Summary of The Great Gatsby

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The Great Gatsby book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Modernism

What It’s About

An American Nightmare

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his short story The Rich Boy. “They are different from you and me.” The author’s obsession with and intimate knowledge of class issues, wealth, and their effects on society, shines through every line of his masterpiece The Great Gatsby. First published in 1925, it’s an absorbing portrait of Jazz Age New York society in all its decadence and frenzied partying. The novel exposes the cynicism and inner emptiness of a class of people who seem to have it all but are empty. Jay Gatsby, who has gone from rags to riches via shady dealings, chases a materialistic dream which he mistakes for romantic love, only to lose everything when his fragile house of cards finally comes crashing down. Writing in 1927, two years before the onset of the Great Depression, Fitzgerald believed that a society built on the illusion of prosperity was ultimately doomed. “There has never been an American tragedy,” he told a bemused reporter, “there have only been great failures.” In the midst of the euphoric atmosphere of the pre-depression 1920s, his message didn’t go down well. Today, The Great Gatsby is considered one of the finest accomplishments in American literature – a painfully beautiful and gripping testimony of wasted opportunities. Recent history underlines its continuing relevance and the urgency of its central themes.

Take-Aways

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is among the most important 20th century American novels.
  • James Gatz ascends from humble beginnings to become a multimillionaire, rechristens himself “Jay Gatsby” and conjures up a privileged backstory. He longs for his lost love Daisy, who has married the rich but bombastic Tom Buchanan. Gatsby and Daisy begin an affair, but she hesitates to leave her husband. As the novel builds to a dramatic close, a shocking twist leaves three characters dead.
  • This tragic romance is a biting portrait of New York society in the 1920s.
  • Daisy’s cousin and Gatsby’s neighbor Nick Carraway, who narrates the story, is an ambiguous and unreliable source.
  • The novel is easy to read, despite the frequent use of symbols and metaphors, such as using eyes as a recurring indication of intrusion and insight.
  • The novel is Fitzgerald’s disillusioned analysis of the American Dream.
  • It’s a captivating story on the one hand and a complex piece of literature on the other, a mixture of serious and light reading.
  • Fitzgerald maintained a lavish lifestyle, including heavy drinking, and incurred financial troubles.
  • Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and The Damned were bestsellers, but Gatsby was a commercial failure. Today, it’s one of the most widely read books in the world.
  • “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
 

Summary

Arrival on Long Island

In the spring of 1922, Nick Carraway relocates from the Midwest to New York to earn a living as a stock broker. Nick comes from a well-off merchant family, yet he’s less affluent than his new neighbors in West Egg, Long Island. He moves into a run-down bungalow, the only $80 a month rental in the midst of extravagant mansions. Nick also differs from the other West Egg residents in that he has a family contact in the staid, old-money community of East Egg across the bay. The country’s long-established elite live there, enjoying a status that the nouveau riche of West Egg – no matter how wealthy they become – will never be able to attain. One night, Nick drives over to East Egg to have dinner with his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan. Nick is greeted by Tom, who affects a commanding presence, his massive frame arrayed in riding attire, at the entrance of his elegant house. Inside, Daisy lounges on a luxurious couch with her striking friend, professional golfer Jordan Baker. Both women seem bored; the immense wealth surrounding them fails to impress. Over dinner, Tom talks about a book, The Rise of the Colored Empires. Its theory that the “white race” is under threat fascinates him; Daisy can only mock his interest. When Tom leaves the room to take a phone call, Daisy follows him. Jordan tells Nick that Tom is having an affair with a woman in New York City. The mood sours and the dinner party disperses. Jordan wants to be well rested for a golf tournament the next day. Back home in the West Egg, Nick sees his neighbor for the first time: Mr. Gatsby stands in the moonlight on his lavish estate, staring at a strange green light at the end of the bay.

New York Society

A menacing billboard towers above a destitute neighborhood wedged between New York and Long Island. The board, which advertises the services of an oculist named T. J. Eckleburg, displays a looming pair of hovering eyes. Tom Buchanan takes Nick to visit a nearby garage, belonging to George B. Wilson. Ostensibly, Tom has come to negotiate the sale of his car to Wilson, but his secret objective is to arrange a rendezvous with the car dealer’s wife, Myrtle Wilson. In fact, she is Tom’s mistress. They talk Nick into spending the afternoon at their secret apartment, bingeing on whiskey along with other guests including the photographer Mr. McKee and his wife.

“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” (Nick)

While chatting with Myrtle Wilson’s sister, Nick hears one of many rumors circulating about his neighbor, Gatsby: He’s said to be Emperor Wilhelm’s nephew and therefore fabulously wealthy. Myrtle complains loudly about her husband, the car dealer, who couldn’t even afford his own suit for their wedding. Contrary to his custom, Nick drinks too much. The pretentiousness of the afternoon repels him as its relentless energy attracts him. The party comes to an abrupt end when Myrtle mentions Daisy, Tom’s wife. Infuriated, he strikes Myrtle with an open-handed blow, breaking her nose.

Fabulous Garden Parties

On weekends, Nick’s neighbor Gatsby throws spectacular parties, sparing nothing to lure members of New York’s high society to his palatial estate. One Saturday, Nick receives a written invitation. He expects to meet the infamous Gatsby when he arrives, instead, Jordan Baker introduces Nick around. Rumors about Gatsby swirl: One girl says he was a spy in Germany, another claims he murdered someone. When Nick eventually meets his host, he doesn’t realize at first that this is the infamous Gatsby – a fact Gatsby dismisses with a friendly smile. The butler calls Gatsby to take a phone call and the mysterious man disappears. Later, Jordan spends a secretive hour in the library with the host.

“And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” (Jordan Baker)

The party ends in drunkenness and chaos. Gatsby is the only sober man left standing. After the party, Nick and Jordan meet more often, becoming somewhat closer. However, since Nick hasn’t officially ended his romance back in the Midwest, he delays advancing the relationship.

Old Love

Gatsby invites Nick to accompany him into the city. On the drive in, Gatsby delivers a version of his backstory: He claims he inherited his money, studied at Oxford, collected jewels in Europe and earned several decorations during the First World War. The fantastic story doesn’t convince Nick, yet Gatsby shows him a photograph of himself in Oxford and an authentic-looking medal from Montenegro.

“Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” (Nick)

Later, Nick meets Gatsby at a restaurant where he’s dining with an older man, Meyer Wolfsheim, who is Jewish unlike Gatsby’s high society friends. Gatsby introduces Meyer as his business partner, though he’s actually Gatsby’s contact with organized crime. After Meyer leaves, Gatsby proudly declares that he is a gambler and was responsible for the notorious fixing of the 1919 World Series. Meyer later tries to vouch for Gatsby’s character, but Nick finds him crass and vulgar. As he pays the bill, Nick spots Tom Buchanan and insists on introducing him to Gatsby. Gatsby is visibly embarrassed and ill at ease. In the afternoon, Nick has tea with Jordan who tells him the reason: Gatsby and Daisy once were lovers before Daisy married the wealthy Buchanan in Gatsby’s absence. At the time, Gatsby sent a letter that almost persuaded Daisy to break off her engagement. Now that Tom is involved in extramarital affairs, and Daisy has discovered the true identity of Nick’s neighbor, her old attraction for Gatsby appears to be resurfacing. Through Jordan, Gatsby asks Nick to invite his cousin Daisy for tea so that he could meet her seemingly by chance.

The Reunion

Gatsby offers Nick a well-paying job in return for the arranged meeting with Daisy, but Nick declines. Gatsby is very nervous about seeing his old love again and behaves bashfully, like a schoolboy. Daisy, too, barely manages to keep her composure. Nick leaves them alone in his living room for half an hour and finds them entirely changed when he returns. The awkwardness has disappeared and the lovers are happily reunited.

“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

Gatsby wants to show Daisy his mansion, and Nick joins them for the tour. Daisy is thrilled, admiring Gatsby’s wealth. Gatsby, who amassed his fortune only for her, is overwhelmed with joy. Yet his ecstasy is ambiguous. After years of working and planning toward the dream of seeing Daisy again, his success brings the vision into stark reality. The green light at the end of the bay loses its luster as a metaphor for insatiable longing, and becomes simply a lamp on a dock.

The Truth About Gatsby

Nick finds out that Jay Gatsby’s real name is James Gatz and that he grew up as a poor farm boy in North Dakota. As a footloose 17-year-old, Gatz invented his current image when he met Dan Cody – a hard-drinking millionaire – and saw his glamorous yacht. Gatz entered Cody’s employ as his personal assistant.

One Saturday night, Tom shows up at one of Gatsby’s opulent parties, bringing Daisy along. Tom quickly becomes more interested in Gatsby’s past than in the fantastic display of his present. He announces that he will make inquiries. On this particular evening, the vulgar revelry on her lover’s estate puts Daisy off.

Later that night, Gatsby tells Nick about a growing a friction between himself and Daisy. He demanded that she repudiate her marriage to Tom, get a divorce and declare that she never loved him. However, Daisy won’t – or can’t – agree to do it. Nick demurs that you can’t repeat the past, to which Gatsby, taken aback, responds: “Why of course you can!”

Open Confrontation

The Buchanans invite Nick and Gatsby for lunch. Jordan is also present. It is unbearably hot; the mood is tense. Gatsby and Daisy exchange loving gazes; Tom sees through them. To escape the uncomfortable situation, they all decide to go to the city together. On the way, they stop for gas at George B. Wilson’s garage. Wilson has just learned of his wife’s affair, but doesn’t know that Tom is the lover in question. Wilson declares that he’ll leave town with Myrtle. Gatsby, Nick, Jordan, Tom and Daisy rent a suite for the afternoon in the Plaza Hotel, where Tom openly confronts Gatsby about the relationship with his wife. Again – this time in front of everyone – Gatsby demands that Daisy declare that she never loved Tom, and again, Daisy can’t bring herself to do it. Gatsby finds himself powerless in the face of the married couple’s past. Moreover, Tom confronts him with the result of his investigations: Gatsby, he maintains, made his money through illicit business – bootlegging and worse. To humiliate Gatsby and Daisy further, Tom insists that they leave to go home together, taking Gatsby’s car. His spitefulness proves fateful: Myrtle Wilson comes rushing out of the garage after a fight with her husband and Daisy, who is at the wheel, runs over her – killing Myrtle instantly. Daisy drives off with Gatsby still in the car, fleeing the scene of the crime.

“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 had made….”

That night Gatsby maintains a vigil in front of the Buchanans’ house. He tells Nick that he’ll assume responsibility for Myrtle’s death and claim that he was driving the car. Gatsby fears that a jealous Tom could harm Daisy. But as Nick peeks into the Buchanans’ kitchen window, he sees Daisy and Tom sitting at a table over cold chicken and beer, having returned to their normal, everyday life.

Gatsby’s End

At dawn the next morning, Nick tries to talk Gatsby into fleeing. The two men are alone at Gatsby’s abandoned palace. Sooner or later, Nick tells him, the authorities will trace his car and link him to the accident. But Gatsby refuses to leave town because he still hopes that Daisy will come back to him. Daisy had been his first “nice girl,” Gatsby recounts. She accepted him when he was wearing his army uniform which didn’t betray his modest background. Then he was sent off to war. While he was in Europe, Daisy grew impatient and married Tom Buchanan – a good match who befitted her social status. Nick tries to cheer up his friend, saying that he’s worth more than all the rest of high society’s people put together. Although Gatsby has become part of high society, Nick finds that his sincere love of Daisy redeems him.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

In the late morning, Nick takes the train to work. By now he loathes high society and turns down a chance to meet Jordan for lunch. For Gatsby, the day takes a tragic turn. Prompted by the staring eyes on Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s billboard, George B. Wilson proclaims, in a trance, that “God sees everything.” He vows to find out who owns the car that killed his wife and avenge her death. Later that day, Nick discovers Gatsby’s body, dead of a gunshot wound, floating in the swimming pool. Wilson, an apparent suicide, lies in the grass nearby.

Farewell

Two years later, Nick thinks back to Gatsby’s funeral, attended only by Gatsby’s aged father and a single other guest – a man who had once attended one of Gatsby’s infamous parties. Daisy and Tom have left the city for an unknown destination. Meyer Wolfsheim has no interest in getting drawn into a murder case and New York society has forgotten Gatsby. Before leaving the East Coast, Nick meets Jordan Baker one last time. He still feels attracted to the glamorous golfer, yet he knows that he can’t keep up with her lifestyle. By chance, he runs into Tom along Fifth Avenue. Nick learns that Tom was the one who set the grief-stricken Wilson on Gatsby’s track. Tom callously accepted the risk that Wilson would kill Gatsby, however, contrary to Nick, he can’t see anything morally wrong with what he’s done.

About the Text

Structure and Style

This compact novel is made up of nine chapters. While Nick Carraway plays a supporting role in the plot, his true function is to serve as a first-person narrator and to witness events as they unfold. The other characters underestimate him, seeing him as a mere provincial outsider. This is how he gains their trust and attains glimpses into their inner lives, which he, in turn, lays out for the reader. Nick acts as an intermediary between two worlds that collide in the novel: Cynical, bloodless American old money versus the hungry, striving nouveau riche. Fitzgerald uses flashbacks to weave the characters’ life stories into the plot. The tight language flows quickly, with an ironic undertone. Fitzgerald has mastered the considerable feat of writing sparse phrases full of symbols and metaphors without sacrificing readability. The development of symbols in the text is remarkable: As the novel proceeds, these symbols, such as the godlike eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, gradually gain in significance. The dark, faded glow of the faraway dock’s green light evokes the passing of a distant time and a feckless life.

Interpretation

  • Nick Carraway is only partially reliable as a narrator. He continually stresses his integrity and strength of character, apparently trying to set himself apart from the egotistical, hedonistic environment around him. At the same time, he feels drawn to its cheerful decadence. He adapts his moral compass to his personal sympathies, thus The Great Gatsby is also a book about corruptibility.
  • Another central theme is the American desire to forget or rewrite the past: Gatsby would like to pick up his relationship with Daisy where it was interrupted years before. This yearning resonates with the belief that history is not settled fact and that, rather than basing your actions on the lessons of the past, you can remake it to fit your beliefs.
  • Nick’s devotion to and descriptions of Gatsby suggest that Nick is in love with Gatsby. His hesitation in pursuing an amorous relationship with Jordan is brought into stark relief by a curious passage at the end of chapter two, which strongly suggests Nick has an intimate encounter with Mr. McKee. Nick’s reliability as a narrator and his motives for retelling the story take on a different twist when viewed as acts of unrequited homosexual love, then even more taboo than adultery.
  • The car dealer George B. Wilson interprets the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg as the eyes of God looking wrathfully onto the decline of American society. In reality the display is just a dusty billboard. The symbols in the novel are flexible and assume different meanings depending on the character. This stylistic device reveals the author’s point of view: The symbols are just as arbitrary as life in the modern world.
  • The weather corresponds mostly to the story’s atmosphere and arc of tension. The awkward reunion between Gatsby and Daisy begins in pouring rain and ends with a break in the clouds as they rekindle their old love. The open conflict between Gatsby and Tom takes place in the oppressive heat of late summer, and Gatsby’s death marks the beginning of fall.

Historical Background

The Roaring Twenties

The 1920s are often referred to as the “Roaring Twenties” or the “Jazz Age,” a term popularized by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Large sections of American society benefited from the economic upswing that would come to an abrupt end in 1929, with the onset of the Great Depression. Technical innovations and inventions brought about profound changes in everyday life; being modern was the name of the game. As a contrast to the puritanical rigor of the previous century, people partied hard, danced wildly and drank excessively. Women’s self-image changed: Smoking cigarettes and sporting androgynous hairstyles, they began to join in the previously male-only fun and entertainment.

At the peak of this heated excitement, Prohibition came into effect, banning the production and serving of alcohol in the United States. Since the demand for alcoholic drinks didn’t wane, this led to a boom in organized crime. During Prohibition, bootleggers made fortunes. Many a soldier returning from the First World War stumbled around in this ethically suspect yet exuberant atmosphere, often turning cynical and succumbing to disillusionment.

A number of successful authors writing in and about this period called themselves the “Lost Generation,” including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald described their common experience as follows: His generation grew up “to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” Fitzgerald’s editor on The Great Gatsby was pivotal to this generation of writers. The great Maxwell Perkins also edited Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River, as well as works by James Jones (From Here to Eternity), Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (The Yearling) and Alan Paton (Cry the Beloved Country).

Development

In June 1922, Fitzgerald, then 25, wrote to Perkins, “I want to write something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” It took some time for him to find the peace and quiet to work. From Minnesota, he moved with his wife, novelist and socialite Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, into New York’s Plaza Hotel. From there, they moved to Long Island, where they reveled in the wild party scene he would later describe in Gatsby. The couple was already known for their fondness of drinking, but on Long Island Fitzgerald developed a full-blown alcohol problem. He wasn’t able to finish the novel, completing it finally 18 months later in Paris. While working on The Great Gatsby he studied the novels of Joseph Conrad, a writer known for his complex first-person narrators, a perspective that was no longer a novelty in the American literature of the 1920s. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884) are well-known examples of this literary style. Yet with the character of Nick Carraway – a more subtle and confusing narrator who is only partially reliable – Fitzgerald developed this tradition further, creating a new and hitherto unknown literary voice.

Reviews and Legacy

When The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald had already written two successful novels: This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned. The first reviews of his new book were mixed. The New Work World headlined “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Latest a Dud,” and the Brooklyn Eagle reviewer criticized the novel’s utter lack of “magic, life, irony, romance or mysticism.” Others, like the writer and critic Gilbert Seldes, praised it as a “brilliant work” and T.S. Eliot wrote that it was “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.” However, much to cash-strapped Fitzgerald’s distress, Gatsby was a commercial failure. Less than 24,000 copies sold during his lifetime. The likely reason for this lack of enthusiasm is Fitzgerald’s harsh criticism of the “American way of life.” The novel was – rightly – viewed as a mirror of contemporary society, but that perception didn’t fulfill the self-image of Fitzgerald’s previous readership.

Not long after Fitzgerald’s death, the World War II Pocket Books program, which delivered small paperback editions to soldiers in the field, picked up The Great Gatsby. With 155,000 copies of the book distributed during wartime, a new generation met Fitzgerald. Readers and critics began to appreciate the literary artistry of the novel and sales increased. Today 400,000 copies sell every year in the United States alone. Students in high schools and universities all over the world read The Great Gatsby. Many regard it as the most important American novel of the 20th century, not least because Fitzgerald mastered the impressive feat of building a bridge between serious and entertaining literature. The book was made into a film the year following its publication and four times thereafter. The best-known contemporary versions are the 1974 production with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford and the 2013 Baz Luhrmann film featuring Leonardo DiCaprio.

About the Author

Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896, the son of an upper-middle-class businessman in Saint Paul, Minnesota. After attending a Catholic prep school in New Jersey, he studied at Princeton University, but dropped out before attaining a degree and enlisted in the military in 1917. While based in Montgomery, Alabama, he met his future wife Zelda Sayre. She agreed to marry him, yet postponed the wedding repeatedly on the grounds that Fitzgerald wasn’t wealthy enough. Zelda feared the boredom of a financially restricted life. Only in 1920, when his first novel This Side of Paradise became a success and made him famous overnight did she give her consent.His next work The Beautiful and Damned, published in 1922, became a bestseller as well. After the success of these two novels and Tales of the Jazz Age, (1922) the couple’s wild and glamorous lifestyle came to embody the Roaring Twenties. From 1924 to 1931 they lived with their daughter Scotty on the French Riviera and in Paris, where Fitzgerald completed The Great Gatsby. Against all expectations, the novel flopped, and the couple got into more and more financial trouble. Excessive drinking impinged on Fitzgerald’s writing, and the money for their lavish lifestyle ran out. Zelda suffered several nervous breakdowns after the failure of her novel. After she entered a mental institution in Baltimore, Maryland, the marriage broke apart. Fitzgerald’s next novel Tender Is the Night (1934) was equally praised by the critics and ignored by the public. He tried, rather unsuccessfully, to work as a scriptwriter in Hollywood and abandoned himself fully to alcohol. His last novel The Last Tycoon remains unfinished. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack, deeply in debt and embittered, at age 44 on December 21, 1940. USA Today wrote in 2013 that he “died believing his work forgotten.”


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