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Thursday, March 28, 2013


First sentences: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The site is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of the first sentence analyses can be found 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.

Meet the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald: the slow, graceful cadence, the deadpan preparation that leads beguilingly to the sudden, staggering sucker-punch.

The Great Gatsby is one of the top contenders for the elusive title of 'Great American Novel'. It's a rather Gatsbyish concept in itself, that: where older cultures can rest complacently on a long-established tradition and other New Worlds seem more willing to move with the tide, writing and publishing good books without worrying about which of them most perfectly accessories their history - or at least, a search for 'The Great Canadian Novel' and 'The Great Australian Novel' turn up a modest 59,700 and 46,600 hits respectively to 'The Great American Novel's towering 8,810,000 - there's something in America that provokes a search for the great one, the great one, the green light at the end of literature that if we write deeper, stretch out our pens further, will one fine morning - But whether one considers the Great American Novel a useful concept or not, there's no question that The Great Gatsby is a great novel, and a great novel both of and about America. Fitzgerald's 'gift for turning language into something iridescent and surprising', as the critic Edmund Wilson so precisely put it, is on luminous and finally devastating display.

The Great Gatsby is, for all its lucidity and its light page-count, a difficult book. The plot may be simple - James Gatz falls in love with a rich girl, becomes the wealthy Prohibition bootlegger Jay Gatsby in an attempt to win her, but when she runs over her husband Tom's mistress she callously lets Gatsby take the blame, Tom saves himself some aggro by pretending that Gatsby was the real lover, and the mistress's husband shoots and kills Gatsby - but its presentation is deceptive: rather than commenting or describing in depth, rather than helping us understand, Fitzgerald just quietly shows us things and lets us draw our own conclusions. The story lays small and great tragedies side by side and leaves us to judge, steering us only with its elegant, implicating prose. Reading The Great Gatsby is more like reading a poem than a novel: we have to meet the language halfway. I'll freely admit that I bounced off it in college - I was too young, and more than that too foreign to the culture it quietly savages, to quite understand what it was telling me. You have to read The Great Gatsby actively, and in my younger and more vulnerable years I hadn't mastered the activity it required of me. Another common complaint, apparently, is that the characters aren't likeable - and it's true, they're not, that's the point - and to that objection, the best answer can be found here and here in John Green's admirable Crash Course Literature series of vlogs. (Only a short series when it comes to literature, to my sorrow, as his main focus is on history - though I'd highly recommend his history vlogging too.) Reading The Great Gatsby is like listening through glass: you can see what's happening, but you have pay attention, watch closely, use your knowledge of human interaction to translate the snatches you do hear into a full, free exchange. It's 'unusually communicative in a reserved way', as Nick quickly says of his relationship with said quoted father, and we have to fall into that relationship right away - enter into reserved communication ourselves and start turning over The Great Gatsby's not-fully-expressed advice. We have to follow closely - because it's only in this act of following that we can be receptive enough to the conflicted sorrows and moral grief and blazing, half-concealed rage of Nick Carraway's narration. We have to be to Nick what Nick is to his father: listeners who understand more than what is said. What he speaks of is too deep, too complex, to be spoken of in more than hints.

What is this first sentence, the place we begin to listen? To begin with, it's elegant. Soft consonants smooth throughout, only one T in twenty-three words, and a T that leads downhill onto the trochaic cushion of 'turning', and for the rest, Ys, Vs, Ss, Fs, nothing staccato or harsh on the ear. The words themselves are neither a rattle of monosyllables nor a thicket of polysyllables, but a pleasing medley of variation. Rhythmically, the sentence breaks down into three and a half rough beats: 'In my younger and more vulnerable years', the assonant U tying together the longer words; 'my father gave me some advice', the Fs and Vs leaning towards each other; 'that I've been turning over in my mind', the stressed syllables of 'turning', 'over' and 'mind' weighting the phrase towards the end and the downward drop of 'mind', which in turn pulls us towards the short half-phrase that carries in it so much time: 'ever since.' In 'ever since' is nostalgia and memory, the pondering of whether lessons from the past have been learned and understood - whether they have been, either financially or morally, profited from.

We know from the sentence, then, that our narrator Nick considers himself to have been more vulnerable in the past, which is to say that things have happened which have hardened him: there's a breath of cynicism in amidst the wondering. It's a sentence of regret, in other words, regret and uncertainty, moving from vulnerable youth to parental advice which has not been finally decided upon. Nick has been 'turning over' his father's advice, and he still hasn't stopped turning it. Something has happened to close him off, and he still isn't entirely sure what to make of it - or rather, how to contextualise it, how to fit it into the scheme of simple certainties. A father's advice - perhaps especially in a country where 'Founding Fathers' are quasi-mythic figures and fatherhood can take on almost a sacred stature - is supposed to be wisdom speaking to inexperience, a piece of certainty that we can rely on. What our father told us when we were young enough to advise is morality from a time when we were young enough that moral certainties seemed possible. Nick, we are told in this sentence, is no longer in that comfortable place. He has the piece of wisdom, but in comparing it to his own experiences, he hasn't closed the issue.

What is this piece of advice? We get it in the next sentence: 'Whenever you feel like criticising anyone ... just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.' While Nick acknowledges that the advice is given 'snobbishly' - the Carraways are a rich family, and for the unedifying reason that an ancestor paid someone else to fight in the Civil War (on which side, Nick doesn't disclose) so he'd be free to continue running his business - and in its folksy way, it might seem inoffensive: not everyone has our airs and graces, our education, our opportunities.

Except for that sucker-punch, because this is what Nick leads us up to: 'I snobbishly repeat a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.'

There we have The Great Gatsby: a patient, elegiac meditation that suddenly wheels around and knocks you flying. The book contains one of the greatest shock sentences in literature, which is worth quoting in context just as a demonstration of its power before we return to the first sentence: the scene takes place on a weekend afternoon when Tom Buchanan has run into Nick on a train and with 'a determination to have my company that bordered on violence' (Tom is a former football player of massive physical strength), insisted that Nick come join him on a visit to his mistress Myrtle Wilson. Nick notes 'the supercilious assumption ... that on Sunday afternoon I had nothing better to do'; the reader may also note the rather stunning assumption that asking your wife's cousin to come party with your mistress is perfectly okay and that you don't need to worry about the conflict of loyalties you are dragging him into on a whim. In any event, the party is awful and grows increasingly drunken and fevered as the evening progresses, until things degenerate into a nightmare haze (it's a long extract, but do read it in full if you want to feel the impact):

'My dear,' [Myrtle Wilson] cried, 'I'm going to give you this dress as soon as I'm through with it. I've got to get another one tomorrow. I'm going to make a list of all the things I've got to get. A massage and a wave and a collar for the dog [bought that day on a casual impulse mid-shopping spree] and one of those cute little ash-trays where you touch a spring, and a wreath with a black silk bow for mother's grave that'll last all summer. I got to write down a list so I won't forget all the things I got to do.'
It was nine o'clock - almost immediately afterward I looked at my watch and found it was ten. Mr McKee [a guest with an imperfectly washed face] was asleep on a chair with his fists clenched. Taking out my handkerchief I wiped from his cheek the remains of the spot of dried lather that had worried me all the afternoon.
The little dog was sitting on the table looking with blind eyes through the smoke and from time to time groaning faintly. People disappeared, reappeared, made plans to go somewhere, and then lost each other, searched for each other, found each other a few feet away. Some time toward midnight Tom Buchanan and Mrs Wilson stood face to face discussing in impassioned voices whether Mrs Wilson had any right to mention Daisy's name.
'Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!' shouted Mrs Wilson. 'I'll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Da-' 
Making a short deft movement Tom Buchanan broke her nose with an open hand. 

Nothing prepares you for it: certainly not the incidents that come directly before. There's a more diffuse horror that occupies our attention: the rattling materialism that conflates luxuries and pet care and cute gadgets and mourning the dead all of a piece, and conflates, too, the act of buying things with the act of doing things - this is a world of consumers, not producers. Myrtle's manic flaunting of her lover's wealth, the drunken confusion, Nick's obsessive worrying about Mr McKee's shaving cream: all get us as disoriented and uncomfortable as Nick himself. The shaving cream spot is symptomatic: is Nick's worry compassion for the display Mr McKee is making of himself, snobbish disdain for poor grooming, or just a befuddled mind fixing on some small problem because when everything is wrong it's hard to know where to focus? We have to decide for ourselves - and in trying to decide, in craning to see whether the poor little dog is all right and trying to keep trace of slippery time, the distancing language of hearing the lovers 'discussing in impassioned voices' misleads us. It sounds so formal, so Jeevesian, and so buried in the middle of of a paragraph where things are happening in a vague, undifferentiated state, that we don't quite realise it's a stand-up screaming drunken fight until the dreadful, brutal simplicity of 'broke her nose'. Not 'hit her', but 'broke her nose', with that horrible adjective 'deft', as the skilled athlete deploys his physical perfection to batter his girlfriend. Language whirls and wavers and then strikes us into reality with a sudden crack.

As I said, this is a book of the sucker-punch, and when it hits us unexpectedly, we reel. The first sentence sets us up for the first of these dizzying confusions, but not the worst. We just get prepared for the homily that not everyone has the same nice things, and then get struck with the assertion that not everyone has the same nice souls.

What we don't know when we first encounter this book is that Nick is reflecting on something that deeply, irrevocably angers him: a man he has liked, cared about, tried almost successfully to be a friend to, has been destroyed with casual unconcern by people with even more 'advantages' than Nick. Gatsby is dead, and after all his prodigality, his lavish hospitality and generosity and charm, almost nobody bothered to attend his funeral. Gatsby has reached up towards the aristocracy, and as soon as the liquor dried up, the aristocracy dropped him like any other broken toy. And particularly culpable are the Buchanans, Nick's cousin Daisy and her thuggish, hyper-wealthy husband Tom: Daisy, who killed Tom's mistress Myrtle with her reckless (or possibly murderous) driving, and Tom, who spared himself the inconvenience of dealing with Myrtle's widowed husband by letting him assume that her real lover was Gatsby. Faced with the possibility of unpleasant consequences, they simply shrug them off onto the nearest convenient stooge, the nearest butler with an expendable nose, and carry on. Nick is bitterly angry at the beginning of this story, angry enough to commute his father's simple-sounding advice against judging people on externals into the deep, harsh judgement that people are not equal morally: that 'the fundamental decencies' - not even refraining from getting people killed, but as little as those many guests at Gatsby's parties who knew no better than to 'sneer most bitterly at Gatsby on the courage of Gatsby's liquor' - are not an evenly distributed resource. At this point, Nick feels or suspects, some people, maybe most people, are just bad. But at the same time, 'birth' is far from uncomplicated, because who you are born to be is, for everyone except Gatsby - and maybe even him by the end - an inescapable influence. You don't choose where you're born, and it's very, very hard to be something other than what you were born and raised for.

Look, for instance, at the way this book begins by touching on the issue of parenthood. What's simpler than motherhood and apple pie? Well, practically everything, actually, but it's notable that of the many things wealth destroys in The Great Gatsby - cars, noses, valleys, lives - there is a deep fracture in that all-American institution, the family. Nick is as close to healthy as anybody here is going to get: he has left home with his father's blessing and some words of wisdom, even if he's too angry or too grieved to be sure whether they apply any more, and when he's had enough, he can go back home again and it's not so bad. But what remains for everyone else? This is a novel of the Roaring Twenties, the era of the young adult - the era of being twenty-something, in fact, which Nick, passing his thirtieth birthday, is just leaving, driving away from youth and 'toward death'. It is not an era of parenthood. The damage reverberates up and down the generations: Jay Gatsby, taken first by changed identity and then by death from a bewildered father who still calls him Jimmy; Pammy Buchanan, 'the well-disciplined child' who spends her life almost entirely with a nurse while her parents are busy with their wealth and adulteries. Henry Gatz loves his son, but it wasn't enough to keep the boy at home, or even to keep the son carrying his name: James Gatz raced away from his family into a life as Jay Gatsby at the first opportunity. Daisy coos over her 'bless-ed pre-cious' with perhaps genuine but certainly transitory affection: Pammy snuggles her glamorous mother only 'shyly' and is dismissed before she's had the time to say more than three things - 'I got dressed before luncheon,' 'Yes ... Aunt Jordan's got on a white dress too,' and 'Where's Daddy?', two bids for approval in the only terms that interest her mother, and a question about her Daddy's whereabouts that Daisy doesn't bother to answer. Jimmy runs away from a home he feels ashamed of; Pammy is dressed up and brought out because, as Daisy says of herself, 'your mother wanted to show you off' - and to the man bent on stealing her from Pammy's Daddy at that. Even Myrtle Wilson's family love is more a matter of shopping than feeling: if she can spend Tom's money on a long-lasting wreath, it'll save her work on her mother's grave. Nick's family still matters to him, but then they can bestow inherited wealth along with the homespun wisdom. Everybody else is too busy chasing the dream. The first sentence of the novel is more or less a farewell to the undamaged family. The great Gatsby has no mentoring father, and will never be one himself.

Love fails in The Great Gatsby. Nick still has some of it - enough to remember his father's advice, if not enough to be sure what to make of it, nor enough to make a relationship with Jordan Baker that doesn't end in hurting her, nor to do more for Gatsby in the end than bring his solitary presence to the dead man's funeral. Gatsby has too much of it - though whether for Daisy the woman or Daisy the social symbol, the feminine embodiment of his class aspirations, we never know: the class-born 'vast carelessness' of the Buchanans kills him before he can try the reality of her. Advice fails too: nothing would talk any sense into Gatsby, nor any 'fundamental decencies' into the Buchanans, nor does it keep Nick out of disasters, his own or other people's, until it's too late. What is the point, after all, of turning things over in your mind if nobody else is thinking? 'You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver,' Jordan reminds Nick, and thoughtlessness here careens out of too many side-streets for a single piece of advice to do anyone any good. There are the vulnerable and the invulnerable, and it's not age but money that makes them immune - money, and class, and 'carelessness'.

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry 'Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!'

So goes the opening quotation from 'Thomas Parke D'Invilliers' (which is to say, from Fitzgerald himself: 'Thomas Parke D'Invilliers' is a fictional character from his own first novel This Side of Paradise), and before it, the dedication: 'Once again to Zelda.' A declaration of love from a writer to his wife - his fated wife, we know in sad retrospect - followed by the half-comic, half-wistful tribute to Gatsby's aspirations. You can bounce high - but a bounce is not flight: eventually, you fall back down. Nick can fall back on his wealthy home and his reserved, communicative father. Gatsby does not have that luxury: what he had at home, he gave up for a greater luxury, the gold hat that might one day win him that fine morning. It doesn't, of course; Daisy isn't capable of creating a communicative home even with her vast wealth: her child isn't a protegee to advise but a doll to dress, display and dismiss, and whatever she feels for Gatsby isn't enough to outlast real trouble. She keeps moving forward as long as she has a place to go, and that is always. Gatsby does not have that endless horizon, except in his own hopes.

'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past,' Nick famously concludes. What we hear in the first sentence is our only hope of perspective: someone who is actually prepared to take seriously something what was said to him in the past, said by somebody from his past, and which in fact is an exhortation to remember the fact of other people's pasts before you draw any conclusions. Henry Gatz looks back to his lost Jimmy with helpless bewilderment; Gatsby runs into the future until he falls off the edge; Daisy hesitates and then keeps walking. Nick is the only anchor to our little boat in The Great Gatsby, not because he's a particularly good man, nor because his father or his forefathers were, nor even because his father's advice or his reaction to it were necessarily good, but for one reason alone: he's the only person who can both understand the impulse to race for the receding future and can look back into the flowing past.

I'm very pleased that the day after I finished reading through the back entries of this blog, I find a new "first sentences" post! I should take a moment to say that I greatly enjoyed reading your writing, whether here or in your novels.

I'd never been able to put into words exactly how that abrupt dissonance between Nick's father's advice and Nick's interpretation of it struck me, but this is it exactly: it's Myrtle's broken nose, the moment, like you said, that "wheels suddenly around and knocks you flying."

Another thing I like about the first sentence is the lack of the comma after "in my younger and more vulnerable years." It's optional, but fairly conventional, to have one, but it would also more firmly separate the timelines. By not having that pause, Fitzgerald gets everything blended together relatively seamlessly.
Hi and welcome! It's a great pleasure to me to hear such an interesting observation in the comments; I shall hope you stick around and play. :-)

Yes, that's a very good point about the commas. It seems to go with the general sense that time is a backward-flowing current, doesn't it? Nick's moral is that the past never stops happening, and the fact that he doesn't separate his father's past advice from his 'ever since' reaction to it - doesn't separate the development of his authentic past self from his thinking current self - is rather beautifully reflected by that continuation. Thanks for that - I hadn't spotted that particular elegance! I shall enjoy thinking about it.
Definitely sticking around! My friend and I even made a game of first sentences, picking novels one of us had read and the other hadn't, and trying to guess character/plot/thematic aspects from the first sentence. It's perfect literary geek fun.
I think this is a marvelous work of character analysis :)

I’ve been trying to think of possible requests, but I’m not exactly sure what you like and where our tastes converge (and therefore what you’ve read or would like a reason to read). But I notice from past posts that you seem generally disposed towards the Classics, Early Modern and 20th Century, so…

Have you read anything by Graham Greene? Like The Quiet American or Our Man in Havana? The Quite American in particular is such a rare feat: a work that engages with on the spot contemporary events, contains tremendous predictive insight, and is really quite good (albeit marred by the same flaw in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – namely racism and acceptance of some of the basic colonialist assumptions even as it savages the larger imperial project as misguided and destructive to everyone involved).
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