"The Great Gatsby" is a 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald set amongst the wealthy elite of Long Island, New York. The novel is one of the most famous and iconic novels of the era, and is one of the best descriptions of the fashions, the morals and the lives of young wealthy people in the 1920s.
"The Great Gatsby" centres on the eponymous Jay Gatsby, a mysterious figure living in West Egg. Gatsby throws elaborate parties, although remains unseen until midway through the novel, at which point he reveals a dramatic truth to the narrator, Nick Carraway. A series of events intrinsically link Nick, Gatsby and Nick's cousin, Daisy Buchanan. Through Nick's horrified narration, the vanity, selfishness and artificiality of 'Jazz Age' America is exposed, culminating in a tragic and pitiful ending for almost all the characters. The novel is one of the most damning critiques of the seemingly glamorous aspects of the Roaring Twenties.
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‘The Great Gatsby’ is set amongst the opulence and decadence of 1920s America. Fitzgerald described the period as ‘the Jazz Age’, and was the most famous chronicler in what was one of the most interesting periods in American history. The banning (or ‘prohibition’) of alcohol in 1919 under the Volstead Act had created a situation where bootleggers and illegal alcohol were common, and criminals became celebrities, and extremely wealthy in the process. In addition to this, the economic boom in the United States that followed the First World War brought prosperity to a new generation of Americans. In addition, the horrors of the War meant that young Americans began to throw parties to distract themselves from many of the difficulties in the world.
The American Dream was an important idea in the United States. It was based on the belief that, unlike in Europe, an individual’s background and status was less important than his future. It was felt that with hard work and dedication, wealth was available to anyone. The 1920s saw the rise of consumerism in the United States, as people began to enjoy demonstrating their wealth. For ordinary Americans, this meant buying goods such as radios (often on credit), and for rich Americans, this involved throwing opulent parties, wearing expensive clothes, and driving the newest cars.
Fitzgerald based many of the events and characters in ‘the Great Gatsby’ on his own life, and one of his most damning critiques of the era is that while the parties were exuberant, and the money (and drink) flowed freely, there was little substance behind the style. In the conflict between East and West Egg, the division between ‘old’ and ‘new’ money is highlighted. This was a key feature of high society in the 1920s, as the newly wealthy class of entrepreneurs and businessman were buying their entry into the social elites. The contrast between the ‘class’ of the old money and the ‘gaudiness’ of new money is clear to be seen in Gatsby’s life.Back to top
‘The Great Gatsby’ is centred on the life of Nick Carraway, from Minnesota in the American Midwest. Nick is a recent graduate of Yale University, and in the summer of 1922 is sent to New York to learn about bonds. He rents a home in West Egg, part of New York State that is home to a number of the ‘new rich’, a class of people who have newly made their money, and who like to display their wealth by throwing elaborate parties. Nick’s neighbour in West Egg is a mysterious character called Jay Gatsby, who throws the biggest parties in the area, although very few people actually know anything about him.
Because of Nick’s university connections, he has a number of friends in neighbouring East Egg, part of Long Island that is home to the ‘old money’ class, who have been wealthy for generations. Nick travels to East Egg to visit his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, who studied with Nick at Yale. While dining there, he meets Jordan Baker, who has a sharp wit that attracts Nick. They begin a relationship. Jordan gives Nick an insight into the life of Tom and Daisy. She tells Nick that Tom has a mistress called Myrtle in a poor area of New York. Soon after, Tom takes Nick to New York to an apartment he has for his affair. Whilst there, Nick, Tom and Myrtle hold an impromptu party (in direct contrast to the organised, elaborate parties in West Egg). Myrtle drinks too much whisky and begins taunting Tom about Daisy. Tom snaps and breaks Myrtle’s nose.
Halfway through the novel, Nick receives an invite to a party held by Jay Gatsby. Although it is not clear at the start of the party whether Gatsby is there, Nick and Jordan eventually meet him. Nick is surprised by how young Gatsby is, and says that he talks with a fake English accent (a sign that Gatsby wanted to sound cultured and educated). Gatsby asks to speak to Jordan alone, and asks tells her that he is in love with Daisy, and that he knew her from Louisville in 1917. He says that he has been throwing his parties as an attempt to impress Daisy, and that he stares at night at the green light that shines at the end of her dock. Gatsby wants Nick to arrange a meeting between Gatsby and Daisy, although asks for secrecy, as he is worried that Daisy will not come. Nick obliges, and invites Daisy for tea (without telling her that Gatsby will also be there). Gatsby and Daisy are initially cold towards one another, although eventually they begin an affair.
Tom slowly realises that Daisy and Gatsby are having an affair, and sets up a confrontation with Gatsby in the Plaza Hotel in New York. He tells Gatsby that Daisy and he have a real history, and that Gatsby could never recreate that. He also tells Daisy that Gatsby has made his money from bootlegging alcohol, and is therefore a criminal. Daisy realises that her future lies with Tom, and drives back to East Egg (although with Gatsby). While driving through ‘the Valley of the Ashes’ Gatsby’s car hits and kills Myrtle. When Nick asks Gatsby about his, he finds that Daisy was the driver, although that Gatsby will take the blame. Tom tells Myrtle’s husband, George, that Gatsby was the driver. George comes to Gatsby’s mansion, where he finds Gatsby in the pool. He shoots and kills Gatsby, and then commits suicide. Nick holds a small funeral for Gatsby, and then moves back to the Midwest, leaving Jordan behind. Nick is repulsed by the greed and vanity of New York, and the novel ends on his reflection of the ‘Jazz Age’.Back to top
A key part of the way that American sees itself is as a classless society. In comparison with the nations of Europe, birth and name seem to matter less in America. However, it is clear to see in ‘The Great Gatsby’ that there are differences between the classes. The division between West and East Egg is the most obvious example of this. The East Egg inhabitants look down on those in the West, who in turn aspire to the culture and the connections of the ‘old money’ in the East. Everyone in the novel is essentially in the same social group as they were born into. The only exception to this is Jay Gatsby, who makes his money through crime. Even he tries to aspire to culture, through his mannerisms and his fake accent. Throughout the novel, the only value that is ‘classless’ is unhappiness. This is shared from East to West Egg, to the valley of the Ashes.
Throughout the novel, wealth is seen as a way to be moral, and to improve one’s standing within society. However, what wealth creates is an absence of consequences for one’s actions. Tom can violently attack Myrtle, and Gatsby can rise in the world of crime with seemingly no consequences. Rather than make them immoral, wealth makes the characters amoral (without an understanding of morals). Nick is repulsed by this, and realises that being around these people is a damaging influence. By contrast, Daisy and Tom, who are wealthy, both decide to simply move to a new house, far away from East Egg, rather than attend Gatsby’s funeral. The real social commentary within the novel is that wealth makes people insincere. The ostentatious parties, the garish suits and the expensive cars are all artificial. Most of the characters are driven by what they can’t afford (or can’t buy), an idea that few of them are used to.
Love is shown as a destructive force within the novel, and is separated from lust. Like everything else in the world of East and West Egg, love is artificial, and is linked with status. Notably, Gatsby describes Daisy by saying her voice is ‘full of money’. This leads us to question whether he really loves her, or if he loves her social class, or even the idea of being in love. Tom and Daisy seem to have little affection over one another, and Tom effectively ‘owns’ Daisy, seeing of Gatsby’s challenge towards the end of the novel. The fact that Tom openly has a mistress (whom he also ‘owns’) shows that their love means very little. Jordan and Nick have little in common, and show little real affection. Nick is too appalled by the world he is living in, and Jordan is too cynical for either to develop a bond. Love, as a real emotion, is unsurprisingly rare in the world of ‘The Great Gatsby’.
One of the great paradoxes of ‘The Great Gatsby’ comes from the fact that none of the characters can escape their pasts (despite trying), and yet all of them define their futures by what has gone before. Gatsby’s love for Daisy is based on a shared history (and perhaps by Gatsby’s desire to return to his old life). However, Tom is able to see off Gatsby’s challenge for Daisy by claiming that their shared history is something Gatsby can never replicate. The past also links with the idea of social class. All the characters are defined by their past, and it is only Jay Gatsby who is able to become more than he once was, albeit through criminal means. As with everything else in the Eggs, the past is distorted, with both Gatsby and Daisy succumbing to remembering things in an artificial (and positive) light.Back to top
Foreshadowing refers to elements in a story that hint at what is yet to come. There are a number of examples of this within ‘The Great Gatsby’. One of the best examples of this comes in the scene in the library, where Gatsby snatches the book back from Nick, saying ‘if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse’. Not only does this highlight the artificiality of the library, but also foreshadows Gatsby’s ultimate demise after his secrets are revealed. The book is also symbolic of knowledge and information, and therefore shows that Gatsby is wary of truth and understanding, foreshadowing Tom’s revelation in the Grand Plaza.
Irony is best utilised in the book in the form of artificiality. One of the most ironic aspects of the novel is that it is Gatsby’s mystery that makes characters want to find out about him, but the more they discover about him, the less interesting he seems. In addition, the fact that Tom is so angry at Daisy for having an affair yet is having one himself is ironic. There is also an irony in the fact that Gatsby’s death is based on two deceptions. The first is that it was Gatsby that was driving when Myrtle died. Secondly, George thinks that Myrtle is having an affair with Gatsby. Daisy and Tom, both of whom are guilty of these crimes, feel little responsibility.
Fitzgerald uses symbolism throughout the novel to represent key ideas. This is appropriate given that the characters themselves use symbols. At the beginning of the novel, both the reader, and the citizens of West Egg only define Gatsby through his parties. The role of the Green Light is also symbolic of Gatsby’s longing for Daisy, as well as a sense of unattainability. The way that the characters judge one another, by the clothes they wear, and the cars they drive also make these items into important symbols.
Geography is a key technique within ‘The Great Gatsby’. The most obvious manifestation of this comes in the way that owning a home in East Egg is so different from one in West Egg. In addition, the three key pieces of drama within the novel all occur in New York. The first of these is when Tom punches Myrtle. The second is when Tom reveals that Gatsby is a criminal, and the final one is when Daisy runs Myrtle over. Even Gatsby’s death is at the hands of someone from New York City. For Nick, it is the East Coast itself that has corrupted people. At the end of the novel, he returns to the Midwest, which he thinks will solve his problems.Back to top
“He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.” (Nick, about Gatsby)
This quote comes from the first time that Nick meets Jay Gatsby. What is important about Gatsby is that the more we learn about him, the less ‘great’ he seems. This first meeting, therefore begins this process. From Gatsby’s smile, we learn about his charm, but there is also the sense that Gatsby represents more than he actually is. The artificiality of the smile makes Gatsby seem an image, rather than a person. In addition, Gatsby is shown to base himself on the artificiality of others, seeing only what the person ‘wants to be understood’.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”
This quote brings together two key elements of the plot. The first of these is the ‘green light’, which for Gatsby is a symbol of Daisy. He is attracted to it as a moth is to light, but the green colour suggests jealousy, and a desire to have what others hold. The nature of the future is also discussed. The idea of the future ‘receding’ is important. This phrase is usually applied to the past , thus highlighting the futility of both Gatsby’s desire to escape his past, as well as successfully attracting Daisy. In a same way as a moth is burned by the light, so Gatsby is destroyed by his obsession.
“Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.” (Nick Carraway)
Here Nick is linking two key aspects of life amongst the people of New York. The first of these is that they are essentially bad people – reserving judgement was a matter of hope because it implied that they gave off a bad first impression, but that they may redeem themselves (although unlikely). The second is that the people of West and East Egg are so concerned with image and appearance, that the first impression was cultivated and deliberate. Gatsby does not meet anyone at his parties until he is ready, showing that the first impressions are unlikely to be accidental or mistakes.
“I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” (Daisy about her daughter)
Here Daisy is talking about her young daughter, and her hopes for what she will achieve. This is indicative of Daisy living between two generations. The older generation values women being obedient and quiet. The younger generation prefers women who want to party, and care for little other than entertainment. Daisy is a part of this, and in this quote, we get the sense that she is aware and unsatisfied with her situation. However, ultimately, Daisy refuses to leave Tom at the end of the novel, showing that she is complicit in her circumstances. Unlike Gatsby, Daisy does not challenge the social order, and this is why they cannot be together.
As the eponymous character within the novel, Gatsby holds a type of legend before we learn anything about him. At the beginning of the novel, there is an aura of mystery around Gatsby, and the characters discuss rumours they have heard about him. However, once we learn about Gatsby, he becomes more mundane. Gatsby’s life in West Egg is based on artificiality. He has created a persona to disguise his origins, and throws elaborate parties to try and get the attention of Daisy Buchanan.
What we learn of Jay Gatsby is that he is a self-created man. This comes in the form of the wealth he enjoys, which he has ‘created’ through illegal activities, as well as his name – he has Anglicised it (made it seem more English) from James Gatz. He has done all of these things in order to win Daisy Buchanan, and his love for Daisy is one of the few real parts of Gatsby’s persona.
Nick Carraway is the narrator of the novel, and in many respects, represents Fitzgerald himself. Nick, like Fitzgerald, is from the Midwest, and came to New York before being repulsed by the decadence and the superficiality of life there. Nick is both a neighbour to Gatsby, as well as a cousin of Daisy, which gives him an insight into the nature of life in both East and West Egg. Nick’s relative innocence means that he is appalled by the actions of Gatsby, Daisy and Tom. Nick never fits in in the amoral world of the East Coast, and at the end of the novel he admits defeat, and returns to the simple life in the Midwest. Nick’s relationship with Jordan highlights the division between the two. Nick is appalled by the life in New York, whereas Jordan is bored by it. Both show a dislike of the actions of their fellow characters, although for fundamentally different reasons.
Daisy is the key driver of much of the action within the novel. The battle for Daisy is what dominates the rivalry between Tom and Gatsby. In addition, it is Daisy who kills Myrtle, beginning the process by which Gatsby is murdered by George. Daisy is a fundamentally aloof individual, who seems to care little for either Tom or Gatsby is any long-term way. She chooses Tom, but only because she feels she must. She is also willing to let Gatsby take the blame for killing Myrtle. Daisy states that she hopes her daughter is ‘a fool’, as life is easier that way. Although by suggesting this, Daisy hints that she may be more intelligent than she seems, she does little within the novel to contradict this. She is shown to enjoy an ‘easy’ life, with material wealth and a comfortable home, rather than intellectual pursuits. Gatsby clearly feels that he has to be wealthy in order to win Daisy, which may echo Fitzgerald’s feelings towards his own wife.Back to top
There are three potential key scenes in the novel. The first (and perhaps the most obvious) is when Gatsby is shot by George Wilson. The second is when Daisy kills Myrtle. The final one, and the one that is perhaps the most important, is the scene in the Plaza Hotel, when Gatsby, Daisy and Tom argue, Tom reveals Gatsby’s past, and Daisy decides to stay with Tom. This is the most important scene as it represents the climax of the underlying tensions that have emerged throughout the course of the novel. From the revelation by Gatsby that he is in love with Daisy, it is inevitable that there will be a resolution, and Daisy will effectively have to choose between the two. For the reader, therefore, the tension grows throughout the novel, as we wonder when this will eventually take place.
Again, the action takes place in New York, which is especially ironic given that this is where Tom meets his mistress. Tom reveals Gatsby’s background as a relatively poor young man, as well as his subsequent criminal activities. Gatsby, although he has spent the entire novel trying to conceal his identity, perhaps feels that the revealing of the truth will prove to his advantage, asks Daisy to openly state her love for him. When she refuses, Tom has effectively won. Tom’s relationship with Daisy is one of ownership (as with everything else in East and West Egg), and he has ensured that Gatsby is unable to ‘steal’ Daisy.
Fitzgerald makes the audience empathise with Gatsby because his crimes have all been in the name of winning Daisy. By contrast, Tom’s sinning has been precisely the opposite. In addition, Tom seeks to press his advantage by sending the two to drive home together. Here he shows that he cares more about ‘winning’ against Gatsby than for his wife’s feelings. Daisy seems to choose Tom because of her loyalty and her sense of doing what is proper, although it may also be because she is repulsed by Gatsby’s criminality. It is this scene that sets the narrative on its tragic course.Back to top
The video above is part one of an excellent series on 'The Great Gatsby'. It discusses the historical context, the underlying meaning, and the core concepts of the novel, as well as providing an excellent insight into the way that Fitzgerald uses symbolism to describe the era. Click here for part two.
Click on the image above or here to read a university-level analysis of 'The Great Gatsby', which focuses on how and why the novel is important for the American people. In addition, the author talks about the irony that all the characters are shown to love, yet inspire only hate.
The video above is perfect for placing 'The Great Gatsby' in its historical context. Learning about the society, politics and economics of the 1920s will give you a greater understanding of Gatsby's life and his motives, and will help you to better answer questions on the various key characters.
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