Please explain the meaning of "critical" and "unpleasant" in this excerpt from the Chapter One of Fitgerald's The Great Gatsby: “Oh—you're Jordan Baker.” I knew now why her face was...

Please explain the meaning of "critical" and "unpleasant" in this excerpt from the Chapter One of Fitgerald's The Great Gatsby:

“Oh—you're Jordan Baker.”

I knew now why her face was familiar—its pleasing contemptuous expression had looked out at me from many rotogravure pictures of the sporting life at Asheville and Hot Springs and Palm Beach. I had heard some story of her too, a critical, unpleasant story, but what it was I had forgotten long ago.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, life seems much larger for a society that existed so long ago. Perhaps it is the grandeur of Fitzgerald's tale that is responsible. Fortunes were easily made; a self-made man could become a millionaire. It was a time—for the upper class—of wasteful living: wasting time, money, relationships, etc. Those of this elevated social class intermingled with people who were accepted because of their money, influence or popularity. We get this sense when Nick first visits with Daisy, Tom and Jordan. As they speak of people in Chicago:

"Do they miss me?" [Daisy] cried ecstatically.

"The whole town is desolate. All the cars have the left rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath, and there's a persistent wail all night along the north shore."

"How gorgeous! Let's go back, Tom. To-morrow!"

No one in the room acts as if this speech is anything but ordinary. Daisy's manner of speaking seems melodramatic by today's standards, but normal for the time, and circles in which she lived.

Daisy speaks of her daughter's destiny in the world—"a beautiful little fool," but she sees herself as world-wise and sophisticated:

You see, I think everything's terrible anyhow...Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I know. I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.

For Daisy and the rest of this social set, it was not about living a life of substance or responsibility: it was about making money, being in the limelight and traveling in circles with others the same as they were. It was a life of illusion, as we see in Gatsby's love for Daisy. For a short time they subsist on dreams and possibilities, but at the first sign of trouble (Myrtle's death) Daisy flees to a life of ease and privilege with Tom. The illusionary existence she has with him is preferable to the work of facing reality.

The quote above speaks to Nick's first recollection of Jordan Baker, from pictures (rotogravure) on the society pages, at athletic events (not football or baseball, but polo or rowing). This part of the paper would have focused on the rich and famous—the reference to "the sporting life at Asheville and Hot Springs and Palm Beach." These places were resorts for the elite of the "Roaring Twenties." 

One of the staples of this society (no different from others, but perhaps more prevalent with so much idleness and little to occupy one's time) was gossip. At the start of Chapter Four, Nick reports:

"He's a bootlegger," said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. "One time he killed a man..."

He also notes that many of the people who enjoyed Jay Gatsby's hospitality really knew nothing about him. What folks did not know, they made up.

So Nick, the "moral center of the book," who skates on the outskirts of this upper-echelon of society, hears and sees with a less biased perspective (though he will be seduced by it, and it will force him to grow up). He does not feed on gossip, but studies it like an insect. Thus he recalls having heard about Jordan before. We can infer that someone who did not like her ("critical") told the story. We can also infer that because this is not a world Nick was raised in, he can see things more objectively. The "unpleasant" story was something the stable and ethical Nick gave no credence to, but forgot. We can assume, then, that it was gossip—not based in fact, at least not as Nick relates it to the reader.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For the socially elite of the East Coast, there are certain limits to behavior; that is, at least in public, or the public eye.  The "unpleasant" story about Jordan Baker is one that is recalled by Nick later on in the novel: her having cheated at a golf tournament. This type of behavior is "bad form" for Jordan's social circle, and, therefore, "unpleasant"--not something good for her reputation, or for her class. Naturally the article which has probably been on the social page, is highly "critical," or negative, because not only does it draw attention to Jordan herself, but it also brings her social class under suspicion.

Her grey sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming discontented face.

Like Tom Buchanan, Jordan is rather supercilious, too:

"You live in West Egg," she remarked contemptuously. "I know somebody there." 

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The Great Gatsby

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