OK. Deep breath. Before I start, I have to get in the proper headspace.
(This is not a comprehensive and cohesive essay about Chapter One, this is not a comprehensive and cohesive essay about Chapter One, this is not a comprehensive and cohesive essay about Chapter One, this is not a comprehensive and cohesive essay about Chapter One.)
Thank you for indulging me. You see, so much has been written about The Great Gatsby, that it's tempting to feel like you have to top all the criticism that's already out there. At least, it's tempting for me. But that's not what this is about. This is about a bunch of friends and book-lovers discussing points of interest in Chapter One of a Great American Novel.
So what's interesting about Chapter One? Lots and lots and lots.
Let's start where the book starts — with the narrator, Nick Carraway. And let's talk a little about structure, too. Both the structure and the narrator remind me a whole lot of Wuthering Heights, if you've read that novel. Both Bronte and Fitzgerald create complicated frame narratives, or stories within stories. In both books, an outsider comes to town, rents a modest home next to a fantastic mansion with a fantastic inhabitant or former inhabitant (a crumbling, Gothic, English manor in Bronte, a "factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy" in Fitzgerald.) And both narrators reconstruct their stories out of a combination of direct observation, letters (and phone calls), hearsay, and local gossip.
Why tell a story this way? It's certainly simpler and more direct to use the third-person omniscient point-of-view. The story doesn't happen to Nick Carraway. What's the point of having an outsider observe and relate the story?
Which brings us to the narrators themselves. Both narrators, Lockwood and Carraway, are supremely boring, dispassionate men. Lockwood finds himself on the edge of a great romance and, at one point, tells the story of his own romance. Which basically boils down to: "I thought I really liked this girl and then I realized I didn't. Or, not enough for marriage. So I tried to let her down gently." This is eerily similar to Nick's romantic ramblings later in the book. The introduction to Nick is almost comical. He refers to himself as a "normal person" — and says that, because he is so normal, wild, abnormal men want to tell him their secrets. He has come East to work on Wall Street, but he doesn't choose to live in the vibrant city. He chooses to live in the country. It is only a coincidence that he lives next door to an amazing story. Also, he works with bonds. The most stable and boring of Wall Street investments.
(So...if you've got to have a narrator, why choose such a boring narrator?)
In the middle of Nick's hilariously smug and off-putting introduction of himself, he delivers one of the most quoted Fitzgerald lines: "Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope." Chapter One is chock-full of quotable lines. In the past few weeks, I've seen this "infinite hope" line in my Facebook feed several times. People post this as if it's wisdom. That is a mistake. It reminds me of people who quote Polonius's line from Hamlet: "To thine own self be true." The thing is, when you determine how to read a line, you have to look at who is saying the line. Polonius is the fool in Hamlet. Nick may not be the fool, but he is naive...he is the only character in the novel who learns something and changes his viewpoint. And you don't even have to wait until the end of the novel to know this. Since he is writing this after the fact, you realize that the events of the summer have changed his mind just a few lines later: "I come to the admission that it (i.e. tolerance) has a limit."
Sorry. You have discovered my Gatsby Pet Peeve #1. Rant over. Let's skip ahead. Way ahead or we'll be here all day. There's just so much great stuff in Chapter One. We'll skip over all the East Egg and West Egg description stuff since that will come up again repeatedly later...and move straight to the meeting with Daisy, Tom, and Jordan.
So much happens in such a short space here. We learn so much about these people. I will keep it brief (too late) and simply ask you to reread one passage and then point out a couple of things and then be done.
First, the passage. I know you read this but read it again and marvel at its beauty. Seriously.
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few minutes listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. There was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out of the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
I really love Fitzgerald's descriptions and think that this is a prime example. He could just have easily have said something like: "Even though it was a hot day, the ladies kept cool in white dresses. The windows in the house were large and they had a good cross-breeze going. Then Tom shut the windows and stifled everything." But he doesn't. He introduces the women as delicate, pristine fairies and Tom as the booming monster who puts an end to their fairy floating...who takes all the crackle and the life out of the room.
OK. I promised to wrap it up and I will. A few things to look for as you continue reading: 1.) Colors! There is lots of color symbolism in Gatsby. Especially in Chapter One. In the comments, we can talk about what White and Green mean, in particular. 2.) Daisy's hair. There's lots of controversy about what color Daisy's hair is. I don't know why. Gatsby Pet Peeve #2. Every film depiction has her as a blonde (and hair die is so cheap). But she has dark hair, and there's a reason for it. We get the first hint that she is dark when Tom delivers his racist monologue at dinner. He hesitates before including Daisy as a part of the "Nordic race" — and her maiden name (which we will find out later) also suggests that she is of Eastern European descent. I ask you. Why is it important for her to be dark? 3.) Drifting vs driven. As you read...just pay attention to how many times Tom and Daisy are referred to as drifting, floating, restless, careless, aimless, etc. 4.) Daisy, Daisy, Daisy. Chapter One is really all about Daisy, and I've barely scratched the surface. Who is this girl? Is she smart? Is she vapid? What about her face, her voice, her eyes? Her mouth? Tell me about Daisy.
What about modernism, you ask? What about the allusions to Eliot? What about the Jazz Age and East Egg and West Egg and the affair and the green light and Jordan and Tom? Yeah. But I have gone on long enough. I want to leave you all plenty to talk about and get to hear what you have to say.