Chapter 3

In the early morning the sun threw my shadow westward as I hurried down the white chasms of lower New York to the Probity Trust. I knew the other clerks and young bond-salesmen by their first names, and lunched with them in dark, crowded restaurants on little pig sausages and mashed potatoes and coffee.

In this passage, Nick uses figurative language to characterize New York City as a place teeming with contradictions. The brightness of the early morning sun only serves to cast his shadow westward as he hurries to work. The city’s tall, white buildings form a deep chasm through which he must pass. He claims to be on a first-name basis with his co-workers, yet they remain anonymous to the reader. They blend in with the crowd in restaurants that are dark even at lunchtime. 

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove.

Here Nick characterizes New York City as an exciting, stimulating place where secret, scandalous relationships can get lost in the noise of the city. To Nick, the anonymous people on the city’s bustling streets are part of a “constant flicker” that notably also includes machines. He imagines that he could engage with these people at any time, perhaps even striking up an affair with a random woman. Apparently he never acts on such temptations.

At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life. 
Again at eight o’clock, when the dark lanes of the Forties were five deep with throbbing taxicabs, bound for the theatre district, I felt a sinking in my heart. Forms leaned together in the taxis as they waited, and voices sang, and there was laughter from unheard jokes, and lighted cigarettes outlined unintelligible gestures inside. Imagining that I, too, was hurrying toward gayety and sharing in their intimate excitement, I wished them well.

In this passage, Nick contrasts the bustling nightlife of New York with the loneliness he feels when he is in the city. He compares his own loneliness to that of other young clerks who, like himself, work in the city but lead a solitary life, unable to establish intimacy with others. He longs to be like the people inside the taxis who, he imagines, are sharing happy, intimate moments. Notably, Nick can barely make out the shadowy “forms” in the taxis. He cannot understand what they are saying or why they might be laughing or singing. 

Chapter 4

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.

Here Nick offers a romanticized, optimistic view of New York City from afar as he and Gatsby drive toward the city over the Queensboro Bridge. Bright, white imagery dominates the scene, emphasizing the city’s promise, mystery, and beauty. Sunlight shining through the bridge girders (beams) generates a “constant flicker” on their surfaces, recalling Nick’s earlier characterization of New York as a “constant flicker of men, women, and machines.” City buildings rise up like white heaps of sugar. Yet the final line of this quote hints at the naivete of such optimism, as if Nick is choosing to relive his first impressions of the city and ignore what he has learned about its dark secrets.