Discuss Gatsby’s character as Nick perceives him throughout the novel. What makes Gatsby “great”?
In one sense, the title of the novel is ironic; the title character is neither “great” nor named Gatsby. He is a criminal whose real name is James Gatz, and the life he has created for himself is an illusion. By the same token, the title of the novel refers to the theatrical skill with which Gatsby makes this illusion seem real: the moniker “the Great Gatsby” suggests the sort of vaudeville billing that would have been given to an acrobat, an escape artist, or a magician.
Nick is particularly taken with Gatsby and considers him a great figure. He sees both the extraordinary quality of hope that Gatsby possesses and his idealistic dream of loving Daisy in a perfect world. Though Nick recognizes Gatsby’s flaws the first time he meets him, he cannot help but admire Gatsby’s brilliant smile, his romantic idealization of Daisy, and his yearning for the future. The private Gatsby who stretches his arms out toward the green light on Daisy’s dock seems somehow more real than the vulgar, social Gatsby who wears a pink suit to his party and calls everyone “old sport.” Nick alone among the novel’s characters recognizes that Gatsby’s love for Daisy has less to do with Daisy’s inner qualities than with Gatsby’s own. That is, Gatsby makes Daisy his dream because his heart demands a dream, not because Daisy truly deserves the passion that Gatsby feels for her. Further, Gatsby impresses Nick with his power to make his dreams come true—as a child he dreamed of wealth and luxury, and he has attained them, albeit through criminal means. As a man, he dreams of Daisy, and for a while he wins her, too. In a world without a moral center, in which attempting to fulfill one’s dreams is like rowing a boat against the current, Gatsby’s power to dream lifts him above the meaningless and amoral pleasure-seeking of New York society. In Nick’s view, Gatsby’s capacity to dream makes him “great” despite his flaws and eventual undoing.
What is Nick like as a narrator? Is he a reliable storyteller, or does his version of events seem suspect? How do his qualities as a character affect his narration?
Nick’s description of himself in the opening chapter holds true throughout the novel: he is tolerant and slow to judge, someone with whom people feel comfortable sharing their secrets. His willingness to describe himself and the contours of his thoughts even when they are inconsistent or incomplete—his conflicted feelings about Gatsby, for instance, or the long musing at the end of the novel—makes him seem trustworthy and thoughtful. His position in relation to the other characters gives him a perfect vantage point from which to tell the story—he is Daisy’s cousin, Tom’s old college friend, and Gatsby’s neighbor, and all three trust and rely on him. Though Nick participates in this story and its events certainly affect him, The Great Gatsby is not really his story in the sense of being about him. However, it is his story in the sense that it is of crucial importance to him: he defines himself in the process of writing it. Indeed, he struggles with the story’s meaning even as he tells it. Though Nick professes to admire Gatsby’s passion as a lover and a dreamer, Nick’s own actions in his relationship with Jordan Baker cast an ironic pall over his admiration: with Jordan, Nick is guarded, cautious, and skeptical. Overall, Nick suggests that Gatsby is an exception to his usual ways of understanding and judging the world, and that his attraction to Gatsby creates a conflict within himself.
What are some of The Great Gatsby’s most important symbols? What does the novel have to say about the role of symbols in life?
Apart from geographic locations, the two most important symbols in the novel are the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The first is a perfect example of the manner in which characters in The Great Gatsby infuse symbols with meaning—the green light is only a green light, but to Gatsby it becomes the embodiment of his dream for the future, and it beckons to him in the night like a vision of the fulfillment of his desires. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg work in the same fashion, although their meaning is less fixed. Until George Wilson decides that they are the eyes of God, representing a moral imperative on which he must act, the eyes are simply an unsettling, unexplained image, as they stare down over the valley of ashes. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg thus emphasize the lack of a fixed relationship between symbols and what they symbolize: the eyes could mean anything to any observer, but they tend to make observers feel as though they are the ones being scrutinized. They seem to stare down at the world blankly, without the need for meaning that drives the human characters of the novel.
In general, symbols in the novel are intimately connected to dreams: Gatsby’s dream of Daisy causes him to associate her image with everything he values, just as he associates the green light with his dream for the future. In reading and interpreting The Great Gatsby, it is at least as important to consider how characters think about symbols as it is to consider the qualities of the symbols themselves.
How does the geography of the novel dictate its themes and characters? What role does setting play in The Great Gatsby?
Each of the four important geographical locations in the novel—West Egg, East Egg, the valley of ashes, and New York City—corresponds to a particular theme or type of character encountered in the story. West Egg is like Gatsby, full of garish extravagance, symbolizing the emergence of the new rich alongside the established aristocracy of the 1920s. East Egg is like the Buchanans, wealthy, possessing high social status, and powerful, symbolizing the old upper class that continued to dominate the American social landscape. The valley of ashes is like George Wilson, desolate, desperate, and utterly without hope, symbolizing the moral decay of American society hidden by the glittering surface of upper-class extravagance. New York City is simply chaos, an abundant swell of variety and life, associated with the “quality of distortion” that Nick perceives in the East.
Setting is extremely important to The Great Gatsby, as it reinforces the themes and character traits that drive the novel’s critical events. Even the weather matches the flow of the plot. Gatsby’s reunion with Daisy begins in a ferocious thunderstorm and reaches its happiest moment just as the sun comes out. Tom’s confrontation with Gatsby occurs on the hottest day of the summer. Finally, Gatsby’s death occurs just as autumn creeps into the air. The specificity of the settings in The Great Gatsby contributes greatly to the creation of distinct zones in which the conflicting values of various characters are forced to confront each other.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. In what sense is The Great Gatsby an autobiographical novel? Does Fitzgerald write more of himself into the character of Nick or the character of Gatsby, or are the author’s qualities found in both characters?
2. How does Gatsby represent the American dream? What does the novel have to say about the condition of the American dream in the 1920s? In what ways do the themes of dreams, wealth, and time relate to each other in the novel’s exploration of the idea of America?
3. Compare and contrast Gatsby and Tom. How are they alike? How are they different? Given the extremely negative light in which Tom is portrayed throughout the novel, why might Daisy choose to remain with him instead of leaving him for Gatsby?
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896, and named after his ancestor Francis Scott Key, the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Fitzgerald was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. Though an intelligent child, he did poorly in school and was sent to a New Jersey boarding school in 1911. Despite being a mediocre student there, he managed to enroll at Princeton in 1913. Academic troubles and apathy plagued him throughout his time at college, and he never graduated, instead enlisting in the army in 1917, as World War I neared its end.
Fitzgerald became a second lieutenant, and was stationed at Camp Sheridan, in Montgomery, Alabama. There he met and fell in love with a wild seventeen-year-old beauty named Zelda Sayre. Zelda finally agreed to marry him, but her overpowering desire for wealth, fun, and leisure led her to delay their wedding until he could prove a success. With the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920, Fitzgerald became a literary sensation, earning enough money and fame to convince Zelda to marry him.
Many of these events from Fitzgerald’s early life appear in his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. Like Fitzgerald, Nick Carraway is a thoughtful young man from Minnesota, educated at an Ivy League school (in Nick’s case, Yale), who moves to New York after the war. Also similar to Fitzgerald is Jay Gatsby, a sensitive young man who idolizes wealth and luxury and who falls in love with a beautiful young woman while stationed at a military camp in the South.
Having become a celebrity, Fitzgerald fell into a wild, reckless life-style of parties and decadence, while desperately trying to please Zelda by writing to earn money. Similarly, Gatsby amasses a great deal of wealth at a relatively young age, and devotes himself to acquiring possessions and throwing parties that he believes will enable him to win Daisy’s love. As the giddiness of the Roaring Twenties dissolved into the bleakness of the Great Depression, however, Zelda suffered a nervous breakdown and Fitzgerald battled alcoholism, which hampered his writing. He published Tender Is the Night in 1934, and sold short stories to The Saturday Evening Post to support his lavish lifestyle. In 1937, he left for Hollywood to write screenplays, and in 1940, while working on his novel The Love of the Last Tycoon, died of a heart attack at the age of forty-four.
Fitzgerald was the most famous chronicler of 1920s America, an era that he dubbed “the Jazz Age.” Written in 1925, The Great Gatsby is one of the greatest literary documents of this period, in which the American economy soared, bringing unprecedented levels of prosperity to the nation. Prohibition, the ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol mandated by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1919), made millionaires out of bootleggers, and an underground culture of revelry sprang up. Sprawling private parties managed to elude police notice, and “speakeasies”—secret clubs that sold liquor—thrived. The chaos and violence of World War I left America in a state of shock, and the generation that fought the war turned to wild and extravagant living to compensate. The staid conservatism and timeworn values of the previous decade were turned on their ear, as money, opulence, and exuberance became the order of the day.
Like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald found this new lifestyle seductive and exciting, and, like Gatsby, he had always idolized the very rich. Now he found himself in an era in which unrestrained materialism set the tone of society, particularly in the large cities of the East. Even so, like Nick, Fitzgerald saw through the glitter of the Jazz Age to the moral emptiness and hypocrisy beneath, and part of him longed for this absent moral center. In many ways, The Great Gatsby represents Fitzgerald’s attempt to confront his conflicting feelings about the Jazz Age. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald was driven by his love for a woman who symbolized everything he wanted, even as she led him toward everything he despised.
Nick Carraway, a young man from Minnesota, moves to New York in the summer of 1922 to learn about the bond business. He rents a house in the West Egg district of Long Island, a wealthy but unfashionable area populated by the new rich, a group who have made their fortunes too recently to have established social connections and who are prone to garish displays of wealth. Nick’s next-door neighbor in West Egg is a mysterious man named Jay Gatsby, who lives in a gigantic Gothic mansion and throws extravagant parties every Saturday night.
Nick is unlike the other inhabitants of West Egg—he was educated at Yale and has social connections in East Egg, a fashionable area of Long Island home to the established upper class. Nick drives out to East Egg one evening for dinner with his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, an erstwhile classmate of Nick’s at Yale. Daisy and Tom introduce Nick to Jordan Baker, a beautiful, cynical young woman with whom Nick begins a romantic relationship. Nick also learns a bit about Daisy and Tom’s marriage: Jordan tells him that Tom has a lover, Myrtle Wilson, who lives in the valley of ashes, a gray industrial dumping ground between West Egg and New York City. Not long after this revelation, Nick travels to New York City with Tom and Myrtle. At a vulgar, gaudy party in the apartment that Tom keeps for the affair, Myrtle begins to taunt Tom about Daisy, and Tom responds by breaking her nose.
As the summer progresses, Nick eventually garners an invitation to one of Gatsby’s legendary parties. He encounters Jordan Baker at the party, and they meet Gatsby himself, a surprisingly young man who affects an English accent, has a remarkable smile, and calls everyone “old sport.” Gatsby asks to speak to Jordan alone, and, through Jordan, Nick later learns more about his mysterious neighbor. Gatsby tells Jordan that he knew Daisy in Louisville in 1917 and is deeply in love with her. He spends many nights staring at the green light at the end of her dock, across the bay from his mansion. Gatsby’s extravagant lifestyle and wild parties are simply an attempt to impress Daisy. Gatsby now wants Nick to arrange a reunion between himself and Daisy, but he is afraid that Daisy will refuse to see him if she knows that he still loves her. Nick invites Daisy to have tea at his house, without telling her that Gatsby will also be there. After an initially awkward reunion, Gatsby and Daisy reestablish their connection. Their love rekindled, they begin an affair.
After a short time, Tom grows increasingly suspicious of his wife’s relationship with Gatsby. At a luncheon at the Buchanans’ house, Gatsby stares at Daisy with such undisguised passion that Tom realizes Gatsby is in love with her. Though Tom is himself involved in an extramarital affair, he is deeply outraged by the thought that his wife could be unfaithful to him. He forces the group to drive into New York City, where he confronts Gatsby in a suite at the Plaza Hotel. Tom asserts that he and Daisy have a history that Gatsby could never understand, and he announces to his wife that Gatsby is a criminal—his fortune comes from bootlegging alcohol and other illegal activities. Daisy realizes that her allegiance is to Tom, and Tom contemptuously sends her back to East Egg with Gatsby, attempting to prove that Gatsby cannot hurt him.
When Nick, Jordan, and Tom drive through the valley of ashes, however, they discover that Gatsby’s car has struck and killed Myrtle, Tom’s lover. They rush back to Long Island, where Nick learns from Gatsby that Daisy was driving the car when it struck Myrtle, but that Gatsby intends to take the blame. The next day, Tom tells Myrtle’s husband, George, that Gatsby was the driver of the car. George, who has leapt to the conclusion that the driver of the car that killed Myrtle must have been her lover, finds Gatsby in the pool at his mansion and shoots him dead. He then fatally shoots himself.
Nick stages a small funeral for Gatsby, ends his relationship with Jordan, and moves back to the Midwest to escape the disgust he feels for the people surrounding Gatsby’s life and for the emptiness and moral decay of life among the wealthy on the East Coast. Nick reflects that just as Gatsby’s dream of Daisy was corrupted by money and dishonesty, the American dream of happiness and individualism has disintegrated into the mere pursuit of wealth. Though Gatsby’s power to transform his dreams into reality is what makes him “great,” Nick reflects that the era of dreaming—both Gatsby’s dream and the American dream—is over.