The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are a pair of fading, bespectacled eyes painted on an old advertising billboard over the valley of ashes. They may represent God staring down upon and judging American society as a moral wasteland, though the novel never makes this point explicitly. Instead, throughout the novel, Fitzgerald suggests that symbols only have meaning because characters instill them with meaning. The connection between the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg and God exists only in George Wilson’s grief-stricken mind. This lack of concrete significance contributes to the unsettling nature of the image. Thus, the eyes also come to represent the essential meaninglessness of the world and the arbitrariness of the mental process by which people invest objects with meaning. Nick explores these ideas in Chapter 8, when he imagines Gatsby’s final thoughts as a depressed consideration of the emptiness of symbols and dreams.
Important Quotations Explained
I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.
Daisy speaks these words in Chapter 1 as she describes to Nick and Jordan her hopes for her infant daughter. While not directly relevant to the novel’s main themes, this quote offers a revealing glimpse into Daisy’s character. Daisy is not a fool herself but is the product of a social environment that, to a great extent, does not value intelligence in women. The older generation values subservience and docility in females, and the younger generation values thoughtless giddiness and pleasure-seeking. Daisy’s remark is somewhat sardonic: while she refers to the social values of her era, she does not seem to challenge them. Instead, she describes her own boredom with life and seems to imply that a girl can have more fun if she is beautiful and simplistic. Daisy herself often tries to act such a part. She conforms to the social standard of American femininity in the 1920s in order to avoid such tension-filled issues as her undying love for Gatsby.
He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.
This passage occurs in Chapter 3 as part of Nick’s first close examination of Gatsby’s character and appearance. This description of Gatsby’s smile captures both the theatrical quality of Gatsby’s character and his charisma. Additionally, it encapsulates the manner in which Gatsby appears to the outside world, an image Fitzgerald slowly deconstructs as the novel progresses toward Gatsby’s death in Chapter 8. One of the main facets of Gatsby’s persona is that he acts out a role that he defined for himself when he was seventeen years old. His smile seems to be both an important part of the role and a result of the singular combination of hope and imagination that enables him to play it so effectively. Here, Nick describes Gatsby’s rare focus—he has the ability to make anyone he smiles at feel as though he has chosen that person out of “the whole external world,” reflecting that person’s most optimistic conception of him- or herself.
The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
In Chapter 6, when Nick finally describes Gatsby’s early history, he uses this striking comparison between Gatsby and Jesus Christ to illuminate Gatsby’s creation of his own identity. Fitzgerald was probably influenced in drawing this parallel by a nineteenth-century book by Ernest Renan entitled The Life of Jesus.This book presents Jesus as a figure who essentially decided to make himself the son of God, then brought himself to ruin by refusing to recognize the reality that denied his self-conception. Renan describes a Jesus who is “faithful to his self-created dream but scornful of the factual truth that finally crushes him and his dream”—a very appropriate description of Gatsby. Fitzgerald is known to have admired Renan’s work and seems to have drawn upon it in devising this metaphor. Though the parallel between Gatsby and Jesus is not an important motif in The Great Gatsby, it is nonetheless a suggestive comparison, as Gatsby transforms himself into the ideal that he envisioned for himself (a “Platonic conception of himself”) as a youngster and remains committed to that ideal, despite the obstacles that society presents to the fulfillment of his dream.
That’s my Middle West . . . the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark. . . . I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.
This important quote from Nick’s lengthy meditation in Chapter 9 brings the motif of geography in The Great Gatsby to a conclusion. Throughout the novel, places are associated with themes, characters, and ideas. The East is associated with a fast-paced lifestyle, decadent parties, crumbling moral values, and the pursuit of wealth, while the West and the Midwest are associated with more traditional moral values. In this moment, Nick realizes for the first time that though his story is set on the East Coast, the western character of his acquaintances (“some deficiency in common”) is the source of the story’s tensions and attitudes. He considers each character’s behavior and value choices as a reaction to the wealth-obsessed culture of New York. This perspective contributes powerfully to Nick’s decision to leave the East Coast and return to Minnesota, as the infeasibility of Nick’s Midwestern values in New York society mirrors the impracticality of Gatsby’s dream.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
These words conclude the novel and find Nick returning to the theme of the significance of the past to dreams of the future, here represented by the green light. He focuses on the struggle of human beings to achieve their goals by both transcending and re-creating the past. Yet humans prove themselves unable to move beyond the past: in the metaphoric language used here, the current draws them backward as they row forward toward the green light. This past functions as the source of their ideas about the future (epitomized by Gatsby’s desire to re-create 1917 in his affair with Daisy) and they cannot escape it as they continue to struggle to transform their dreams into reality. While they never lose their optimism (“tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . .”), they expend all of their energy in pursuit of a goal that moves ever farther away. This apt metaphor characterizes both Gatsby’s struggle and the American dream itself. Nick’s words register neither blind approval nor cynical disillusionment but rather the respectful melancholy that he ultimately brings to his study of Gatsby’s life
The title character of The Great Gatsby is a young man, around thirty years old, who rose from an impoverished childhood in rural North Dakota to become fabulously wealthy. However, he achieved this lofty goal by participating in organized crime, including distributing illegal alcohol and trading in stolen securities. From his early youth, Gatsby despised poverty and longed for wealth and sophistication—he dropped out of St. Olaf’s College after only two weeks because he could not bear the janitorial job with which he was paying his tuition. Though Gatsby has always wanted to be rich, his main motivation in acquiring his fortune was his love for Daisy Buchanan, whom he met as a young military officer in Louisville before leaving to fight in World War I in 1917. Gatsby immediately fell in love with Daisy’s aura of luxury, grace, and charm, and lied to her about his own background in order to convince her that he was good enough for her. Daisy promised to wait for him when he left for the war, but married Tom Buchanan in 1919, while Gatsby was studying at Oxford after the war in an attempt to gain an education. From that moment on, Gatsby dedicated himself to winning Daisy back, and his acquisition of millions of dollars, his purchase of a gaudy mansion on West Egg, and his lavish weekly parties are all merely means to that end.
Fitzgerald delays the introduction of most of this information until fairly late in the novel. Gatsby’s reputation precedes him—Gatsby himself does not appear in a speaking role until Chapter 3. Fitzgerald initially presents Gatsby as the aloof, enigmatic host of the unbelievably opulent parties thrown every week at his mansion. He appears surrounded by spectacular luxury, courted by powerful men and beautiful women. He is the subject of a whirlwind of gossip throughout New York and is already a kind of legendary celebrity before he is ever introduced to the reader. Fitzgerald propels the novel forward through the early chapters by shrouding Gatsby’s background and the source of his wealth in mystery (the reader learns about Gatsby’s childhood in Chapter 6 and receives definitive proof of his criminal dealings in Chapter 7). As a result, the reader’s first, distant impressions of Gatsby strike quite a different note from that of the lovesick, naive young man who emerges during the later part of the novel.
Fitzgerald uses this technique of delayed character revelation to emphasize the theatrical quality of Gatsby’s approach to life, which is an important part of his personality. Gatsby has literally created his own character, even changing his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby to represent his reinvention of himself. As his relentless quest for Daisy demonstrates, Gatsby has an extraordinary ability to transform his hopes and dreams into reality; at the beginning of the novel, he appears to the reader just as he desires to appear to the world. This talent for self-invention is what gives Gatsby his quality of “greatness”: indeed, the title “The Great Gatsby” is reminiscent of billings for such vaudeville magicians as “The Great Houdini” and “The Great Blackstone,” suggesting that the persona of Jay Gatsby is a masterful illusion.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.
(See Important Quotations Explained)
As the novel progresses and Fitzgerald deconstructs Gatsby’s self-presentation, Gatsby reveals himself to be an innocent, hopeful young man who stakes everything on his dreams, not realizing that his dreams are unworthy of him. Gatsby invests Daisy with an idealistic perfection that she cannot possibly attain in reality and pursues her with a passionate zeal that blinds him to her limitations. His dream of her disintegrates, revealing the corruption that wealth causes and the unworthiness of the goal, much in the way Fitzgerald sees the American dream crumbling in the 1920s, as America’s powerful optimism, vitality, and individualism become subordinated to the amoral pursuit of wealth.
Gatsby is contrasted most consistently with Nick. Critics point out that the former, passionate and active, and the latter, sober and reflective, seem to represent two sides of Fitzgerald’s personality. Additionally, whereas Tom is a cold-hearted, aristocratic bully, Gatsby is a loyal and good-hearted man. Though his lifestyle and attitude differ greatly from those of George Wilson, Gatsby and Wilson share the fact that they both lose their love interest to Tom.
If Gatsby represents one part of Fitzgerald’s personality, the flashy celebrity who pursued and glorified wealth in order to impress the woman he loved, then Nick represents another part: the quiet, reflective Midwesterner adrift in the lurid East. A young man (he turns thirty during the course of the novel) from Minnesota, Nick travels to New York in 1922 to learn the bond business. He lives in the West Egg district of Long Island, next door to Gatsby. Nick is also Daisy’s cousin, which enables him to observe and assist the resurgent love affair between Daisy and Gatsby. As a result of his relationship to these two characters, Nick is the perfect choice to narrate the novel, which functions as a personal memoir of his experiences with Gatsby in the summer of 1922.
Nick is also well suited to narrating The Great Gatsbybecause of his temperament. As he tells the reader in Chapter 1, he is tolerant, open-minded, quiet, and a good listener, and, as a result, others tend to talk to him and tell him their secrets. Gatsby, in particular, comes to trust him and treat him as a confidant. Nick generally assumes a secondary role throughout the novel, preferring to describe and comment on events rather than dominate the action. Often, however, he functions as Fitzgerald’s voice, as in his extended meditation on time and the American dream at the end of Chapter 9.
Insofar as Nick plays a role inside the narrative, he evidences a strongly mixed reaction to life on the East Coast, one that creates a powerful internal conflict that he does not resolve until the end of the book. On the one hand, Nick is attracted to the fast-paced, fun-driven lifestyle of New York. On the other hand, he finds that lifestyle grotesque and damaging. This inner conflict is symbolized throughout the book by Nick’s romantic affair with Jordan Baker. He is attracted to her vivacity and her sophistication just as he is repelled by her dishonesty and her lack of consideration for other people.
Nick states that there is a “quality of distortion” to life in New York, and this lifestyle makes him lose his equilibrium, especially early in the novel, as when he gets drunk at Gatsby’s party in Chapter 2. After witnessing the unraveling of Gatsby’s dream and presiding over the appalling spectacle of Gatsby’s funeral, Nick realizes that the fast life of revelry on the East Coast is a cover for the terrifying moral emptiness that the valley of ashes symbolizes. Having gained the maturity that this insight demonstrates, he returns to Minnesota in search of a quieter life structured by more traditional moral values.
Partially based on Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, Daisy is a beautiful young woman from Louisville, Kentucky. She is Nick’s cousin and the object of Gatsby’s love. As a young debutante in Louisville, Daisy was extremely popular among the military officers stationed near her home, including Jay Gatsby. Gatsby lied about his background to Daisy, claiming to be from a wealthy family in order to convince her that he was worthy of her. Eventually, Gatsby won Daisy’s heart, and they made love before Gatsby left to fight in the war. Daisy promised to wait for Gatsby, but in 1919 she chose instead to marry Tom Buchanan, a young man from a solid, aristocratic family who could promise her a wealthy lifestyle and who had the support of her parents.
After 1919, Gatsby dedicated himself to winning Daisy back, making her the single goal of all of his dreams and the main motivation behind his acquisition of immense wealth through criminal activity. To Gatsby, Daisy represents the paragon of perfection—she has the aura of charm, wealth, sophistication, grace, and aristocracy that he longed for as a child in North Dakota and that first attracted him to her. In reality, however, Daisy falls far short of Gatsby’s ideals. She is beautiful and charming, but also fickle, shallow, bored, and sardonic. Nick characterizes her as a careless person who smashes things up and then retreats behind her money. Daisy proves her real nature when she chooses Tom over Gatsby in Chapter 7, then allows Gatsby to take the blame for killing Myrtle Wilson even though she herself was driving the car. Finally, rather than attend Gatsby’s funeral, Daisy and Tom move away, leaving no forwarding address.
Like Zelda Fitzgerald, Daisy is in love with money, ease, and material luxury. She is capable of affection (she seems genuinely fond of Nick and occasionally seems to love Gatsby sincerely), but not of sustained loyalty or care. She is indifferent even to her own infant daughter, never discussing her and treating her as an afterthought when she is introduced in Chapter 7. In Fitzgerald’s conception of America in the 1920s, Daisy represents the amoral values of the aristocratic East Egg set
FULL TITLE · The Great Gatsby
AUTHOR · F. Scott Fitzgerald
TYPE OF WORK · Novel
GENRE · Modernist novel, Jazz Age novel, novel of manners
LANGUAGE · English
TIME AND PLACE WRITTEN · 1923–1924, America and France
DATE OF FIRST PUBLICATION · 1925
PUBLISHER · Charles Scribner’s Sons
NARRATOR · Nick Carraway; Carraway not only narrates the story but implies that he is the book’s author
POINT OF VIEW · Nick Carraway narrates in both first and third person, presenting only what he himself observes. Nick alternates sections where he presents events objectively, as they appeared to him at the time, with sections where he gives his own interpretations of the story’s meaning and of the motivations of the other characters.
TONE · Nick’s attitudes toward Gatsby and Gatsby’s story are ambivalent and contradictory. At times he seems to disapprove of Gatsby’s excesses and breaches of manners and ethics, but he also romanticizes and admires Gatsby, describing the events of the novel in a nostalgic and elegiac tone.
TENSE · Past
SETTING (TIME) · Summer 1922
SETTINGS (PLACE) · Long Island and New York City
PROTAGONIST · Gatsby and/or Nick
MAJOR CONFLICT · Gatsby has amassed a vast fortune in order to win the affections of the upper-class Daisy Buchanan, but his mysterious past stands in the way of his being accepted by her.
RISING ACTION · Gatsby’s lavish parties, Gatsby’s arrangement of a meeting with Daisy at Nick’s
CLIMAX · There are two possible climaxes: Gatsby’s reunion with Daisy in Chapters 5–6; the confrontation between Gatsby and Tom in the Plaza Hotel in Chapter 7.
THEMES · The decline of the American dream, the spirit of the 1920s, the difference between social classes, the role of symbols in the human conception of meaning, the role of the past in dreams of the future
MOTIFS · The connection between events and weather, the connection between geographical location and social values, images of time, extravagant parties, the quest for wealth
SYMBOLS · The green light on Daisy’s dock, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, the valley of ashes, Gatsby’s parties, East Egg, West Egg
FORESHADOWING · The car wreck after Gatsby’s party in Chapter 3, Owl Eyes’s comments about the theatricality of Gatsby’s life, the mysterious telephone calls Gatsby receives from Chicago and Philadelphia