“When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart”

Does "at a sort of moral attention" mean the same moral level or something else? What's the meaning of "riotous excursions"? I cannot find this phrase in a dictionary.

  • You will not find such phrases in a dictionary, they are made by the author. Aug 5, 2012 at 12:44
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    Thanks for your comment.Then,what does it imply,could you give me an explaintion? Aug 5, 2012 at 12:48

5 Answers 5


“At a moral attention” is a military allusion, along with “in uniform”. To be “at attention” means to be in a formal military position. Its opposite is “at ease”. So, to be “at a moral attention” means to display a heightened moral behaviour or alertness, I would say.

“Riotous excursions” does not play on any idioms, by contrast. “Excursions”, here, are forays, or adventures, and “riotous” means wild and uncontrolled.

I’m not a great Gatsby fan, but you’ve selected a very elegant sentence here: two well crafted military allusions before the semicolon; and after it, the three adjective-noun pairs, “riotous excursions”, “privileged glimpses”, “human heart”, that come in an almost iambic rhythm.

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    You're not a great Gatsby fan, or you're not a Great Gatsby fan? :) Aug 5, 2012 at 12:51
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    I’m going to have to let you stew in that ambiguity I’m afraid ;-) Aug 5, 2012 at 13:12

"Moral attention" refers to a group of soldiers who are standing at attention in full uniform, and who are looking their military best. They do not move but look straight ahead until told to move. They are restrained by their orders. Moral attention would imply an attitude of serious, self- discipline where men and women simply do not to stray across well known moral boundaries. To do so would be "against orders" which is simply not an option. Nick feels that the sloppy and immoral behavior of the financial elites was the result of an abandonment of the morals that a society needs to bind itself together. Without such binding, society becomes unwoven, chaos ensues and it produces the self-indulgent, reckless, harmful and dangerous behavior that he saw. These were the "riotous excursions" that he witnessed - without restraint, without regard, just a flamboyant celebration of self and money that makes them unworthy of the American Dream which is built upon contrary values of work and thrift among others.


When Gatsby came back from the war, his whole perception changed. His military training dominated his lifestyle and behavior because with it he felt at peace and was comforted by a familiar site. The reason he doesn't want to see "glimpses of the human heart" is because in the military they train you to kill your senses of morality or to simply become heartless and not experience emotion because in the battlefield there is no room for it.

Also because we associate the heart mostly with pain and love, the fact that when he comes back from the war and finds his only lover with another man causes him to feel pain and intense love (meaning he still loved her no matter what). He also means "riotous" in the sense that the situation is not under control or at least he doesn't have the mental aspect of his surroundings in check, because with military training comes order and balance.

This quote is set on experiencing the twin emotions of love and pain. A key phrase would be "enough is enough, I wish to have no more to do with this" because it is beyond his control. This is how I interpreted my all-time favorite Gatsby quote (of course not in complete full detail).

  • I haven't read much of this novel,but here this quote should be a description about Nick,who is the first person in the novel.If there is anything wrong with my opinion,feel free to point it out. Aug 6, 2012 at 9:54
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    I can see you have put some thought into this answer, but the question specifically asked about "moral attention" and "riotous excursions" which you haven't really addressed here.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Aug 6, 2012 at 12:51

To appear to be a moral person whilst doing what one feels to be the wrong thing.

This is specific to the novel.

  • perhaps to be "celebrated" for being righteous while acting in a manner you yourself feel despicable better describes the usage
    – chris
    May 15, 2016 at 1:43

A "Riotous Excursion" is pretty much an antonym here; the other extremity being "Moral Attention".

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