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In which John Green discusses the first chapter of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, including thoughts on the role that the ideas of the self-made man and the American dream fuel the beginning of the novel. Themes, metaphors, and symbols are all discussed--although hopefully not in that boring and unlikable way you all find so reprehensible.

Discuss the book!

In the first chapter, our narrator Nick Carraway introduces us briefly to Gatsby before taking us to an awful dinner with the unhappily married Buchanans, Tom and Daisey, who live in great wealth and misery on East Egg.


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A Bunny
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Good morning Hank, it's Monday. Today I want to talk about the first chapter of the Great Gatsby, which is often called the great American novel, not so for its greatness or its novel-ness, but because of its American-ness. So in the last sixty years the United States has been very successful at exporting ideas, like the idea of inexpensive hamburgers and also the idea of the “American Dream.” You know the American Dream – it's the idea that everyone regardless of standing in life has an equal opportunity in life to become successful, which in the United States generally means rich. The Great Gatsby is in many ways a novel about the American Dream but it's also more universal than that because one we've done a really good job of exporting the American Dream and also two the American dream was never that uniquely American – it's actually kind of a universal dream these days but one of the charming things about Americans is that we see things that belong to the world and then we're like, “that's American.” Okay, so in the first few pages of the Great Gatsby here's what we know about our faithful narrator Nick Carraway - by the way, get it, “Care-Away”? One, he used to live in the Midwest, then he moved to New York and now he's back in the Midwest. Something happened in New York that made him go home. Two, he's a little bit highfalutin with words. Nick hints at what made him leave New York and introduces us to Gatsby, the hero of the novel, in so far as Gatsby can be called heroic by saying, “Gatsby turned out all right in the end, it was what preyed at Gatsby what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interests in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” In short, Gatsby was okay but his dream, the American dream, was a little troubling. The third thing we know about Nick is that he's rich, and how did he get rich? Not by living the American dream, but instead the old-fashioned way: by having a rich ancestor. We learned this ancestor paid someone off to serve in the civil war and while that poor sap was fighting Nick's ancestor was busy making money (How's that for an American dream?). So Nick moves to New York to work in the bond business and he gets a house on West Egg, which is one of two almost identical islands, West Egg being the less fashionable one. Nick lives in kinda a ramshackle house, but both of his neighbors are millionaires, including the titular Great Gatsby about whom we learn almost nothing in chapter one except that he had “…an extraordinary gift for hope.” That's the essential fact of Gatsby and also all romantic leads that have come since, like I don't care if you're talking about Edward Cullen or the dude from The Notebook or Miles Halter – all of them share an extraordinary gift for hope. Right? All of them share this creepy belief that if I can just get what I dream of I'll be happy. But we don't see much of Gatsby in chapter one, instead we meet Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Daisy is like Nick's second cousin once removed, and he goes over to East Egg, the fashionable place, where they live, in order to have, like, the worst dinner ever. So Daisy Buchanan is like a professional pretty person and Tom Buchanan is a former football player who Fitzgerald describes perfectly by saying he was one of those men who achieves such an acute, limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savors of anticlimax (If you're not yet twenty one you may not be able to understand what a burn that is, but trust me, it's a burn). The Buchanans are also crazy rich, like polo pony rich. You'll be surprised to learn how they got rich, unless you guessed that it was not by living the American dream. Also, take note of this: their house? Golden. Right, so Nick was over there to meet Daisy and Tom and there's also this rather hot girl there named Jordan Baker. They just have a horrible dinner – Daisy is aggressively vapid, midway through dinner Tom goes on this horrible racist rant. He says, “The idea is that we're Nordics and we've produced all the things that make a civilization.” Meanwhile they haven't produced anything! They're at a dinner where they didn't make the food they're eating! They don't even light their own freaking candles! That, Alanis Morissette, more than rain on your wedding day or ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife, is irony. But then, everything changes when the phone rings. Daisy and Tom leave, Jordan Baker explains to Nick that Tom has some woman in New York, and then you start to realize that maybe these people who have it all, don't. A little bit later in a conversation with Nick, Daisy says one of the most interesting things in the book. Daisy wakes up after giving birth and Tom has left and looks at her daughter and says, “I hope she'll be a fool – that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” She's trying to be a beautiful little fool because the only way she can see to get through life. One of the most interesting things about this chapter is that we are on fashionable east egg, in the center of the world, with the richest people on earth and their polo ponies and no one is having any fun. Nick leaves the awful dinner and he goes home and at the end of chapter one we catch our first glimpse of the Great Gatsby. He's standing outside his house, arms stretched in the night, looking in the distance, and Nick follows his gaze and sees out over the bay a single green light. That green light has become one of the most important metaphors in American literature, so watch out for it as you keep reading. One other thing, about midway through the chapter Daisy tells the story about how her butler used to work as a silver polisher for a big family in New York, and he would polish silver morning, noon, and night and eventually he had to quit because the stinky carcinogens ruined his nose. If the whole first chapter is about how wealth consumes the rich that little anecdote is a reminder that wealth consumes the poor as well. So here's your first non-rhetorical question, do you think the way The Great Gatsby portrays luxury and wealth and the American dream accurately reflects the truth about those things, I mean, both in the jazz age, when the book is set, and today? You'll find a link in the dooblydoo to a thread in YourPants to continue the conversation. Hank, I'll see you on Wednesday.