Does the paragraph in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby beginning "she was the first nice girl" reveal Gatsby's materialism, romanticism, or cynicism?
In this quote found in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gatsby's romanticism is reflected in his assessment of Daisy as a "nice girl." He is blinded by her seductive charms and only sees her as the perfect girl of his dreams.
As background to the paragraph in question, it is important to understand that Gatsby's sole motivation for becoming rich, rising in society, obtaining his mansion, and throwing extravagant parties was to impress Daisy and win her back. When they first met, he was smitten with her but knew that he could not properly support her. He has now been trying to impress her with the fact that the situation has changed.
At the beginning of chapter 8 of the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nick Carraway, the novel's narrator, and Gatsby are at Gatsby's mansion after the ruinous trip to New York during which Daisy, driving Gatsby's car, had accidentally run over and killed Myrtle, her husband Tom's mistress. Nick and Gatsby get to talking, and Gatsby opens up about what Daisy means to him. During this conversation Gatsby says that Daisy "was the first 'nice' girl he had ever known."
In calling Daisy a "nice" girl in this context, Gatsby is speaking both materialistically and romantically, as the following few paragraphs make clear. At the time of their first meeting, Gatsby certainly fell in love with Daisy, as he explains to Nick:
I can't describe to you how surprised I was to find out I loved her, old sport. I even hoped for awhile that she'd throw me over, but she didn't because she was in love with me too.
There is certainly a strong element of romance involved. However, Gatsby cannot disassociate Daisy from the trappings of wealth that surround her. The beautiful house where he met Daisy was a part of her: intense, mysterious, radiant, and fresh.
Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.
We see, then, that Gatsby calling Daisy a "nice" girl reveals his romantic love for her and his desire that she should return his love. However, in Gatsby's estimation, Daisy is also a "nice" girl because she comes from a special elite class of women who are surrounded by luxury and leisure.
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When it comes to Daisy, Gatsby is never a cynic. He's a hopeless romantic in spite of all evidence that should point him to a reality of Daisy that is quite different from the version of her that he creates in his own mind. In this quote, we see yet another example of his romantic ideals.
Daisy "was the first ‘nice’ girl he had ever known." There is a connotation in this that alludes to her wealth. After all, her beautiful house amazes him. But the house isn't just an incredible architectural feat; it has a quality that gives it "an air of breathless intensity was that Daisy lived there."
In this quote, there is also a connotation of innocence attached to the term "nice girl." Yet Gatsby knows that Daisy is no model of chaste behavior, and it excites him that "many men" have already known and loved Daisy. Where this same quality makes other women unappealing in this time period, it makes Daisy all the more alluring to Gatsby. He consistently views Daisy through an eternal perspective of optimism, and even feeling the presence of all the men who have come before him in her house increases Daisy's "value."
In this quote, we see that Gatsby doesn't hold Daisy to the same standards as other women. He excuses behavior which he would otherwise condemn, and somehow Daisy's deviation from the "nice" and innocent girl he expects increases her seductive powers over him. This quote supports Gatsby's romanticism toward Daisy, always envisioning her as an impossibly perfect ideal of feminine charm.
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The key to understanding the quote specified in the question -- "She was the first 'nice' girl he had ever known" -- lies in one's memory of having read the chapters that preceded the one (Chapter 8) in which this quote is found. Specifically, one should reread Chapter 6 of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic The Great Gatsby. It is in that chapter, that the author, through his narrator, Nick Carraway, provides the essential background on the character of Jay Gatsby. It is in Chapter 6, that we learn that this mysterious figure was born "James Gatz of North Dakota," and that one of the transformative experiences of his life was his encounter with the yacht owned by Dan Cody. It is the encounter with Cody that leads Gatz to adopt an entirely new persona, that of Jay Gatsby, and to enter the only world he knows that can provide the financial resources necessary to make his new life, under an assumed identity, work out. Fitzgerald's biographical information on James Gatz includes the following passage that provides the most important clue to the meaning of the "'nice' girl" reference:
"He knew women early and since they spoiled him he became contemptuous of them, of young virgins because they were ignorant, of the others because they were hysterical about things which in his overwhelming self-absorption he took for granted."
In short, Gatz/Gatsby is presumed to have known and slept with many women, none of whom he held in particularly high esteem. And it is this history of sexual conquest without romance that provides the context for the paragraph in Chapter 8 that includes the following passage:
"She was the first ‘nice’ girl he had ever known. In various unrevealed capacities he had come in contact with such people but always with indiscernible barbed wire between. He found her excitingly desirable."
And so begins Gatz/Gatsby's obsession with Daisy. The Great Gatsby is about a number of topics and themes, but underlying it all is Gatsby's infatuation with and quest for Daisy Buchanan. James Gatz's first true love was the Daisy of his younger years, the one who would marry the wealthy Tom Buchanan and, consequently, be elevated out of James' reach. The irony, if you will, of Gatsby's use of the word "nice" in this context is that, as the earlier passage about the conquest of virgins suggests, what he loves most about Daisy is that she isn't the personification of virginal purity; in fact, she is the opposite:
"It excited him too that many men had already loved Daisy—it increased her value in his eyes."
Whether the quote regarding a "nice girl" reflects Gatsby's romanticism, cynicism, or materialism is open to interpretation. Gatsby's life has been driven by his materialism, evident in his relationship to Cody, but he is also quite the romantic. When Nick first spies his new neighbor, the latter is poised on his lawn reaching out for something beyond his grasp. As we know from that green light at the end of the Buchanan's dock, we understand that James Gatz/Jay Gatsby is very much a romantic at heart.
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