In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, who is the villian?

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William Delaney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think a case could be made that Gatsby himself is the villain--although F. Scott Fitzgerald may not have intended it that way. After all, this is a story about one man trying to steal another man's wife. Nick Carraway seems like a weak character. He exists mainly to defend Gatsby and to make the reader see Gatsby as a colorful, romantic figure. This was probably Fitzgerald's main reason for deciding to write his novel from the point of view of a minor character. Such narrative devices usually exist in order to tell the reader what to think and feel. Without Nick Carraway giving a romantic spin to...

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jonsteiger | Student

I have gone back and forth yesterday and today about this question on email with the eds. desk. I still cannot get to the question with the mechanical ability to answer it in this pane. I restate the question here with my answer.

Question: What is the importance of setting to other elements of The Great Gatsby ? i.e. themes, characterization

Answer: by Jon Steiger

The Great Gatsby may be the finest example of the use of symbolism as a literary technique in American literature, and a reason why this novel endures as perhaps the closest any novel has come to achieving the illusionary achievement of The Great American Novel. The very setting of the geographic localities where the plot of The Great Gatsby plays out are symbols of the book’s overarching theme of the conflicts between good and evil, hubris and humility, greed and unselfishness, and hope and despair.

The primary setting for the story is a real place on the Northshore of Long Island about 20 miles east of New York City to which the author attaches the fictional names of East Egg and West Egg. These two affluent hamlets are juxtaposed on opposite shores of the bay that separates the actual communities of Great Neck and Port Washington, which were the cultural precursors of “the Hamptons” as we know them today. The characters represent the rich and famous of the 1920 (the summer of 1922 to be exact) and East Egg and West Egg are represented as the respective hamlets of “old money” and “new money.” The new money characters are mostly transplanted westerners in pursuit of their aspirations, and the old money characters are mostly descendants of established East Coast families who are squandering their fortunes in a hedonistic pursuit of decadence. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald, himself a Midwesterner who came East as a young man to seek fame and fortune as a celebrity author, tells this story in the first-person perspective of Nick Caraway, a young man from Chicago who has come East to seek wealth on Wall Street. The female antagonist, and one of the Twentieth Century's greatest femme fatales, is Daisey, Nick’s cousin from Chicago who migrated to the East years before the beginning of the story where she married into the old money Buchannan family. Daisey is well along in her moral descent by the time she is joined by Nick at the beginning of the story. Nick becomes a go-between reuniting the novel’s eponymous character, Jay Gatsby, with his one true love, Daisy.

East Egg and West Egg protrude out into the bay that separates them like two imperfectly shaped oval eggs, if viewed from above by seagulls. Even the seagulls would see the Eggs as forlorn eyes staring back at them.

Not only is the geographical setting integral to the symbolic tapestry Fitzgerald weaves, but so are the physical artifacts of the settings. The plot line travels back and forth between Manhattan and the Eggs, with critical stops and passages through the midpoint, which Fitzgerald describes as a wasteland covered in industrial ash and barely inhabited except for some derelict buildings. Among the wasteland’s collapsing infrastructure are the billboard size “eyes of Dr. Eckleburg” affixed to a former optometrist’s office that represent by their “persistent stare” the disapproving eyes of a chagrined, moral deity. On the positive side, is the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, a symbol of hope, albeit elusive and waning hope, to fulfill the dream that Gatsby will never achieve.

The novel ends with arguably the four finest paragraphs written in the English language. Again, the setting is paramount to the scene, through the eyes of a thoroughly disillusioned and brooding Nick Caraway, trying to imagine “Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light as the end of Daisey’s dock” as compared to the optimistic vision of the first Dutch sailors who came upon this setting and espied the New World centuries earlier. The book concludes:

"[Gatsby] had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning—— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

FOR FURTHER READING AND CONTEMPLATION:

For the greatest paragraph ever written in the English language, see Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby. http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/bixby.htm [Typed and printed versions of this letter are usually four paragraphs, but the handwritten original is properly one paragraph.

EDITOR’S NOTE: F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notoriously bad speller (he attended Princeton University but did not graduate, although not on account of his spelling), but his editor Maxwell A Perkins at Charles Scribner's Sons was not. According to Fitzgerald, Perkins, Webster’s Dictionary, and me, orgastic is properly spelled, although the Microsoft Spell Checker does not agree.

farmans | Student

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby, all of the East Egg crowd serve as important villains. They live their lives with emptiness and purposelessness. Daisy Buchanan asks, What will we do with ourselves this afternoon. . . ? and the day after that, and the next thirty years? This question seems to suggest these people live their lives as though they are on a permanent vacation.

Tom Buchanan is the worst of the group. He spends his time hurting, insulting, patronizing others instead of utilizing anything productive. He reads a book, The Rise of the Colored Empires, which helps to promote his own racism. He states: We have to be careful otherwise the white race will be--will be unutterably submerged. And he has his mistress call his home in the middle of the afternoon not concerned that his wife and daughter are present.

dainasmolskis | Student

The term “villain“ is pointing to someone or something that works against the protagonist. As the other response explains, Tom and Daisy can be ruled as villains. It is worth noting that F. Scott Fitzgerald also uses society as a villain. In a unique way, the author exemplifies how an entity such as society in the Roaring ‘20s could be working against not just the “protagonists”, Nick and Gatsby, but also corrupt ones such as Tom and Daisy. Society has high standards in this time period, meaning Daisy is unsatisfied with young Gatsby’s undistinguished lifestyle. He was not rich and stable like Tom, so she saw no value in what Gatsby had to offer her (true and unrelented love). When Gatsby realized this, he did everything he needed to do in order to win her over, including getting involved with illegal matters and manipulating Nick (renting out the house that happens to meet Nick’s needs, fully knowledgeable that Nick is Daisy’s cousin and then having Nick set up the meeting which ultimately led to Nick witnessing the affair his cousin was having and not saying anything about it, another downfall of society at the time). This leads to many people considering Gatsby a villain of the story, but when looked at his motive and how society corrupted his view on love and money, it is hard to dispute that society is the true villain. F. Scott Fitzgerald was known for being critical of the high-life society that corrupted views on money. At one point destitute, Fitzgerald came about money around the time he began writing and he flaunted it. However, he knew what it was doing to people and he made society its own character in his books, marking it as a villain while it corrupts other characters and declining them any chance of true happiness.

snaomi | Student

In Fitzgerald's Gatsby, no one character can correctly be singled out as the villain, because the story and its characters are meant as an allegory - i.e. symbolic of a hidden moral/political meaning. Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby to critique the excess of the Roaring Twenties, and to show how people's capitalistic quest for money and glitz ended in the destruction of America's soul. Since Fitzgerald is writing to that end, it can be argued that the true villains in Gatsby are thematic ones: Capitalism and Greed. Greed drives each character to destruction - Tom, through his greed for a woman who is not his wife; Daisy, through her greed for money that leaves her married to a man she hates; and Gatsby, through his greed for a dream that he could never achieve, which leaves him dead. Greed is also manifested as a destructive force through the Valley of Ashes, the burnt and infertile area between West Egg and the city. The Valley serves to illustrate the cost of greed; while West Egg and East Egg shine and glitter, the poor who have been used and abused by the rich live in destroyed slums that are Fitzgerald's harbinger of America post-20s.

Now, if one were to argue for specific characters being the villain, a few stand out:

1) Tom. He is priggish, snobby, aggressive, and violent. He initiates most of the arguments throughout the novel, bloodies Myrtle's nose, waxes poetic about eugenics, and constantly seeks his own narcissistic pleasure at the expense of all else.

2) Daisy. She is self-obsessed and lacks the capacity for true emotion. Her selfish actions lead her to use Nick and Gatsby, then escape blamelessly after committing auto murder.

3) Gatsby himself. He also uses Nick and the others in his life, without regard for the cost to them. He cares solely about the creation of his own image and the maintenance of the image of his dream. He never sees Daisy as a living human with her own thoughts and story - similarly, he never seems to see any of the other characters as "real," as evidenced by his complete lack of emotional response to Myrtle's death. He becomes the instrument of his own downfall, and, were he not seen through the rose-colored glasses of our unreliable narrator (Nick), he would be more easily identified as the instrument of his own downfall.

skyleri | Student

Although I’m well aware this answer might inspire some eyerolls, I believe the societal systems and attitudes in place during Fitzgerald's depiction of the 1920s are more villainous than any specific character. Here are some that emerge as the most sinister:

 

  1. Classism: While there are the obvious examples of classism (Wilson and Myrtle, who possess very little wealth, live in an area described in hellish terms, Tom decides he can sleep with another man’s wife because the man is below his class and thus can be disregarded), there are more subtle examples as well. For instance, the classism the exists between old money and new money is brought up constantly, with Tom and Daisy looking down on those in West Egg not because they are poor, but because they are newly rich and haven’t cultivated the civility and manners they are used to. It is this kind of classism that (in part) ultimately prevents Gatsby from living happily ever after with Daisy. Although she is entranced with his newfound wealth, she can never relinquish the power that Tom’s old money brings.

 

  1. Sexism: Although on the surface Daisy appears to be a powerful character due to her wealth and carefree attitude, she is still the victim of the power men can hold over women. Some critics argue that Daisy doesn’t speak up even though she knows her husband is having an affair because she doesn’t want to jeopardize her wealth, comfort, and status, and while this may be partially true, it seems apparent that part of her hesitation to speak up is the result of the prevailing attitude that men are in charge and their wives should fall in line behind them without question. We get a pretty revealing line when Daisy talks about her daughter: “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Some readers use this quote to condemn Daisy as an empty-headed party girl, but really she is acknowledging the limited space for women at the time. People did not value intelligence nor substance in women, instead, just physical beauty.

 

It is interesting to explore the tensions between classism and sexism before we call it quits. These complications are most evident when we look at the repercussions of the affairs that take place in the novel. Tom and Myrtle have an affair, and (in some part) because of it, Myrtle (a woman of the lower class) ends up dead. Gatsby and Daisy have an affair, and (in some part) because of it, Gatsby (who has a lot of money but is still seen as new money and thus lower class) ends up dead. Both Tom and Daisy end up unscathed. If we’re applying simple arithmetic to the situation, it appears as though it’s more dangerous to be lower class than to be a woman (because Daisy, a woman of the higher class does not have to face consequences), and, thus, classism is a bigger “villain” of the story than sexism. Of course novels don’t work like math, though, and there are tons of complications: Presumably Daisy will continue to live the life of a “fool” while Tom cheats on her, Gatsby’s death was (on its face) an accident, etc. It still seems, though, that classism and sexism are the most dangerous forces of the novel.

 

rachellopez | Student

The way the book is written, several people could be the villains. I see Tom and Daisy as being the main villains or the antagonists. They are the main reason Gatsby had died and they had no guilt after the fact. However, Gatsby had an internal war with himself, believing he had to live to be with Daisy, and creates a sort of villain out of himself. I feel like F. Scott Fitzgerald is the only person with the true answer though.

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girlygrrlash | Student

Tom and Daisy are ultimately the villains, however, even though Gatsby is the protagonist in the novel I somewhat see him as a villain as well... 

user8102672 | Student

I see Tom and Daisy as big factors contributing to Gatsby's demise. Daisy pushed Gatsby to recreate his life just so he could show her he could be rich, that was why Daisy wouldn't be with him, was because he was "poor". Tom then started to unwravel Gatsby. I feel though that Gatsby was his own villian, he slowly started to wear at himself.

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gerbilcute | Student
WEll...Everyone is.
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