Key Plot Points

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Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2355

Overview: The novel unfolds during the summer of 1922, in New York and outside the city amid the mansions on Long Island’s north shore. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is a Midwesterner from a prosperous family. After graduating from Yale and fighting in World War I, he decides to move to New York and try his hand in the bond business. He rents a modest bungalow on Long Island, located next door to an opulent estate owned by Jay Gatsby. Across the bay from Gatsby’s home is the mansion of Nick’s second cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, who comes from an “enormously wealthy” Chicago family and was a college acquaintance of Nick’s. 

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Over the course of the summer, Nick learns that Gatsby had met and fallen in love with Daisy five years earlier in Louisville, her hometown, where he was stationed for military training. He left to fight in World War I, and by the time he returned, Daisy had married Tom. Through mysterious means, Gatsby has amassed a fortune and moved into a house that looks across the water to Daisy’s. He is convinced that she loves only him, and the crux of the novel’s plot is his attempt to win her back. 

Daisy learns that Gatsby is living nearby on Long Island (chapter 1, East Egg): In the novel’s opening scene, Nick goes to the Buchanan’s for dinner. It’s clear that all is not well between Daisy and Tom. They spar verbally, and when Tom leaves the table to take a phone call, Jordan Baker, a female friend of Daisy’s, explains to Nick that it’s Tom’s “woman in New York” who is calling. 

Earlier, Jordan has mentioned that she knows Nick’s neighbor, Gatsby. Daisy is startled— “Gatsby? What Gatsby?” she says—but the conversation is cut short when they’re called in to dinner. Daisy doesn’t bring him up again, but in retrospect it’s clear that the revelation of his presence is the crucial event of the evening. 

Nick meets Myrtle; Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose (chapter 2, upper Manhattan): On a Sunday afternoon, Tom introduces Nick to his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, the wife of an auto garage owner. Tom takes them to an apartment in upper Manhattan that he keeps for their trysts. Myrtle’s sister and the downstairs neighbors arrive to make a small but riotous party. Nick says, “I have been drunk twice in my life, and the second time was that afternoon.” 

The hours pass in a haze, with Myrtle at one point telling Nick the story of how she and Tom first met on the train in from Long Island. After they disembarked, with barely a word exchanged, he had forcefully lead her into a taxi with him. “I told him I’d have to call a policeman,” she says, “but he knew I lied.” Later, Myrtle chides Tom about Daisy, and Tom responds by striking her, breaking her nose. The chapter is at its core a demonstration of Tom’s character, showing his arrogance, his entitlement, and his brutality. 

Nick attends one of Gatsby’s parties and meets Gatsby for the first time; Jordan has a long conversation with Gatsby in private (chapter 3, Gatsby’s mansion): On most weekends Gatsby hosts a lavish party, with a full orchestra, an extravagant buffet, free-flowing liquor, and scores of guests. Many attendees have never met Gatsby, and his mysterious identity leads to wild speculation, including theories that he was a German spy during the war and that he has killed a man. 

Nick attends one such party, where he meets up with Jordan. At one point he strikes up a conversation with a stranger, who turns out to be Gatsby. Nick describes at length Gatsby’s smile—“one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance.” Gatsby is extremely, almost excessively, attentive to his guests’ desires, but he’s also aloof, soberly observing the revels without joining in himself. Late in the evening, a butler summons Jordan to speak with Gatsby in private. When she leaves him after an hour’s conversation, she tells Nick, “I’ve just heard the most amazing thing,” but she has sworn not to divulge what she’s been told. 

Nick and Gatsby have lunch with Meyer Wolfsheim; Jordan tells Nick about Gatsby and Daisy’s courtship (chapter 4, midtown Manhattan): One late July morning, Gatsby shows up at Nick’s bungalow and drives him into the city. Along the way, Gatsby tells Nick about his past, providing fanciful, vague stories of inherited wealth, big-game hunting, jewel collecting, study at Oxford, and wartime heroics. Nick finds the stories preposterous, but then he questions his own skepticism when Gatsby provides a medal for bravery from the war and a photo of him at Oxford to support his claims. 

Gatsby is preparing Nick for a request that Jordan is going to make of him later that day on Gatsby’s behalf. Before then, though, Nick has lunch with Gatsby, who introduces him to Meyer Wolfsheim, a Jewish gambler. Though it isn’t stated explicitly, there are indications that Gatsby has business dealings with Wolfsheim, thus giving the first hint of the true source of Gatsby’s wealth. 

Later that afternoon, Jordan tells Nick that Gatsby and Daisy had fallen in love when he had been stationed at a military base near Louisville, Daisy’s hometown, before the war. He has purchased a mansion across the bay from Daisy and throws his lavish parties for the sole purpose of impressing her. (This is the “most amazing thing” that Gatsby told Jordan in their private conversation.) Gatsby’s request is that Nick invite Daisy to Nick’s home for tea. Unbeknownst to her, Gatsby will join them. 

Gatsby and Daisy reunite (chapter 5, Nick’s bungalow and Gatsby’s mansion): As planned, Daisy comes to Nick’s and is reunited with Gatsby. At first the two former lovers are awkward and embarrassed. Nick leaves them alone for an hour, and when he returns, they’ve been transformed. Gatsby “literally glowed” with well-being; Daisy’s cheeks are stained with tears, and as she discusses the weather, her voice “told only of her unexpected joy.” 

Gatsby takes them on a tour of his house, and Daisy is suitably impressed by its opulence. In his bedroom, Gatsby starts flinging his extensive, elaborate collection of shirts onto a table. Daisy buries her face in them and begins to cry, saying, “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such . . . such beautiful shirts before.” Eventually Nick parts company with them. As he’s preparing to leave, he notices that a look of doubt has returned to Gatsby’s face and speculates that the reunion, however happy, hasn’t equaled the image of Daisy that Gatsby has built up in his mind. Then she whispers something in his ear, and the doubt seems to vanish. 

Nick reveals details from Gatsby’s past; Daisy and Tom attend a Gatsby party (chapter 6, Gatsby’s mansion): Nick digresses from his narrative to provide some details about Gatsby’s past. (Nick explains that Gatsby “told me all this much later,” but this section of the novel has the tone of an omniscient narrator.) 

Gatsby’s given name is James Gatz. He was born in North Dakota, the son of itinerant farm workers. As a teenager he was filled with grand ambitions; “he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this concept he was faithful to the end.” His dreams started to come to fruition when he met and became the protégé of Dan Cody, a millionaire who had made his fortune mining copper in Montana. Gatsby spent five years with Cody on his yacht, sailing around the world three times, until Cody abruptly died. Gatsby was given $25,000 in Cody’s will, but his widow managed to block the inheritance. Although Gatsby ended up getting no money out of the relationship, his time with Cody helped shape his character. “He was left with his singularly appropriate education; the vague contour of Jay Gatsby had filled out to the substantiality of a man.” That’s where Nick ends Gatsby’s history, revealing clues to his character but not explaining how he has become so rich. 

Back in the novel’s present-day, Daisy and Tom attend to one of Gatsby’s parties. Gatsby proudly points out the celebrities who are in attendance, but Tom is haughty and rude, and Daisy, in her more demure way, is equally unimpressed. They both show disdain for the nouveau riche of West Egg, the area of Long Island where Gatsby lives. After they leave, Gatsby is despondent, insisting to Nick, “She didn’t have a good time.” Still, he clings to his hope that Daisy will tell Tom she never loved him, and that she and Gatsby will then take up their relationship where it left off five years earlier. Nick counsels not to expect too much from Daisy and tells Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past,” to which he responds, “Why of course you can!” 

Daisy, Gatsby, and Tom have a confrontation in the Plaza Hotel; Myrtle is struck and killed by Gatsby’s car (chapter 7, East Egg, Manhattan, Queens): After Daisy’s unsatisfactory experience, Gatsby stops throwing parties and fires his servants, replacing them with some less polished associates of Wolfsheim. Gatsby, Jordan, and Nick are invited to Tom and Daisy’s for lunch, where Nick suspects Daisy and Gatsby plan to confront Tom and orchestrate a break in the Buchanans’ marriage. 

The day of the lunch is blazing hot, and there’s tension in the air. As Tom takes a call in another room, Daisy kisses Gatsby on the lips and tells him she loves him, as Nick and Jordan look on. 

After lunch, they decide to go into New York, where they take a suite at the Plaza Hotel, with the idea that they will drink mint juleps as an antidote to the heat. Gatsby confronts Tom, saying Daisy has never loved him and pressuring Daisy to tell him so. She does, reluctantly, but at Tom’s prodding she admits that she did in fact at one point love him too— that she loved both of them. Tom then explains that he knows Gatsby is involved in criminal business dealings with Meyer Wolfsheim. It becomes evident that Daisy has lost her nerve and that she is not going to leave Tom. 

They drive back to Long Island, Nick and Jordan with Tom, Daisy with Gatsby. Gatsby’s car hits and kills Myrtle Wilson, who has run into the road outside Wilson’s garage. They don’t stop. (Gatsby later tells Nick that it was Daisy driving the car.) Tom, who is a few minutes behind them, pulls over to see about the commotion and finds Myrtle laid out dead, surrounded by police and witnesses, while her husband, George Wilson, howls with grief in his office. 

Wilson kills Gatsby (chapter 8, Gatsby’s mansion): Nick visits Gatsby early in the morning and advises him to leave town for a while, but Gatsby wants to stay so that Daisy knows where to find him. He still hopes she will leave Tom for him. At this point Gatsby tells Nick the information about Dan Cody that has been recounted in chapter 6. He also describes his courtship of Daisy—how he became enthralled with her, in no small part because he sensed for the first time that a desirable young woman of wealth and privilege was attainable for him. 

Gatsby and Nick have breakfast, and then Nick goes to the city to work. His parting words to Gatsby are, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” 

George Wilson has spent the night thinking about what happened to Myrtle. He says he knows how to find out who owns the car that killed her, and that he considers the owner her murderer. In the morning he walks to Long Island. Presumably, though it’s not said explicitly, he speaks to Tom and finds out that the car belongs to Gatsby. Wilson goes to Gatsby’s estate, shoots Gatsby to death in the swimming pool, and then kills himself. Nick goes to the house later that afternoon and, along with some of the servants, discovers the bodies. 

Gatsby’s death draws the attention of journalists and the police, but no one except for Nick shows a personal interest. He calls Daisy, but learns that she and Tom have left town, giving no indication of where they’ve gone or when they plan to return. 

Gatsby is buried; Nick moves back west (Long Island and New York, chapter 9): Three days after Gatsby’s death his father arrives, having read about the murder in the Chicago newspapers. He’s a doddering old man, saddened by his son’s death but proud of his accomplishments and awed by his splendid home. He, Nick, a few servants, and one eccentric guest from Gatsby’s parties are the only attendees at the rain-soaked burial. 

In the fall, feeling jaded by his experiences, Nick decides the return to the Midwest. Before he leaves, he runs into Tom walking along Fifth Avenue. Nick confronts him about his role in Gatsby’s death. Tom admits that he told Wilson that the car that hit Myrtle belonged to Gatsby, but he also indicates through his comments that he isn’t aware Daisy was the driver. He thinks Gatsby “ran over Myrtle the way you’d run over a dog.” Nick renders a final judgment: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made.” 

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