Francis Scott Fitzgerald is the American writer that managed to describe the richness and carelessness of the 1920s in the USA in bright colors. The author himself was the child of the golden period, known as the “Jazz Age”. While those eccentric and lavish times are gone now, readers can still enjoy the heritage of his books that bring about the spirit of freedom, joy, and selfishness. “The Great Gatsby” is the most well-known of his novels. It was written in 1925 – the time of Dry Law, gangster wars, impressive parties, and spectacular lifestyles.
The life path of the protagonist of this book, Jay Gatsby, slightly resembles Fitzgerald himself. In his writing career, Fitzgerald has seen everything – from admiration and acclaim for his first novel “This Side of Paradise” in 1920, to destructive indifference and cruel critique for a number of his other works. Similarly, for Jay Gatsby, the achievement of the American dream turned out to be a devastating life tragedy – his way towards the top of the societal ladder, despite the fame and wealth it brought him, led to disappointment and loss. After reading the book the reader is able to understand that what people want deep inside are not material goods, but emotional ones – sincere, reciprocal, and eternal love.
But for now, let’s forget about the shadows and transport ourselves into the American life of the 1920s: imagine yourself being surrounded by beautiful women, endless joy, sweet jazz music, people having fun, and the waves breaking on the shore next to the lavish mansion of the famous Jay Gatsby, the king of all party hosts.
Main Characters of the Book
The book is way more complicated than relationships between two persons — protagonist Jay Gatsby and his beloved Daisy Buchanan.
Who is Jay Gatsby? Is he a mystery, a fraud, a murderer, a rich man, or a poor man? He is all of those things to some extent, and at the same time he is none of those things. This man represents the collective image of a society where everybody can pick traits that they can relate to. Gatsby is a romantic man, a dreamer who enjoys beauty and kindness. He lives with the fantasy of being together with his beloved, Daisy. But at the same time, he is the product of his consumerist society; he defines his worth by the tribute other people pay to him.
Fitzgerald devotes the most attention to the first aspect of Jay’s personality – his romantic side. He spends a lot of time looking for past ideals and dreams, which in reality turn out to be lost and phony. Daisy is the dream, but also is the death of Gatsby. The fact that his image of her doesn’t hold true portrays the key message of the book – a civilization whose morals can be manipulated by the desire for material goods cannot be humane, nor happy.
Throughout the whole book, Gatsby’s image remains a bit blurry and undefined, partly because his story is told through the eyes of another person – Nick Carraway. The two opposite aspects of his personality that live side by side in Gatsby’s character are represented by the people he surrounds himself by. Nick represents the bright side.
Nick is the personification of human kindness, the beauty of a man’s soul, honesty, and internal courage. The fact that he narrates the story defines its tone—despite showing both sides of the “lost generation”, the book still reads in a positive and pleasant way. Nick’s story unfolds together with that of Jay Gatsby: for example, he falls in love with Jordan while telling how Jay fell for Daisy. Nick and Gatsby share many traits: courage, dignity, and sincere benevolence. However, unlike Gatsby, Nick can resist the temptations and dark sides. After realizing the shallowness of his beloved Jordan, he finds the strength to eventually break up their relationship, while Gatsby continues his relationship with Daisy—trying to live the false dream he had created in his head.
Nick sees the real intentions of Jay Gatsby, and what is even more important, he foresees how they could play out. He is a good friend, essentially he is the only person that stays by his friend’s side towards the end of the novel once everybody else has turned their backs on him. It’s ironic how Nick is one of the few people to show up at the funeral, while hundreds had enjoyed Gatsby’s parties. Mr Carraway is a responsible man who is not afraid to stand up to society. He is able to make a moral choice in circumstances that dictate otherwise. It is because of people like Nick that the author believed his society would be able to find moral grounds in the complex American reality of those times.
On the other side, the topic of the wicked American dream is centered in the novel around several characters with a big “commercial” emphasis – in particular, they are Daisy Buchanan, her husband Tom Buchanan, and her friend Jordan.
Daisy Buchanan is a woman that was born into wealth. She is a beautiful woman with a melodious voice. She is fun, easygoing, but hard to reach. Her inaccessibility turns her into an objective for Gatsby. But after all, there has always been a distance between them: when Gatsby finally became rich, Daisy had already married and had a child. When Daisy left her husband for Gatsby, the differences in values among them still kept the lovebirds apart. Daisy’s initial image as a beautiful woman, a wife and a mother crashed with every next chapter of the book.
Daisy is a woman born into her times, she is frivolous and featherbrained. For example, she is easily excited by the luxurious interior design of Gatsby’s mansion, the large wardrobe he possesses, and his perceived greatness in the eyes of her surroundings. Gatsby admits that the sound of her voice sounds like money. She is also a woman of great tragedy, as she is not able to live the life she truly wants. She first turns down Gatsby when they were young (and thus she betrays her true feelings, in fact), then she wants to be with him (because of his riches), but is too scared to leave her husband (where she betrays her feelings again).
If Jay Gatsby balances a constant battle between his two different personas, Tom is a personification of one set of them. He is overly selfish, confident in his uniqueness, projects physical strength, holds on steadily to his individualistic views, and is not shy in demonstrating his ignorance and limited mindset. Just like his wife, from his birth, Tom enjoyed being of high status and substantially benefiting from his family’s financial position. That’s why his morals and ideas about humanity are largely defined by being wealthy. For him, the horrors of other social classes and even death (like the death of Myrtle Wilson) are secondary concepts not worthy of his attention.
The external beauty of the Buchanan couple is contrasted with the ugliness inside of them, their emptiness, and their selfishness. Tom can spend long hours watching the shop windows, fascinated by the sparkles from the diamonds. Yet, he can’t hold a serious thought, even for a minute. Tom’s lack of development and personal progress throughout the pages of the book are set from the very first chapter, where the author presents him as: “…one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax”.
Jordan is described in the novel as a dishonest, selfish, overly ambitious, and even cruel woman. She is undeniably pretty and devotes a lot of effort into her looks. But once the reader gets past her looks, she is empty. The romantic involvement between her and Nick ends once the young man is able to see into her soul and discover her emptiness. The couple has a completely different approach to life. Nick is careful when thinking about how his actions might affect the people that surround him. At the same time Jordan couldn’t care less about how she might influence other people; she only cares about what others think of her.
Jordan is cynical and overly self-opinionated. She wants to win and doesn’t always play fair. The young lady is not as rich as her friend Daisy, and that’s why she is determined to do whatever it takes to make her way into the world of the rich and famous. The author stresses the dishonesty of Jordan – that she is willing to do whatever it takes to mold reality to the way she wants it to be.
Mr. Wolfsheim is a secondary character in the novel who is not described in depth by the author. On the contrary, through his lines, Meyer Wolfsheim delivers some valuable information about the past and present of other characters in the novel, like Nick Carraway. Meyer knows Gatsby through business ventures. Meyer is even assumed to play a great role in the 1919 World Series. The dealings of Mr. Wolfsheim are clearly shady, which also casts doubt about the legitimacy of Gatsby’s wealth.
Short Summary of The Great Gatsby Plot
The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, who is 30 years old and comes from a wealthy family. Chapter 1 tells us how he starts his business in credit dealings after returning from the war. He rented a house in West Egg across the bay from the house of his second cousin Daisy. Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan. Nick knows Tom from college, he spent some time with the couple in the past in Chicago. Tom is well-build physically and loaded financially to the point that “… he left Chicago and came east in a fashion that rather took your breath away: for instance he’d brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest. It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that” (Chapter 1). Tom started cheating on his wife right after the engagement, she knows about it, but they both seem to ignore it. Tom even introduces Nick to his lover Myrtle Wilson, who also happens to be the wife of Tom’s friend Wilson. In chapter 2 Tom explains the ignorance of Wilson:
“Wilson? He thinks she goes to see her sister in New York. He’s so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive.”
Next to Nick lives Jay Gatsby. His house is a huge villa that becomes flooded with people and parties every weekend. One day Nick gets an invitation to one of these parties. This is strange – usually people don’t wait for an invitation, they just show up. Not many of the people who attend the parties have seen the host, he remains a mystery to most of them. However, over time Nick becomes friends with Gatsby, and one day Jay asks Nick to set up an “accidental” meeting with his cousin Daisy.
Turns out Gatsby met Daisy five years ago when he was a lieutenant. The two fell in love, but the circumstances didn’t allow for them to be together. Right before marriage Daisy received a letter that almost made her call off the engagement. As one of her bridesmaids recalls in chapter 4:
“She wouldn’t let go of the letter… she didn’t say another word. We gave her spirits of ammonia and put ice on her forehead and hooked her back into her dress and half an hour later when we walked out of the room the pearls were around her neck and the incident was over. Next day at five o’clock she married Tom Buchanan without so much as a shiver and started off on a three months’ trip to the South Seas”.
When the old love birds meet for the first time after so many years, both are very emotional. Jay shows Daisy his house, they throw a couple of memories about, and the feelings ignite once again. Daisy begins to frequently attend Gatsby’s parties. He wants her to leave her husband and run away with him. Tom enters into a battle for his wife. One day his friend Wilson finds out that Myrtle is unfaithful, but he doesn’t know that she is cheating on him with Tom. When Wilson tells Tom that he wants to take Myrtle away from this city, Tom realizes that he is losing not only his wife, but also his mistress:
“Tom was feeling the hot whips of panic. His wife and his mistress, until an hour ago secure and inviolate, were slipping precipitately from his control” (Chapter 7).
Gatsby confronts Tom, telling him that Daisy has always loved him but only married Tom because Gatsby was poor when the two met. Trying to save his marriage, Tom tells Daisy that Jay’s income comes from a shady source to make her think twice before leaving her husband. Later, they take a trip. On their way home Daisy rides in a car with Gatsby, while everybody else is with Tom. At the same time, Myrtle argues with her husband and runs into the beige Rolls-Royce—thinking that it was Tom riding there. As a result, she gets run over and dies—the car doesn’t even stop. Afterwards, Jay tells Nick that it was Daisy driving the car.
Gatsby spends the whole following day next to Daisy’s mansion wanting to talk to her. Instead, Daisy packs her things and runs away with her husband, without leaving any address. In chapter 6 the reader finds out more about Gatsby’s life story: his real name is James Gatz. He changed his name at the age of 17 since “he had the name ready for a long time… The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself” (Chapter 6). Jay tells Nick about all the hardships he had to go through to become rich to finally be together with Daisy.
Tom tells Wilson that the car that killed his wife belongs to Gatsby. Having no hope for justice, he comes to Gatsby’s mansion, kills him, and then shoots himself as well. Nick calls all of the people who frequented Gatsby’s parties, but only three come to the funeral: Jay’s father, Nick, and one other party visitor. Everybody else ignores the funeral, as it is not as fun to attend them.
Themes in the Great Gatsby
The Roaring Twenties
After World War 1, 1919-1929 were years of rapid economic growth for the United States which ended in the Great Depression in the 1930s. To some extent, the consequences of such rapid growth and the sudden fall that happened afterwards are pictured in “The Great Gatsby”. The book demonstrates how easily people forget the past and become careless. For example, the people that took advantage of Gatsby’s hospitality repaid their host by not bothering to get to know him. And everybody was fine with that, there was no demand or value in being sincere, attentive, or honest.
The American Dream
Jay Gatsby represents the icon of the American dream concept – he is a self-made man who went from being extremely poor to becoming unbelievably rich.
“His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people — his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all” (Chapter 6)
Yet through his hard work, he made it into high-class. But did the achievement of materialistic things really make him happy? The novel ends with a philosophical quote that once again reiterates the transience of life:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Chapter 9).
Gatsby is not the last person to be swallowed and forgotten by a society of quick results and massive consumption, but maybe he was one of the better examples for teaching others to appreciate people for who they truly are.
Love is something that many books/movies/poems and other art creations praise. Love is what motivates Gatsby to achieve the wealth and high-status he enjoys when the reader meets him for the first time. But there is another side to the theme of love in “The Great Gatsby” – as it turns out, love can be true or fake. A person can fall in love with another person, but very often we fall in love with an image or ideal of the person that we want to believe in. While Jay has real feelings for Daisy, he admits that she loves money and comfort more than she loves him. Daisy thinks she loves Jay, but in fact, she is so overwhelmed by the artificial standards set by the society that she can’t even love herself.
Class (Old Money, New Money, No Money)
The novel demonstrates how much class influences one’s position in society. Tom and Daisy are both born into wealth, and their characters are formed by the benefits that their wealth produces. They are extremely reckless people that ruin people’s lives and then hide behind the wall of their wealth. Moreover, there is a distinction between people born into wealth and those who have earned it. First of all, the author manages to demonstrate a lot of positive traits in Gatsby’s character (exactly because he is of the “new money generation”). He knows the value of money and he has the goodness in him that helped him achieve his accomplishments. On the other hand, there is a prejudice of old money towards the new wealthy generation: Tom rushes to point out to Daisy that Jay is rich, but the origins of his wealth are different, and it rids Daisy of the little courage she had collected to leave her husband for Gatsby.
Past and Future
“The Great Gatsby” describes a happy time in American history that is distinctively different from the past (when there was war and horror) and the future of that time (when the Great Depression hit). This theme is reflected in characters that enjoy the present, without thinking about the future or any consequences their actions might take. Yet, some characters are stuck in the past—like Gatsby, who loves the Daisy he met years ago yet refuses to notice how she’s changed. The novel also sends a message to not judge people too quickly—all of us have some hidden truth that shaped the way we behave today.
Symbolism in the Great Gatsby
The Green Light and the Color Green
The green light, in “The Great Gatsby”, is associated with happiness, prosperity, and abundance. Traditionally, it is regarded as Gatsby’s desire to be with Daisy. But, there are other ways to interpret this symbol. The visitors would follow the flashing green light when coming to Gatsby’s lavish parties. Daisy often watched and listened to those parties while seeing the green glow on the dock across the bay. For Daisy, green was the color of richness and desire. She says in chapter 6:
“These things excite me so… If you want to kiss me any time during the evening, Nick, just let me know and I’ll be glad to arrange it for you. Just mention my name. Or present a green card. I’m giving out green…”
The light also symbolizes the birth and death of Gatsby: Jay Gatsby was reborn together with the luxurious living he had made for himself, but it wasn’t long until this new life had ended. As Nick says in chapter 1:
“Involuntarily I glanced seaward and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away… When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.”
The Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg
The eyes of Doctor Eckleburg are first presented in chapter 2:
“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic — their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose.”
They are nothing more than the leftovers of a portrait or a picture, but in the novel they represent the symbol of somebody who is watching over the main characters. The eyes don’t judge them, but the tension is there. The fact that these eyes are abandoned demonstrates how uncomfortable Daisy and the other main characters felt whilst seeing them. It is almost like looking in the mirror and not liking what you see – but, after all, it is you who gives the meaning to the image you see in it.
The Valley of Ashes
The Valley of Ashes is the territory that the main characters pass when traveling between West Egg and New York. It is a long stretch of devastated land that “hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile” (Chapter 2). It is associated with greyness, dullness, and boredom. The people, houses, and streets there are so uninteresting and ordinary that the author describes it as: “ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air” (chapter 2). It is the place that all of the characters of The Great Gatsby want to avoid the most, yet they have to bypass it when traveling to New York. Thus, The Valley of Ashes is a symbol of the bitter reality that so many people try to escape in their lives.
East and West
The contrasts and dramatic differences between East and West in the USA are not new symbols for literature. The East, in this case, represents wealth, fame, and brightness. The West represents tradition, origins, and values. In the story, East Egg is the place where traditionally, rich people lived. While West Egg is, in Nick’s own words, “the less fashionable of the two” (Chapter 1). Another way to interpret this symbol is that East and West represent the old and new wealth, or the real and fake lives characters lead.
Gatsby’s mansion is the place where most of the action starts. It is the symbol of his wealth and his hard efforts to become rich or to be “worthy” – worthy of Daisy, and worthy of the people she surrounds herself with. Gatsby bought this mansion knowing that the love of his life lives nearby:
“He had waited five years and bought a mansion where he dispensed starlight to casual moths so that he could “come over” some afternoon to a stranger’s garden” (Chapter 4).
The mansion is marvelous and beautiful, but it is not a home where Jay Gatsby feels most happy. Thus, it also resembles many of the characters in the book – they are pretty on the outside, but that doesn’t make them good people. Many of Gatsby’s guests know his mansion, but don’t even know what its owner looks like.