I am reading The Great Gatsby, and encountered these sentences:

There was so much to read, for one thing, and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giving air. I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew. And I had the high intention of reading many other books besides. I was rather literary in college—one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News—and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the "well-rounded man." This isn't just an epigram—life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.

The narrator Nick moved into West Egg, and determined to read many books on banking and securities, as well as literary works, in order to become the "well-rounded man."

In this part, I could not understand especially what "limited" means. Does it indicate that the well-rounded men have limited knowledge compared to other specialists? Or does it indicate that the well-rounded men are so rare compared to other specialists?

And I also could not grasp how the concept that the well-rounded man was limited leads to the epigram that life is more successfully viewed from a single window. I think the well-rounded man has many windows, for he knows about everything albeit shallowly, so I couldn't see the connection here. Or, is the author being ironic here, saying that the well-rounded man is a failure because he has so many windows from which he looks out at life?

In short, I would like to know how the well-rounded men are "limited" and how the concept of being a well-rounded man is connected to looking at life from a single window.

I would very much appreciate your help.

2 Answers 2


The phrase "that most limited of all specialists" refers to "the well-rounded man" in this sentence. When we refer to a "well-rounded" person, we refer to someone who generally knows a little about a lot of things, and is able to appreciate a lot of things.

They're the sort of person that knows who painted the Mona Lisa and perhaps The Ambassadors (if you're wondering on the latter, it's Hans Holbein the Younger), has read Romeo and Juliet and perhaps The Catcher in the Rye, knows what particles make up an atom, and so forth. In other words, they can catch basic allusions and references made by others. (This is a bit of an exaggeration to make a point, but ah, well.)

They specialize in knowing a little bit about everything. On the other hand, another specialist (think a savant, here) might make a point to know everything there is to know about Beowulf but have no clue that Julius Caesar is really more about Brutus, and yet another might be a stellar particle physicist but not know a femur from a tibula.

So why is the first type of specialist, the well-rounded one, more useless? A savant-type specialist knows everything (or darned well near it) there is to know about a particular topic. When a problem comes up, they are almost assuredly able to solve it, or at least get the ball rolling. But the well-rounded specialist? They have no idea how to do anything of any depth in any field, because they've only skimmed the surface in a lot of fields, instead of going very in depth in one.

It's a bit of a rephrasing of the expression, "Jack of all trades, useful at none" (or something like that, anyway). As for the second part of your question, the author is, I believe, referring to the fact that it's easier to be able to see only one perspective on an issue as opposed to being able to see multiple views on an issue.

  • Thank you so much for the detailed explanation, heather! So I gather that "limited" implies that the well-rounded man has less knowledge than other specialists, rather than he is a more precious being. But regarding the second question, I thought that the epigram was what follows after the emdash (life is much more successfully viewed from a single window), but reading you explanation, I came to think that this wasn't the case. Then, does the "epigram" indicate what was stated in the previous sentence (the well-rounded man is the most limited specialist), not what follows after the emdash? Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 6:15
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    I disagree with the author/narrator's implication that broad rather than deep knowledge is useless, but you can have an upvote for a good explanation of his meaning.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 19:53
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    @PastaAddict, the author is saying that "jack of all trades, useful at none" (or their phrasing of it) is not in fact an epigram, for the reason that "life is much more successfully looked at from a single window", which I interpret as "referring to the fact that it's easier to be able to see only one perspective on an issue as opposed to being able to see multiple views on an issue." So if I understand your comment right, the epigram indicates what was stated in the previous sentence, not what follows the emdash.
    – auden
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 22:06
  • I think there's also irony here: a well-rounded generalist is normally considered the exact opposite of a specialist. Fitzgerald, though, flips this around and categorizes the generalist as a type of specialist, and the most limited type at that. Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 21:06

Limited in this case connotes rare or unusual but Fitzgerald's choice of this word may have another layer of meaning in that his character imagines that by possessing a few books, he can become well-rounded. In other words Fitzgerald may be criticizing his character's intellectual aspirations as being, in reality, quite limited since he equates his ambitions with purchase...a consumer's view of intellect.

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