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In The Great Gatsby, I read the following line:

From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine.

Is Chester Becker a man's first and last names? It comes with the definite article and the plural ending -s. What does that mean there?

I'd appreciate your help.

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TLDR: It could mean the family of "Chester Becker", but it is really a signifier of upper-class people.


This question needs two answers: when is a last name (surname) plural, and who is Chester Becker?

When is a surname plural?

When referring to an entire family, the last name becomes plural.

  • The John Smith family
  • The Smith family
  • The Smiths
  • The Sarah Brown family
  • The Brown family
  • The Browns
  • The Johannes Van de Kamp family
  • The Van de Kamp family
  • The Van de Kamps
  • The Jacob Smith-Brown Family
  • The Smith-Brown Family
  • The Smith-Browns

NOT:

  • The Johns Browns
  • The Vans de Kamp
  • The Vans de Kamps
  • The Smiths-Browns

The form "The Smiths" or "The Browns", is used especially in a formal etiquette situation, such as a wedding invitation, holiday card, formal correspondence:

when signing your family’s last name on a thank-you note, greeting card, letter, e-mail, Christmas card, etc., you don’t need to use an apostrophe to make it plural. Adding an apostrophe makes the last name possessive, which is unnecessary in this case. Depending on the last letter of the name, simply add –s or –es. Signing a card, “Happy holidays from the Smiths!” correctly includes the entire family in the message’s sentiment.

-- Grace Haynes, Southern Living, undated.

The disadvantage of this short form -- "the Rockefellers", "the Kirks", "the Bushes", "the Roosevelts", "the Smiths", "the Browns" -- is that for popular last names such as 'Smith' it may be ambiguous.

With the First Name

The solution to this problem is to add the first name.

  1. The first name is added if need to make clear which family you mean, for example, to differentiate between two branches of the same family, or two families with the similar name, or a family with a common last name.

  2. Adding the first name adds some additional formality or respect. It would be used among "high society" people, such as the characters in The Great Gatsby.

The John Smiths
The Robert Smiths

The above would be used in written correspondence and spoken word. Here are a couple of citations:

... forming one compound noun, as do the words in John Smith or The John Smiths.

--- Noble Butler, A Practical and Critical Grammar of the English Language, Louisville, KY, John P. Morton & Company, 1874, page 46, retrieved from Google Books.

and, a strangely identical citation:

... forming one compound noun, as do the words in John Smith or The John Smiths.

--- "Certain Unusual Plurals", The Gregg Writer, Volumes 7-8, Gregg Publishing Company, 1905, retrieved from Google Books.

  1. You can also use this form when talking about several people with the same name, like "John Alan Smith" and "John Charles Smith".

In some circumstances, proper names may be made plural. By saying 'the John Smiths' one may designate people who bear a high frequency name like 'John Smith'.

--- Serge Bredart, Tim Brennen, Tim Valentine; The Cognitive Psychology of Proper Names, retrieved from Google Books, Routlege, 2002.

Other ways to label the Smith family

The Miami Smiths 
The New York Rockefellers  (meaning the ones from *New York City*)

The above would be used in spoken word or narration when referring to the people respectfully, but not addressing the people directly -- for example, placed on an envelope or in the salutation of a letter.

This would usually be only used to refer to upper class people of high status (standing or social station).

NOT:

The Miami Smiths
1 Main Street
Miami, Florida 12345 

No: This is incorrect.

Dear New York Rockefellers, (no) 

Dear Miami Smiths, (no)

These are not correct for addressing someone (writing to someone) formally.


So who is Chester Becker?

If you were reading without context, you could have the following interpretations of "The Chester Beckers".

  1. The Becker family from the city of Chester (Chester, England, or Chester, Pennsylvania, USA, for example.)

  2. The "Chester-Becker" family. (In English, most compound names are hypenated, but surnames from other cultures might not be hypenated such as Gabriel García Márquez or Fernando Sánchez Dragó.)

  3. The Becker family whose patriarch (definition)(1)(2)(3) is named Chester.

So how to interpret the "Chester Beckers" in "The Great Gatsby"?

  • Chester Becker does not seem to be a character in the novel, not even a minor one.

  • Chester might be considered an "upper class" first name in the Northern United States -- it is not a common name like Matthew, John, and it is not a Southern-sounding name like "Dale", "Darrell" or "Waylon".

  • Chester County, Pennsylvania includes prestigious, upper-class suburbs of Philadelphia, not far from New York City, known as the "Main Line"

  • It sounds funny: "Chester Becker".

  • It is paired with another family name, "Leeches", which also sounds funny. The word "Leech" means a fat, blood-sucking worm which is a funny meaning for a rich family's name to have -- because it's so unserious, so undignified, and so unworthy of respect.

So in the end, "who is Chester Becker" is a literature interpretation question, not an English language question.

I prefer to think of this as the author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, having fun: his narrator is saying something intentionally funny and silly-sounding to emphasize the difference -- the metaphorical distance -- between the narrator (Nick Carraway from Minnesota) and the ultra-rich "East Egg" people he encounters.

Say it out loud: "the Chester Beckers and the Leeches." It sounds as funny and absurd now as it did in 1925.

To me, the fact that the narrator rattles these people's names off so quickly, and never returns to them, shows that he is setting a scene and their true nature isn't important to the story.

Your interpretation may vary.

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In other contexts, "the Chester Beckers" could conceivably mean "the Beckers who are from Chester" (as opposed to some other people named Becker, from somewhere else) or "a couple whose surname was Chester Becker."

In this case, however, we can safely assume that it means "Chester Becker and his wife." This is because the same passage includes references to "the Willie Voltaires," "the Ripley Snells," "the O.R.P. Shraeders," and "the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia." Obviously, these are men's full names, pluralized to include the men's wives; they are not place names modifying surnames, nor are they compound surnames.

The idea is that most of the people who attended Gatsby's parties were members of a rarefied social milieu* in which everybody knew everyone else, so that in most cases a surname alone – the Leeches, the Hornbeams, the Ismays, the Smirkes – is sufficient to identify the couple being referenced. In some cases, though, it's necessary to distinguish a particular couple from others with the same surname. So "the Chester Beckers" makes it clear that we're talking about Chester Becker and his wife and not, say, Chester's brother Biff and his wife. Likewise, "the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia" hints at other, unmentioned Abrams (perhaps the Jefferson Beauregard Abrams of Alabama), who didn't attend Gatsby's parties but conceivably might have.

*(Of course, Gatsby's parties also included some who were decidedly not part of the upper crust, and these people are referred to in a very different fashion – "a whole clan named Blackbuck," "a man named Klipspringer," etc.)

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I don't know the answer, but I think it's unlikely that Chester is a first name here.

I think it is probably a double-barrelled surname "Mr Fred Chester Becker and family". But it could be the Beckers from a place called Chester, as opposed to the Beckers from somewhere else.

  • Actually, I think the characters come from East Egg—since that's what's suggested at the start of the sentence. Unless they originated in Chester before moving to East Egg. And from here, one of the characters is Chester McKee. However, it does seem strange that Chester could be used as a first name the sentence. But I haven't read the book myself, and my quick investigation doesn't make this clear. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Jun 7 at 13:53
  • @JasonBassford: I don't agree. "The Chester Beckers" could easily be members of that branch of the family which is forever associated with Chester, wherever they happen to live. But I also haven't read the book, and don't know. – Colin Fine Jun 7 at 19:43

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