Jay Gatsby (James Gatz): The title of this novel is The Great Gatsby.
If you like paradoxes, start with this one: he is neither great nor Gatsby (his
real name was Gatz). He is a crook, a bootlegger who has involved himself with
Meyer Wolfsheim, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. He has committed crimes
in order to buy the house he feels he needs to win the woman he loves, who happens
to b e another man's wife. Thus a central question for us as readers is, why
should we love such a man? Or, to put it in other word, what makes Gatsby great?
Why, despite all these things, does Fitzgerald invite us to cry out with Nick,
"'They're a rotten crowd '... 'You're worth the whole damn bunch put together.'"?
We are asked to love Gatsby, even admire him to a point, because of his dream.
That dream is what separates Gatsby from what Nick calls the "foul dust
[that] floated in the wake of his dreams..." It is not merely what is
known as the American Dream of Success--the belief that every man can rise
to success no matter what his beginnings. It is a kind of romantic idealism,
"some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life," Nick calls
it. It is a belief in fairytales and princesses and happy endings, a faith
that life can be special, remarkable, beautiful. Gatsby is not interested
in power for its own sake or in money or prestige. What he wants is his dream,
and that dream is embodied in Daisy. He must have her, and, as the novel's
epigraph on the title page suggests, he will do anything that is required
in order to win her.
But dreams don't always show on the outside. The Great Gatsby is a kind of
mystery story with Gatsby as the mystery. Who is he? A ll the way through
the novel people keep asking that question and answering it falsely. They
answer it falsely because they aren't really interested in who Gatsby is.
They have heard things about him--that he killed a man, that he was a German
spy in World War I--and they pass these bits of gossip on to other people.
So the myth of Gatsby--the collection of false stories about him--hides the
Gatsby that we come gradually to know through the efforts of Nick Carraway.
Nick genuinely cares who Gatsby is, and in Chapters IV, VI, VIII, and IX he
presents us with the story of Gatsby's past as he has learned it from Jordan
Baker, from Gatsby himself, and eventually, from Gatsby's father.
No one else but Nick knows or understands Gatsby's background except maybe
hi s father and Owl Eyes--and they, significantly, are the only ones present
at his funeral. Fitzgerald invites us to share Nick's understanding of Gatsby
as we read the novel. He makes us see behind the surface of the man who at
first glance looks like a young roughneck. And he forces us to ask, as we
finish the book, what this dream is that Gatsby has dedicated himself to.
Is it a worthwhile dream? Is it our dream, too? Can we love Gatsby and be
critical of his dream at the same time? Fitzgerald makes us as k these questions
and then lets us find our own answers.
Nick Carraway: Nick Carraway is the narrator of The Great Gatsby;
he is also a character in the novel. When you think about him, you have to
think about what Fitzgerald is using him for. You also have to look at him
as a person.
Nick, is first of all, Fitzgerald's means of making his story more realistic.
Because Nick is experiencing events and telling us about them in his own words,
we're more likely to believe the story. After a while we almost begin to experience
the events a s Nick does; the I of each of us as readers replaces the I of
Nick. (For more details, see "Point of View.")
Nick is a narrator whose values you should have no trouble identifying or
at least sympathizing with. He's not mad or blind to what's going on around
him. He's a pretty solid young man who has graduated from Yale University,
served his country in the First World War, and decided to go into the bond
business. He comes from a solid Midwestern family, from whom he has learned
some pretty basic values. He is honest, but not Puritanical or narrow minded.
He is tolerant, understanding, and not hasty to judge people. He is the sort
of person you might talk to if you wanted a sympathetic ear. But his toleration
has limits. He doesn't approve of everything.
These are some of the qualities that make Nick a reliable narrator, someone
whose story we are likely to believe. It seems often that his values are pretty
close to those of the author.
Nick is in a perfect position to tell the story. He is a cousin of Daisy
Buchanan's, he was in the same senior society as Tom Buchanan at Yale, and
he has rented, during the summer of 1922, a house right next to Jay Gatsby.
He knows all the characters well enough to be present at the crucial scenes
in the novel. The information he doesn't have but needs in order to tell his
story, he gets from other characters like Jordan Baker, the Greek restaurant
owner Michaelis, and Gatsby himself. Nick knows things because people confess
to him, and people confess to him because he is tolerant, understanding, and
Nick has that capacity, which Fitzgerald felt was so terribly important (see
The Author and His Times), of holding two contradictory opinions at the same
time. He both admires Gatsby and disapproves of him. He admires Gatsby both
because of his dream and because of his basic innocence; and he disapproves
of Gatsby for his vulgar materialism and his corrupt business practices. (Nick
does not want to become involved with Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby's underworld
One of the things that makes Nick special is that he understands Gatsby.
Nobody else in the novel-not even Daisy-really understands him. Nick is, at
the novel's end, Gatsby's only friend, even though he disapproves of many
things which Gatsby stands for. Almost nobody comes to Gatsby's funeral, and
if it weren't for Nick, there would probably not even have been a funeral.
Would you have gone?
Some readers think Nick is too sympathetic to Gatsby. They think that Nick
ought to be mature enough to see w hat is wrong with Gatsby's dream. They
feel that Nick should be more critical of Gatsby, and force us as readers
to be more critical, too. They believe that Nick in the closing pages, is
too sentimental and that his judgment is not as reliable as we might think.
There's no critical agreement on this issue, so you'll have to make up your
own minds as you read the book.
As you're deciding about Nick's powers of judgment--particularly in the opening
and closing pages where he talks about himself--keep in mind that Nick is
a Midwesterner and his values are colored by the values of the world in which
he grew up.
Many readers have remarked that the novel is based on a contrast between
the solid, traditional, conservative Midwest and the glamorous, glittering,
fastpaced world of the East. Nick (like Scott Fitzgerald, his creator) is
from Minnesota. He comes East to experience the new and exciting world of
New York that is very different from Minneapolis, St. Paul. At the end, he
chooses to leave the East and return to the Midwest. By that choice he seems
to be saying to us that he has tried the East and found it missing something
he needs: a basic set of values. So he goes home, where values still exist.
Think about the two worlds--the Midwest and the East and what they represented
for Nick (and by extension, Fitzgerald) and what they might represent for
Tom Buchanan: Tom Buchanan, Nick tells us, "had been one of the
most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven--a national figure
in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one
that everything afterward savors of anticlimax." He is also very wealthy,
having brought a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest to Long Island. This
double power--the size of his body and his bankroll--colors our feelings about
Because he is both very strong and very rich, Tom is used to having his own
way. Nick describes him as having "a rather hard mouth" and "two
shining arrogant eyes." When we first meet him in Chapter I, he reveals
his crude belief in his own superiority by telling Nick that he has just read
a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires. The book warns that if white
people are not careful, the black races will rise up and overwhelm them. Tom
clearly believes it.
Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, the wife of George Wilson, who
runs a garage in the valley of ashes. Myrtle seems to have a dark sexual vitality
that attracts Tom, and he keeps an apartment for her in New York, where he
takes Nick in Chapter II. Here he again shows how little he thinks of anyone
beside himself when he casually breaks Myrtle's nose with the back of his
hand, because she is shouting "Daisy! Daisy!" in a vulgar fashion.
Between Chapters II and VII we see little of Tom, but in Chapter VII he emerges
as a central figure. It is Tom who pushes the affair between Gatsby and Daisy
out into the open by asking Gatsby point blank, "'What kind of a row
are you trying to cause in my house anyway?" It is Tom who verbally outduels
Gatsby to win his wife back and deflate his rival's dream. And it is Tom who,
after the death of Myrtle Wilson, tells George Wilson that Gatsby was the
killer and then hustles Daisy out of the area until the affair blows over.
Fitzgerald describes Tom and Daisy as careless people who break things and
then retreat into their wealth and let other people clean up their messes.
It's a particularly apt metaphor for Tom, who cannot understand why Nick should
have any ill feelings about Gatsby's death. After all, Tom was only protecting
his wife. Nick shakes hands with Tom in the final chapter because "...I
saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified." Yet Tom's
behavior was not justifiable, and when Nick refers to the "foul dust"
that floated in the wake of Gatsby's dream, he seems to be speaking of Tom
Buchanan more than anyone else. It is Tom as much as anyone who sends Nick
back to the Midwest, where there are still values one can believe in.
Daisy Fay Buchanan: She was born Daisy Fay in Louisville, Kentucky,
and her favorite color is white. When Jordan Baker, in Chapter IV, tells Nick
about the first meeting between Gatsby and Daisy in October 1917, she says
of Daisy, "She dressed in white, and had a little white roadster, and
all day long the telephone rang in her house and excited young officers from
Camp Taylor demanded the privilege of monopolizing her that night."
Throughout The Great Gatsby Daisy is described almost in fairytale language.
The name Fay means "fairy" or "sprite." "Daisy,"
of course, suggests the flower, fresh and bright as spring, yet fragile and
without the strength to resist the heat and dryness of summer.
Daisy is the princess in the tower, the golden girl that every man dreams
of possessing. She is beautiful and rich and innocent and pure (at least on
the surface) in her whiteness. But that whiteness, as you will notice, is
mixed with the yellow of gold and the inevitable corruption that money brings.
Though Daisy seems pure and white, she is a mixture of things, just like the
flower for which she was named (see Schneider in "Critics").
Fitzgerald suggests the nature of this mixture beautifully in the famous
passage from Chapter VII about her voice:
"She's got an indiscreet voice," I remarked. "It's full of-"
"Her voice is full of money," he said suddenly.
That was it. I'd never understood it before. It was full of money--that was
the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals'
song of it.... High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl....
Like money, Daisy promises more than she gives. Her voice seems to offer
everything, but she's born to disappoint. She is the sort of person who is
better to dream about than to actually possess. Fitzgerald--with that double
vision we discussed in The Author and His Times section of this guide--knew
very well both the attractions and the limitations of women like Daisy, who
is modeled in many ways upon his wife Zelda.
Gatsby worships Daisy, and Nick distrusts her--just a s Scott both worshipped
and distrusted Zelda. Gatsby loves Daisy too much to see what is wrong with
her. Nick stands back and sees the way Daisy lets other people take care of
her in crises. If you want to study the nature of Daisy's weakness, look especially
at her behavior on the night before her wedding and on the night of Myrtle
Wilson's death. Daisy, unlike Tom, uses her money rather than her body or
her personality to bully others. She uses her money to protect her from reality,
and when reality threatens to hurt her, she cries and goes inside the protective
womb her money has made.
Be careful not to identify Daisy with the green light at the end of her dock.
The green light is the promise, the dream. Daisy herself is much less than
that. Even Gatsby must realize that having Daisy in the flesh is much, much
less than what he imagined it would be when he fell in love with the idea
of her. Daisy is insubstantial, a careless woman who uses her frail appearance
as an excuse for immaturity. She kills Myrtle Wilson while driving Gatsby's
Jordan Baker: A longtime friend of Daisy, Jordan Baker is a professional
golfer. Her most striking quality is her dishonesty. She is tough and aggressive--a
tournament golfer who is so hardened by competition that she is willing to
do anything to win. At the end of Chapter IV, when Nick is telling us about
Jordan, he remembers a story about her first major tournament. Apparently
she moved her ball to improve her lie (!), but when the matter was being investigated,
the caddy and the only other witness to the incident retracted their stories
and nothing was proved against her. The incident should stay with you throughout
the novel, reminding you (a s it reminds Nick) that Jordan is the smart new
woman, the opportunist who will do whatever she must to be successful in her
In many ways Jordan Baker symbolizes a new type of woman that was emerging
in the Twenties. She is hard and self-sufficient, and she adopts whatever
morals suit her situation. She has cut herself off from the older generation.
She wears the kind of clothes that suit her; she smokes, she drinks, and has
sex because she enjoys them. You may wish to explore Jordan as the new woman
of the Twenties by looking at the manners and character traits she reveals.
Note such things as her name (a masculine name), her body (hard, athletic,
boyish, small-breasted), her style (blunt, cynical, bored), and her social
background (she is cut off from past generations by having almost no family).
Another important aspect of Jordan is her function in the novel. Fitzgerald
needs her to get the story told. Because she is Daisy's friend from Louisville,
she can supply Nick with information he would not have otherwise. She also
serves as a link between the major characters, moving back and forth between
the world of East Egg (Tom and Daisy's house) and West Egg (Gatsby's and Nick's
houses). She is rich enough to be comfortable among the East Eggers but enough
of a social hustler to appear at Gatsby's parties.
Jordan serves still another purpose: Nick's girlfriend during the summer
of 1922. The Nick-Jordan romance serves as a nice sub-plot to the Gatsby-Jordan
relationship, and allows you to compare and contrast a romantic-idealistic
love with a very practical relationship made on a temporary basis by two worldly
people of the time.
If you want to explore the Nick-Jordan relationship and the possible reasons
why Nick becomes involved with her and then breaks the relationship off, you'll
need to look particularly at three passages: Nick's comments toward the end
of Chapter III; the phone call between Nick and Jordan in Chapter VIII; and
their final conversation in Chapter IX. We'll take a close look at these passages
Myrtle Wilson: An earthy, vital and voluptuous woman, Myrtle is the
wife of George Wilson, a mechanic whom she does not love. She has been having
a long-term affair with Tom Buchanan, and is incredibly jealous of Daisy.
She dies when, after a fight with her husband, she runs out into the street
and is hit by Gatsby's car.
George B. Wilson: The husband of Myrtle Wilson, he is a glum, impoverished man content in his existence until he suspects that his wife is having an affair with Tom. After she is killed, Wilson goes on a murderous rampage, shooting Jay Gatsby before committing suicide himself.
Meyer Wolfsheim: A notorious underworld figure involved in organized crime, Wolfsheim is a business associate of Gatsby. A character specifically drawn from Roaring Twenties society, Wolfsheim is a mix of barbarism and refinement (his cufflinks are made from human molars), and he even claims credit for fixing the 1919 World Series. However, he is one of the few acquaintances of Gatsby who shows any concern or compassion after his murder, in contrast to the better-bred Buchanans.
Henry Gatz: He is Gatsby's father, an elderly man who would have been condemned to poverty without his son's care. Gatz tells Nick about his son's grand plans and dedication to self-improvement.
Dan Cody: A wealthy man who gained his fortune from the gold rush, he was Gatsby's mentor when Gatsby was a young man and gave him a taste of elite society. When he died, he left Gatsby some money, but Cody's ex-wife claims it after his death.
Michaelis: Greek man and neighbor of Wilson who consoles him after Myrtle is killed.
Catherine: The sister of Myrtle Wilson who lives in New York City. Tom, Myrtle and Nick visit with her and her neighbors, the McKees.
The McKees: Neighbors of Catherine who visit with Tom, Myrtle and Nick when they are in New York City. Mr. McKee is an artist, while both McKees are gossips who are preoccupied with status and fashion.
Ewing Klipspringer: A boarder who lives in Gatsby's house.
Owl Eyes: A guest at Gatsby's parties who wrecks his car there, he
is one of the few people who attends Gatsby's funeral.