seems to imply that he anticipates a lessening of vitality, of life itself, of interest in other things and other people. His recent friendship with Gatsby has been highly stimulating, but he seems to assume that such stimulation will drain inevitably out of his existence.
- Nick’s reference to thinning hair implies a lessening of masculine vitality, good looks, and sexual attractiveness, since a full head of hair is often associated with youth and with sensuality.
- Nick seems to praise Jordan in some respects, but in other ways his praise of her suggests that she is a harder, more cynical, less romantic woman than Daisy is. Nick could face his future and the aging process with more enthusiasm if he felt that he would have a good and loving partner at his side. Apparently he does not anticipate that his relationship with Daisy will be long-lasting.
- In commenting that the car is driving on “toward death,” Nick’s words are truer than he can possibly realize. The reference to death is a bit of foreshadowing: before long, Myrtle Wilson will be dead, as will Gatsby himself. Nick’s reference to death is abstract, romantic, and “poetic.” Soon, however, death will be an all-too-present aspect of reality.
- The car moves into the darkness, just as the novel is about to take an especially dark turn.
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