By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Great Gatsby is the quintessential Jazz Age novel, capturing a mood and a moment in American history in the 1920s, after the end of the First World War. Rather surprisingly, The Great Gatsby sold no more than 25,000 copies in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime. It has now sold over 25 million copies.
If Fitzgerald had stuck with one of the numerous working titles he considered for the novel, it might have been published as Trimalchio in West Egg (a nod to a comic novel from ancient Rome about a wealthy man who throws lavish parties), Under the Red, White and Blue, or even The High-Bouncing Lover (yes, really).
The novel has been highly praised for its prose style, and the deft way Fitzgerald handles the voice of his narrator, Nick Carraway. So let’s take a closer look at just the first three paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, the opening lines, and offer a textual analysis of their meaning. We have analysed the novel itself here.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
Immediately, right in this opening sentence, we are invited to engage critically and carefully with Fitzgerald’s prose style. We don’t know who the first-person narrator of the novel is at this stage: Nick Carraway hasn’t properly introduced himself. Instead, he immediately confides in us, much as Gatsby and other characters will later confide in him.
‘In my younger and more vulnerable years’ takes us back to some undefined point in the narrator’s past, of course, but ‘more vulnerable’ does not imply that he is no longer vulnerable: quite the opposite. He is simply less vulnerable (financially, emotionally, psychologically?) than he is now he’s older.
Similarly, the fact that Carraway has been ‘turning over in my mind’ the advice his father gave him (again, we haven’t yet been told what that advice was) is not the same as saying he has been thinking of that advice, or remembering it: ‘turning over’ implies weighing it up, testing its validity, simultaneously recalling it while also subjecting it to healthy critique.
‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’
So this is the advice his father gave him. But what should we make of it, as readers? Immediately we can see why Carraway may have turned such advice over in his mind: ‘all the people in this world’ is hyperbole, overwhelmingly sweeping and general. Is it really true that nobody else in the world has had as many advantages, or as much good fortune, as the narrator?
It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that the remark both is and is not advice: ‘just remember’ is advice, but otherwise the statement works as just that, a statement of fact, a cautionary word. ‘Remember’ may be cast in the imperative mood (as advice or orders tend to be), but Carraway Senior’s ‘advice’ tells his son nothing about how he should then act on this.
Should he remember he comes from a place of privilege which others have not enjoyed, and then refrain from criticising them altogether? Or should he just stop and consider this fact before tempering (or not) his proposed criticism of them?
What’s more, the advice can be cast as both fatherly wisdom and, at the same time, a sort of humblebrag: Look, son, I’m going to be a responsible father and tell you to hold off judging others, because they haven’t enjoyed the opportunities and advantages you have. And where does a son get such advantages and opportunities? His parents. Carraway Senior has made a success of his life, and now he wants to remind his son of the good start his life has had, thanks to his father’s hard work.
In the last analysis, though, Carraway’s opening lines set up several key aspects of both his character and The Great Gatsby as a whole: the recurrence of the past into the present (In the past, my father gave me this advice which I’m still turning over to this day), a phenomenon which will haunt Gatsby’s character; the difference between Carraway’s childhood and Gatsby’s; and Carraway’s special ability to reserve judgment of others, and thus to become an important confidant for other people, notably Gatsby himself.
He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.
Most of the confidences were unsought – frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon – for the intimate revelations of young men or at least the terms in which they express them are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.
This third sentence of The Great Gatsby continues to demonstrate the subtle and refined nature of Fitzgerald’s prose, the latent contradictions or ambiguities, such as the idea of being both highly communicative yet highly reserved (‘unusually communicative in a reserved way’: and yet ‘unusually’ does not necessarily mean ‘highly’ here, and might alternatively be interpreted as meaning ‘strangely’ or ‘oddly’).
Of course, such a contradiction is only perceived rather than actual, and it’s easy to imagine a father and son being able to communicate much to each other without needing to talk at length, through non-verbal gestures and recognised looks, nods, winks, and other understood ‘codes’ which those we are close to, such as our family, can be relied upon to detect and analyse.
‘In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores’: again, to reserve judgment is not the same thing as withholding it indefinitely, as the later stinging judgment of some acquaintances (‘veteran bores’) reveals.
Similarly, ‘Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope’ plays off the short-term (‘Reserving’) against the long-term or open-ended (‘infinite hope’), a contradiction that is again only at surface level, if we take ‘Reserving judgments’ as a universal and general principle (i.e., you don’t indefinitely reserve judgments of individuals, but you apply such a principle to every new acquaintance, in the hope that you will learn something about them).
‘I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth’: finally, his own judgment on his father’s advice lands.
It was snobbish of his father to declare in rather blanket terms that his own son had more advantages than anyone else; yet it was also born of wisdom and a recognition of privilege, which is why Carraway himself chooses to repeat that advice now, while acknowledging (and judging) himself to be snobbish for doing so.