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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Book Notes
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THE NOVEL - CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND NOTES

CHAPTER I

The opening paragraphs teach us a lot about Nick and his attitude toward Gatsby and others. Nick introduces himself to us as a young man from the Midwest who has come East to learn the bond business. He tells us that he's tolerant, inclined to reserve judgment about people, and a good listener. People tell him their secrets because they trust him; he knows the Story of Gatsby.

If you read closely, you'll see that Nick has ambivalent feelings toward Gatsby. He both loves Gatsby and is critical of him. Nick is tolerant, but that toleration has limits. He hates Gatsby's crass and vulgar materialism, but he also admires the man for his dream, his "romantic readiness," his "extraordinary gift for hope."

Nick makes the distinction between Gatsby, whom he loves because of his dream, and the other characters, who constitute the "foul dust" that "floated in the wake of his dreams." Nick has such scorn for these "Eastern" types that he has left the East, returned to the Midwest, and, for the time being at least, withdraws from his involvement with other people.

Having told us about his relationships, Nick now introduces us to the world in which he lived during the summer of 1999: the world of East Egg and West Egg, Long Island.

Fitzgerald designed The Great Gatsby very carefully, establishing each of the locations in the novel as a symbol for a particular style of life. West Egg, where Nick and Gatsby live, is essentially a place for the nouveau riche. There are two types of people living here: those on the way up the social ladder who have not the family background or the money to live in fashionable East Egg; and those like Gatsby, whose vulgar display of wealth and connections with Broadway or the New York underworld make them unwelcome in the more dignified world of East Egg. Nick describes his own house as an eyesore, but it is a smaller eyesore than Gatsby's mansion, which has a tower on one side, "spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy." Words like new, thin, and raw describe some of the reasons Gatsby's house is a monstrosity.


By contrast, East Egg is like a fairyland. Its primary color is white, and Nick calls its houses "white palaces" that glitter in the sunlight. The story actually opens in East Egg on the night Nick drives over to have dinner with Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Since Daisy is his cousin and Tom, a friend from Yale, Nick has the credentials to visit East Egg. Their house is "a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial Mansion" overlooking the bay. And the owner is obviously proud of his possessions.

Our first view of Tom Buchanan reveals a very powerful man standing in riding clothes with his legs apart on his front porch. He likes his power, and like the potentates of Eastern kingdoms, he expects the obedience of his subjects. We are ushered into the living room with its "frosted wedding cake" ceiling, its wine-colored rug, and its enormous couch on which are seated two princesses in white: Jordan Baker and Tom's wife, Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald controls the whole scene through his use of colors-white and gold mainly-that suggest a combination of beauty and wealth. Yet underneath this magical surface there is something wrong. Jordan Baker is bored and discontented. She yawns more than once in this very first scene. There is something cool and slightly unpleasant about the atmosphere-something basically disturbing. Tom talks about a book he has read, The Rise of the Colored Empires by Goddard. It is a piece of pure Social Darwinism, advocating that the white race preserve its own purity and beat down the colored races before they rise up and overcome the whites.

Daisy, who seems not to understand what Tom is talking about, teases him about his size and about the big words in the book. The telephone rings, and Tom is called from the room to answer it. When Daisy follows him out, Jordan Baker confides to Nick that the call is from Tom's woman in New York.

The rest of the evening is awkward and painful as Tom and Daisy try unsuccessfully to forget the intrusion. Daisy's cynicism about life becomes painfully clear when she says about her daughter's birth: "'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.'"

NOTE:

Under the veneer of the white world, there is hollowness. Nick has said at the very beginning that "Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men." Even in this opening chapter, we are getting hints that Tom and Daisy are part of this foul dust.

In Nick's eyes, Tom and Daisy belong to "a rather distinguished secret society," whose members have powers the outside world can neither understand nor control. Nick finds both of them smug and insincere.

The evening ends early, around ten o'clock. Jordan Baker, a competitive golfer, wants to go to bed since she's playing in a tournament the next day. Before Nick leaves for West Egg, Tom and Daisy hint that they would welcome his attention to Miss Baker during the summer.

Nick arrives home, and (in the final paragraph of the chapter) gets his first glimpse of Gatsby. Gatsby is standing on the lawn, stretching out "his arms toward the dark water in a curious way." Nick, from his own house, believes that he can see Gatsby trembling. As Nick looks out at the water, he can see "...nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock."

NOTE: THE GREEN LIGHT AS A SYMBOL

This is the first use of one of the novel's central symbols, the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. What Fitzgerald seems to be doing is merely introducing a symbol that will gain in meaning as the story progresses. At this point, we don't even know that the light is on Daisy's dock, and we have no reason to associate Gatsby with Daisy. What we do know-and this is very important-is that Nick admires Gatsby because of his dream and this dream is somehow associated with the green light. The color green is a traditional symbol of spring and hope and youth. As long as Gatsby gazes at the green light, his dream lives.

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