This chapter records the development of Amory Blaine, the protagonist of the novel, up to his arrival at Princeton. It begins with a brief description of his mother, Beatrice, who was a wealthy and pretty girl from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, educated with all the advantages of her family's wealth, including stints in Europe. She is a refined and charming woman who married the unimportant Stephen Blaine out of weariness.
Beatrice loves her only son deeply, both as a friend and a mother. She, along with home tutors, passes on to him much of the elegance of her education as they travel through the country together, enjoying high society. We learn that she has a true love of the clergy, which includes a man named Monsignor Darcy (an aborted love affair with Beatrice impelled him to become a priest). After Beatrice suffers a nervous breakdown, Amory spends two years with an aunt and uncle in Minneapolis.
Amory's sophisticated education sets him apart from his peers: he has too good a French accent and behaves like a grown man already. At thirteen, he attends a party of a girl in his class, Myra St. Claire, and arrives fashionably late, somewhat spoiling the party. The two ride out together to the stately Minnehaha Club, where Amory plays up his romantic charms and inspires Myra to kiss him--an act that repulses the young boy.
Further sketches of the young Amory follow, showing him falling in love often, reading voraciously, and both being changed by and hating organized schooling. But when he returns to his mother in Lake Geneva, he announces he has become "conventional" and wants to go to boarding school. They decide on St. Regis, and Amory leaves for New England to enroll and to meet Monsignor Darcy, with whom he forms an instant bond.
Amory struggles socially and academically at St. Regis; other boys think he is conceited, and his teachers consider him lacking in discipline, though quite bright. But he improves, applying himself to football and becoming a star of the team and somewhat of a hero on campus. Amory and a friend go to New York to see a show, where they fall in love with the leading actress.
Always concerned with social politics, Amory and a friend devise a method of distinguishing between "The Big Man" on campus and "The Slicker," a word coined by Amory. The former is a somewhat romantic portrait of a boy who cares little for his appearance or standing, participates in activities out of a sense of duty, and has a problematic time in college without his prep school friends. The latter, identified by his slicked back hair, is more socially conscious and succeeds at college "in a worldly way." Amory places himself among the Big Men.
Amory decides to attend Princeton, despite his classmates' decisions to go to Yale and Harvard. There, we are told, his system of "slicker" categorization breaks down in his junior year.
The names that Fitzgerald chooses for the chief character and his mother are important: both evoke romantic love in the European tradition. The unusual name Amory brings strongly to mind the word for love in all romance languages ("amor" in Spanish, "amour" in French", etc.), and Beatrice is the divine ideal of Dante throughout the Divine Comedy. The choice of names places the work firmly in the European tradition of love narrative, suggests the perfection that Fitzgerald accords to the mother figure in the novel, and perhaps hints at the importance of Amory's love affairs in his own spiritual growth.
The opening sketches of the mother and son, as much as their names indicate, shows that they live an unconventional life, separate from most people. They are wealthy, but unique and quite distinct from the other wealthy people around them. While the narrator points out that Beatrice's education could not be reproduced given the changing times, it is equally clear that Amory's could not either. Amory is shaped by his unique mother from a very early age to such a degree that he is different from those around him. One of the main themes of the novel will be Amory's relationship with convention. At the beginning, he is operating quite outside of it.
The scene with Myra St. Claire, very much a typical American child, manifests clearly Amory's difference, which both infuriates and attracts the young girl. We witness in this first romantic encounter the wealth of charms that Amory possesses for women, and also the disastrous impact they can result in for the young man. He wants a perfectly romantic moment, but once he achieves it, he ruins it. His utter disregard for the feelings of Myra after their kiss offers the first sight into Amory's egotism and his corresponding inability to find fulfillment in romance: two important themes of the novel.
Amory suffers from his individuality at school, where he is not well liked by the other boys. In the face of this, we witness his first attempts to conventionalize himself, and his ability to size up and adapt to social hierarchies. Amory recognizes the importance of athletics for being well liked and so throws himself headlong into football, striving for popularity. He opts to be conventional and in order to achieve that end, must distance himself from the distracting influence of his mother.
At boarding school, Amory makes a significant distinction between the truly conventional person, the "slicker," and the "big man," who achieves success yet still disregards convention. His mother's influence still on him, he reaches for the latter, and seems to achieve it. Amory's obsession with these classifications, and where he fits into them, reveal how, from early on, he observes social boundaries and tries to fit himself somewhere into them. He intends from early youth to know himself and to know where he fits.
Stylistically, the story is told by a knowledgeable third person narrator who follows, and yet adds to, Amory's point of view, often telling his own thoughts as well. The intention of the narration, which often jumps from places and times, is less to follow the thread of a story than to make a sketch of Amory Blaine. The novel is essentially a character study of Amory, focusing only on important moments that will help the reader to understand Amory's quest to understand his place in the world. In this way, the book is less like a traditional story and more like a portrait, the snapshots serving beautifully to reinforce this intention. The portraits of the other characters are provided merely as background to our protagonist.