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___________________________The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald


STUDYWORLD STUDYNOTES

The Great Gatsby

 

Character List


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 sympathetic.

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 "connection.")

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 you.

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 Tom Buchanan.

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-" I hesitated.

"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 car.

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 world.

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 later on.

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.

 

  • Biography of F. Scott Fitsgerald

  • Quick/Fast Review

  • Character List

  • Comprehensive Summary and Review of Chapter 1

  • Comprehensive Summary and Review of Chapter 2

  • Comprehensive Summary and Review of Chapter 3

  • Comprehensive Summary and Review of Chapter 4

  • Comprehensive Summary and Review of Chapter 5

  • Comprehensive Summary and Review of Chapter 6

  • Comprehensive Summary and Review of Chapter 7

  • Comprehensive Summary and Review of Chapter 8

  • Comprehensive Summary and Review of Chapter 9

  • Studyworld Essay Search on The Great Gatsby

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