Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Great Gatsby Read Along: Chapters 1 & 2

The opening of novels is all the same--establish setting, characters, and situation.  Sometimes that opening feels like it drags along, especially if you have to learn a whole new language of sorts, like when I read a dystopian novel and have to figure out the rules of the world.  In the case of The Great Gatsby, we are obviously introduced to West and East Egg, as well as a complex collection of characters who start to build their back story so we can catch up with the present.

For our first two chapters, I wanted to look at what we ran across and get your own two cents and feedback.


Set on Long Island--West Egg and East Egg, to be precise.  Separated by a "bay" of water, West Egg was the poorer, less socially affluent side of the bay, while East Egg supported the richer, more connected side of society.  Our narrator, Nick Carraway, lives on West Egg in a small rental cottage between two larger mansions.  One of these mansions is owned by none other than Mr. Jay Gatsby.  The other main characters, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, live in East Egg in a giant mansion of their own.

What is the significance of this setting?  Is the proximity to New York City significant to the tale?  How do the size of the homes and location all play into the social hierarchy being used by Fitzgerald?

Obviously, at the end of Chapter 1, we see that Gatsby must be yearning for whatever is across the bay from him--at the Buchanan's mansion:
"...--fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor's mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars...I didn't call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone--he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling.  Involuntarily, I glanced seaward--and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock..." (20-21)
I loved this conclusion to the first chapter, since I kept reminding myself that Nick was the narrator, so everything is filtered through his own sense of curiosity.  His lack of omniscience here adds a nice foreshadowing and a longing that echoes through this conclusion.

Also, I think that you can never quite discount the social divides that are set up in a novel.  Knowing who has money and where those with money live or don't live is important to keep in mind.  As always, money talks.  It doesn't always say very sensible things, but the desperation of folks either not having it or having too much of it can make for a tricky and interesting side narrative.


Point of View--We know that Nick Carraway is telling the story.  What do we really learn about him?  He comes from a "Middle Western city," where his family was of some prominence.  After WWI, Nick moved to the East to study the bond business.  In some ways, Nick sets us up to believe he is a humble, young character; he is living in a humble little cottage of sorts and is not set up like his neighbors.  And yet, isn't he also able to easily mingle in rich society pretty easily and quickly?  His relation to Daisy Buchanan might be part of it, but even that might suggest he comes from at least enough money to set him on the path that others might only dream about.

Should we question our reading of the characters in the novel since Nick is the narrator?  Aren't we getting everything filtered through Nick's point of view?

Tom Buchanan is Daisy's ex-football hero husband, said to have had his glory days playing his football, only to find he could never reach those heights again.  He is described as being almost a brute of sorts: "supercilious manner," "shining arrogant eyes," "a cruel body," and "his speaking voice, a gruff husky tenor" (7).  Then, he seems to say to the reader and to Nick:
"Now don't think my opinion on these matters is final, " he seemed to say, "just because I'm stronger and more of a man than you are."  (7)
 Um, can we say he's kind of an arrogant pig?  He not only can't live down his glory days, but he also has to continue to prove he's a bigger and badder man than anyone else around him.  Nick notices how he interrupts Daisy continually throughout their first night when Nick comes over, and we end Chapter 2 with Nick's introduction  and night in the city with Tom and his mistress.  Maybe a thing of the times, and maybe Daisy needed a break, but we have to see Tom as a pretty puffed up character who it will be easy to want to see fall from his high horse!

Daisy Buchanan is Tom's wife and Nick's cousin.  Nick describes her as having, "a conscientious little laugh," and that she laughed, "as if she said something very witty," with a "low, thrilling voice."  He also added depth to his descriptions by showing that, "Her face was sad and lovely, with bright things in it," and that, "...there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget" (9).

Does this mean that's how she really was, or just how Nick perceived her?  Is Daisy this flirting, trilling little character that is laced with a certain amount of sadness?  Well, it would certainly seem so by our introduction to her and Tom in these opening chapters.  Tom spends his time cutting her off, and it is suggested that she knows about Tom's mistress, Myrtle.

There's so much we could talk about in these chapters!  I could go on and on!  I don't even want to dabble in the bit with the mistress just yet, mainly because I keep mulling over our main characters and their lives.  I think that one of the most famous, and poignantly sad moments comes when Daisy tells Nick what she felt at the time of her daughter's birth, saying:
"She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. 'All right,' I said.  'I'm glad it's a girl. And I hope she will be a fool--that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.'" (17)
 These lines really strike me, because they say a lot about Daisy and the head space she is in here.  This doesn't seem like a flippant comment to me, but one from a place of despair and personal experience maybe?  I think Daisy understands her world a bit too well.

Okay.  Enough from me on these opening chapters!  I can't say enough how much I'm loving this reread.  It's been way too long since I last read The Great Gatsby, so I've forgotten so many key details!  Now it's your turn.  Share with us!
  1. What role(s) do you see for the setting in the novel?  Do you like this setting, and does it affect the way you read the story?
  2. Since Nick is the narrator in this story, do you think it's possible he might be setting us up to like or dislike certain characters?  Do you trust his retelling?
  3. What do you think of Tom, Daisy, and Myrtle?
  4. What else stood out to you in these opening chapters?
 Please share if you would like!  Whether you've drafted up a blog post with your thoughts (which I hope you'll link), or you share some of your thoughts in the comments, I hope you jump in.

Just as a reminder, this coming week we'll be reading Chapters 3-4.  Happy reading!  I hope to see what you're thinking!


  1. So. Are you ready for me? I'm going off memory here, since all my copies (I have about 5) are in storage.

    Setting: I think it is very important here to establish the houses, atmosphere, and location of all the main character's houses. First, notice how Nick describes Gatsby's mansion--marble pool, Hotel de Normandy, etc. It's over the top, bigger than life and new (the ivy is thin and barely covering the walls). It is the epitome of what it means for West Egg--new money, vulger, gaudy.

    Nick's house, which is an eyesore, in between, and overlooked could be a description for Nick himself. He is literally between all of the major players, and he happens to be the only character not filthy rich. Also, he sometimes is overlooked by other characters. He's there, he's watching, but his impact is underestimated.

    And, of course, the Buchannans. Just as Gatsby's mansion is all that is West Egg, Tom and Daisy's house is all that is East Egg: beautiful, elegant, sweeping, and established (the ivy on their house is quite thick.) I believe Fitzgerald takes so much time with the locations of the houses and the setting of the novel because it's not about the houses. It's about setting up the society that is so very important to the plot and understanding of the story.

    As for Daisy's "beautiful little fool" comment, I agree with you completely. She understands her world too much. A lot argue that she uses her circumstances to manipulate Nick--that little smirk, immediately following her comment, you see. And I think there's something to that. Maybe it is an attempt at manipulation, but I don't think Daisy's motives are malicious. The only power Daisy has ever had throughout her life is her power to make men like her. Why would she give that power up? Why would she cease to use it? It's all she's got, and she uses it to pull Nick to her "side." She is slightly shallow, but I think her motives are innocent.

    And chapter 2. Two of my favorite topics of discussion is introduced in this chapter: Dr. TJ Elckleburge's eyes, and Myrtle Wilson. Such and fantastic chapter! Lest we all think that only rich people are self-centered and shallow, enter Myrtle. Dirt poor and the worst of them all. She hates her husband because he borrowed a suit for their wedding, and she loves Tom because of his patent leather shoes. And her perception of how "rich" people should act is so affected you wonder if it's even possible. It s ironic that Gatsby and Myrtle are cut from the same cloth--when they are with the Buchannans, they "act rich." Gatsby's just better at it, even though some see through him (owl eyes in the library, anyone? "The books are real! Real pages and everything! See chapter 3). And let's not forget the purchase of the dog and the broken nose--foreshadow, foreshadow!

    As a side note, I think one of my favorite descriptions of all time is in Ch2. Myrtle's sister. She shaved her eyebrows, drew them on above the natural brow line, and they are starting to grow back in, giving her the "fuzzy" quality. I just think it's funny.

    Okay. That's enough from me. I love this book.

    1. I will comment on the first two chapters. promise.

    2. Yay! I love your thoughts on this novel. :) When you're passionate about a novel, your discussion can go on and on. Love it!

      I've thought a lot about Nick and why he seems to move along in this entire story as this observer, and not really much of a participator. I don't know people like that? Maybe my elderly grandma might go along with things and be an observer, but I doubt she's the pick. Nick is just interesting to me all around. I have a feeling he's going to be my obsession during this reread.

      I have to say, I didn't even have time or room to get started on Myrtle. I actually noticed more the "they disappeared" bit and then came back in different clothes. :) I think I even chuckled, because I know I didn't ever catch that as a teenager, and yet don't remember it when I had to reread it as an undergrad. I'm still trying to figure out what in the heck is wrong with Tom that he likes this flippety-gibbet!

      Thanks Sarah! I love your comments!

  2. You've both already made such great comments on chapters one and two.

    As for Ch. 1-- Daisy's "beautiful little fool" comment probably is that she hopes that if she has a daughter she'd be able to insulate herself from the cruelties of the world. Play the game. Which is likely what Daisy's doing. Tom's one of those smug jock-types that succeeds at everything without trying very hard.

    I love this quote on Tom:

    "Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart."

    Amy S.

    1. Love! I like the point about Daisy playing the game. The connotations here are so layered!

      Isn't it interesting how you can take sentences from every chapter and look at them as these wonderful masterpieces? I love it!

  3. Nick as narrator: I think it's Gatsby's story and F. Scott Fitzgerald may have thought it more effectively told via Nick. He wasn't born into wealth but has developed position and enough wealth to fit into wealthier circles. Nick's able to straddle between two worlds as some people are able to do.

    1. Very true. Nick has obviously been able move in all circles, which makes him an interesting observer.

  4. I vaguely remember having to read this in high school, and I think, but I'm not sure, I didn't enjoy it that much back then. Mostly I remember the class discussion was about the people being selfish and something about a car. GUess I am in for some surprises during this reread!

    I'm at chapter 3, I think, and I cannot believe how much I am enjoying it this time around. The prose is absolutely beautiful and yet I have no trouble reading it at all. I mean to say: it reads so smooth and quickly. I am a little bit awed about Fitzgerald's abilities at the moment.

    As for the characters.. is it weird to say that I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts but that for now I don't really know what to think yet. I think I agree with the basics of what you say here, but since I do not know where the story is going I am not exactly decided on some things. There's one person I definitely do not like much though, and that's Myrtle. Ugh. Also, Tom might not be a favourite.

    1. I have to say that I completely agree about the experience rereading the novel. It has been so nice to look at it from a more grown up perspective. I think I was way too young the first time I read it!

  5. Here is my post, Becky!