The narrator, a young man by the name of Nick Carraway, returns from World War I in a state of restless excitement, invigorated by the battles and disappointed with life in the little Midwest town where he grew up. His family owns a successful wholesale hardware business, but Nick, longing for the grandeur and tumult of city life, moves to New York to become a bond man. He rents a cheap little house in West Egg, the less fashionable version of East Egg, Long Island, and lives there among the nouveau riche or new money. Shortly after arriving in New York, he visits his cousin Daisy Buchanan, who lives in East Egg with her husband Tom, a Yale alum with old money. Their first dinner together upon Nick’s arrival in New York is interrupted by a phone call from Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, which embarrasses Daisy and heightens tensions in their already strained marriage. It’s clear by the end of the first chapter that Daisy is a flighty, unhappy, and insincere person, and that her failing marriage will supply much of the drama in the novel.
Following this first dinner, Nick attends a series of parties with the Buchanans and their close friend, Jordan Baker, whom Nick casually dates throughout the summer. Their first stop is to a small party in the City where Nick meets Mrs. Myrtle Wilson and realizes that she’s a vain and superficial person (just before the party, Tom took her to Fifth Avenue and bought her a bunch of gifts, including a little dog; Daisy, of course, stayed home). This party seems both quick and interminable and sets the stage for the other parties in the novel, which grow bigger, grander, and more absurd with time. This is the Jazz Age, a period characterized by jazz music, sexual freedom, and excessive alcohol consumption, and a nationwide ban on liquor instituted during the Prohibition Era has made serving and bootlegging liquor all the more thrilling. Nick quickly gets swept up in the revelry and becomes fascinated with his neighbor, the titular Jay Gatsby, who hosts lavish parties at his estate in West Egg.
Over time, Nick learns that Gatsby isn’t who he claims to be and that his newfound wealth and status are a result of his dealings with the shady Mr. Wolfsheim, an underworld figure who has gotten Gatsby involved in the bootlegging business (and, it’s implied, in other illegal activities). What’s more, Gatsby is in love with Daisy and wants Nick to arrange a meeting between them at his little summer house. It’s Jordan Baker who fills Nick in on the affair, telling him about the young military officer (Jay Gatsby) who charmed Daisy with his good looks and white uniform when she was eighteen and still living at home with her parents. If not for the fact that he was poor and had no connections and no future that Daisy could see, the two of them might have gotten married. Instead, Daisy married Tom, and Gatsby went about amassing a fortune to try to win her back. His lavish parties are all part of an elaborate plan to seduce Daisy away from her husband and reignite their relationship. In the end, his plan almost succeeds.
Tom confronts Daisy and Gatsby about the affair on a broiling hot day when the five of them (Nick and Jordan included) drive into the City and spend the afternoon drinking in a hotel. In his characteristic fashion, Tom berates Daisy into admitting that she loved him, and then calls Gatsby a bootlegger and a fool, all the while laughing at his flashy pink suit. Daisy, shaken by this encounter and unsure what to do, accidentally hits Myrtle while driving home in Gatsby’s gorgeous yellow car (Myrtle, who had seen Tom driving Gatsby’s car on the way into the City, assumed that it was him driving and ran out to stop him as the car sped past her husband’s garage). Myrtle is killed on impact, and Gatsby, who was in the passenger’s seat at the time, takes the fall. That night, he stands under Daisy’s window, waiting for her to give him a sign, not realizing that while he’s waiting she’s sitting at her kitchen table, working through all her differences with Tom. Nick sees this through the window, but doesn’t tell Gatsby about it, and isn’t surprised when Gatsby is shot at his home by George Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, who got Gatsby’s name from Tom the day after the accident. It’s a tragic end to a long love story.
Nick stays in West Egg just long enough to arrange Gatsby’s funeral and invite his supposed “friends” to attend it. None of them come, but Nick does get to meet Gatsby’s father, Mr. Gatz, whom Nick describes as “a solemn old man” who thinks the world of his son. Mr. Gatz shows Nick a book where a young Gatsby (then called “Jimmy”) wrote out his daily schedule and his “resolves”: drink less, save money, and be nicer to his parents. Seeing this, Nick understands how a young Jimmy Gatz could be taken in by a dream of wealth and status. It was this desire that led him in his youth to row up beside a yacht and convince its owner, a man by the name of Dan Cody, to give him a job. Jay Gatsby was born then, well before he met Daisy, and was driven by his ambition until the day of his death. In the novel’s final passages, Nick ruminates on Gatsby’s life and his inability to shape his future, concluding, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Estimated reading time: 4-5 hours
- Year Unknown: Jimmy Gatz meets Dan Cody and assumes the name Jay Gatsby.
- October 1917: Gatsby meets Daisy; she’s eighteen.
- 1918: Gatsby and Daisy almost marry, then break up.
- June 1919: Daisy marries Tom Buchanan.
- August 1919: Tom starts cheating on Daisy.
- April 1920: Daisy’s daughter Pammy is born.
- Autumn 1921: Nick comes back from the war.
- Spring 1922: Nick moves to West Egg, Long Island to become a bond man.
- Summer 1922: the main action of the novel takes place.
- Autumn 1922: Nick returns to the Midwest.