What is the meaning of Gatsby's death in The Great Gatsby, symbolically or literally?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Following Myrtle's brutal death in chapter seven, Tom Buchanan blames her murder on Jay Gatsby and directs the distraught, vengeful George Wilson to Gatsby's mansion in the West Egg. In chapter eight, George Wilson walks from the valley of ashes to Gatsby's estate. Upon arriving, he shoots and kills Gatsby...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Following Myrtle's brutal death in chapter seven, Tom Buchanan blames her murder on Jay Gatsby and directs the distraught, vengeful George Wilson to Gatsby's mansion in the West Egg. In chapter eight, George Wilson walks from the valley of ashes to Gatsby's estate. Upon arriving, he shoots and kills Gatsby before committing suicide. Nick is left with the responsibility of organizing Gatsby's funeral. Tom and Daisy Buchanan skip town and hide behind their wealth.

Literally, Gatsby's tragic death brings the narrative to a close and motivates Nick to move back to the Midwest after ending his relationship with Jordan Baker. By leaving the East Coast, Nick seeks a respite from the immorality, corruption, and violence he experienced throughout the summer.

One can interpret Jay Gatsby's death to figuratively represent the futility of the American Dream. In many ways, Gatsby's quest for Daisy was analogous to the pursuit of attaining the American Dream. Although Gatsby successfully climbed the social ladder and amassed wealth, he was not able to marry Daisy and fill the void in his heart. Through Gatsby's vain pursuit of Daisy, Fitzgerald comments on the illusion and impossibility of the American Dream.

One can also interpret Gatsby's death to represent the consequences of the excessive moral depravity and materialistic overindulgence of the Roaring Twenties. Aspects of Gatsby's character embody the immoral, debased culture of the 1920s, which Fitzgerald critiques throughout the story. Similar to the symbolic representation of the valley of ashes, Gatsby's death illustrates the consequences of immorality, depravity, and corruption, which were associated with the negative aspects of his character.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Gatsby literally dies because Tom tells a distraught George Wilson that the yellow car that ran over Myrtle was Gatsby's. It's likely that Daisy didn't mention to him that she was driving, but whether she did or not, Tom deliberately points a half-crazed man with a gun towards Gatsby, knowing it will probably not end well. Tom will later tell Nick, in his own defense, that Gatsby "had it [death] coming." True or not, it works out very conveniently for Tom that Gatsby dies. Tom is rid of a rival for Daisy, and he and Daisy can leave the whole mess behind and retreat back into their wealth.

Symbolically, Gatsby's death represents the impossibility of the American Dream, which Nick understands as exactly the same as Gatsby's dream: to come to a new place and recreate the past, this time making it come out right. The earliest settlers wanted to correct all the European mistakes and find Eden as they gazed with wonder at the "green breast" of a new land. Likewise, Gatsby wanted his relationship with Daisy to come out right the second time around as he gazed at the green light at the end of her pier. Nick will describe Gatsby as having, like the early settlers:

an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Literally, Gatsby's death in chapter 8 serves to bring the story's events to a close because it prompts Nick to return to the West, ending his association with the other characters. In addition, because Gatsby is dead, there is no more chasing of Daisy Buchanan.

On a deeper level, Gatsby's death also has a symbolic meaning. Gatsby's death brings to a sudden end his quest to be with Daisy Buchanan. Despite everything he achieved in his life, like his fortune and success, he could not convince Daisy to leave Tom. His death is, therefore, tinged with another, additional sense of tragedy.

Moreover, by killing Gatsby in such an unexpected and brutal manner, Fitzgerald makes a wider point about the American Dream—specifically, that dreams cannot survive in the world of the 1930s where competition and immorality reign supreme.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is quite a big question and it requires interpretation. The meaning of Gatsby's death is not clearly stated in the text, nor is it articulated by Nick. However, there are several compelling readings available to us based on evidence that does exist in the text. 

Gatsby's death can be seen as the consequence of his relationship to "reality". Jay Gatsby, in his life, does not merely accept reality as a given. He sets out to change it. We can see this in the persona he adopts, the facade he constructs, behind which he stands gazing out, as he did from his balcony when Nick first saw him.

Gatsby fabricates an identity for himself, a false one, and attempts to convince the world to believe it. In a sense, he is attempting to shift reality according to his will. This is true as well in his relationship with Daisy, as he tries to rebuild the past, despite all that has happened over the years.

Concerning his behavior with Daisy, Nick tells him he can't repeat the past. “Can't repeat the past,” Gatsby replies, “Why of course you can!”

This way of relating to reality puts Gatsby at odds with his world. He wants to have power over what is real. In the end, the world asserts its dominance. The dreamer who believes his dream to be more real than reality is forced to wake up. This reading of his death is in keeping with the argument that Gatsby's "primary flaw was a naive idealism".

We can also see Gatsby's death as the natural moral or karmic consequence for his criminal behavior. Though Gatsby does not die as a direct result of bootlegging, an argument can be made that he was due for a fall. He had enemies. He was a criminal. Justice was bound to find him eventually. 

After all, he is a bootlegger, a man with unsavory underworld connections, a fraud in the sense that he misrepresents his origin.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team