In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, why is it Nick's instinct "to telephone immediately for the police"?

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andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The quote expresses Nick's sentiment in Chapter One during his first visit to the Buchanan household. Daisy had invited him over and when he arrived, he also met the golf player, Jordan Baker, Daisy's friend and apparent confidante.

Nick's thought was initiated by an unpleasant incident during his visit. Whilst they were involved in idle chatter on the porch just before their dinner, the butler came to summon Tom by whispering in his ear. Tom left without saying a word. Daisy continued talking then suddenly stopped. She threw her napkin on the table and went into the house.

Nick continued speaking but was silenced by Jordan Baker, who wanted to listen in on the conversation between Daisy and Tom, who seemed to be arguing. On Nick's inquiry if something was happening, she told him that “Tom’s got some woman in New York.” She questioned the woman's decency about phoning Tom during dinner.

Tom and Daisy returned. The mood had become quite tense but Daisy made an innocuous remark, trying to break the tension. She followed this with a remark about romance and directed a question at Tom about the romance of a nightingale singing on the lawn. The sudden, shrill ringing of the phone then startled everyone at the table. Daisy gave Tom a decisive indication that she did not want him to answer the phone by shaking her head. This incident heightened the tension once again and everything that happened seemed to pass in a blur. 

Nick calls the shrill intrusion of the phone caused by what he calls 'the fifth guest' an indelible thought that could not be erased by anyone at the table, not even by the seemingly skeptical Jordan Baker. He states that another person might have found the situation intriguing, but that his 'own instinct was to telephone immediately for the police.'

Several factors could have made Nick feel that way. Firstly, he was unfamiliar with these surroundings and felt uncomfortable and somehow unsafe and vulnerable. He needed protection. Secondly, since Daisy was a relative, he instinctively felt protective towards her. Daisy had already referred to Tom being a 'brute' earlier when she displayed an injury to her little finger which was apparently caused by him. Her exact words were:

“You did it, Tom,” she said accusingly. “I know you didn’t mean to, but you did do it. That’s what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen of a ——” 

It was clear that Tom could be rough with her and Nick obviously felt that they might just have some kind of an incident, considering the circumstances. He knew that Tom was having an affair, as Jordan had told him. It would be easy for the situation to get out of hand.

Thirdly, Nick was acutely aware of the fact that should things become rough, he would not have been a match for Tom on a physical level. He had, earlier in the chapter, given the following description of him:

Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body — he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage — a cruel body.

Nick was clearly intimidated by Tom and would not be able to defend himself, least of all the two girls, against him and, therefore, the instinctual reaction would be to summon some protection.

This incident foreshadows the confrontation between Tom and Myrtle Wilson in Chapter 2 and also between him and Jay Gatsby in Chapter 7. The latter incident would dash all Jay's hopes and would ultimately result in Myrtle and George Wilson's untimely deaths, as well as his own. 

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The Great Gatsby

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