Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis

In the opening passages of the novel, the narrator, Nick Carraway, relates a piece of advice that his father gave him in his “younger and more vulnerable years”: to remember whenever he feels like criticizing someone that “all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages [he’s] had.” That his own father would tell him to be less critical of others suggests that Nick is an inherently critical person and that his privilege and his wealth (his family owns a successful wholesale hardware business) have together made him myopic, insensitive to the struggles of others and unwilling to admit that his own point of view might be irreparably biased. Fitzgerald inserts this bit of advice at the beginning to color Nick’s narration, making it less reliable but at the same time far more personal. He introduces Nick as a flawed, intelligent, and often poetic character, and the reader, finding truth and beauty in his narrative voice, is inclined to read on in his story.

Nick takes us back to his early years, relating how he grew up in the Midwest, went to college at Yale, and later fought in the trenches during World War I before moving to West Egg, Long Island in the spring of 1922, when the main action of the novel begins. Nick was disenchanted with the Midwest, having just returned from his time in Europe, and moved to New York City to escape that “ragged edge of the universe” he used to call home. In his decision to move East and take up the bond business, one can see a certain stiffness and moral inflexibility, as if he has chosen to live his life according to certain standards and expects everyone else to do the same. His friends and neighbors can’t live up to this standard, and it’s with an evident distaste that he attends a dinner at his cousin Daisy’s estate in East Egg, which Nick describes as the more fashionable version of West Egg. Indeed, East Egg is the home of very storied families, and Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, descends from one of these. Nick and Tom know each other from Yale, but Tom, with his money and his connections, was spared from going to war and stayed at home to drink and carouse while Nick was on the front lines. Nick disapproves of this, and their dinner quickly becomes uncomfortable.

Also in attendance at this dinner is Jordan Baker, a somewhat famous golfer, who is Daisy’s best friend and will soon be Nick’s casual love interest. Together, the three of them listen to a racist lecture from Tom, who praises the theories of race put forth in Lothrop Goddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, a work of pseudoscience arguing that those of Nordic or Aryan descent are inherently better or more deserving of their social status than people of color. Thankfully, this discussion is interrupted by an unexpected phone call from a woman who turns out to be Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, calling him to arrange a date. Jordan Baker, meanwhile, tells Nick all about the affair, rather indelicately suggesting that everybody already knows about it and that it’s an amusing but not altogether unusual wrinkle in the Buchanans’ marriage. Daisy, embarrassed by this sequence of events, confesses to Nick in private that her marriage has been a difficult one, full of ups and downs, and that Tom wasn’t even there for the birth of their daughter. Daisy expresses a general disaffectation with life, laughing, “Sophisticated—God, I’m sophisticated!” with evident scorn. Immediately after this statement, Nick sees through her elegant façade and realizes that Daisy is, like Tom, an essentially privileged person, and that she has become flighty, insincere, and arrogant over time. Nick thinks Daisy should leave Tom and take the child, but she has no intention of doing so at the moment.

That same night, Nick watches his neighbor, the titular Jay Gatsby, walk out on his lawn and stretch his arms toward a green light far over the water. He thinks of calling out to Gatsby, but in the end decides against it, not wanting to disturb him. 

Allusions

"Midas and Morgan and Mæcenas." King Midas, J. P. Morgan, and Gaius Cilnius Mæcenas, three wealthy men, two from antiquity and one from the late 19th and early 20th Century. King Midas was said to possess the ability to transform anything he touched into gold. J. P. Morgan, wealthy financier and founder of his namesake company, was a major figure in the financial industry and helped resolve the Panic of 1907. Gaius Cilnius Mæcenas, political advisor and culture minister to the Roman Emperor Octavian, was well-known for being a patron of the arts. All three men have been associated with wealth, power, and prestige, and alluding to them here suggests that Nick, who wants to "unlock" their secrets, is swayed by money as often as the people he criticizes.

The Rising Tide of Color by Lathrop Stoddard. A sociological work that uses pseudoscience to suggest that white people, especially those of Nordic descent, are genetically superior to all other races, who, Stoddard believes, threaten to overthrow the white majority and subvert the natural order. In his book, Stoddard attempted to use science to support the theory from eugenics that the various races should be separated in order to maintain social order. Tom’s appreciation of Stoddard’s theories reflects poorly on him and makes the other characters uncomfortable.

Characterization

Several descriptive tags are repeated throughout the text in reference to the main characters. In this first chapter, for instance, Tom is continually described as being physically restless and somewhat aggressive. His body is described as large, fit, and imposing, with “a great pack of muscle” that shows off his physique. Jordan, the sports star, is noted for her “jauntiness” and for the energy of her movements. In contrast, her expression often seems unhappy. Her face is described as both “wan” and “discontented,” a “bored haughty face” that appears arrogant and privileged, much like Tom’s does. Daisy is also described by her physical characteristics. Her voice is low and thrilling (as opposed to Tom’s “gruff, husky tenor” and its “paternal” tone), and her dresses are described as “rippling and fluttering,” emphasizing her flighty, indecisive nature. These subtle little characterizations prepare the reader for the more in-depth character development Fitzgerald does later in the novel.

Personification

When Fitzgerald uses personification, it’s most often in reference to buildings or decorations. Tom and Daisy’s house is “cheerful.” Their lawn “jumps” over sun-dials and brick walks. Nick’s bungalow, in contrast, has a “beard” of ivy and looks like an eyesore next to Gatsby’s perfectly manicured lawns. The personification makes the setting seem alive, as if it is itself a character in the novel.

Symbols

Books. Of all the recurring symbols in the novel, books prove to be one of the most important, second perhaps only to the green light Gatsby sees across the bay. Nick’s volumes about finance are the first to make their appearance and are a clear symbol of money and power. Tom’s allusion to The Rising Tide of Color complicates the symbol, suggesting that each book reflects on the character it belongs to, illuminating some of the most fundamental aspects of their personality (in Tom’s case, his racism and his self-aggrandizement).

Colors. Some colors recur throughout The Great Gatsby, in particular white, gray, and various shades of red. Traditionally, the color white symbolizes innocence and purity, as in the “beautiful white girlhood” Daisy and Jordan shared, but Fitzgerald subverts this idea, making white more often than not a symbol of impurity when it’s used to describe the superficial, hypocritical residents of East Egg. Daisy, for instance, lives in a red and white house whose “cheerful” appearance proves ironic when one considers that she’s unhappy with her marriage. Red, rose, and pink thus become symbols of fairy tales and of falsehoods, particularly when one wants to believe that someone or something is nicer than it really is. (Daisy, for instance, describes Nick as an “absolute rose,” which isn’t an accurate description of him at all.) Of the three most often seen colors in the novel, gray is the one that Fitzgerald uses in its most familiar sense, in reference to desolation or decay. Jordan, for instance, is described as having a wan, discontented face, with “gray sun-strained eyes” that make her seem bored and excessively critical. In this way, colors function as both symbols and tools for characterization. (We will discuss the green light from the end of the chapter when it reappears in Chapter V.)

Important Themes

The American Dream. The American Dream (specifically, the failure to realize it) is one of the most important themes in the novel. It’s established early in the first chapter when a stranger asks Nick for directions, making him “a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler,” like those brave pioneers who traveled West in hopes of building better lives for themselves. Immediately after this scene, Nick tells us that he read a series of finance books in the hopes of making his fortune. Fitzgerald uses the juxtaposition of these settlers and bankers to suggest that the American Dream of having land and making a home for yourself has been subsumed by the desire to make and amass money, and thereby to perpetuate a capitalist system.

Money. Money and wealth are key themes in the novel and function as identifiers of each character’s social status. Tom, for instance, descends from “old money” and carries himself like someone who is accustomed to privilege and prestige. In contrast, the residents of West Egg, including Gatsby, are members of the nouveau riche, a class of people who have only recently earned their money without having to rely on their family’s old money. East and West Egg themselves embody the divide between the old money and the new and represent the social stratification already present in New York City (and the nation as a whole) in that time period.