Summary of the Novel
The narrator of the story, Nick Carraway, has just returned from war and, restless in the West, goes East to work. In flashbacks he reveals the story of Jay Gatsby, his next-door neighbor, as he learns it. The nine chapters develop around seven parties interspersed with flashbacks.
Immediately after Nick moves to West Egg, he visits Daisy Buchanan, his second cousin “once-removed,” and her husband Tom, a fellow Yale graduate, for dinner. Here Nick meets Jordan Baker, Daisy’s friend from Louisville, who reveals that Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, the wife of a garage owner in the Valley of Ashes. Nick is shocked at the lack of morality in every level: the nouveau riche, the “old money,” and those with no money at all.
Not long after, at the second party, Tom introduces Nick to Myrtle, who invites her sister Catherine and the McKees, residents in the hotel where the party takes place in New York City, to complete the guest list. At Gatsby’s first party in West Egg, Nick meets a myriad of high-profile guests, most of whom have not been invited, all of whom ignore the statute concerning prohibition. The atmosphere is much like that of “an amusement park.” The next party is lunch in town with Meyer Wolfsheim, one of Gatsby’s business “connections,” and obviously an underworld character.
Next, Tom and Daisy attend one of Gatsby’s parties. By this time, Gatsby has used Nick, his next-door neighbor and Daisy’s cousin, to set up a rendezvous with this young lady he had wanted to marry five years before. Daisy had married Tom Buchanan because of his immense wealth. Through the intervening years, Gatsby had managed to amass a fortune greater than Tom’s and idealistically believes Daisy will leave Tom for him. Another party at Gatsby’s mansion includes Tom and Daisy and a litany of diverse guests. The final catastrophic party at the Plaza Hotel in New York provides Tom the opportunity to confront Gatsby about his obsession with Daisy and Gatsby’s alleged underworld activities.
Driving home from New York City, Daisy strikes and kills Myrtle Wilson with Gatsby’s car. Gatsby, however, tells Nick he was driving the car. After tracing the yellow car to Gatsby, George Wilson shoots Gatsby to death in his pool and turns the gun on himself.
After Gatsby’s poorly-attended funeral, Nick returns to the Midwest, disillusioned and disgusted by the experience.
In the following Sections:
- The Life and Work of F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Historical Background
- Master List of Characters
- Structure of the Novel
- Estimated Reading Time
- Timeline of The Great Gatsby
The Life and Work of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, now regarded as the spokesman for the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1896. His childhood and youth seem, in retrospect, as poetic as the works he later wrote. The life he lived became “the stuff of fiction,” the characters and the plots a rather thinly-disguised autobiography. Like Jay Gatsby, the title character of his most famous novel, Fitzgerald created a vision which he wanted to become, a “Platonic conception of himself,” and “to this conception he was faithful to the end.”
Fitzgerald was educated at parochial prep schools where he received strict Roman Catholic training. The religious instruction never left him. Ironically, he was denied burial in a Catholic cemetery because of his rather uproarious lifestyle, which ended in depression and alcoholism. In the fall of 1909, during his second year at St. Paul Academy, Fitzgerald began publishing in the school magazine. Sent East for a disciplined education, he entered The Newman School, whose student body came from wealthy Catholic families all over the country. At The Newman School he developed a friendship and intense rapport with Father Sigourney Webster
Fay, a trustee and later headmaster of the school and the prototype for a character in This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, published in 1920.
Upon his grandmother’s death, Fitzgerald and the family received a rather handsome inheritance, yet Scott seemed always to be cast into a society where others enjoyed more affluence than he. However, like Gatsby, a self-made man, Fitzgerald became the embodiment of the American Dream—an American Don Quixote.
Thanks to another relative’s money, Fitzgerald was able to enroll in Princeton in 1913. He never graduated from the Ivy League school; in fact, he failed several courses during his undergraduate years. However, he wrote revues for the Triangle Club, Princeton’s musical comedy group, and “donned swishy, satiny dresses to romp onstage” alongside attractive chorus girls. Years later, after enjoying some literary fame, he was asked to speak at Princeton, an occasion which endeared the school to him in new ways. Today, Princeton houses his memoirs, including letters from Ernest Hemingway motion picture scripts, scrapbooks, and other mementos.
He withdrew from Princeton and entered the war in 1917, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the army. While in Officers Candidate School in Alabama, he met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre, a relationship which is replicated in Jay Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy and her fascination with a military man. He never made it to the European front, but he did come to the attention of New York publishers by the end of the war. Despite Zelda’s breaking their engagement, they became re-engaged that fall. Their marriage produced one daughter—Scottie, who died in 1986. In 1919 his earnings totaled $879; the following year, following the publication of This Side of Paradise, an instant success, his earnings increased to $18,000.
By 1924 it was clear that Fitzgerald needed a change. He, Zelda, and Scottie moved to Europe, near the French Riviera, where he first met Ernest Hemingway Gertrude Stein and Edith Wharton. Before long, Zelda met and had an affair with Edouard Josanne, a relationship which Fitzgerald at first ignored but ultimately forced to a showdown. His writing may have profited because of her affair—according to biographer Andrew Turnbull, Fitzgerald’s jealousy “sharpened the edge of Gatsby’s and gave weight to Tom Buchanan’s bullish determination to regain his wife.”
To increase earnings he wrote some 160 short stories for magazines, works which, by his own admission, lacked luster. After Zelda’s alcoholism had several times forced her commitment to an institution, Scott went to Hollywood to write screenplays, and struggled unsuccessfully to complete a final novel, The Last Tycoon. He died in December of 1940 after a lifelong battle with alcohol and a series of heart attacks.
As early as 1920, Fitzgerald had in mind a tragic novel. He wrote to the president of Princeton that his novel would “say something fundamental about America, that fairy tale among nations.” He saw our history as a great pageant and romance, the history of all aspiration—not just the American dream but the human dream—and, he wrote, “If I am at the end of it that too is a place in the line of the pioneers.” Perhaps because of that vision, he has been called America’s greatest modern romantic writer, a purveyor of timeless fiction with a gift of evocation that has yet to be surpassed. His works reflect the spirit of his times, yet they are timeless.
One cannot fail to notice how much of himself Fitzgerald put into all his work; he spoke of writing as a “sheer paring away of oneself.” A melange of characters replicate or at least suggest people in his acquaintance. Gatsby seems almost to be an existential extension of Fitzgerald’s posture, a persona created perhaps as a premonition of his own tragic end.
The almost poetic craftsmanship of Fitzgerald’s prose, combined with his insight into the American experience, presented an imperishable portrait of his age, securing for him a permanent and enviable place in literary history.
Structure of the Novel
In the tradition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this novel is structured as a frame tale. From as early as the Middle Ages writers of English have employed the device of framing a story with another story. The experience in The Great Gatsby is actually Nick Carraway’s, not Jay Gatsby’s. He relates Gatsby’s story. Because Nick is a moral exemplar from start to finish, the reader sees him as a reliable narrator; we can believe his account of Gatsby.
By the second page of the novel, the story becomes an account of Gatsby’s story as told in flashbacks through Nick’s point of view. This flashback structure can make it difficult to place the events of the novel in their proper time sequence. For an explanation of the proper sequence of events, see the timeline of The Great Gatsby below.
The dominant effect of this literary convention is veracity: the reader can believe that what Nick says is truth. The end of the story appears in the beginning, for immediately the reader becomes aware that Nick is disenchanted with the immorality of the East and wants to return to the West. After his “privileged glimpse into the heart,” a journey he does not wish to repeat, the story turns to Nick’s perceptions of Gatsby and of Long Island. Gatsby’s dream almost replicates that of the “Dutch sailors” who, in their discovery of the New World, found a latter-day Camelot. Such a similarity justifies Nick’s belief that Gatsby’s dream made him “worth more than the whole damn bunch put together.” He had “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness,” that almost justified his illegal doings in the eyes of Nick.
Built upon the conventional rags-to-riches motif, this novel fits the mold of a Horatio Alger story. Typically, the poor boy risks himself to save the “damsel in distress” in a wagon pulled at breakneck speed by a runaway horse. As a result of saving the young lady, he works for her father, usually a man of means, and ultimately inherits her father’s business and marries her. In a sense he raises himself by his “own bootstraps.” Such is the ideal American Dream—an innocent, pure form of Thomas Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness.” In Fitzgerald’s parallel, “the poor boy,” Gatsby, naïvely determines to amass wealth in whatever ways necessary, the implication being that nothing can preclude or obstruct his winning the damsel’s hand. Like the archetypal Cinderella story, the most deserving must always win Prince Charming and become heir to a massive fortune. Tragically, Gatsby had learned well from American society that dishonesty and illicit means of procuring a fortune will win what pure love and resolve cannot.
Estimated Reading Time
An average reader can complete the novel in four to five hours. A close reading will take longer perhaps, but even reading critically, the reading should not require much more than five hours.
Timeline of The Great Gatsby
Age 17—Gatsby meets Dan Cody and learns about the leisure class.
October 1917—Gatsby meets Daisy. She is 18; Jordan is 16.
1918—She almost marries him.
1918—By fall “she is gay again.”
June 1919—Daisy marries Tom Buchanan after receiving a $350,000 necklace. Gatsby is at Oxford.
August 1919—Tom is already having an affair.
April 1920—Daisy and Tom's daughter Pammy is born.
Augumn 1921—Nick comes back from the war.
Spring 1922—Nick comes to the East and sets up residence in West Egg, Long Island.
Summer 1922—The main action of the novel takes place.
Autumn 1922—Nick returns to the Midwest.