In pursuing relationships, we come to know people only step by step. Unfortunately, as our knowledge of others’ deepens, we often move from enchantment to disenchantment. Initially, we overlook flaws or wish them away; only later do we realize the peril of this course.
In the novel “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the journey from delight to disappointment may be seen in the narrator, Nick Carraway. Moving from initial interest to romantic allure to moral repugnance, Nick’s relationship with Jordan Baker traces a painfully familiar, all-too-human arc.
Nick’s initial interest in Jordan is mainly for her looks and charm. Upon first sight of her at Buchanan’s mansion, he is at once drawn to her appearance. He Notes her body “extended full length” on the divan, her fluttering lips, and she quaintly tipped chin. He observes the lamplight that “glinted along with the paper as she turned a page with a flutter of slender muscles in her arms.”
He is willing to overlook her gossipy chatter about Tom’s extra-marital affair, and is instead beguiled by her dry witticisms and her apparent simple sunniness: “Time for this good girl to go to bed,” she says. When Daisy begins her matchmaking of Nick and Jordan, we sense that she is only leading where Nick’s interest is already taking him.
It is Jordan, then, who makes Nick feel comfortable at Gatsby’s party, as we sense what Nick senses: they’re becoming a romantic couple. As they drive home a summer house-party, Nick notes her dishonesty but forgives it, attributing it to her understandable need to get by in a man’s world. She praises his lack of carelessness, tells him directly “I like you”–and he is smitten, After Jordan tells him the tale of Gatsby and Daisy’s past, Nick feels a “heady excitement” because she has taken him into her confidence. Attracted by her “universal skepticism” and under the influence of his own loneliness, Nick– overlooking this time her “wan, scornful mouth”–seals their romance by planting a kiss on Jordan’s lips.
But the attraction can’t last and is, by summer’s end, replaced by repugnance. The smallest of details, at first, heralds this falling-apart: “Jordan’s fingers, powdered with white over their tan, rested for a moment in mine.” Here Fitzgerald has dropped a subtle hint that their liaison is to be the matter of only a moment and that Jordan’s “integrity” may be a matter of mere cosmetics.
But it is Jordan’s failure to feel the gravity of the real falling-apart–among Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby–that most rankles Nick, and he reacts with disgust when she invites him in for a nightcap amid all the emotional wreckage, then complains the next day of his refusal. But Jordan’s worst action, in Nick’s eyes, is her failure to stay on at Daisy and Tom’s when Daisy needs her. The betrayal is far worse than moving a golf ball because it is deeply personal.
In the end, with a rueful acceptance of what seemed “meant to be” but was not, Nick sees that, while Jordan may excite his interest and passion, the excitement pales in the light of her lack of “the fundamental decencies.” Though it has been Nick’s first impulse to reserve judgments about her, in the end, he cannot: the limit of his tolerance defines him. In letting go of Jordan because of her lack of integrity, Nick has held fast to his.