How can the characters Tom, Daisy, Jay, and Nick be compared and contrasted in The Great Gatsby?

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An examination of various motifs in The Great Gatsby may afford the student a method of comparison and contrast of the major characters:

  • Moral Ambiguity

All characters are included in a confusion of morality.

Tom is the proudest of his immorality as he takes Nick with him to New York so that he can show off his mistress, Myrtle Wilson. While Tom does not approve of Tom's adultery and chauvinistic treatment of Myrtle, he does not say anything to Tom; moreover, he continues to hob-nob with the wealthy Buchanans even though he has criticized Gatsby in the first chapter as a person "who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn." On his thirtieth birthday, Jordan Baker tells him that he is also a "bad driver," a liar, since he has found associating with the wealthy a "consoling proximity."

Daisy, who is completely dependent upon her husband Tom--

If he left the room for a minute she'd look around uneasily, and say: "Where's Tom gone?" and wear the most abstracted expression until she saw him coming in the door--

wants to be loved. When Jay Gatsby courted her, Daisy was greatly in love; after Jay went off to war, Daisy compromised herself, accepted a $30,000. necklace, and married Tom. Nevertheless, she does want to be loved as the above citation illustrates. Her flaw is that she allows her awe of social status and wealth to interfere and cloud her sense of morality.

On the other hand, Jay Gatsby perceives wealth, not as an impediment to love, but as a means to his "grail," Daisy. Lured to the green light, like the song of the mythological Sirens, Gatsby feels justified in his illegal behavior that has as its goal the reclaiming of his youthful love from a man underserving of her. His choice of immoral behavior with Daisy is obscured by his conviction that he can repeat the past and is deserving of her because she loved him first and seems to love him still.

In their own ways, all these characters are moral failures.

  • Materialism

The high value placed upon material possessions and ownership obfuscates true values for the characters. When Nick first has dinner with the Buchanans, Tom proudly displays his property and talks of all that he owns. In his pursuit of money, Tom thinks that he can purchase people or anything that he wants; even when his mistress is killed, he washes the scandal away with his wealth by making Gatsby the scapegoat.

So devoted to materialism is Daisy that she cries when Gatsby displays his gilded mansion and many-colored shirts, while Gatsby believes that 

the promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing

and perceives wealth as a means to the attainment of his love. But, this parvenu soon becomes the victim of this desire for materialism because he does not possess the requisite social status to attain Daisy and because his romanticism conflicts with the valuing of objects. Certainly, Daisy is not worthy of Gatsby's idealized love and his romantic notions. 

Nick realizes that he has become corrupted by his association with those who value too highly material possessions; consequently, he plans a return to the Midwest where values are more wholesome. Acknowledging that Gatsby in his romantic convictions is "worth the whole damn bunch put together," Nick repudiates Daisy and Tom as "careless people" who smash up people's lives and imprison themselves in their own wealth. Like them, Gatsby has surrendered his hopes to material acquisition.

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