I want to know the significance and meaning behind each of the following characters in The Great Gatsby: Nick Carraway Myrtle Wilson Tom Buchanan Jordan baker Owl Eyes Jay Gatsby

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that it is interesting to engage in an etymological study of characters' names in The Great Gatsby.  Much about their own characterizations can be illuminated by their names.  Nick Carraway can be derived from Nicholas, who was seen as the patron saint of the larger masses.  As in St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, who is inclusive towards all, Nicholas comes from the Greek combination of the words "people" and "victory."  It is interesting to see him in this light because he is the closest thing to an inclusive notion of good in Fitzgerald's work.  The opening of the novel speaks to this in how Nick seeks to refrain from judging people.  When he affirms his own honesty at the end of chapter 3 and when he tells Gatsby that he is better than the "lot of them," it is clear that Nick aspires to the inclusive conditions of his name.  Even if we make the argument that he might not be the most reliable of narrators, it is clear that Nick represents the spirit of people more than others in the narrative, which might be why he simply decides to leave at the end of it.

Myrtle Wilson's name is another botanical reference.  Like Daisy, Myrtle can be associated with a plant that is sturdy and tough.  It is a plant that survives much in way of harsh conditions.  The Myrtus plant grows in harsh conditions like Northern Africa. It is stout and reflects how Myrtle is described in the novel.  Terms like "stout" and "surplus flesh" are descriptors that contrast with Daisy.   This construction of Myrtle represents her characterization in the novel.  She endures Tom's abuse, and must endure a great deal. She wishes to move from margin to center, but will always be nothing more than a secondary diversion for Tom.  Her condition in the novel is not the centerpiece that Daisy occupies, but more tangential.  In this regard, she is sadly true to her name.

Tom Buchanan's name derives from the idea of "twin."  Thomas can be seen as a "twin" to Gatsby.  Both of them are twins in how they pursue Daisy, as seen in the critical moment in the novel where she must choose between both.  They embody wealth and privilege, as well as a sense of pursuing what they want as their own.  Biblically, Thomas is the Apostle who doubts the Resurrected form of Jesus.  This idea of "doubting Thomas" might also be applicable to Tom because he doubts any alternate construction of the truth that is not his own.  He affirms this early on in the narrative as he spews his racist ideology and continues to doubt Gatsby's authenticity.  He also doubts that Daisy can believe in true love, which is why he is convinced she will never leave him.  In this light, it can be seen that Fitzgerald constructs Tom as both a form of "twin" and "doubt."

The River Jordan runs between the nations of Jordan and Israel.  It is free flowing and runs in between both worlds with ease.  This embodies many of the qualities within Jordan Baker.  She is an athlete who sees herself as the equal to any man.  She flows easily from party to party, from people to people, and refuses to commit to one notion of good outside of herself.  Jordan is amoral, unwilling to commit to any structure of the world that denies her own satisfaction.  She moves on with ease, something that Nick vividly experiences.  This aspect of her personality is where she fulfills her namesake. 

In the name "Owl Eyes," there is an emphasis on seeing through what is present.  The eyes of an owl presumably see all.  When Nick describes "Owl Eyes" in talking about the books in Gatsby's library, he focuses on the perception of sight and the ability to see past what is on the surface:

[The books are] Absolutely real- have pages and everything.  I thought they'd be a nice durable cardboard.  Matter of fact, they're absolutely real.  Pages and-- Here! Lemme show you.... What thoroughness!  What realism!  Knew when to stop, too-- didn't cut the pages.  But what do you want?  What do you expect?

Owl Eyes is true to his name because he sees beyond what is there. However, sight and action are depicted as two different entities.  Fitzgerald develops Owl Eyes as a character who might see the truth, but is incapable of doing anything about it.  He simply observes and does not take action on what he sees.  It is reflective of the world in which he lives, a social world where individuals see but do not look.  They participate, but do not take action.  Owl Eyes sees, but does not do anything with it.

Jay Gatsby is actually James Gatz.  The name "James" means "to supplant." This is an excellent articulation of Gatsby.  Gatsby "supplants" his own identity with a new one.  He is able to create a new identity, which "sprang from his Platonic conception of self."  This idealized reality is what Gatsby uses to create his own.  The idea of supplanting is essential to Gatsby's self-definition.  This is where the idea of James as a supplanter is vitally important to the development of what Gatsby is and what he strives to be.

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