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The Great Gatsby | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Twenty-nine-year-old Nick Carraway reflects on the experiences of his recent past. After graduating from Yale and serving in the army, Nick decides to leave the Midwest behind and move to New York to become a bondsman. He takes up residence in West Egg, a Long Island community, where he rents a home next to Jay Gatsby, a wealthy and mysterious businessman.

Nick's cousin, the beautiful socialite Daisy Buchanan, lives across the bay in East Egg with her brutish husband, Tom. Soon after moving to West Egg, Nick is invited to the Buchanans' home for dinner, where he meets Jordan Baker, a cynical professional golfer. During dinner, the foursome discusses trivial, superficial matters. Tom leaves to take a phone call, and while he's gone, Jordan reveals that he must be talking to his mistress—a woman in New York whom he makes no attempt to hide.

Upon returning home Nick sees his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, emerge from his extravagant mansion. Resisting the urge to call out to him, Nick watches, confused, as a trembling Gatsby stares off into the distance, arms outstretched, reaching toward a green light across the bay.

Analysis

Nick is immediately revealed to be an honest narrator. His father's advice to avoid criticizing people because "all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had" suggest that he is nonjudgmental and moral, which is the perfect lens through which to view this story of deception, superficiality, and immorality. Because Nick is well-educated and comes from a good background, it's clear that he will fit easily into both social circles—the old money of East Egg and the new money of West Egg. Residents of East Egg are accustomed to a life of privilege, and generations of wealth have made many residents, like Tom Buchanan, arrogant. On the other side of the bay, new-money residents, like Jay Gatsby, aren't quite accustomed to their great wealth yet, making them emotionally vulnerable (they know what they have to lose). Nick is the perfect, balanced narrator to navigate both groups without bias.

During the dinner in East Egg, much is revealed about the Buchanans and their superficiality. Fitzgerald uses detailed descriptions to highlight the luxury in which these characters live: they have a grand mansion, a butler and silver polisher, stables, and more. In the first descriptions of the women, they are twice described as "balloons," suggesting they simply float through life—an apt description of the novel's old-money characters. In these opening scenes, both Daisy and Jordan are seen as foolish and flighty, while Tom is opinionated, insensitive, and expects to have his way—particularly around women. On his drive home Nick feels slightly confused and disgusted with what he's learned about the Buchanans and the way they live their lives.

The green light Gatsby reaches toward is deeply symbolic: in literature, green is often symbolic of money, and Nick later realizes that the light emanates from the end of the Buchanans' dock. As the novel progresses, it is revealed that Gatsby has amassed all his wealth in the hopes of winning Daisy's love—a desire perfectly symbolized in this scene.

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