First Line of Great Gatsby Explained in Simple Terms

Last Updated: October 24th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

First Line of Gatsby

The first lines in the Great Gatsby seem innocent enough when you first read them. The narrator, Nick Carraway, repeats something his father said to him that he never forgot.

Why would F. Scott Fitzgerald start off his novel with these lines? Do they have a deeper meaning? Did he want the reader to also remember these words for later?

Fitzgerald could have started his novel off in any number of ways, but he chose this line above all others.

One thing is certain when it comes to The Great Gatsby, it’s not so much the story itself that is special, but the way the story is told.  (You can also read all the important Gatsby quotes here)

After all, the introduction to a novel that has sold more than 25 million copies (plus an untold number of used book sales that go unrecorded) and four full-length movies, must have a deeper meaning, right?

What Do the First Lines in the Great Gatsby Mean?

first line of great gatsby

The first-person narrator, Nick Carraway, tells the reader something that his father told him. The lines are:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. 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.”

In the very first sentence, the reader finds themselves captivated to learn what this person’s father had told them. Nick had yet to be introduced in the novel, so this is an unknown person speaking to us and sharing a private memory. Who wouldn’t want to know what his father had said to him??

As Nick tells us, this piece of advice his father told him was something he was “turning over in his mind.” When people say that, it means they are giving something great thought. Not just a second thought, but thinking about what it means and the implications of what it means.

Why wouldn’t Nick just accept what his father told him? This is what you will discover as the book continues.

Insights to the Advice that Nick’s Father Gave Him

There are many ways to understand Scott Fitzgerald’s prose in the opening lines and appreciate its meaning.

Here are some possible meanings to Nick’s thoughts in the introduction, which he later ties up near the end of the novel when he said “no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.”

1. Perhaps Nick has found that what his father told him was a golden piece of advice that was very true. After all, Gatsby didn’t have the advantages that Nick had.

2. Or it could be that Nick has come to believe that it didn’t matter what advantages a person had. Tom Buchanan was born into great wealth, but he wasn’t a very nice person despite that advantage.

3. It could also be that Nick was questioning what his father told him – should one avoid criticizing others if you were born into certain advantages?

4. Could it be that Nick’s father was simply bragging? If he believed that Nick was born into better circumstances than others, could it be that his father snobbishly suggested that HE was the one responsible for those better circumstances?

While Nick never tells us exactly why he was turning over his father’s advice on multiple occasions and what his final thoughts were, readers of The Great Gatsby will want to continue with the story and get their own insights on Scott Fitzgerald’s first line.

What Else Does The Great Gatsby Opening Line Tell Us?

While Nick talks about the advice his father gave, he leads us to believe that he is tolerant and non-judgmental about most people until he’s gathered enough facts to make a judgment.

This isn’t really true, however. Nick might not say what he is thinking, but he is only fooling himself by saying that he took his father’s advice and doesn’t judge.

Nick Carraway - tells the Great Gatsby first Line

While Nick calls himself “highly moral and highly tolerant”, he later says that Gatsby represents everything he scorns.

That is clearly a judgment.

However, Nick then excludes Gatsby himself from this judgment because of Gatsby’s love for Daisy Buchanan, Nick’s cousin.

Nick’s descriptions and attitudes toward the people in the story, in which he plays a part, is vital for understanding The Great Gatsby.

As the store continues, Nick will gain a healthy disgust for the ultra-rich and their lack of morals. Nick does appear to be more modest since he comes from old money, he could easily mix with the rich in West Egg but chooses deliberately to live with the new money of East Egg.

That being said, Nick quickly finds that his privileged glimpses into the intimate lives of well-to-do people in this world disgust him- with the exception of Gatsby.

Nick is confused by Gatsby, confused by the rumors he hears. Curiously, even after Nick discovers that most of the stories Gatsby told him were lies, he forgives him because he understands that Jay Gatsby did everything, the lies, all of his illegal dealings, even his lavish parties, for Daisy.

In Nick’s mind (and therefore, possibly in Fitzgerald’s mind), excesses, wrongdoings, infidelity, and lies are perfectly acceptable as long as it was done for love.

What Is the Most Important Quote in Chapter 1 of the Great Gatsby?

Daisy Buchanan Quote Great Gatsby Novel

It would be difficult to choose a single quote, but perhaps Daisy Buchanan’s line about her daughter spells out the sad truth:

“I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

How sad is this line? Daisy believes that as long as a woman is beautiful, she will be well cared for. In the same breath, Daisy hopes her daughter is ignorant, and that this ignorance will shield her from the harsh realities of life.

What type of harsh realities would a very, very wealthy girl like Daisy face?

It would appear that Daisy was well aware of her husband’s many affairs, and she felt powerless to change anything.

Social taboos, such as divorce, were the realities in the 1920s. All these could result in many hardships for Daisy, including the loss of custody of her daughter if Tom Buchanan discovered that Daisy was cheating on him.

Daisy most likely feels as though she is stuck in her circumstances and simply needs to live with her secret griefs. She wishes that she were ignorant of the ugly aspects of her husband’s life and wishes the same for her daughter.

For Daisy, it appears that ignorance is bliss, and all the money in the world cannot repair her broken heart and disappointment.

This theme of having money ( read more about what is the theme of The Great Gatsby Novel ) and still having serious problems is seen throughout the Great Gatsby, and Daisy’s quote makes this point quite clearly.

Final Thoughts

The first lines in the Great Gatsby are from the narrator (read more about who narrates The Great Gatsby ), Nick Carraway, who tells us what his father had told him as he tries to explain why he reserves his judgment, especially when speaking about Gatsby.

While this isn’t completely true, it’s what Nick believes, and it is his way of explaining why he mostly sat back and did nothing (and said nothing) when he noted the horrible lack of morals in the ultra-rich.

The author F. Scott Fitzgerald, was well known for his disdain of the rich, and he puts this on display in his novel The Great Gatsby.

First Line of Great Gatsby Explained in Simple Terms
First Line of Great Gatsby Explained in Simple Terms
The first lines in The Great Gatsby are innocent, but what did they actually mean? What was Fitzgerald referring to, and why would he start off with these words?
Gatsby Flapper Girl