The narrator, Nick Carraway, begins the novel by commenting on himself: he says that he is very tolerant, and has a tendency to reserve judgment. Carraway comes from a prominent Midwestern family and graduated from Yale; therefore, he fears to be misunderstood by those who have not enjoyed the same advantages. He attempts to understand people on their own terms, rather than holding them up to his own personal standards.
Nick fought in World War I; after the war, he went through a period of restlessness. He eventually decided to go east, to New York City, in order to learn the bond business. At the novel's outset, in the summer of 1922, Carraway has just arrived in New York and is living in a part of Long Island known as West Egg. West Egg is home to the nouveau riche (those who have recently made money and lack an established social position), while neighboring East Egg is home to the insular, narrow-minded denizens of the old aristocracy. Nick's house is next door to Gatsby's enormous, vulgar Gothic mansion.
One night, he attends a dinner party in East Egg; the party is given by Tom Buchanan and his wife, Daisy. Daisy is Nick's cousin, while Tom was Nick's classmate at Yale. Tom comes from a wealthy, established family, and was a much-feared football player while at Yale. A friend of Daisy's is also in attendance. This woman, whose name is Jordan Baker, makes her living as a professional golfer. She has a frigid, boyish beauty and affects an air of extreme boredom.
Tom dominates the conversation at dinner; he wishes to propound ideas he has found in a book entitled "The Rise of the Colored Empires." This book espouses racist and white supremacist ideas, to which Tom wholeheartedly subscribes. When Tom abruptly leaves to take a phone call, Daisy declares that she has become terribly cynical and sophisticated since she and Nick last met. Her claims ring false, however particularly when contrasted with the genuine cynicism of Jordan Baker, who languidly informs Nick that Tom's phone call is from his lover in New York. After his awkward visit with the Buchanans, Carraway goes home to West Egg. There, he sees a handsome young man, Jay Gatsby, standing on his wide lawn, with his arms stretched out to the sea. He appears to be reaching for a faraway green light, which may mark the end of a dock.
Fitzgerald establishes Nick Carraway as an impartial narrator; he is not, however, a passive one. Although he is inclined to reserve judgment, he is not entirely forgiving. From the novel's opening paragraph onward, this will continue create tension in Nick's narrative. Despite the fact that Gatsby represents all that Nick holds in contempt, Nick cannot help but admire him. The first paragraphs of the book foreshadow the novel's main themes: the reader realizes that Gatsby presented, and still presents, a challenge to the way in which Nick is accustomed to thinking about the world. It is clear from the story's opening moments that Gatsby will not be what he initially appears: despite the vulgarity of his mansion, Nick describes Gatsby's personality as "gorgeous."
The novel's characters are obsessed by class and privilege. Though Nick, like the Buchanans, comes from an elite background, the couple's relationship to their social position is entirely distinct to the narrator's. Tom Buchanan vulgarly exploits his status: he is grotesque, completely lacking redeeming features. His wife describes him as a "big, hulking physical specimen," and he seems to use his size only to dominate others. He has a trace of "paternal contempt" that instantly inspires hatred.
Daisy Buchanan stands in stark contrast to her husband. She is frail and diminutive, and actually labors at being shallow. she laughs at every opportunity. Daisy is utterly transparent, feebly affecting an air of worldliness and cynicism. Though she breezily remarks that everything is in decline, she does so only in order to seem to agree with her husband. She and Jordan are dressed in white when Nick arrives, and she mentions that they spent a "white girl-hood" together; the ostensible purity of Daisy and Jordan stands in ironic contrast to their actual decadence and corruption.
The first appearance of Gatsby has a religious solemnity, and Gatsby himself seems almost godlike: Nick speculates that Gatsby has "come out to determine what share of our local heavens [was his]." He is utterly alone, a solitary figure in a posture of mysterious worship. When the reader first sees Gatsby, he is reaching toward the green light something that, by definition, he cannot grasp. In this scene, Fitzgerald wholly sacrifices realism in favor of drama and symbol: the green light stands for the as-yet-nameless object for which Gatsby is hopelessly striving.