What Happens in The Great Gatsby?

Midwest native Nick Carraway moves to New York to become a bond man. Nick's next door neighbor is the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, a bootlegger who once had an affair with Daisy Buchanan, Nick's cousin. When Nick first arrives in New York, he has dinner with Daisy and her husband Tom.

  • Nick thinks Tom and Daisy are "careless people." During dinner, Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson, calls him, and Daisy expresses her unhappiness with her marriage. Despite Nick's misgivings about Daisy's character, he agrees to help Gatsby win her back.
  • Nick arranges a secret meeting between Daisy and Gatsby at his house. Their affair lasts most of the summer, until, on a stifling hot day in July, Tom confronts them. This upsets Daisy, causing her to accidentally hit Myrtle with Gatsby's car.
  • Gatsby takes the blame for the Myrtle's death. He waits for Daisy to call him, unaware that she and Tom are planning to leave town. Meanwhile, George Wilson, Myrtle's husband, walks across Long Island, searching for Myrtle's killer. He eventually finds Gatsby and shoots him. Nick leaves New York, disillusioned with the Jazz Age.

Summary

The narrator, a young man by the name of Nick Carraway, returns from World War I in a state of restless excitement, invigorated by the battles and disappointed with life in the little Midwest town where he grew up. His family owns a successful wholesale hardware business, but Nick, longing for the grandeur and tumult of city life, moves to New York to become a bond man. He rents a cheap little house in West Egg, the less fashionable version of East Egg, Long Island, and lives there among the nouveau riche or new money. Shortly after arriving in New York, he visits his cousin Daisy Buchanan, who lives in East Egg with her husband Tom, a Yale alum with old money. Their first dinner together upon Nick’s arrival in New York is interrupted by a phone call from Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, which embarrasses Daisy and heightens tensions in their already strained marriage. It’s clear by the end of the first chapter that Daisy is a flighty, unhappy, and insincere person, and that her failing marriage will supply much of the drama in the novel.

Following this first dinner, Nick attends a series of parties with the Buchanans and their close friend, Jordan Baker, whom Nick casually dates throughout the summer. Their first stop is to a small party in the City where Nick meets Mrs. Myrtle Wilson and realizes that she’s a vain and superficial person (just before the party, Tom took her to Fifth Avenue and bought her a bunch of gifts, including a little dog; Daisy, of course, stayed home). This party seems both quick and interminable and sets the stage for the other parties in the novel, which grow bigger, grander, and more absurd with time. This is the Jazz Age, a period characterized by jazz music, sexual freedom, and excessive alcohol consumption, and a nationwide ban on liquor instituted during the Prohibition Era has made serving and bootlegging liquor all the more thrilling. Nick quickly gets swept up in the revelry and becomes fascinated with his neighbor, the titular Jay Gatsby, who hosts lavish parties at his estate in West Egg.

Over time, Nick learns that Gatsby isn’t who he claims to be and that his newfound wealth and status are a result of his dealings with the shady Mr. Wolfsheim, an underworld figure who has gotten Gatsby involved in the bootlegging business (and, it’s implied, in other illegal activities). What’s more, Gatsby is in love with Daisy and wants Nick to arrange a meeting between them at his little summer house. It’s Jordan Baker who fills Nick in on the affair, telling him about the young military officer (Jay Gatsby) who charmed Daisy with his good looks and white uniform when she was eighteen and still living at home with her parents. If not for the fact that he was poor and had no connections and no future that Daisy could see, the two of them might have gotten married. Instead, Daisy married Tom, and Gatsby went about amassing a fortune to try to win her back. His lavish parties are all part of an elaborate plan to seduce Daisy away from her husband and reignite their relationship. In the end, his plan almost succeeds.

Tom confronts Daisy and Gatsby about the affair on a broiling hot day when the five of them (Nick and Jordan included) drive into the City and spend the afternoon drinking in a hotel. In his characteristic fashion, Tom berates Daisy into admitting that she loved him, and then calls Gatsby a bootlegger and a fool, all the while laughing at his flashy pink suit. Daisy, shaken by this encounter and unsure what to do, accidentally hits Myrtle while driving home in Gatsby’s gorgeous yellow car (Myrtle, who had seen Tom driving Gatsby’s car on the way into the City, assumed that it was him driving and ran out to stop him as the car sped past her husband’s garage). Myrtle is killed on impact, and Gatsby, who was in the passenger’s seat at the time, takes the fall. That night, he stands under Daisy’s window, waiting for her to give him a sign, not realizing that while he’s waiting she’s sitting at her kitchen table, working through all her differences with Tom. Nick sees this through the window, but doesn’t tell Gatsby about it, and isn’t surprised when Gatsby is shot at his home by George Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, who got Gatsby’s name from Tom the day after the accident. It’s a tragic end to a long love story.

Nick stays in West Egg just long enough to arrange Gatsby’s funeral and invite his supposed “friends” to attend it. None of them come, but Nick does get to meet Gatsby’s father, Mr. Gatz, whom Nick describes as “a solemn old man” who thinks the world of his son. Mr. Gatz shows Nick a book where a young Gatsby (then called “Jimmy”) wrote out his daily schedule and his “resolves”: drink less, save money, and be nicer to his parents. Seeing this, Nick understands how a young Jimmy Gatz could be taken in by a dream of wealth and status. It was this desire that led him in his youth to row up beside a yacht and convince its owner, a man by the name of Dan Cody, to give him a job. Jay Gatsby was born then, well before he met Daisy, and was driven by his ambition until the day of his death. In the novel’s final passages, Nick ruminates on Gatsby’s life and his inability to shape his future, concluding, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Estimated reading time: 4-5 hours

Timeline

  • 1907: Jimmy Gatz meets Dan Cody and assumes the name Jay Gatsby.
  • October 1917: Gatsby meets Daisy; she’s eighteen.
  • 1918: Gatsby and Daisy almost marry, then break up.
  • June 1919: Daisy marries Tom Buchanan.
  • August 1919: Tom starts cheating on Daisy.
  • April 1920: Daisy’s daughter Pammy is born.
  • Autumn 1921: Nick comes back from the war.
  • Spring 1922: Nick moves to West Egg, Long Island to become a bond man.
  • Summer 1922: the main action of the novel takes place.
  • Autumn 1922: Nick returns to the Midwest.

Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In a sense, The Great Gatsby is a novel about identities, as each of its major characters struggles to find or create himself or herself as an independent figure in twentieth century American life. In these efforts the characters reveal themselves either as fully rounded, authentic individuals, or as hollow shells, devoid of personality and reality. Taken together, the group portrait Fitzgerald paints in his novel is a fitting representation of the false prosperity of post-World War I America and, more important, is perhaps the most perfectly constructed fiction of its time.

Nick Carraway, the narrator, comes from the Midwest to New York to work as a stockbroker. Taking a home in the Long Island community of West Egg, he makes the acquaintance of his rich neighbor Jay Gatsby, who is the subject of myriad rumors. Gatsby is reputed to have dubious connections, to have been a German spy during the war, and perhaps to have killed a man. While some of this is true (Gatsby has connections with the criminal world, and he served in the war, but was a hero for the Allies), the most salient fact is that Gatsby remains, after many years, in love with Daisy Buchanan, Nick’s cousin, who lives across the bay. Through Nick, Gatsby reestablishes a relationship with her and seeks to rekindle the long-dead flame. The attempt fails and, in the end, Gatsby is dead, Daisy left in her loveless marriage, and Nick wiser and less hopeful.

Much hope is lost as identity is gained or revealed, and Nick is honest in his chronicle of those events. Daisy and Tom Buchanan are like the Bourbons of French history, for they forget nothing and learn nothing. They enter the novel as self-centered, essentially uncaring persons, obsessed with their own concerns and indifferent to the feelings and the existence of other people. Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, wife of a garage owner on Long Island. Daisy rather easily decides to renew her connection with Gatsby, begun years ago while he was in army training on a military base in her home town in the South. When Myrtle Wilson’s death places their world in jeopardy, husband and wife quickly abandon their “loves” and retreat into the safety of money and privilege. The identities of the Buchanans are shaped, Fitzgerald clearly indicates, by social status, not personal worth.

Nick is a more difficult identity to define, and, much as the seed his name implies, he is constantly changing and emerging. Throughout the novel he is a figure in transition. During one critical passage—as he, Gatsby, and the Buchanans motor into town on the drive that will lead to Myrtle Wilson’s death—Nick suddenly realizes that it is his birthday, and that he has just turned thirty. “Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade.” In a sense, there is no single narrator for this novel, for the Nick who begins the book is clearly not the same man who ends it after a summer of carnivals and carnage.

Yet Nick’s change is more than one of experience; it is one of understanding. At the novel’s beginning, fresh from the experience of the war, he says he is ready for the world to stand “at moral attention.” Clearly, this is not the sort of person who would accept, much less become a friend with, a questionable character such as Gatsby. However, by the end of the novel, Nick is able to tell Gatsby: “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Gatsby’s romanticism is, in the end, innocent, despite his criminal connections. Compared to the hypocrisy that the Buchanans and the various partygoers represent, Gatsby is admirable.

Gatsby is not Gatsby but Jimmy Gatz, a poor boy from the Midwest—like Nick Carraway—who happened upon a chance that took him away from his life and gave him the opportunity to move into a different world. That world included Daisy, whom Gatsby romanced while he was a military officer in training. Later, on Long Island, after he has re-created himself, Gatsby tries to win her, and all she represents, again. Gatsby fails, and Nick is the sole honest witness to Gatsby’s heroic effort.

In the end, identity is the central message of The Great Gatsby. Is Gatsby a war hero or a gangster? Is he Jimmy Gatz or Jay Gatsby? Is Daisy Buchanan a happily married woman or one enamored with a love from her past? Is Nick Carraway really the honest narrator or a special advocate for his friend, who might be either a romantic hero or a successful, but common, thug? The answer, Fitzgerald implies, lies in human memory. People are not what they are but what they think they used to be.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Young Nick Carraway decides to forsake the hardware business of his family in the Midwest in order to sell bonds in New York City. He takes a small house in West Egg on Long Island and there becomes involved in the lives of his neighbors. At a dinner party at the home of Tom Buchanan, he renews his acquaintance with Tom’s wife, Daisy, a distant cousin, and he meets an attractive young woman, Jordan Baker. Almost at once he learns that Tom and Daisy are not happily married. It appears that Daisy knows her husband is unfaithful.

Nick soon learns to despise the drive to the city through unkempt slums; particularly, he hates the ash heaps and the huge commercial signs. He is far more interested in the activities of his wealthy neighbors. Near his house lives Jay Gatsby, a mysterious man of great wealth. Gatsby entertains lavishly, but his past is unknown to his neighbors.

One day, Tom takes Nick to call on his mistress, a dowdy, plump, married woman named Myrtle Wilson, whose husband, George Wilson, operates a second-rate automobile repair shop. Myrtle, Tom, and Nick go to the apartment that Tom keeps, and there the three are joined by Myrtle’s sister Catherine and Mr. and Mrs. McKee. The party settles down to an afternoon of drinking, Nick unsuccessfully doing his best to escape.

A few days later, Nick attends another party, one given by Gatsby for a large number of people famous in speakeasy society. Food and liquor are dispensed lavishly. Most of the guests have never seen their host before. At the party, Nick meets Gatsby for the first time. Gatsby, in his early thirties, looks like a healthy young roughneck. He is offhand, casual, and eager to entertain his guests as extravagantly as possible. Frequently he is called away by long-distance telephone calls. Some of the guests laugh and say that he is trying to impress them with his importance.

That summer, Gatsby gives many parties. Nick goes to all of them, enjoying each time the society of people from all walks of life who appear to take advantage of Gatsby’s bounty. From time to time, Nick meets Jordan there and when he hears that she has cheated in an amateur golf match, his interest in her grows.

Gatsby takes Nick to lunch one day and introduces him to a man named Wolfshiem, who seems to be Gatsby’s business partner. Wolfshiem hints at some dubious business deals that betray Gatsby’s racketeering activities, and Nick begins to identify the sources of some of Gatsby’s wealth.

Later, Jordan tells Nick the strange story of Daisy’s wedding. Before the bridal dinner, Daisy, who seldom drank, became wildly intoxicated and kept reading a letter that she had just received and crying that she had changed her mind. After she became sober, however, she went through with her wedding to Tom without a murmur. The letter was from Jay Gatsby. At the time, Gatsby was poor and unknown; Tom was rich and influential. Gatsby is still in love with Daisy, however, and he wants Jordan and Nick to bring Daisy and him together again. It is arranged that Nick will invite Daisy to tea the same day he invites Gatsby. Gatsby awaits the invitation nervously.

On the eventful day, it rains. Determined that Nick’s house should be presentable, Gatsby sends a man to mow the wet grass; he also sends flowers for decoration. The tea is a strained affair at first, and both Gatsby and Daisy are shy and awkward in their reunion. Afterward, they go to Gatsby’s mansion, where he shows them his furniture, clothes, swimming pool, and gardens. Daisy promises to attend his next party. When Daisy disapproves of his guests, Gatsby stops entertaining. The house is shut up and the usual crowd turned away.

Gatsby eventually informs Nick of his origin. His true name is Gatz, and he was born in the Midwest. His parents were poor. When he was a boy, he became the protégé of a wealthy old gold miner and accompanied him on his travels until the old man died. He changed his name to Gatsby and daydreamed of acquiring wealth and position. In the war, he distinguished himself. After the war, he returned penniless to the States, too poor to marry Daisy, whom he had met during the war. Later, he became a partner in a drug business. He was lucky and accumulated money rapidly. He tells Nick that he acquired the money for his Long Island residence after three years of hard work.

The Buchanans give a quiet party for Jordan, Gatsby, and Nick. The group drives into the city and takes a room in a hotel. The day is hot, and the guests are uncomfortable. On the way, Tom, driving Gatsby’s new yellow car, stops at Wilson’s garage. Wilson complains because Tom did not help him in a projected car deal. He says he needs money because he is selling out and taking his wife, whom he knows to be unfaithful, away from the city.

At the hotel, Tom accuses Gatsby of trying to steal his wife and also of being dishonest. He seems to regard Gatsby’s low origin with more disfavor than his interest in Daisy. During the argument, Daisy sides with both men by turns. On the ride back to the suburbs, Gatsby drives his own car, accompanied by Daisy, who temporarily will not speak to her husband.

Following them, Nick, Jordan, and Tom stop to investigate an accident in front of Wilson’s garage. They discover an ambulance picking up the dead body of Myrtle, struck by a hit-and-run driver in a yellow car. They try in vain to help Wilson and then go on to Tom’s house, convinced that Gatsby had struck Myrtle.

Nick learns that night from Gatsby that Daisy was driving when the woman was hit. Gatsby, however, is willing to take the blame if the death should be traced to his car. He explains that a woman rushed out as though she wanted to speak to someone in the yellow car, and Daisy, an inexpert driver, ran her down and then collapsed. Gatsby drove on.

In the meantime, Wilson, having traced the yellow car to Gatsby, appears on the Gatsby estate. A few hours later, both he and Gatsby are discovered dead. He shot Gatsby and then killed himself. Nick tries to make Gatsby’s funeral respectable, but only one among all of Gatsby’s former guests attends along with Gatsby’s father, who thought his son had been a great man. None of Gatsby’s racketeering associates appear.

Shortly afterward, Nick learns of Tom’s part in Gatsby’s death. Wilson had visited Tom and, with the help of a revolver, forced him to reveal the name of the owner of the hit-and-run car. Nick vows that his friendship with Tom and Daisy is ended. He decides to return to his people in the Midwest.

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s finest novel, an almost perfect artistic creation which is perhaps the single most American novel of its time. It should be seen as the ultimate vehicle for the themes that form the central concerns of Fitzgerald’s career, and indeed of so much of the United States’ national life: lost hope, the corruption of innocence by money, and the impossibility of recapturing the past. These elements are fused together by Fitzgerald’s eloquent yet careful prose in a novel that transcends its period and has become a touchstone of American literature.

Nick Carraway, the first-person narrator of the novel, lives on Long Island, New York, next door to the enormous mansion of a mysterious man named Gatsby, who throws gaudy, glittering parties. Wild, improbable rumors circulate about Gatsby, but when Nick meets him, he finds himself charmed and intrigued. He learns that Gatsby is in love with Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan, whom Gatsby met while stationed in her hometown in the South during World War I. Gatsby seeks to rekindle that earlier love in Daisy, now married to a coarse, brutal husband, Tom. The effort fails, and Gatsby becomes entangled in the lives of the Buchanans and is killed, shot by the confused and grieving husband of Tom’s mistress. Gatsby’s glowing dream ends in sordid confusion.

In this novel Fitzgerald relies on a narrative technique that he clearly learned from the works of the English writer Joseph Conrad: He gradually unveils Gatsby’s story as Nick pieces it together a bit at a time. Each chapter allows Nick, and the reader, more insight into Gatsby’s past and his true character. The facts are sifted from rumors and speculation until Jay Gatsby (born Gatz) is revealed as a flawed, but still great, hero.

Like so many of Fitzgerald’s heroes, Gatsby is a romantic, a man who began with a high, even exalted, vision of himself and his destiny. He aspires to greatness, which he associates with Daisy. If he can win her, then he will have somehow achieved his goal. Gatsby’s wealth, his mansion, his parties, his possessions, even his heroism in battle are but means to achieve his ultimate end. Gatsby is mistaken, however, in his belief that money can buy happiness or that he can recapture his past. His story is clearly a version of the traditional American myth, poor boy makes good, but is it a distorted version or an accurate one? Fitzgerald leaves this ambiguity unresolved, which adds to the power of his novel.

As a romantic, Jay Gatsby does not understand how money actually works in American life. He believes that if he is rich, then Daisy can be his. This is displayed most powerfully and poignantly in the scene where Gatsby shows Daisy and Nick the shirts he has tailored for him in London: He hauls them out in a rainbow of color and fabric, almost filling the room with the tangible yet useless symbols of his wealth. The shirts cause Daisy to cry, but they do not win her; they cannot let Gatsby realize his dream.

Gatsby has amassed his money by dealings with gangsters, yet he remains an innocent figure—he is a romantic, in other words. Ironically, Daisy Buchanan, his great love, is a much more realistic, hard-headed character. She understands money and what it means in American society, because it is her nature; she was born into it. Gatsby intuitively recognizes this, although he cannot fully accept it, when he remarks to Nick that Daisy’s voice “is full of money.” Even so, Gatsby will not admit this essential fact because it would destroy his conception of Daisy. In the end, this willful blindness helps lead to his destruction.

Actually, both Gatsby and Daisy are incapable of seeing the whole of reality, as he is a romantic and she, a cynic. This conflict is found in the other characters of the novel as well and is a key to The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald uses a variety of symbolic scenes and images to express the blindness that the characters impose upon themselves. Gatsby’s ostentatious material possessions are aspects of illusion. So is the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the light that Gatsby gazes upon but cannot reach.

Other symbolic touches illuminate the book: the ash heaps which litter the landscape between Long Island and New York, for example, or the eyes of Doctor Ecleberg, found on a billboard dominating the valley of the ash heaps. The ash heaps are a reference to the vanity of life (and a nod at T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, published in 1922), and the eyes a comment on the blindness of the book’s characters, who do not fully understand what they behold.

While such devices add to the depth of The Great Gatsby, its true power derives from it being a quintessentially American novel, full of American characters and American themes. Nick Carraway, the midwestern narrator, encounters the sophistication of the East: New York, gangsters, the promise and hollowness of wealth. Tom and Daisy Buchanan, insulated by their money, do what they want without consequence, showing no remorse for their actions and no concern for those they have harmed. Jay Gatsby, like the hero in a story by Horatio Alger, rises from being a penniless youth through ambition and good fortune, only to discover that his wealth cannot buy what he most desires—and is, in fact, the very agent of his destruction. They are all American characters in an American setting.

Fitzgerald’s skill as a novelist was at its peak with The Great Gatsby, and this is shown best in his command of the book’s structure. By using Nick Carraway as the first-person narrator, Fitzgerald establishes a central focus for the novel, a character who is partly involved with the plot but partly a commentator upon it. Nick is presented as an honest, reliable person, and his perceptions and judgments are accepted by the reader. Nick ties the novel together, and through him it makes sense. Most important, Nick’s solid, midwestern common sense validates Gatsby as a character despite Gatsby’s outrageous background and fabulous adventures. In the end, if Nick Carraway accepts Gatsby and approves of him—and he does—so does the reader.

Nick’s approval is what allows Gatsby to be called “great,” but his greatness has a curious, puzzling quality to it, as it cannot be easily or completely defined. Gatsby certainly lacks many of the qualities and fails many of the tests normally associated with greatness, but he redeems this by his exalted conception of himself. It is to this romantic image of Gatsby that both Nick and the reader respond.

Summary

(Novels for Students)

In accordance with Fitzgerald's epic ambitions to write a novel that expressed the vital spirit of his country, The Great Gatsby attempts to...

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