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Notes on Chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby

Gatsby Chapter 1: Notes…

The first chapter of Gatsby seems to define the novel as a whole and stands slightly apart from the rest in terms of delivering the ‘plot’. What it does deliver is a wealth of information about character and setting which must be borne in mind as we read on.

Only Gatsby himself is absent, if we the lone figure seen in the last two paragraphs, but the reader is not ready, yet, to meet the figure at the centre of the book – Nick goes indoors without speaking to him.

Fitzgerald is clear about his feelings regarding the ‘Jazz Age’. He wrote this in 1931 in the book ‘Echoes of the jazz Age’: ‘It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire… As far back as 1915the unchaperoned young people of the smaller cities has discovered the mobile privacy of that automobile given to ‘young Bill’… But petting in its more audacious manifestations was confined to the wealthier classes… Only in 1920 did the veil fall – the Jazz Age was in flower… This was the generation whose girls dramatized themselves as flappers, the generation that corrupted its elders and eventually overreached itself less through a lack of morals as through a lack of teste’.  As we read the book, we would do well to recall these sentiments.

The novel opens with the voice of the narrator – Nick Carraway – and Fitzgerald dispenses straight away with any sense of an omniscient overview by having Nick claim authorship from the outset – he will occasionally address the reader on the difficulties of memory and writing this tale as the book continues. All First Person Narrators are unreliable, but Nick is more complex. There is a split in his personality which is reflected in all he writes. He seems both pompous and self-aware: he is proud of reserving criticism since ‘not all the people have had the advantages’ which he has had, in his father’s words, and is able to both be critical of Gatsby, who embodies ‘everything for which I have an unaffected scorn’ and also ‘an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall find again. This ambiguity will colour all the relationships he describes in the book – with the possible exception of his feelings about Tom Buchanan.

The unreliability is enhanced by the Time shifts in the novel. At the start, Carraway is narrating in ‘real time’ that is 1924, the date of the writing of the novel. The events of ‘that summer’ are the events of 1922 and further information in the text takes us steadily back to the Young Jimmy Gatz, growing up and writing his list of ambitions in 1906. All these events are recalled with greater or lesser clarity and either told to Nick, who tells the reader, or dredged from his own memory. Hardly the recipe for clarity and precision.

Nick’s unreliability is also enhanced by his description of his background. Being a wealthy Mid-Westerner he would be something of a parvenu into Eastern ‘society’ at the best of times, and although he feels like an ‘original settler’ once he has given directions, he is not one. Not only that but his family seems to be based on the deception and fraud of a great uncle who avoided the Civil War and begin to chase profit instead. Unlike his great uncle, Nick went to war – he calls it rather pretentiously, the ‘great Teutonic migration’ as though to lessen the clear difference between the two and served his country well to a world which seemed too cramped. This has prompted his move East – to seek profit in New York.

 

 

 

Setting:

  • The Mid-West

From his brief biography, there is a clear sense in which the Mid West provides stability and a moral core, whilst New York is a city of danger and unscrupulous behaviour. Nick’s future is discussed by an extended family and all decisions are made in line with the ‘fundamental decencies’ to which he alludes at the beginning of the book. His uncles purchase of a ‘substitute’ for the Civil War – fought on a highest moral grounds; the abolition of slavery – suggests however that Nick will not be too out of place in New York. Self-interest has a place in his family. That said, it is clear that the Mid-West is a place of security and certainty to which Nick escapes after the events described in the book. He, Tom, Jordan, Daisy and Gatsby are all Mid-Westerners and each will show their own response to the ambiguities of the sort outlined above as the book develops.

 

  • East Egg : West Egg

IN 1922 the Fitzgeralds moved to the peninsula of Great Neck, Long Island. Their home was, relatively, modest and overlooked by Old Money in the form of houses of Guggenheims and Astors on another peninsula stretching out into Manhasset Bay. This is the world of the reinvented East and West Egg – Old Money and established families on the East with the newer incomers of all sorts on the West. Gatsby lives in West Egg – fitting for a boy from the Mid-West – since he is all new money. No matter how much he has, he will always be ‘Mr Nobody from Nowhere’ as Tom says later in the novel – breeding is about location as well as about family.

The ‘Eggs’ pose a question: what has hatched from the pristine wilderness discovered by Columbus and his men? The land has been ‘sivilised’ (as Huck Finn, the great Mid-Western boy) and what is the result? Is it all self-aggrandisement, colossal wealth and greed, use and misuse of power derived from money, or is there something else? The spirit of persistence, of romantic pursuit of the (un)attainable and the hope for the rediscovery of something lost just out of reach are the qualities which drove the pioneers to push the Frontier ever Westwards. We see this reimagined in Gatsby’s pursuit of his ‘Grail’: Daisy. To Nick, there is a ‘sinister contrast’ between the two Eggs, yet in Chapter one he notes that ‘their physical resemblance must be a source of perpetual wonder to the gulls that fly overhead’. To him, one of the ‘wingless’ the focus is purely on the differences. It’s a matter of perspective.

  • Homes on the Eggs.

The Hotel de Ville: In what Nick calls ‘one of the strangest communities in North America’ stands Gatsby’s mansion. This is a ‘factual imitation’ of an Hotel de Ville from Normandy. That is, a very public building, not a home in any sense of the word. It is a façade erected to impress and to be seen and it looks out across its lawns towards the altogether ‘purer’ houses of East Egg. We later learn that it was built by a wealthy brewer who fancied himself as lord of the manor and wished to create a false world around him, complete with thatched cottages and serfs. He failed in his endeavours. It is new and trying to conceal the fact under its ‘thin beard of ivy’ as it competes with the Old M<oney across the water. Much will be revealed in the later chapters about the interiors. At this stage, Fitzgerald keeps the reader waiting.

The Glittering White Palace: Whilst we wait to see inside Gatsby’s mansion, we see Tom’s in great clarity and it is designed to reflect its inhabitants. It too is an imitation, being built in Georgian Colonial style which immediately puts us in mind of the White House – seat of government and surprisingly modest in proportion – on a vast scale. This is house which screams money and power to all who regard it. There’s great movement in the description of a lawn which ‘ran towards the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sundials and brick walls and burning gardens’ before ‘drifting’ to a halt and allowing us to see Tom Buchanan ‘in riding clothes… standing with his legs apart on the front porch’. Add in the ‘reflected gold’ from the French windows and we have little other than some form of deity welcoming us to his home.

In contrast, the women are found in the seemingly gentler ‘bright rosy-coloured space’ of the drawing room, though any femininity of this description is soon destroyed as Tom takes control of his space with a great ‘boom’ as he shuts the windows – trapping the two women who have been likened to birds ‘blown back after a short flight around the house’ and exercising his complete control.

The whole echoes the characters of the owners (and Jordan). Nick is fascinated and entranced by the house and the way that its natural light can enhance the impression made by, especially, Daisy. All is ‘rosy-coloured’, ‘crimson… bloomed with light’, there is brilliant ‘gold’ sunshine  and serves to reflect the luxury and wealth of the very wealthy. We are shown the public rooms – the rooms which enhance only in Chapter VII will we see the kitchen – the inner spaces where deals are done which do not reflect well on the participants.

 

Characters 

  • Tom Buchanan

From his first appearance, ‘in riding clothes… standing with his legs apart on the front porch’ it is clear who is in control and wishes to be seen as such.  Nick has already prepared us for the all-American sporting hero, yet one with limits, as Nick describes: ‘one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax. (Nick, remember is trying not to be too judgemental…).  His journey to the East, after a year of pointless extravagance in Europe, has been made possible by money and his immense wealth (seen in the polo ponies and the extravagant necklace given as a wedding present) has at once bought him a place at the top table.

From the outset Nick betrays his opinions – Tom is variously ‘hard (mouth)’, ‘supercilious’ with ‘shining arrogant eyes’, has ‘dominance’ and leans ‘aggressively forward’. He has ‘enormous power’ in a ‘cruel body’ and he will use this physique to bully and cajole whether hurting Daisy’s finger, breaking Myrtle’s nose or by the way he ‘compelled’ Nick from the room ‘as though … moving a checker to another square’.

His intellect is criticised also. He shows signs of an incipient fascism when he extols the virtues of the book ‘The rise of the coloured empires’ which, he says, is ‘scientific stuff; it’s been proved’. Whilst he seeks to justify his ideas, the women tease him gently and Nick tells us that ‘there was something pathetic in his concentration’. He is saved at this stage by the telephone – the respite is brief because this is Myrtle, Tom’s mistress and it is Jordan who lets Nick in on the ‘secret’ of Tom’s ‘girl in New York’.  The second time she calls, Daisy lets Tom know that he cannot answer the phone.  All are embarrassed and the evening swiftly concludes. It is at this point that Daisy is described as wishing her daughter to be a ‘little fool’ prior to Nick’s departure.

 

  • Daisy Fay/Buchanan

Nick’s cousin Daisy begins as a beautiful sea-bird and ends as a bitterly ‘sophisticated’ commentator in the ‘secret society to which she and Tom belonged’.

Daisy will become the central idea of the book – the ‘grail’ over which Gatsby and Tom will fight and the figure whose moral weakness will eventually consign Gatsby to oblivion. When we first meet her, she and Jordan Baker are reclining in the drawing room ‘buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. The imagery relating to weightlessness and flight continues until Tom slams the windows and reminds everyone who is in control of his house. Neither moves when the men enter and Daisy makes a rather coquettish attempt to rise before stammering ‘I’m p-paralyzed with happiness’. Whether this is a comment on Nick’s arrival or her wider life is not explored.

The focus of the narrative becomes her voice. This is a ‘thrilling’ voice – ‘the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down….. there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget’. And this despite the fact that her face ‘was sad and lovely’. This is a voice described as ‘glowing and singing’, which lures one on rather as the Sirens of mythology might have done, yet which seems to drop this quality when she describes the birth of her daughter. There are no adverbs here possibly because what is said carries weight and therefore truth: ‘…Tom was Godknows where. I woke up…with an utterly abandoned feeling… All right, I said, I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’. Later she will add: ‘I think everything’s terrible anyhow… Everybody thinks so – the most advanced people. And I know. I’ve been everywhere, seen everything and done everything…. Sophisticated – God I’m sophisticated.’

Here she gets to the heart of the matter : for a girl to be a success she must be a beauty, but must also be a fool – that way she will be able to enjoy her life. Daisy’s tragedy is that she is not a fool – like Caesar she has come, seen and conquered, but she is left with ‘scorn’ for the life she has. Her language is an echo of Tom’s when discussing race – he was shown to be lacking in intellect – there is no description of that nature here. Daisy knows her life to be a sham, but also knows no other way – she is money descended from money in the Mid-West and who has married money intending to put up with the negatives in order to keep it.

The chapter closes with her listening ‘coldly’ as Tom expounds his thoughts about Jordan Baker  – she is too free and easy and ‘they oughtn’t to let her run around the country this way’.

 

  • Jordan Baker

Named after a sports car of the era, Jordan is stand-offish and seemingly priggish from the outset. She barely acknowledges Nick when he enters, and Fitzgerald describes the image of her sitting as though balancing something on the point of her chin. She is immobile. She frightens Nick be her display of self-sufficiency so that he nearly apologises. Slowly she joins in – she seems to use the term ‘Absolutely’ rather as a figure of speech than as a word with any meaning attached to it which is apt for a scene in which there are so few absolutes.

Nick is attracted to her and her gamine figure – very appropriate for the fashions of the day. In order to succeed in a man’s world, Jordan seems ot have sacrificed her femininity (as well as her honesty as we discover later). She is described as a ‘slender, small breasted girl, with an erect carriage… like a cadet’. Her face is ‘wan, charming, discontented’ – 2 to 1 against. She shows her social bigotry when she remarks ‘contemptuously’ that Nick lives on West Egg. This moment allows the name Gatsby to be heard for the first time, in a negative context, and we notice Daisy’s response: ‘What Gatsby?’ The name is familiar.

She and Daisy can talk inconsequentially  and they are shown to be ‘white’ – blank, inoffensive, impersonal – and fully aware that the evening has no significance whatsoever apart from the moment of its happening.

It is she who seems keen to listen to the discussion by the phone and who tells the reader about Tom and Myrtle before being paired with Tom for the rest of the evening – the sit a distance apart and seem to have little in common before she leaves and Tom can show his old Mid West roots by showing concern for her lack of a good family influence.  Briefly Nick recalls something he cannot define in her past – some ‘critical, unpleasant story’.  It will return.

  • Myrtle and Gatsby

Both appear in this chapter and neither take a direct part in the action. Myrtle – Tom’s ‘girl’ is seen to persistent and shrill – not easily put off and a source of pain within the household and gossip outside it. She will emerge in Chapter 2 when Daisy is absent and Myrtle can host a part  of her own.

Gatsby is discussed prior to the party and then again at dinner. At the end of the chapter we see him. He seems to vanish into thin air and is still a concept as opposed to a character. Fabulously wealthy and removed from conversation twice, once by dinner and then by Jordan’s wish to overhear the phone conversation. At the end we glimpse him, ‘content to be alone’ yet also seeming to desire something out of reach: ‘he stretched out his arms towards the dark water in a curious way and… he was trembling.’ Nick notes the green light – the earthly star of Gatsby’s desires before the figure vanishes. The darkness is now unquiet. Something about this character has upset the tranquillity of the evening. We will see no more of him until Chapter 3 when his story becomes the central thrust of the novel.

 

Ideas

 

In a novel so critical of the modern America, it is clear that Nick and Tom are on opposite sides of a divide – one which Nick may wish to cross with his job as a bonds salesman. The wealth and power of a new Eastern Seaboard Elite is clear for all to see and guarded closely. The wealth of the new money of West Egg is to be despised somehow mirroring the American of 50 years earlier when to be wealthy and Mid-Western was a barrier to polite society for Mark Twain. Little has changed, we are told and the American Dream is now only a reality for those with money, as the Valley of the Ashes will remind us in Chapter 2. Even the abolition of slavery seems to be under indirect attack from men such as Tom, with their ideas about white supremacy.

In this world, Nick is at pains to present his credentials to the reader – he stresses his open-mindedness and shows little in his open condemnation of most of those he meets in these pages. It seems important to him to have credentials both of breeding and of upbringing. All the major characters are from the Mid-West. Of these it is Gatsby alone who has no breeding – he will invent himself according to circumstance, as many a new arrival in America would do. It is clear that his apparent success is much despised by Jordan in this chapter. For men like Tom, he does not even appear on the horizon. His world stops at the end of his garden – ‘I’ve got a nice place here’, he says.

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