The Great Gatsby Questions and Answers

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Great Gatsby questions.

What is "old money"?

An important element of The Great Gatsby is the conflict between “old money” and “new money.” Gatsby, the self-made man, represents the nouveau riche, whereas the Buchanans represent the system of values perpetuated by generational wealth. Although both groups are in the same class, and equally wealthy, the differences between the groups have subtle social status issues.

People who are “new money” are seen by “old money” as gaudy, ostentatious, and overly extravagant. They are marked by excess and garishness. The wild parties that Jay Gatsby throws are indicative of this. On the other hand, “old money” folks think of themselves as elegant and refined.

The American Dream, an idea prevalent in all aspects of Fitzgerald’s novel, is based on “new money.” After all, it is conceptualized by the ability of the economically disadvantaged to move up.

The reality of this social mobility, however, is rather bleak. Gatsby, who gained his wealth through illegal means, is never fully accepted by people like the Buchanans. The separation and differences of West Egg (the new money area where Nick and Gatsby live) and East Egg (the location of the old aristocracy and gentry families) are symbolic of this divide.

How is Gatsby an idealist?

The perils of idealism manifest symbolically in this novel. Jay Gatsby’s character is the essence of idealism. Despite everything, he still yearns for a dream life with a dream woman. He puts Daisy Buchanan on a pedestal, and as a result, loses his ability to see with clarity. Gatsby’s “love” for Daisy is not necessarily true love; it is infatuation based on objectification. She becomes the symbol of everything he wants, rather than the complex human being she really is. Because of his tendency to romanticize, Gatsby cannot see Daisy’s selfishness. He puts on rose-colored glasses and cannot see clearly.

How did Fitzgerald portray the attitudes of the 1920s?

Fitzgerald was ahead of his time in articulating the defining elements of the 1920s. He recognized that the Jazz Age was rooted in "outer-directed" focus. This condition was one in which individuals lived for external reality and for the expectations of other people. Fitzgerald demonstrates a time period in which there is a noticeable lack of "inner-directed" guidance. For the most part, the Jazz Age is depicted as a monument built upon a firmament of sand.

The outer-directed nature of the time period ultimately reveals its emptiness. Underneath the glamour and glitz is a crippling hollowness, a vacant nothingness that underscores their existence.

Fitzgerald operates as both storyteller and historian in how he is able to detail this aspect of the 1920s. To a great extent, Fitzgerald shows how the excessive "outer-directed" condition of being helps to perpetuate unsound economic habits that would inevitably lead to the 1929 Stock Market Crash. 

Why is Nick Carraway an interesting narrator?

F. Scott Fitzgerald chose to write The Great Gatsby with a fictitious narrator named Nick Carraway. Nick introduces himself at the very beginning of the first chapter:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in the world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

Nick represents himself as an exceptionally broad-minded, tolerant person. His creator must have felt that this characterization of his minor-character narrator was essential because Nick could be accused of questionable, if not immoral, behavior. He makes friends with a gangster named Gatsby, who throws riotous parties fueled with bootleg liquor.

Nick is the sole connecting link between all the other principal characters. He is related to Daisy and related to her husband Tom through her. At the same time, Tom introduces Nick to his mistress Myrtle Wilson, whose husband George has no idea what Myrtle is up to when she goes into Manhattan supposedly to visit her sister. Nick is the only character besides Tom and Myrtle who knows about the love nest Tom keeps for Myrtle in the city. Nick is the only one except Gatsby and Daisy who knows about the affair they are having in Gatsby's mansion. There are two adulterous affairs going on simultaneously, and Nick gets personally involved with all the parties involved. He justifies this to himself by telling the reader that 

In consequence [of what his father told him] I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.

Nick holds all the threads in his hands. He tries to represent himself as being somehow above it all; he retreats to the Midwest to get away. In the end he makes everybody look pretty bad, except for himself and his friend Gatsby. Daisy is guilty of manslaughter. Tom is guilty of adultery, along with Myrtle, Daisy, and Gatsby. George Wilson is guilty of murder. But Nick Carraway is not guiltless either. He is deceiving Daisy about Tom's affair and deceiving Tom about Daisy's affair. He is indirectly helping to deceive George Wilson about Myrtle's affair. He participates in the cover-up of Daisy's hit-and-run manslaughter. Nick thinks he is being tolerant and broad-minded, but perhaps he is letting himself be morally tainted by unscrupulous and dissolute people, including Gatsby himself. Nick seems like a character hypnotized by his admiration of a strong, handsome, highly determined, self-made man and drawn into a whirlpool of corruption.

How does The Great Gatsby demonstrate the corruption of the "American Dream"?

Fitzgerald's understanding of American history and of the dynamic undercurrents in American life at the turn of the twentieth century made him acutely aware of what society had become by the 1920s. A Midwesterner by birth and a romantic at heart, he was disillusioned by the frenetic, heedless pursuit of wealth and pleasure that characterized the Roaring Twenties, condemning it even as he took part in it. Much has been written about Fitzgerald's "divided" nature, about his ability to stand aside psychologically and condemn his own actions. He often violated his principles of personal integrity and responsible behavior, but he believed in them. Despite his weaknesses, Fitzgerald was a moralist, and it is this aspect of his character that most informs The Great Gatsby. 

Peel back the layers of Fitzgerald's beautiful, evocative prose with his vivid descriptions of all that gleams and glitters, and the novel is dark. It is as unrelenting in its social criticism as any piece of American fiction written in the twentieth century. Beneath the glamour and Gatsby's romantic dreams of Daisy lie corruption and violence. They permeate every aspect of American society depicted in the novel, and they are manifested throughout the novel in ways both obvious and subtle. Even baseball, the quintessential American sport and the national pastime, has been corrupted.

Nothing in the lives of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, and Jordan is solid and true, except their headlong pursuit of everything they want, consequences be damned. Their deceit, lies, evasions, and acts of irresponsibility and unfaithfulness fill the narrative; they all cheat, in one way or another, or in multiple ways. Jordan even cheats at golf. Gatsby is a fake, living without the integrity of his own name in a mansion that is an imitation of an imitation, purchased with stolen money. American life in the 1920s, Fitzgerald suggests, is characterized by self-indulgence and amorality, hardly the qualities that built the country from its inception.

The Great Gatsby can be read as a romance or as a portrait of the Jazz Age, and it is excellent in both respects. However, the artistic vision that makes it an enduring work is expressed most powerfully in Fitzgerald's coda at the conclusion when he finally takes readers where he has intended to lead them from the beginning—to a meditation on the American Dream. As Nick watches the moon rise over a dark and silent Long Island Sound, the novel's primary theme becomes evident in a haunting, lyrical passage:

...gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment, man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent ... face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

The tone of the passage is elegiac, mourning the loss of what once was and what might have been when America was "fresh" and "green" and "new." The American Dream, "the last and greatest of all human dreams," has been corrupted by greed, selfishness, and spiritual decay. Fitzgerald's vision of an America that once inspired wonder and enchantment, juxtaposed with the lives and the landscape in The Great Gatsby, illustrates the depth of his condemnation of American society in the 1920s.

What do Jimmy, Jay, and Myrtle have in common?

Despite the obvious differences between Jay Gatsby's extravagant life and Myrtle Wilson's shabby existence, the parallels Fitzgerald draws between the two characters are numerous and not coincidental. Through the similarities, two themes in the novel are underscored.

Gatsby and Myrtle are driven by the same psychological force: They reject who they are and despise the lives handed to them without their consent. Before his transformation, Jimmy Gatz was restless and discontent, on fire with the desire to rise above his social station and possess wealth and all the glittering things it can buy. He longed for beauty and romance and believed in his heart that he did not belong in his dull, impoverished life on a farm in North Dakota with “shiftless” parents and a father who ate “like a hog.” Unable to endure his life, he ran away from home at seventeen to reinvent himself as Jay Gatsby.

Like Jimmy, who felt trapped in a life not his own, Myrtle Wilson is trapped in a nightmare she did not imagine when she married George Wilson. Fitzgerald doesn’t give readers the details of Myrtle’s youth, but she married George believing he was a “gentleman” who could provide the life she wanted. Myrtle was appalled when she discovered George had to borrow the suit he wore at their wedding. Just as Jimmy Gatz felt disdain for his family, Myrtle holds George Wilson in contempt, believing, as she tells her sister Catherine, that he “wasn’t fit to lick my shoe.” Psychologically, Myrtle runs away from home, too, by throwing herself into an affair with Tom Buchanan, who she believes will fulfill her dreams by buying her a glamorous new life; moments before her death, she runs away physically, as well, in pursuit of Tom. 

Gatsby and Myrtle want more than wealth; they want to climb the social ladder, leaving their former identities behind. By the time Gatsby is settled in his West Egg mansion, a house he pays for in cash, he believes he has succeeded in obliterating Jimmy Gatz; lying about his past and concealing his criminal activities make him a mysterious figure, and he cultivates the persona. Like Gatsby, Myrtle also struggles to forge a new identity, first as Tom’s mistress and then as his wife. Not content to remain his mistress, she dreams of marrying Tom and assuming Daisy Buchanan’s role in society. Myrtle’s taunting Tom by repeating Daisy’s name during a violent, drunken argument shows Myrtle’s persistence in refusing to settle for anything less. 

Gatsby and Myrtle are both naïve to believe they can create new identities and join the upper class. Uneducated and unrefined, they are interlopers among the Eastern elite. Myrtle’s coarse language and behavior, in contrast to Daisy’s cool confidence and superficial charm, set Myrtle apart from Tom and Daisy’s society in ways that money can’t erase. Gatsby mimics the manners and what he erroneously believes to be the language of the upper class, but Tom Buchanan recognizes him at once as an imposter, despite Gatsby’s wealth. In different ways, Gatsby and Myrtle are both vulgar in contrast to those of the staid, conservative society of East Egg. Gatsby spends his money in tasteless displays of conspicuous consumption and wears a pink suit; Myrtle conspicuously displays her voluptuous body in clothes that Daisy Buchanan would never consider wearing.

Compelled to seize all that life would deny them, Gatsby and Myrtle believe what they must to carry on. Myrtle accepts the “elaborateness” of Tom’s lie regarding Daisy’s being a Catholic who doesn't believe in divorce, and Gatsby dies waiting for Daisy’s call, still clinging to the belief that having money will make marrying Daisy possible. Gatsby and Myrtle, by necessity, are blind in regard to the Buchanans, unable to see them for who they are, “careless people” without conscience, united by the ingrained, snobbish sense of superiority conferred upon them by inherited wealth.

In rejecting their own identities and attempting to reinvent themselves and their lives, Gatsby and Myrtle are destroyed; each suffers a violent death directly related to having associated with the Buchanans. The parallels between Gatsby and Myrtle develop the old money-new money theme in the novel. Through Jimmy, Jay, and Myrtle, another theme emerges, as well—that reinventing oneself in the pursuit of a new life is part of the American Dream, but how one chooses to do it is of no minor consequence. 

What is significant about the party guests?

In Chapter IV, Nick lists the names of various guests from East Egg and West Egg that he observed at Gatsby’s parties during the summer of 1922. The list is remarkable in its content and implications, a colorful catalog through which Fitzgerald satirizes the upper class while simultaneously clarifying, without explicitly explaining, the social distinctions developing in American society during the Roaring Twenties. The names and their connotations effectively contrast East Egg, the bastion of old money, with West Egg, the home of the up-and-comers who are making money hand over fist in the new decade.

The guests from East Egg bear names that suggest generations of staid Yankee tradition and the heritage of the antebellum South; the names of guests from West Egg are primarily those of European immigrants of various ethnicity and occupations. The contrast emphasizes the accelerating social divide in the country. At Gatsby’s parties, the Chester Beckers, the Leeches, the Ripley Snells, and Dr. Webster Civet find themselves in the company of the Poles, the Mulreadys, the Bembergs, Don S. Schwartze, and a promoter named Da Fontano. Polishing off the list of East Eggers are Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia and Mrs. Ulysses Swett.

Although the East Eggers and the West Eggers occupy the same general territory in Gatsby’s gardens, the social barrier between them remains inviolate. The Blackbuck clan, “who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats,” would find no common ground with James B. (“Rotgut”) Ferret, nor would they want to. Guests from West Egg, unrestrained by social convention and free of the ingrained attitudes and behaviors bred into them by wealthy American ancestors, seem to have a much better time at Gatsby’s riotous extravaganzas, although several of the East Egg contingent are not immune to bad behavior either.  

Why is Gatsby so shy?

There is, of course, an interesting and amusing contrast between Gatsby's identity as a hard-boiled Prohibition gangster and his shy, awkward behavior when he first meets Daisy at Nick Carraway's cottage. He seems almost as bashful as a high-school boy on his first date. For example:

He followed me wildly into the kitchen, closed the door, and whispered: "Oh, God!" in a miserable way.
"What's the matter?"
"This is a terrible mistake," he said, shaking his head from side to side, "a terrible, terrible mistake."
"You're just embarrassed, that's all."

Gatsby, who typically seems so poised and confident at his parties and while overseeing his criminal empire, remains embarrassed even when Daisy and Nick come over to his mansion and he shows them around. Perhaps the reason F. Scott Fitzgerald puts so much emphasis on Gatsby's discomfiture now that his dream has been realized is that it explains why Gatsby has taken such a long, roundabout way of fulfilling it.

Nick is the narrator. Everything has to happen through his point of view. Nick is only drawn into this love affair because Gatsby has been trying unsuccessfully to lure Daisy to one of his lavish parties, because Nick just happens to be Gatsby's neighbor, and because Gatsby learns that Nick is Daisy's cousin.

It is Gatsby's shyness that has taken him such a long time to get around to meeting Daisy after all these years. Another man might have just called her on the telephone and asked her to meet him for tea. But then Nick would not have had such an important role in their reunion, and he would have known nothing about what transpired when the two former lovers met again. Gatsby's shyness with regard to this girl of his dreams is the explanation of the big mansion, all those wild, expensive parties, and his friendship with Nick. It explains those beautiful shirts, the big yellow roadster, and virtually everything else.

But most of all it was necessary to explain Nick's involvement in Gatsby's and Daisy's love affair. Nick not only presents Gatsby with the opportunity to meet Daisy, but without Nick it seems likely that Gatsby would have muffed the whole reunion and never gotten Daisy to his house at all. Nick gives him the encouragement he needs and also makes it more "proper" for Gatsby to invite both of them to his house rather than summoning the necessary courage to invite Daisy to come alone. After all, Gatsby had a great deal more in mind than just "meeting" Daisy. He wanted to have a romantic long-term liaison with her and ultimately persuade her to leave her husband and marry him. 

This sort of shyness is probably familiar to all of us. It is a panic that often accompanies true love. Love makes us all feel foolish. The panic can cost us golden opportunities which we may lament for the rest of our lives.

 

However, there could be a less innocent reason that Fitzgerald makes Gatsby so shy. Maybe he is not nervous, but trying to make Nick feel at ease about encouraging his romantic pursuit of Nick’s married cousin.

Nick is supposed to be a clean-cut young man from a respectable Midwest background. Yet he allows himself to be put into the position of a panderer for a gangster who wants to commit adultery with Nick's cousin, Daisy, and then steal her away from her husband.

Even when Nick leaves Daisy alone with Gatsby, the normally poised and sophisticated gangster is still suffering from love-sickness and panic. This softens the morally questionable nature of what is actually happening. Regardless of Gatsby's shaky nerves, he has managed to get Nick to lure Daisy to his cottage for a surprise meeting, then to get Nick and Daisy to accompany him to his mansion, and finally to get rid of Nick so that (as we all know without being told) he can take Daisy to bed.

Nick is the narrator and therefore always in the spotlight. The others can come and go, but Nick is always on stage, so to speak. He keeps bragging about his tolerance and broad-mindedness, but he is letting himself be used by a man who specializes in using others for his own ends; and the only way Fitzgerald could soften the damage to Nick as a character was to make Gatsby suddenly panic.

When Nick says goodbye to them at Gatsby's mansion, Daisy seems to have taken charge of the situation. Nick's shady role in this reunion has been smoothed over.

They had forgotten me, but Daisy glanced up and held out her hand. Gatsby didn't know me now at all. I looked once more at them and they looked back at me, remotely, possessed by intense life. Then I went out of the room and down the marble steps into the rain, leaving them there together.

Nick is in the clear. He has actually been "forgotten." It is as if he had no part in this affair. He is not responsible for what has happened or what will happen. It is as if it all happened by itself. And he just happened to be there.

Why is Tom Buchanan portrayed unfavorably?

Tom Buchanan is shown in a consistently unfavorable light throughout the novel. He has a beautiful wife, but he is blatantly unfaithful to her. Tom shows bad taste in the woman who is his current mistress. He takes pride in introducing Nick to her right under her husband's nose.

Myrtle Wilson is cheap, ignorant and vulgar, but seems suited to her rich lover. She deceives her poor husband without qualms. The love and sincerity of George Wilson only make his wife look more ruthless. Tom Buchanan is a big, brutal man. He shows himself at his worst when he gets into a drunken quarrel with Myrtle at their New York "love nest" and breaks her nose with a blow of his open hand.

Fitzgerald's purpose in creating such an unfaithful, unattractive and unsympathetic husband for Daisy was to soften the culpability of Gatsby in intruding into the life of a married woman with a small child and trying to win her away from her husband. If Tom Buchanan were a better husband, it would make Gatsby look like more of an unscrupulous predator.

Both Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker see Tom as an ignorant man who knows nothing but polo. Tom is rich because he inherited all his money—and he is getting richer all the time because these are the Roaring Twenties and the stock market is soaring. He never earned any money in his life. Gatsby, by contrast, earned everything he has—although he earned most of it through clandestine enterprises with shady associates. 

How does Nick's narration influence the reader?

F. Scott Fitzgerald was undoubtedly a genius and wrote beautiful prose. However, the use of Nick Carraway as the narrator seems like the way Hollywood used to employ music in soundtracks to make the audience feel the way they were supposed to feel about what was happening on the screen.

Nick not only tells the readers what happened but continually suggests how they should feel about what was happening. He does this mainly by expressing how he feels himself. This seems to be Fitzgerald's main reason for using Nick as a minor-character narrator.

If Fitzgerald had written the novel as a third-person anonymous narrator, he would have found it difficult or impossible to tell his readers how they should be feeling; and it seems doubtful that he would have been able to evoke the same feelings that Nick expresses as narrator. We might not feel any sympathy at all for Gatsby without Nick's sycophantic input. Nick is like a cheerleader pumping up the crowd. When Gatsby explains to Tom that he went to Oxford for five months after the war, Nick comments:

I wanted to get up and slap him on the back. I had one of those renewals of complete faith in him that I'd experienced before.

Without Nick rooting for Gatsby all the way through the book, the reader might form a different opinion. Gatsby is a mobster, who uses his illegal wealth to break into the upper class. He uses people, including Nick. Gatsby may be using Daisy as a means of achieving upward social mobility. He is trying to break up Tom and Daisy's family, however toxic it may be.

Who is Ewing Klipspringer?

Ewing Klipspringer is a permanent house guest in Gatsby's mansion. Nick describes him as:

...an embarrassed, slightly worn young man, with shell-rimmed glasses and scanty blond hair. He was now decently clothed in a sport shirt, open at the neck, sneakers and duck trousers of a nebulous hue.

Gatsby summons Klipspringer ostensibly to play the piano for them, and he plays the popular 1920's tune "Ain't We Got Fun?" But the real function of this minor character is to serve as a sort of chaperone.

Nick is going to leave Gatsby and Daisy alone at the end of Chapter V. Nick was Daisy's escort up to that point. Otherwise it would have been improper, by the standards of the time, to leave Daisy alone like that. It would have been too obvious why Gatsby had invited them over and what was going to happen. But with Klipspringer present, Daisy and Gatsby are not quite alone, and Nick can make his departure (a departure which Daisy and Gatsby obviously want) without seeming to abandon his role as escort. This is a sensitive moment because Nick is so conspicuously being placed in the role of pander, go-between, entremetteur

It is noteworthy that, although there are two affairs going on throughout the novel, there is never any explicit description of physical contact (except, of course, when Tom breaks Myrtle's nose). The end of Chapter V is like one of those "fade outs" Hollywood used to employ in the days when the movie censors would not permit anything more than kissing on the screen. After Klipspringer appears and starts playing the piano, Nick politely fades out as gracefully as possible under the circumstances. 

They had forgotten me, but Daisy glanced up and held out her hand. Gatsby didn't know me now at all. I looked once more at them and they looked back at me, remotely possessed by intense life. Then I went out of the room and down the marble steps into the rain, leaving them there together.

What happens after that is left to the reader's imagination.