By Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Type of Work
The Great Gatsby was published in New York in April 1925 by Charles Scribner's Sons.
The story takes place in the wealthy Long Island communities of West Egg and East Egg (both fictional), about twenty miles east of Manhattan. Author Fitzgerald once lived on Long Island in the village of Great Neck, Nassau County, on the north shore of the island.
The year is 1922, a time of economic prosperity and epochal social change. The workday has shortened while take-home pay has increased. Old social and cultural conventions are dying and new ones taking their place. Many women, for example, retain their jobs in the work place after the Great War (World War I) had forced them into the labor force. And all women now have the right to vote, causing them to view themselves as the equals of men. Some women even adopt masculine fashions and ways.
Prohibition of alcoholic beverages—which begins in 1920 by government mandate after being pushed by religious fundamentalists—has spawned a vast illegal trade in bootleg whiskey, thereby incubating organized crime. The advent of mass-produced automobiles changes the way people travel and where they live and work. At the same time, racism and jingoism are on the rise to counteract gains by non-whites and the assimilation of foreigners.
Among the major events of 1922 were the following:
Jay Gatsby: The main character of the novel, who has made a fortune selling illegal whiskey. He was born James Gatz to a poor farm couple in North Dakota. At seventeen, he changes his name to Jay Gatsby as he severs ties with his humble beginnings and dreams of a better day. His job with a millionaire yacht owner teaches him how to make money. While serving in the U.S. Army, he falls in love with Daisy Fay, but she marries the scion of a wealthy family after Gatsby goes overseas. After Gatsby returns, he pursues his dream: to make a fortune that enables him to reclaim Daisy Fay (now Daisy Buchanan).
Nick Carraway: The narrator of the novel. A Minnesota native, he is imbued with Midwestern values and relocates to the New York area to work in the bond business. He is Daisy’s cousin and becomes entwined with her life and Gatsby’s.
Daisy Fay Buchanan: Beautiful young woman who rejects Gatsby and marries wealthy Tom Buchanan, then has an affair with Gatsby. She is shallow and immature, although Gatsby thinks she is the ideal woman. Daisy seems bored with life, saying, “I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.” Although unhappy in her marriage and her privileged lifestyle, she is unwilling to give up either.
Tom Buchanan: Daisy’s boorish and bigoted husband, who comes from a fabulously wealthy Chicago family. He is arrogant and condescending. At Yale, where he was an outstanding football end, many of his fellow students despised him.
Jordan Baker: A professional golfer and friend of Daisy. She is cynical and independent, an emancipated woman of the 1920's.
Myrtle Wilson: Tom Buchanan’s sensuous mistress who lives in a lower-class section of Queens. She is envious of Daisy.
George Wilson: Myrtle’s husband. He runs an auto shop over which he and his wife live in an apartment. Tom Buchanan treats him condescendingly. Eventually Wilson discovers that his wife is having an affair, but he is not sure with who.
Meyer Wolfsheim: Notorious mobster who befriends Gatsby and apparently is involved with Gatsby in illegal enterprises. Gatsby based Wolfsheim's character on that of the real-life mobster Arnold Rothstein (1882-1928), a bootlegger and shady businessman who was said to have fixed the 1919 World Series between the American League's Chicago White Sox and the National League's Cincinnati Reds.
Henry Gatz: Father of Jay Gatsby. When he arrives in New York to attend his son's funeral, he says, "If he'd of lived he'd of been a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He'd of helped build up the country.
Dan Cody: Millionaire who owns a yacht on which Gatsby worked when he was a teenager. From Cody, Gatsby learned how to make money. Cody is referred to in the novel but does not appear as an active character.
Catherine: Myrtle Wilson's sister. She attends a small get-together at Tom Buchanan's apartment in New York City. Also there are Tom, Myrtle, Nick Carraway, and Mr. and Mrs. McKee, who live in the building. When the conversation focuses on Gatsby, Catherine says she heard that he is a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm.
Mr. and Mrs. Chester McKee: Residents of a New York City building where Tom Buchanan has an apartment. McKee, who describes himself as being "in the artistic game," is a photographer.
Walter Chase: Friend of Tom Buchanan who made money in one of Gatsby's bootlegging operations. Chase is referred to in the novel but does not appear as an active character.
Michaelis: Witness at the inquest inquiring into the death of Myrtle Wilson.
Negro: Man who identifies the color of the car that struck Myrtle Wilson.
Klipsinger: Man who calls Nick Carraway after Gatsby's death and says Gatsby had his tennis shoes. He wants them back.
Visitors to Gatsby's House: Various businessmen, entertainers, politicians, most of whom are mentioned but do not appear as active characters in the novel.
Point of View
Nick Carraway tells the story in first-person point of view. In describing and analyzing the characters, he sometimes relies on second-hand information, or hearsay, that he is unable to verify. For this reason, analysts of the novel sometimes refer to him as an unreliable narrator. However, he seems to do the best he can. His account, his commentary, and his interaction with the characters make him resemble the chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy.
Nick—instilled with the Midwestern values of honesty, loyalty, and sincerity—is embarking on a career in the bond business in New York. He is a new breed of American pioneer—one who travels east, not west, to build a life. In contrast to the West of the nineteenth century, however, the east of the twentieth century is hardly virgin territory; rather, it is a great plain of concrete, steel, motor cars, smoke, wealth, corruption, deception.
Unlike other West Egg residents, Nick can move in East Egg society, for his cousin, the beautiful socialite Daisy Fay Buchanan, resides in East Egg with her husband, Tom, himself a Yale graduate. The Buchanans live in a Georgian colonial mansion with a front lawn that runs a quarter mile down to the bay. Tom, who inherited his wealth, is a pushy ex-football player (one of the best ends in Yale history) who believes in class distinctions and the subjugation of non-whites. When Nick dines with the Buchanans in their elegant home, he meets an intriguing guest, Jordan Baker, a friend of Daisy. Jordan, a professional golfer, is cynical and self-centered and once cheated to win a golf match, but she is also intelligent and attractive. Nick is drawn to her. During small talk, she mentions Nick’s neighbor.
“You must know Gatsby?”
“Don’t talk,” Jordan says. “I want to listen.”
When Nick asks why she wants to eavesdrop, Jordan tells him that “Tom’s got some woman in New York.” Her name is Myrtle Wilson, who lives in a shabby New York suburb near railroad tracks. Apparently it is she who called Tom. Shortly after Tom and Daisy return to the table, the phone rings again and Tom answers it.
Meanwhile, Daisy, who speaks in a “low, thrilling voice,” tells Nick that since she last saw him she has become “cynical about everything.” When Nick asks about her three-year-old child, Daisy talks about the day the baby was born, when “Tom was God knows where.” When she found out it was a girl, she says, this was thought that
crossed her mind: “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Daisy is primarily a supervisor or guardian in her child’s upbringing, for her servants tend to the routine but important tasks of daily child care.
One Sunday afternoon, Tom persuades Nick—in fact, almost forces him—to accompany him on a train trip to Manhattan . When the train stops in the borough of Queens to take on passengers, Tom insists that they get off so Nick can meet Myrtle Wilson, who lives nearby. They are in “the valley of the ashes,” an industrial district
whose houses huddle under layers of soot from passing trains. Near a billboard advertisement displaying the glaring eyes of T.J. Eckleberg, an ophthalmologist, they enter a yellow brick building housing the auto-repair shop of Myrtle’s husband, George B. Wilson. The Wilsons live in an apartment above the shop. While Tom and George discuss a car Tom plans to sell him, Myrtle slinks down into
the shop. She is in her thirties and has a sensuous—if somewhat stout—figure. When George goes to get chairs for his guests, Tom tells Myrtle to meet him down the road for a trip into city.
Eventually Nick receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s grand soirées. An orchestra plays, old men dance with young girls, a tenor sings Italian songs, a contralto sings jazz, and champagne arrives in glasses “bigger than finger bowls.” While seated at a table with Jordan Baker, a man comes over and says he
“Why, yes,” Nick says. “I was in the Ninth Machine-gun battalion.”
The man tells him he was in the Seventh Infantry until June 1918. After they talk for a while about “gray little villages in France,” Nick discovers he is speaking with Gatsby, a handsome man who smiles “with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.”
Jay Gatsby is young—not much more than thirty—and something of an oxymoron—an “elegant . . . rough-neck,” as narrator Nick describes him—and he speaks with a British accent, referring often to his interlocutors as “old sport.” Gatsby, who met Daisy in Louisville in 1917 and fell in love with her, yearns to be reunited with her. His conspicuous lifestyle and lavish parties are designed to show Daisy that he can move in the same lofty social plane as the Buchanans and the other East Egg residents.
When Gatsby later visits Nick at his home, he tells Nick that he is from a well-to-do San Francisco family, that he studied at Oxford University in England, that he lived for a while in the capitals of Europe, that he collected jewels and hunted big game, and that he served in the Great War, earning a medal for valor in
Montenegro. After the visit, Nick has lunch in New York with Gatsby, and Gatsby introduces him to Meyer Wolfsheim, a shadowy character who may have mob connections. Gatsby gets up to make a phone call, and Nick and Wolfsheim talk at length—about Gatsby and about trivialities, including Wolfsheim’s cuff links, which he says are human molars. After Wolfsheim leaves, Gatsby tells Nick that Wolfsheim
is a gambler and is the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. He didn’t get caught, Gatsby says, because “He’s a smart man.”
Gatsby reunites with Daisy at Nick’s, and he escorts her through the mansion and shows her his possessions. The meeting is uncomfortable, awkward. Nevertheless, they fall in love all over again. To Gatsby, Daisy is perfect, flawless. He fails to realize that she is timorous, hesitant, and well ensconced in her East Egg
lifestyle. To Daisy, Gatsby is a welcome change from her churlish husband. They carry on an affair and, for a short time, they are happy.
When the Buchanans host Gatsby, Nick, and Jordan at a luncheon in their home, Daisy, restless, suggests that they all go into New York City. While the women go upstairs to get ready, Tom fetches a bottle of whiskey to take along. When Tom suggests that he and Gatsby switch cars, with Tom driving Gatsby’s “circus wagon” and Gatsby driving Tom’s coupe—Daisy decides to ride with Gatsby while Nick and Jordan ride with Tom. Before getting in with Gatsby, Daisy runs her hand over his coat. It is a small but revealing gesture. After Tom drives off he says, “Did you see that?” When they react as if they don’t know what he’s talking about—which they do, of course, for they were the ones who set up the affair between Gatsby and Daisy—Tom says, “You think I’m pretty dumb, don’t you?” Then he says he has been investigating Gatsby and begins criticizing him as a phony. Jordan asks why he invited Gatsby to lunch.
“Daisy invited him,” Tom says. “She knew him before we were married—God knows where!”
Because Gatsby’s car is low on gas, Tom pulls in to get some at George Wilson’s garage. When Wilson pumps the gas, he tells Tom that he plans to go West with Myrtle. At that moment, Gatsby and Daisy pass by in the coupe. Nick realizes why Wilson wants to leave the New York area: He has discovered that Myrtle has been having an
affair, although Wilson does not know with whom. Tom is crestfallen. In a single afternoon, he appears to have lost his wife and his mistress.
Tom says, “Self-control! “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife!”
“Your wife doesn’t love you,” says Gatsby. “She’s never loved you. She loves me. . . . She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me.”
Daisy denies that she ever loved Tom, then later recants: “I did love him once.”
Tom says, “There’re things between Daisy and me you’ll never know.”
Gatsby asks to speak to Daisy alone, but she says, “Even alone I can’t say I never loved Tom.”
Tom says he knows Gatsby has connections with Meyer Wolfsheim, saying Gatsby and Wolfsheim sold bootleg grain alcohol in New York and Chicago. Gatsby defends himself, but Daisy begins to withdraw from him into an emotional cocoon. After the "party" breaks up, Gatsby and Daisy drive back to East Egg, this time in Gatsby’s car.
Daisy is at the wheel. In the other car, Nick, who has just turned thirty, is happy to have Jordan Baker beside him leaning against his shoulder. She is too smart to put faith in wild dreams from one year to the next, he believes.
After Tom arrives home, his butler calls a taxi for Nick. While Nick is waiting for it outside, Gatsby steps out of the bushes and tells Nick what happened. Although Daisy was driving the death car, he says, he will say he was. He is waiting there on the Buchanan property in case Tom tries to give Daisy trouble. She will turn the light on and off in that event. Nick checks the house and finds that Daisy and Tom are sitting quietly together, with Tom’s hand covering Daisy’s.
The next day, George Wilson—distraught and disoriented—goes to Gatsby’s house. Gatsby is in his swimming pool lounging on a pneumatic mattress. Wilson shoots and kills Gatsby, then turns the gun on himself. Nick later discovers that it was Tom Buchanan who told Wilson that Gatsby was the driver of the car. Daisy never does
anything to correct the lie or salvage Gatsby’s reputation. Nor does she attend Gatsby’s funeral. Only Gatsby’s father and several servants are there. Meyer Wolfsheim, however, sends his condolences in a message, saying "This has been one of the most terrible shocks of my life. . . .If there is anything I can do a little later let me know."
Months later, when Nick meets Tom on a street, he pries the truth from Tom—that it was indeed he who told Wilson that Gatsby was driving the car that killed Myrtle. (Actually, Tom says, he told Wilson that Gatsby owned the car, but it was the same as if he had told Wilson that Gatsby was the driver.) Nick cannot forgive Buchanan for what he did, but he does believe that Buchanan thinks he was entirely justified in blaming Gatsby. Nick also observed, "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."Nick returns to the Midwest, disheartened by the corrupt values of easterners—including Jordan Baker—and the false dreams that occupy them.
The Death of a Dream
Gatsby dreams of one day being reunited with Daisy Buchanan. To win her back, he makes a fortune—apparently through dealings with mobsters—so that he can compete in the moneyed world of Daisy. But though his wealth buys him a place in elite society, it cannot buy him Daisy. Ultimately, he becomes a man who has everything but ends up with nothing.
The Death of an Ideal
After Europeans colonized America, the New World offered them the dream of a better life if they worked at honest jobs and held fast to noble goals and ideals. Everyone had a chance to fulfill his dream, for everyone was equal. In The Great Gatsby, the central characters achieve wealth and social status. But their craving for material possessions and high living overcomes the desire to aspire to noble ideals. Racism and snobbery obviate equality. Selfishness undermines selflessness.
.Corruption in Capitalist America
The First World War made America a powerful nation, not only militarily but also economically. Factories mass-produced cars, radios, telephones, kitchen appliances, and other goods. Jobs opened at home, and markets for American-made products opened abroad. Hollywood and the entertainment industry flourished. Even gangsters thrived, thanks in part to the Volstead Act, a new law passed to enforce the 18th Amendment prohibition of the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages. Mobs circumvented the law, making and selling booze on a large scale at speakeasies (nightclubs that served the liquor) and bribing many police officers to look the other way.
In the meantime, America's well-to-do bought what they wanted: new homes, fast cars, the latest fashions. And they threw parties, like those at Gatsby's, where they consumed illegal gin and whiskey, danced to the hottest jazz, gossiped, met paramours, and made shady business deals. It is this self-indulgent, materialistic, corrupt society that Fitzgerald holds up to public view in The Great Gatsby.
What Money Cannot Buy: Happiness
Gatsby and the Buchanans have everything that they want materially but little, if anything, spiritually. Gatsby tries to buy the one thing that will make him happy, the love of Daisy, but fails. Meyer Wolfsheim (representing the real-life Arnold Rothstein) attempts to buy the 1919 World Series, bribing Chicago White Sox players to throw the series. Although the novel does not discuss at length the series and its outcome, readers of Fitzgerald's novel well knew all the details. After the series, suspicions of a fix surfaced, and four of the eight players who reportedly accepted bribes admitted their guilt to a grand jury. In a trial, the accused players were acquitted because key evidence could not be found. However, the baseball commissioner forbade all eight players—including one of the greatest players in the history of baseball, Shoeless Joe Jackson—from ever playing professional baseball again.
Tom Buchanan, Daisy Buchanan, and Jordan Baker all act irresponsibly. Born into wealthy families that saw to their every need, they expect others—such as servants and friends—to look out for their welfare while they go their merry way. Jordan Baker drives carelessly and expects others to get out of the way. Daisy shirks her responsibility as a mother. Tom cheats on his wife with Myrtle Wilson and openly crows about his affair. Nick Carraway says of the Buchanans, "They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made."
Near the end of the novel, Daisy strikes and kills Myrtle Wilson in a hit-and-run accident while driving home from New York in Gatsby's car. Gatsby is in a passenger seat. But Daisy never admits that she was at the wheel when the accident occurred. Tom Buchanan, who knows all the details of the accident, implicates Gatsby when talking with Myrtle's husband, George Wilson. So Gatsby takes the blame—and dies at the hands of Wilson.
Many Americans of the 1920's were openly bigoted against blacks, Jews, Roman Catholics, and other racial, ethnic, and religious groups. When Nick Carraway is a dinner guest at the Buchanan home, Tom Buchanan exhibits bigotry when he discusses a book he is reading, The Rise of the Coloured Empires. Of the author, he says, "This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It's up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things." At a small party in Tom's New York City apartment, Mrs. Lucille McKee, one of the guests, observes, "I almost married a little kyke who'd been after me for years. I knew he was below me. Everybody kept saying to me: 'Lucille, that man's way below you!' But if I hadn't met Chester, he'd of got me sure." Kyke (or kike) is a deeply insulting slang term for a Jew.
The climax of the novel occurs during an argument between Gatsby and Buchanan over Daisy, who admits that she once loved Tom. Gatsby says he wants to speak to Daisy alone, but Daisy immediately says “Even alone I can’t say I never loved Tom."
Writing and Plotting
About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where 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. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.Many critics praise the tight plot structure of The Great Gatsby. However, the story line is not without contrivances, such as the accident in which Myrtle Wilson runs in front of Gatsby’s car—conveniently driven by Daisy—at precisely the right moment. Here, Fitzgerald’s puppet strings are entirely visible.
Irony, Paradox, and Oxymoron
In addition to metaphor and simile (see "Writing and Plotting," above), Fitzgerald uses irony, paradox, and oxymoron effectively throughout the novel. Gatsby, for example, is "elegant," but he is also a "rough-neck." Another example of paradox is this observation by Jordan Baker: “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”
Although many people attend Gatsby's parties—which are indeed large—few attend his funeral. Tom, an upper-class snob, keeps a lower-class mistress. In the climactic scene in a hotel room in which Gatsby and Tom exchange verbal thrusts and parries, the relationships between Gatsby and Daisy, Nick and Jordan, and Tom and Myrtle end. Meanwhile, in the room below, a wedding is taking place, representing a new beginning. An implied oxymoron is that Daisy Buchanan is a "free prisoner"—that is, she has the money and opportunity to do anything she wants but is unable to liberate herself from her unhappy marriage and circumscribed lifestyle.
Gatsby's lavish parties the lengths to which he will go to impress others--in particular Daisy Buchanan. They also serve to underscore the dissipation of the young people who come to feed at the Gatsby trough. In the beginning of Chapter 3, narrtor Carraway describes what it was like at Gatsbys's when people gathered there to drink and romp through all hours of the day and night.There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.Several paragraphs later, Carraway says, At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby's enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d'oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.Many of the partygoers don't even know Gatsby; they're there just to take advantage of his freely given bounty. Carpe diem rules. Carraway notes, I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby's house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited--they went there. They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island and somehow they ended up at Gatsby's door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission.One partygoer, Lucille, says, "I like to come. I never care what I do, so I always have a good time. When I was here last I tore my gown on a chair, and he asked me my name and address--inside of a week I got a package from Croirier's with a new evening gown in it."
East Egg, Long Island: This community, where the Buchanans reside, represents the long-established aristocrats, or "old money." Its residents generally are corrupt and jaded..Author Information
West Egg, Long Island: This community, where Gatsby and Nick Carraway reside, represents the nouveaux riches, or "new money." Its residents tend to be regarded as upstart outsiders by the East Egg crowd.
The Green Light: It represents Gatsby’s dreams and gives him the go-ahead to pursue them.
The Valley of the Ashes: This lower-class section of Queens is so named because of the soot deposited there by passing steam locomotives. The valley represents the corruption that the upper-class characters inflict on society.
The Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, Ophthalmologist: Displayed prominently on a billboard, they apparently represent the eyes of God watching the characters play out the drama.
The Weather: It represents the shifting moods of the characters. For example, Gatsby and Tom angrily confront each other in a hotel room on the hottest day of the year.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (full name: Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald), the son of Catholic parents, was named after Francis Scott Key, one of his ancestors. He attended Catholic schools and considered becoming a priest before entering Princeton University. He drew upon his own background to mold the characters in The Great Gatsby.
Like the narrator, Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald was born and reared in Minnesota, attended an Ivy League university, and moved to the northern shore of Long Island, New York. Like the protagonist, Gatsby, he served in the U.S. Army, fell in love while stationed in the South, and traveled abroad. Like Gatsby's antagonist, Tom Buchanan, an outstanding football player at Yale University, Fitzgerald liked football. However, because he was too short and too light, he could not play for Princeton. Like the partygoers at Gatsby's mansion, Fitzgerald—and his wife, Zelda—lived the high life, drinking to excess, traveling, and moving among the chic and sophisticated.
Fitzgerald was both repelled by and attracted to the fast life of the Roaring Twenties. Celebrated American playwright Tennessee Williams wrote a stage drama, Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980), about Zelda Fitgerald and her life. John Peale Bishop, who attended Princeton when F. Scott Fitzgerald was there, wrote an elegy, "Hours," about Fitzgerald.
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