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The year is 1913, and Anthony Patch is twenty-five years old. He sees himself as sophisticated and attractive. He expects that someday he will accomplish something of note. But until then he is secure in his own superiority.
Anthony is the grandson of Adam J. Patch. His grandfather, “Cross Patch,” is famous for having made $75 million on Wall Street and for his moral campaigns to reform the world. Adam J. Patch’s son, Adam Ulysses Patch, marries a socialite from Boston, and together they bring Anthony into the world. Anthony’s mother dies when he is five, and his father dies when he is eleven.
Anthony experiences a lonely childhood at his grandfather’s mansion in Tarrytown. He takes refuge in his stamp collection. Later, at Harvard, he lives alone in a high tower room, collects books, and dresses elegantly. After graduation, Anthony lives in Rome. In 1912, however, he returns home and settles in New York City.
In New York City, Anthony’s apartment has large rooms with high ceilings and is luxuriously furnished. Anthony spends a lot of time soaking in his huge tub in his exotic bathroom.
Anthony lives on the interest of money he inherited from his mother, and he spends his income to the limit. When Anthony’s grandfather demands that he accomplish something, Anthony declares that he’ll write a history of the Middle Ages. He only gets as far as a rough outline.
Anthony takes a long bath. After bathing, he looks out his bedroom window. On a roof nearby, he sees a girl in a red silk negligee. For a little while, he imagines she is beautiful.
Anthony has dinner with his Harvard friends Maury Noble and Richard Caramel. The young men tease each other. Maury tries to talk about morality but stops when the soup arrives.
After dinner, Anthony and Maury go see a new musical comedy. Anthony enjoys watching the well-dressed playgoers as well as the ordinary people he encounters on his walk home. Back in his apartment, Anthony stares out his bedroom window, listens to distant horns and bells, and feels safe.
Beauty sits in a windy outdoor waiting room. A voice informs her she is about to be born again. The voice informs Beauty that this time she will be a society girl and that she will be paid, as usual, in love.
Chapter 1 introduces the wasteful nature of wealth as a theme. Anthony Patch, the novel’s protagonist, is a New York aristocrat living the high life in 1913, and his social status and wealth lay the groundwork for the novel’s plot and its thematic thesis. Living lavishly on a waning inheritance, Anthony does absolutely nothing to earn any status for himself. Instead, dogged by fears of death and the outside world, he hides from reality in the comfort of his home. He believes that collecting his allowance from his broker counts as work, which further emphasizes the idleness and wastefulness of wealth. Anthony’s unearned wealth allows him to live in a tower high above the city’s working class, and this brings him nothing but delusional pride. He lives an extreme life stretched to its financial limits all in the pursuit of comfort and debauchery.
Adam Patch, Anthony’s grandfather, serves as Anthony’s foil from the very start of the novel. The old man mirrors Anthony in almost every way. While Anthony is young, Adam is seemingly ancient. While Anthony lives decadently and lazily, Adam stoutly supports temperance and action. Perhaps most importantly, Adam has earned his wealth while Anthony lives off allowances and inheritances. When Anthony phones Adam before a visit in Chapter 1, the narration notes that Anthony is somewhat disappointed to learn that Adam is still alive. This disappointment stems from an expectation that Anthony will one day inherit everything Adam Patch has built and live out the rest of his days in leisure. Adam and Anthony’s divergent philosophies and lifestyles will lead to an explosive climax in later chapters as Anthony pursues an irreverent life of leisure that flies in the face of Adam’s worldview.
Fitzgerald plays with the novel’s structure in Chapter 1 to critically examine the role of beauty in American society. Toward the end of the chapter, Fitzgerald abruptly shifts out of prose and into a dramatic structure. It is written as if it is a play meant to be acted out on stage. This dramatic segment includes a narrator and two characters by the name of Beauty and the Voice. The scene foreshadows Gloria’s introduction in the next chapter, and it is as if the as-yet-unseen character plays the role of Beauty. When Beauty asks what she will be, the Voice reveals that she will spend the next fifteen years as a bogus aristocrat. This interaction alongside the narration implies that a society girl, and thus the looming Gloria, lives a meaningless life defined by luxury and laziness. Fitzgerald’s diversion into drama is jarring and therefore attention-grabbing as he prepares to introduce his secondary protagonist. Just as Anthony doesn’t work for his comfort and wealth, Gloria’s beauty alone will allow her unearned access to power.