At a Glance

  • Jay Gatsby represents the American Dream. Coming from nothing, Gatsby becomes a major in the Army, makes a large fortune as a bootlegger, and eventually gets the girl of his dreams. That his life comes crashing down around him symbolizes the death of the American Dream, which Fitzgerald criticizes for its materialism and superficiality.
  • For Gatsby, the green light on Daisy's dock symbolizes love, hope, and the desire for something that ultimately proves unattainable, as Gatsby dies in his quest to attain the American Dream. This green light becomes a powerful symbol of Gatsby's obsession with an ideal.
  • East Egg and West Egg symbolize the physical and social divide between the old money (as represented by Tom Buchanan) and the new money or nouveau riche (as represented by Jay Gatsby). This divide corresponds to a difference in class, social status, and respectability.


(Novels for Students)

Point of View
The Great Gatsby is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, one of the main characters. The technique is similar to that used by British novelist Joseph Conrad one of Fitzgerald's literary influences, and shows how Nick feels about the characters. Superbly chosen by the author, Nick is a romantic, moralist, and judge who gives the reader retrospective flashbacks that fill us in on the life of Gatsby and then flash forward to foreshadow his tragedy. Nick must be the kind of person whom others trust. Nick undergoes a transformation himself because of his observations about experiences surrounding the mysterious figure of Jay Gatsby. Through this first-person (“I”) narrative technique, we also gain insight into the author's perspective. Nick is voicing much of Fitzgerald's own sentiments about life. One is quite simply that “you can never judge a book by its cover” and often times a person's worth is difficult to find at first. Out of the various impressions we have of these characters, we can agree with Nick's final estimation that Gatsby is worth the whole “rotten bunch of them put together.”

As in all of Fitzgerald's stories, the setting is a crucial part of The Great Gatsby. West and East are two opposing poles of values: one is pure and idealistic, and the other is corrupt and materialistic. The Western states, including the Midwest, represent decency and the basic ethical principles of honesty, while the East is full of deceit. The difference between East and West Egg is a similar contrast in cultures. The way the characters line up morally correlates with their geographical choice of lifestyle. The Buchanans began life in the West but gravitated to the East and stayed there. Gatsby did as well, though only to follow Daisy and to watch her house across the bay. His utter simplicity and naivete indicates an idealism that has not been lost. Nick remains the moral center of the book and...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Gatsby’s mansion

Gatsby’s mansion. Garish, multilevel home located on “West Egg.” The narrator Nick Carraway describes it as colossal, as ostentatious as it is roomy. Situated on forty acres, the mansion is the site of numerous glitzy and riotous parties thrown by Gatsby, hoping to pique Daisy Buchanan’s interest. The mansion, however, is much more than a lure for Gatsby’s long lost love; it is a symbol of the man himself and his dream of materialism as a vehicle to success both literally and romantically. Gatsby’s home parallels his persona—grand, mysterious, and richly adorned. It is the emblem of a successful businessman and the symbol of what he hopes to recover in Daisy and her love. The mansion is also a representation of a shortsighted American Dream: that material success, in and of itself, will bring one status and happiness. Unfortunately, the dream is based on hollow underpinnings, on the vacuous Daisy and the misguided concept that large amounts of money can be made and used without responsibility. Conversely, the mansion serves also as a symbol of Gatsby’s vision, aspiration, idealism, and belief in the American Dream of the self-made man. Thus, it is simultaneously a symbolic representation of the “great” Gatsby and of the flawed one. Ultimately, Nick Carraway describes the mansion as “that huge incoherent failure of a house.” The mansion exists as both a vision and failure of such a vision.

East Egg

East Egg and West Egg. Fictionalized opposing peninsulas of Long Island Sound described as resembling a giant pair of eggs. They are contrasted in terms of fashionableness, color, and type of wealth. The East Egg mansions glitter along the water; they are more chic and are representative of older, Eastern, inherited wealth. The West Egg residences are more derivative and imitative, representative of the nouveau riche, affluent newcomers not yet accepted into the highest echelons of wealth. It is Gatsby’s habitation in West Egg that denotes his aspiration to a social status that seems unattainable. The Buchanans, who reside on East Egg, represent the arrogance of an exclusive clique who attend Gatsby’s parties and share in the fruits of his wealth but who essentially despise him. Tom Buchanan, who has inherited his fortune, does not value it in terms of the traditional American ethics of hard work, integrity, fairness, and success coupled with responsibility. The two Eggs also represent the larger framework of an East symbolic of European antiquity, old money, and corruption, and a West symbolic of independence, new money, and the pioneering spirit. Certainly Nick Carraway values Western ideals over Eastern, and at the conclusion of the novel he returns, in a westerly direction, to the traditional and conservative Midwest whence he came.

Valley of Ashes

Valley of Ashes. Generally considered to be Flushing in New York City’s borough of Queens, this place exists as a gray, dead, powdery area—even the homes seem to be composed of ashes—passed by motorcars on their way to New York. Here Myrtle and George Wilson live and operate a garage and gasoline station. The valley is a metaphoric representation of the wasteland the American Dream becomes when ethics and morals are disassociated from it. The valley is also the locus of those, such as George and Myrtle, who are victimized by the arrogant wealthy who base their lives on pleasure, avoidance of boredom, and dishonesty. If East and West Egg are two renditions of attainment of the American Dream, the Valley of Ashes is its demise. Literally it is the site where Daisy kills Myrtle, without compunction, and George decides to murder Gatsby. Finally, overlooking the valley are the giant blue eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, who stares down on the ashes from a billboard. A central symbol of guilt, judgment, and God, it invests the valley with a moral intensity that allies the novel with existential themes and statements about the moral bankruptcy of the modern world, a vast gray, ashen wasteland.

*New York City

*New York City. Certain integral scenes take place in this city and often entail irresponsibility, adultery, violence, and drunkenness. New York is where Tom Buchanan takes his mistress, where Nick witnesses Tom brutalizing her, where Gatsby reveals his illicit love affair with Daisy, and where a lot of alcohol is consumed. Symbolically, the city represents careless consumption and irresponsible immorality. New York in the 1920’s was a glittering den of writers, socialites, wealthy entrepreneurs, and other moneyed persons who were known for their extravagance and excesses.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

A speakeasy, where people could illegally purchase alcohol during Prohibition in the 1920s. Published by Gale Cengage

The Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties
The Jazz Age began soon after World War I and ended with the 1929 stock market...

(The entire section is 937 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Set in the summer of 1922, most of the story takes place in the fictitious New York towns of East and West Egg, Long Island, and in New York...

(The entire section is 115 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Fitzgerald has been justly praised for the narrative structure of The Great Gatsby. As critic Matthew Bruccoli points out, his...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In accordance with his epic ambitions to write a novel that took the measure of and expressed the vital spirit of his country, The Great...

(The entire section is 815 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Great Gatsby reflects an era that may be like our own, in many ways. A great deal of thought might be given to the ways in which...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1920s: Prohibition is passed, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of liquor. Al Capone takes over as boss of Chicago...

(The entire section is 161 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. What is the American dream? Does it mean the same thing for different characters in the book? Has Jay Gatsby attained what he believes the...

(The entire section is 145 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Research and report on the social history of "the jazz age," the period in America between 1919 and 1929.

2. Research and...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Read three of Fitzgerald's short stories dealing with the Jazz Age and compare and contrast these to The Great Gatsby. Suggested...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Fitzgerald has been justly praised for his creation of structure in The Great Gatsby. As Matthew Bruccoli points out, his "narrative control...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

There have been three films made from The Great Gatsby.

The silent version of 1926, starring Warner Baxter as Gatsby and...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • The Great Gatsby was first adapted as a film by Richard Maibaum as producer and Elliott Nugent as director. It stars Alan...

(The entire section is 112 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen Twenties. New York:...

(The entire section is 871 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Brucoli, Matthew J. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1993. Commonly regarded as the definitive Fitzgerald biography. Shows how the author became a kind of romantic archetype of the intoxicated, tragic genius. Includes an afterword by Scottie Fitzgerald Smith. See especially the section on The Great Gatsby entitled “Early Success, 1920-1925.”

Bryer, Jackson R., ed. “The Great Gatsby (1925).” In F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Critical Reception. New York: Burt Franklin, 1978. Provides an extensive, representative sampling of The Great Gatsby’s critical reception and shows how most critics did not recognize the novel’s remarkable mythic and symbolic dimensions.

Eble, Kenneth. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1977. The section on The Great Gatsby traces the novel’s literary genesis, explores the sources and consequences of Fitzgerald’s provincial moral posture, and discusses the use of structure, mood, and action in the development of Gatsby’s romantic vision.

Hook, Andrew. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002. Part of the Literary Lives series. Concise rather than thorough, but with some interesting details.

Lockridge, Ernest, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Great Gatsby”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. An impressive collection of critical interpretations and viewpoints on the novel. Includes commentary by Edith Wharton, Conrad Aiken, Lionel Trilling, Maxwell Perkins, and Fitzgerald himself.

Stern, Milton R. The Golden Moment: The Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971. A very readable and fascinating analysis. The section on The Great Gatsby focuses on the biographical and mythical aspects of Fitzgerald’s adolescent moral perspective.

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • The Twenties by Edmund Wilson, one of Fitzgerald's friends at Princeton University and his entire life, is an interesting...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Bruccoli, Matthew Joseph. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. With a Genealogical Afterword by Scottie...

(The entire section is 277 words.)