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.
The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, pictures the wasted American Dream as it depicts the 1920s in America. It speaks to every generation of readers, its contemporaneity depending in part on its picturesque presentation of that decade Fitzgerald himself labeled the “Jazz Age” and in part on its commentary concerning the human experience. The externals change—the attire, the songs, the fads—but its value and nostalgic tone transcend these externals. The novel provides the reader with a wider, panoramic vision of the American Dream, with a challenge to introspection if the reader reads sensitively and engages with the text.
The novel paints a vivid picture of America after World War I. From the postwar panic and realism evolved a shaking of social morés, a loss of innocence, a culture shock. Values of the old generation were rejected, with fashions including skirts above the knee and bobbed hair; a Bohemian lifestyle appeared with little moral or religious restraint; and innovative dances and musical forms that were considered by some to be obscene became the rage. It was a time of high living and opulence.
At the same time, the popular carpe diem (“seize the day”) lifestyle and frivolity reflected an extreme feeling of alienation and nonidentity. A sense of melancholy and nostalgia existed, a discontent characterized by longing for conditions as they used to be. Americans were disenchanted. The war had promised so much; the results were disillusioning.
In addition, the availability of the automobile contributed to a carefree moral stance. No longer did young people have to court in the parlor, under parents’ watchful eyes, for the car provided an escape from supervision. Historian Frederick Lewis Allen, in a study of “why the younger generation runs wild,” refers to the automobile as a “house of prostitution on wheels.” Prohibition, created by the Eighteenth Amendment, was violated widely, the results being the bootleggers, speakeasies, and underworld activities now commonly associated with the 1920s. These elements typify the decade Fitzgerald pictured in his novels.
As a result of this distance between expectations and reality, a chasm illustrated in the novel’s scenario, a social satire develops. The etymology of satire, originally meaning “a dish of mixed fruit” or “potpourri,” figures into the story as Fitzgerald fills the tapestry with every conceivable type in society. None of them seems happy. Acquiring a fortune by illicit means, Fitzgerald implies, will produce little happiness. A strong case can, therefore, be made that The Great Gatsby is social satire. The zeitgeist, the temper of the times, becomes extremely important: the milieu in which Fitzgerald lived and wrote shapes the content and the message of the book.
Fitzgerald’s picture parallels that of The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot a poet whose beliefs and poetry influenced Fitzgerald as he wrote The Great Gatsby. As a purveyor of the belief that we have wasted our dream, that we have turned our green continent into a veritable waste land, Fitzgerald was, perhaps, a prophet, a seer.
In one way, this novel is a Horatio Alger story with the conventional rags-to-riches motif; and, as such, it presents the unspoiled, untainted original American Dream. Jay Gatsby rises like Icarus above his rather shiftless parents to the riches of Midas, first witnessing a flamboyant lifestyle as cabin boy on the yacht of Dan Cody, a setting replete with alcohol, women, and ubiquitous parties. Such is the presentation of the American Dream. Ironically, the only ways to achieve such dreams are sordid and degraded.
The conclusion of his experience convinces Nick that we have made a mess of the “green breast of the New World,” the world that the Dutch settlers saw when they came to this continent. A tawdry dream of self-love, greed, and corruption replaced the wholesomeness of the original dream founded on virtues and moral standards. A reliable picture of America in the 1920s, and at once a glamourized presentation of such meretricious living, The Great Gatsby has become a touchstone by which we measure quality of life in present-day America.
Although he was an artist, not a historian, he produced one of the most timeless and reliable pictures of this time in America’s past, a veritable historical document. This “lost generation,” to use Gertrude Stein’s famous phrase, found a spokesman in Fitzgerald.
Master List of Characters
Nick Carraway—the narrator. Thirty years old, he is a moralist who becomes a foil to every other character. He lives next door to Jay Gatsby and, thus, becomes Gatsby’s link to Daisy, his cousin.
Jay Gatsby—the title character. A romantic idealist, he devotes his life to amassing wealth which he believes will win Daisy and thus fulfill his dream.
Daisy Buchanan—Nick’s cousin, Tom’s wife, and Gatsby’s dream girl. Incapable of love, she represents the idolized upper class.
Tom Buchanan—Daisy’s husband. Incapable of feeling guilt or any other emotion, he represents brutality, the moral carelessness of the rich, pseudo-intellectualism, and racism.
Jordan Baker—a friend of Daisy’s from Louisville. A young and compulsively dishonest professional golfer, she is ironically involved with Nick, whose identifying characteristic is honesty. She, too, has no emotions and represents the coldness and cruelty of the rich.
George Wilson—proprietor of a garage in the Valley of Ashes. He represents the fate of the common working man, an “everyman” who believes a strong work ethic will eventually capture for him the American Dream.
Myrtle Wilson—George’s wife. Her vitality attracts Tom. She wants to escape her lower class status, yet has no sense of values.
Owl Eyes—a middle-aged “fair-weather” friend of Gatsby’s.
Pammy Buchanan—daughter of Tom and Daisy. She appears as a possession to be displayed. Always dressed in white like her mother, she represents the shallowness of her parents.
Henry C. Gatz—Gatsby’s father. He is proud of his son’s prosperity.
Meyer Wolfsheim—a representative of the underworld. He has used Gatsby as a front man and is proud of his connections. Gatsby tells Nick that Wolfsheim is the man who fixed the 1919 World Series.
Catherine—Myrtle’s sister. She is always available to have a good time.
Mr. and Mrs. McKee—tenants in a New York City hotel. They attend a party with the main characters.
Ewing Klipspringer—a “boarder” at Gatsby’s house.
Michaelis—owner of a coffee shop near George Wilson’s garage, who befriends George.
Mr. Sloane—a neighbor of Gatsby’s who stops by while horseback riding.
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.
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
In a sense, The Great Gatsby is a novel about identities, as each of its major characters struggles to find or create himself or herself as an independent figure in twentieth century American life. In these efforts the characters reveal themselves either as fully rounded, authentic individuals, or as hollow shells, devoid of personality and reality. Taken together, the group portrait Fitzgerald paints in his novel is a fitting representation of the false prosperity of post-World War I America and, more important, is perhaps the most perfectly constructed fiction of its time.
Nick Carraway, the narrator, comes from the Midwest to New York to work as a stockbroker. Taking a home in the Long Island community of...
(The entire section is 803 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Young Nick Carraway decides to forsake the hardware business of his family in the Midwest in order to sell bonds in New York City. He takes a small house in West Egg on Long Island and there becomes involved in the lives of his neighbors. At a dinner party at the home of Tom Buchanan, he renews his acquaintance with Tom’s wife, Daisy, a distant cousin, and he meets an attractive young woman, Jordan Baker. Almost at once he learns that Tom and Daisy are not happily married. It appears that Daisy knows her husband is unfaithful.
Nick soon learns to despise the drive to the city through unkempt slums; particularly, he hates the ash heaps and the huge commercial signs. He is far more interested in the activities of his...
(The entire section is 1176 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s finest novel, an almost perfect artistic creation which is perhaps the single most American novel of its time. It should be seen as the ultimate vehicle for the themes that form the central concerns of Fitzgerald’s career, and indeed of so much of the United States’ national life: lost hope, the corruption of innocence by money, and the impossibility of recapturing the past. These elements are fused together by Fitzgerald’s eloquent yet careful prose in a novel that transcends its period and has become a touchstone of American literature.
Nick Carraway, the first-person narrator of the novel, lives on Long Island, New York, next door to the enormous mansion of a...
(The entire section is 1134 words.)
Chapter Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
Nick Carraway: the narrator of the story
Daisy Buchanan: Nick’s cousin
Tom Buchanan: Daisy’s husband and a fellow Yale graduate of Nick’s
Jordan Baker: a friend of Daisy and, eventually, a friend of Nick Carraway
Jay Gatsby: Nick’s mysterious next-door neighbor
Soon after Nick Carraway returns from the war, he abandons his native Middle West and the hardware business of his forebears and goes East to enter the bond business. He rents a bungalow in West Egg, Long Island, the “less fashionable” of two peninsulas, and finds his house sandwiched between two huge houses that rent “for twelve or...
(The entire section is 2219 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
George Wilson: Myrtle’s husband; owner of an automobile repair shop where cars are also bought and sold
Myrtle Wilson: George’s wife and Tom’s mistress; in her middle 30s and “faintly stout”
Catherine: Myrtle’s sister; “a slender, worldly girl of about thirty, with a solid sticky bob of red hair” who functions as Nick’s companion at Myrtle’s request
Mr. & Mrs. McKee: a couple who live in the hotel where Tom, Myrtle, and Nick go for a party
Tom invites Nick to go to the city with him. They pass through the Valley of Ashes, “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills...
(The entire section is 1475 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
Gatsby’s chauffeur: in a uniform of “ robin’s-egg blue,” he invites Nick to one of Gatsby’s parties
A pair of stage twins: two young women, unnamed, in yellow dresses
Owl Eyes: a “stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles” who has been drunk for a week, sitting in Gatsby’s library examining the books
In chapter 3, Gatsby’s parties in general, and one in particular, are described in poetic fashion. Motorboats, aquaplanes, cars—these sources of amusement appear in great numbers. Food, in vast quantities and garishly prepared, comes in every Friday; once every two weeks a “corps of caterers”...
(The entire section is 1876 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis
Meyer Wolfsheim: a business connection of Gatsby’s
Another party takes place at Gatsby’s mansion, this time on a Sunday morning. The narrator crowds an artist’s canvas with his description of the guests, every possible type included, and thus creates vignettes of the time period. The chapter begins with a lengthy description of the guests, and it concludes, much as a periodic sentence does, with the summary: “All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.” Nick records their names on a railroad timetable dated July 5, 1922. Young ladies at the party continue, even while guests of Gatsby, to whisper rumors about their host. All come...
(The entire section is 1634 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis
Klipspringer: the boarder at Gatsby’s house
Nick returns home at 2:00 in the morning to find Gatsby’s house lit up “like the World’s Fair.” Gatsby is anxious concerning the meeting Nick is to orchestrate with Daisy, a long-awaited reunion. He invites Nick to go to Coney Island in his car or “take a plunge in the swimming pool,” but his neighbor, who must work the next day, demurs, saying it’s too late—he has to go to bed. This invitation to swim foreshadows the eventual demise of Gatsby.
Knowing or strongly suspicioning Nick’s meager circumstances, Gatsby offers to “set him up in business”—it wouldn’t take up much...
(The entire section is 1294 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis
About this time, suspicions concerning Gatsby grow to such an extent that an “ambitious young reporter” attempts to get a statement from Gatsby or some story about this mysterious man’s notoriety. Stories circulating have to do with an “underground pipe-line to Canada.” As a result of such rumors, Nick chooses, at this point in the flashback, to detail Gatsby’s younger years, stories not recounted in chronological order.
Not people of means, as Gatsby had earlier told Nick, Gatsby’s parents were “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people”; in truth, he had never accepted them as his parents at all but saw himself as a son of God: he sprang from “his Platonic conception of...
(The entire section is 1440 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis
Michaelis: friend and comforter of George
As curiosity peaks concerning Gatsby, the lights fail to go on one Saturday night. Visitors in automobiles stay a few minutes and leave. When Nick inquires about Gatsby’s welfare, the “butler” allays his concerns. The next day Gatsby explains he has dismissed his servants in order to protect Daisy’s reputation when she comes to visit him in the afternoons. He extends an invitation to Nick to join him and Jordan Baker for lunch at the Buchanans’ the next day. Unbearably hot, the train and the passengers on it emit signals and warnings of temper and passion corresponding to the intense heat of the...
(The entire section is 1905 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis
Nick’s restlessness precludes sleep. When he hears Gatsby return home in a taxi, he rushes over, feeling he should warn his neighbor to go away for a while, knowing the car will be traced. Aghast, Gatsby explains that he has to stay to protect Daisy, the first “nice” girl he has ever known. He uses Nick’s visit as an opportunity to relive the Dan Cody story and his Camp Taylor experience.
Like many other officers, Gatsby had visited Daisy while in Louisville, but always he knew he was in her beautiful house by a “colossal accident.” Again, like many others, “Gatsby took Daisy one still October night” because “he had no real right to touch her hand.” Ever since that...
(The entire section is 2150 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis
Henry C. Gatz: Gatsby’s father who comes to attend the funeral
Two years later, Nick remembers vividly the endless questioning by policemen and newspapermen in the wake of Gatsby’s murder. Wilson, thought to be a madman, “a man deranged by grief,” is found guilty, and the case is closed. When Nick calls Daisy, he learns that she and Tom have left with baggage, no destination or return date known. Subsequent calls to Wolfsheim and other “friends” are futile: no one can attend Gatsby’s funeral. Three days later Henry Gatz sends a telegram with instructions to postpone the funeral until he can get there.
Bundled up against the...
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