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,...
(The entire section is 1,700 words.)