The novel opens with the narrator’s description of Anthony Patch in 1913, at age 25. Anthony is of the mind that irony, “the final polish of the shoe, the ultimate dab of the clothes-brush, a kind of intellectual ‘There!’” is the new Holy Ghost. He alternates between thinking of himself as an oil slick on the water of the world and an exceptional member of society.
For Anthony, irony takes the place of the Holy Ghost, meaning that it is all-encompassing and embedded in the very fabric of the universe. He is aware that he exists in a world that, through fashion and beauty, pretends to be something that it is not—but he participates in this project of performativity. His attempts to be a member of this ironic society make him feel as though, like oil in water, he cannot mix with it. Sometimes this inability to mix makes him feel as though he is a man of superior substance.
At moments when he feels exceptional, Anthony acts agreeable and finds himself the center of attention. He imagines as a matter of course that he will achieve something distinguished and immortalizing without trying, because although he thinks of honor and courage as illusions, he nevertheless believes that he embodies these qualities effortlessly.
Anthony excels the most socially when he thinks of himself as not one of his peers but rather as a superior. His self-image is not based on actual accomplishments but rather on the feeling that he will inevitably achieve great things in the future. He thinks he is wiser than people who value courageous and honorable deeds, though he performs courage and honor only in order to be respected.
The narrator reflects that Anthony enjoys an elevated social status not because he is descended from nobility but because his paternal grandfather, Adam J. Patch, made a fortune on Wall Street after returning home from the Civil War. For many years, Adam Patch spent his energy trying to rid society of alcohol, art, and other seemingly hedonistic preoccupations.
Anthony’s position in society is foundational to his character and to the themes Fitzgerald explores throughout the novel. His family is not aristocratic, but they have recently come into enormous amounts of money. With that money comes a ticket into high society and into the inner circle of social influence. Adam Patch has used his influence to try to impose a moral code on the booming post-war economy. Along with his money, Anthony inherits a legacy of social activism.
At the time the story starts, Adam Patch spends less time on social projects and more time dwelling on his dead wife and son and, to an even greater extent, Anthony. Adam’s son (Anthony’s father) was a successful writer who became depressive following the death of his wife (Anthony’s mother). At eleven, Anthony watched his father die in a hotel room in Italy. Anthony’s care was thereafter left to his grandfather.
Anthony’s grandfather, near the end of his life, is paying attention to Anthony’s actions and thinking about how Anthony will carry forward his legacy. The pressure on Anthony is heightened not only by his status as his grandfather’s sole heir but also by the fact that his parents died young and disgraceful deaths. Anthony comes from privilege, but he also comes from tragedy.
Anthony grew up terrified of death because of his parents’ and grandmother’s early demises. He habitually used books and his stamp collection as means of escape from his anxiety. Anthony’s anxiety led to isolation from his peers. His private tutor convinced him that attending Harvard would help him make valuable connections, but he spent his time there drinking and collecting expensive dandy’s clothing that he would wear at home while looking out his window at the passing world. Anthony found that his isolation made him an attractively mysterious figure to his classmates, who placed him on a pedestal.
Losing his parents young, and especially witnessing his father’s death, left lasting impressions on Anthony’s ability to socialize. He is most comfortable when he is alone with his imagination and with money to spend. The success he has attained in school has come about at the urging of mentors rather than of his own volition. Even his social success at Harvard is due to others’ attraction to the solitary, wealthy image he projects rather than to any bonds he forms with his peers.
Anthony graduated in 1909 at age twenty, and spent the following three years dallying around Rome with Harvard acquaintances, including Maury Noble, enjoying art, music, poetry, and sexual exploits. In 1912, Anthony moved home because his grandfather fell ill. He decided to rent an apartment and put off moving permanently abroad until after Adam Patch’s death.
Anthony’s privileged upbringing and talents set him up to graduate two years younger than most, but he wastes that time and more indulging in exactly the kinds of hedonistic activities against which his grandfather used to campaign. When called home, he thinks of his return to responsibility as a temporary roadblock to a lifelong vacation.
Anthony now lives in the most desirable apartment in his building. He thinks of his home as a rung on a giant ladder running from Washington Square to Central Park. The “heart and core of the apartment” are Anthony’s bedroom and bathroom. Anthony especially loves his bathtub, complete with a bookholder, and thinks of his bathroom as his “pride.” His bathroom rug “seemed almost to massage the wet foot emerging from the tub.” A servant named Bounds works somewhat begrudgingly for Anthony and two of his neighbors, releasing Anthony from most of his domestic chores.
Although Anthony is still living on an allowance and has done very little to earn his high social status, he is proud that he has rented an apartment that gives him a physically elevated position on the ladder of society. His favorite things about the apartment are the most solitary rooms, reflecting his desire to be revered rather than socially connected. His bathroom especially is a sanctuary where he is waited upon and doesn’t even have to walk on the cold hard ground.
Anthony visits his broker at least one morning a week. Doing so makes him feel financially responsible and on the brink of millions, even though he habitually spends almost all of his income, which consists entirely of interest on his mother’s inheritance and the occasional Christmas check from his grandfather.
Knowing that he is doing nothing to earn the money his broker is doling out to him, Anthony convinces himself that simply visiting the broker is the work required for financial success. It is precisely his allowance and the checks from his grandfather that allow him to sustain a childish fantasy of adult financial independence.
The narrator reflects that a year ago, immediately after moving into his apartment, Anthony called his grandfather and was disappointed to discover that he was still alive. He went to visit him and met Edward Shuttleworth, the reformed drinker and gambler who now works as Adam Patch’s secretary. Shuttleworth refused to leave the room as Adam Patch confronted his grandson about “doing something” with his life. Anthony interpreted this to mean that he needed to think about the legacy he would leave upon his own death. Despite the old man’s physical deterioration, his and Shuttleworth’s combined presence cowed Anthony into agreeing to write a history of the Middle Ages before taking his leave. Now, in October 1913, Anthony has lists of chapter titles and sources, but he has written nothing.
Anthony’s quiet wish for his grandfather’s death reflects Anthony’s deep-seated self-interest and sense of isolation. He himself is terrified of death and has seen three parental figures die. And yet, rather than fear for the loss of his grandfather, his closest remaining relative, it only occurs to Anthony to think of the money he stands to inherit from this man. He counts on Adam Patch’s imminent death and lacks motivation to make a career for himself because he sees his grandfather as a source of endless money that is essentially already his. In fact, having been morally reformed by Adam Patch, Shuttleworth arguably has a closer personal relationship with the man than Anthony does.
The narrator sets the scene: It is a fall afternoon, and Anthony is reading Erewhon by his apartment window. He sets the book aside to take a bath before meeting his friends Maury Noble and Dick Caramel for dinner at the Ritz. He admires his body in the mirror. Relaxing in the tub, Anthony reflects that while he and Maury go to the theater after dinner, Dick will probably go home to work on his book. Anthony is glad that he has no plans to work on his own book.
The book Anthony is reading is Samuel Butler’s 1872 satire of Victorian society. It is ironic that Anthony would be reading a book that is critical of a societal order when he himself is a character in a book that is critical of society. Whereas criticism of the society in which one exists requires a certain objective distance, Fitzgerald reminds readers of Anthony’s shortsighted self-absorption by describing his narcissistic gaze in the mirror and his misguided contempt for Dick’s work ethic.
While dressing meticulously after his bath, Anthony notices a woman through the window across the alley. He is totally captivated by her because, he realizes, she is far away. The illusion shatters when she stands and he sees that she is “fat, full thirty-five, utterly undistinguished.”
Anthony is obsessed with appearance. Although his own body currently lives up to his beauty expectations, his disgust when the woman across the alley comes into focus suggests that Anthony is destined to be disappointed by the reality of things he wants to be beautiful.
Once Anthony makes his way to the Ritz, he finds only Maury. Maury, the narrator notes, was considered by classmates at Harvard as even more unique and brilliant than Anthony. Anthony considers Maury his best friend and is unusually at ease around him.
Anthony, who thinks of himself as exceptional, surrounds himself with other exceptional people. The narrator has framed his bond with Maury as less one of affection and more one of respect. The fact that this man is his “best” friend suggests that in selecting his friends, Anthony values mutual respect or admiration over the affectionate bonds that usually form the basis of lasting relationships.
In a passage that Fitzgerald formats like a scene in a play, Anthony and Maury discuss Dick’s absence and his devotion to the novel he is writing, The Demon Lover. They exchange resentful comments about his talent. When Anthony speculates that eventually Dick will burn out and fail as a writer, Maury tries to redirect conversation. Anthony only stops his bitter comments when Dick finally shows up.
Although both men resent Dick’s progress on his novel, Anthony is more invested than Maury in denigrating his work ethic. Underlying the resentful comments, there seems to be a self-conscious anxiety, especially for Anthony, over his own inability to write consistently. By using the dramatic scene format, Fitzgerald foregrounds the dialogue and demands that the reader parse it for subtext.
Dick has a bulging paunch and a bulging forehead. He is beginning to go bald. Dick shakes hands with Maury and Anthony and makes light fun of them for drinking and womanizing while he is hard at work. Anthony and Maury meanwhile tease him for overinflating the importance of his work. Art is only meaningful, Maury states, in that it tries to make life less meaningless. The philosophical conversation is cut short by the arrival of the soup, which ends the dramatic scene.
Maury’s attempt to philosophize about art is suspect when he himself has managed to produce so little of it. However, his comment that the act of producing art is pointless unless it helps life become less pointless lets him and Anthony off the hook for their difficulties with motivation—the writing they haven’t produced hasn’t made their lives more meaningful and so is itself meaningless. The interruption of the conversation with soup in turn challenges the meaning even of the preceding philosophical conversation.
After dinner, Maury and Anthony go to a play. Anthony notices above all the varied clothing ensembles of the audience members and the “artificial lake of laughter” in the theatre. Maury goes dancing after the play, leaving Anthony to walk home alone. On the way, his senses are overloaded by the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. His mood fluctuates rapidly in response to his surroundings. Back in his apartment, he smokes a cigarette and reflects that in New York, he is never alone but always lonely. He enjoys living in his apartment, which keeps him safe from the threat of life outside.
Rather than focus on the artificiality of the performance onstage, Anthony notices how artificial the audience members’ reactions to the play are. Anthony feels separate from the crowd not only in the theatre but also in the city more generally. However, he also feels the presence of the rest of the city, as though it were a performance meant to trick him. His financial situation allows him to maintain an apartment that he feels insulates him from taking part in the drama of society.
In another passage formatted as a dramatic scene, Fitzgerald describes Beauty as a character who is reborn every century. She sits in an outdoor waiting room to receive her next assignment, and “the beauty of her body was the beauty of her soul.” She personifies the unified image of beauty for which philosophers have long been searching.
Philosophers such as Plato, Plotinus, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine all tried to define beauty and its relationship to the divine. Beauty always poses a problem because it is ephemeral, whereas the divine forces that these philosophers suggest it signals are eternal. This image of Beauty solves all these philosophers’ problems. The dramatic scene format seems to place Beauty directly before the eyes of the reader, rather than filtering her through a third person narrator.
The narrator, “I,” professes to recount a fragment of conversation between Beauty and a disembodied voice on the wind. The voice tells Beauty that for the next fifteen years, she is to go to a new land where the wisest leaders believe in Santa Claus and even ugly women control men who are supposed to be strong and wealthy.
An unnamed “I” intrudes as a narrator in the stage directions, which is unusual and immediately undermines the impression that the dramatic format is being used to eliminate layers of narration. It signals to the reader to begin thinking critically about the reliability of information being presented. This scene appears to be presented from a perspective that looks derisively upon American society’s relationship to beauty in the early twentieth century.
Beauty is shocked and disturbed. How will she fare in a world that gives power to unattractive women? The voice tells her that it will be more difficult for her than usual, but that as always, her visit on earth will be “the interval between two significant glances in a mundane mirror.”
Although Beauty has been presented in her perfect form at the beginning of the section, it seems that in practice in society, her power and meaning depend entirely on society’s self-reflexive view at any given moment.
The voice says that while Beauty was initially to be incarnated as a movie star, that decision has been revised so that she will be a society girl, which is a sort of “bogus aristocrat.” She will be paid, as usual, in love, and she in turn will love being called a jazz-baby. The narrator ends the scene by stating that it has all taken place seven years before Anthony’s cigarette alone in his apartment.
In the society of Fitzgerald’s novel, society girls are the incarnation of this essentially meaningless Beauty. Society girls make it into the highest ranks of society on the merit of their beauty alone. Everyone will love Beauty, and she will enjoy her role. The timeline of the scene places Beauty about halfway through her stay in the Jazz Age. She has eight years left to go.