The Great Gatsby Study Guide

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel of the roaring 20's, told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, who moves in next door to the eccentric millionaire Jay Gatsby. Over the course of the summer of 1922, Nick becomes drawn into Gatsby's world of excess, a world that also includes Nick's married cousin Daisy Buchanan, the object of Gatsby's obsession. Portraying a world of decayed social and moral values, The Great Gatsby serves as a critique of the Upper class and an exploration of the decline of the American dream.

Jay Gatsby

The title character and protagonist of the novel, Gatsby is a master of mystery and illusion. The book's title, The Great Gatsby , likens him to the famed magicians of his time, such as "The Great Houdini." Gatsby lives a life and projects a persona he has deliberately created for himself. Gatsby is the novel's most enigmatic character; accordingly, he first appears at the end of the Chapter I as a ghost-like figure outside of his garish West Egg, New York mansion. Further, Gatsby is not introduced as a speaking character until Chapter III.

Gatsby keeps secret his humble past, which is not revealed until late in the novel. Raised on a North Dakota farm by parents of meager status, Gatsby attends St. Olaf College for two weeks before dropping out. He leaves college namely because he feels belittled by his job as a janitor, which he must work to pay his tuition. Gatsby feels somehow destined for a life of grandeur and fortune, a feeling which is strengthened by his encounter with millionaire Dan Cody. Cody, who adopts Gatsby as his protg, inspires the impressionable young man to change his name from the simple Jay Gatz to the sophisticated Jay Gatsby. Cody exposes Gatsby to his lavish lifestyle, and, thereon, Gatsby is enamored with wealth and luxury, determined to live such a life himself.

Likewise, Gatsby is enamored with Daisy for her sophistication, beauty, and breeding. He is not so much in love with her as he is with the idea of her, for Daisy represents the wealth and status that Gatsby desires to attain. Gatsby is a penniless soldier when he first meets Daisy, and feels unworthy of her. When he learns, upon his return from his service abroad, that she has married Tom Buchanan in his absence, Gatsby is crushed, and thus dedicates his every energy to recapturing Daisy's heart for his own.

Gatsby's dedication and determination are unwavering, and constitute essential elements of his character. Proof of Gatsby's long-standing tenacity is revealed even after his death, when his father shows Nick a copy of Hopalong Cassidy , a book that belonged to Gatsby during his childhood, in which he had scrawled a strict daily schedule and list of resolutions, affirmations for self-improvement.

Gatsby's tenacity, however, turns to obsession. He will stop at nothing to earn his fortune, his main endeavor in his pursuit of Daisy, and dabbles in numerous illegal operations, including selling bootleg liquor, and trading stolen funds to amass his wealth. Gatsby's relentless pursuit of wealth and status, and, in turn, Daisy, disintegrates into dishonesty and deceit. Fitzgerald's portrayal of Gatsby's pursuit is intended as a commentary on the downfall of the American Dream, and the moral bankruptcy of capitalism. In essence, Fitzgerald communicates that the traditional American Dream of roast beef and apple pie' has been warped by capitalism, transformed from the pure-intentioned quest for sufficiency and satisfaction to a greedy, gluttonous, and ruthless crusade for class and material wealth.

Beneath Gatsby's sophisticated facade, however, is a nave, sentimental young man with good intentions. Although Nick disapproves of Gatsby, he admires his unwavering hopefulness, and assurance that he can create the idealized future he imagines. Gatsby is optimistic to a fault; his hopefulness for the future is, in part, what leads to his demise.

Many literary critics and academics concur that Gatsby and Nick represent dueling aspects of Fitzgerald's own character. This assertion is substantiated by Fitzgerald's frequent, deliberate contrast of Gatsby and Nick. Gatsby represents the Fitzgerald who savored the fast-paced lifestyle of New York, who indulged in alcohol, parties, and his celebrity, who struggled to win the heart of a well-bred woman (Zelda, his wife), and the money to earn her respect. Conversely, Nick represents the Fitzgerald who is honest and reasonable, a man from a modest, Mid-Western upbringing who detests the superficial, amoral, excessive lifestyle of the rich, a crowd he suddenly finds himself among.

Nick Carraway

The narrator and purported author of the novel, Nick is a native of Minnesota who, in 1922, moves to West Egg, New York to learn the bond business. A young man, Nick turns thirty as the novel nears its conclusion. Nick lives in a ramshackle cottage next door to Gatsby's flashy mansion. Nick's modest residence is only one of the many factors that contrasts him with Gatsby, and distinguishes his character as the level-headed, honest, trustworthy narrator through whose eyes the story unravels.

In Chapter I, Nick introduces himself as an extraordinarily tolerant, non-judgmental person; he is one of the few honest men he has ever known. In college, at Yale, Nick's amenable attitude attracted a myriad of strange, mysterious friends who wished to confide in him their most private secrets. For the same reasons, Gatsby chooses to befriend Nick, and trusts him as his confidant, requesting that he aid his reunion with his beloved Daisy, who is Nick's cousin.

Excepting Wilson, Nick is the only featured character in The Great Gatsby with an active conscience. As he himself claims, Nick is indeed an honest man, a characteristic that sets him apart from the other characters in the novel. Nick representsthe traditional values of the Mid-West; he detests the superficial values of the privileged, condemns them for their excesses and disgraceful falsehood. Ultimately, Nick is the character to survive the corruption that surrounds him.

Nick identifies such corruption with the East, which seems dominated by capitalistic greed. Although he is disgusted by some aspects of the New York lifestyle, Nick is also entranced by it. As an observer, he appreciates the frantic pace of urban life, and expresses awed disbelief at the opulence of Gatsby's extravagant parties. Likewise, Nick is attracted to Jordan Baker, the woman he dates throughout the summer, for her cosmopolitan sophistication and blas attitude, despite her profuse dishonesty. Nick is well aware of Jordan's duplicity, and though he disregards it in the beginning of their romance, he is soon offended by it. Just as Nick feels uncomfortable at Gatsby's lavish soirees, he feels equally out of place as a Westerner in the amoral East.

As he unfurls the story of his interactions with Gatsby and Daisy during his summer in New York, Nick refrains from revealing too much information about his personal background or situation, apart from details that are relevant to the novel's central focus. Thus, Nick serves primarily as the novel's observant narrator, and occasional commentator. The majority of Nick's personal revelations serve as a social commentary on the moral destitution of capitalistic endeavors, and the hollowness of the aristocracy. His reflections prompt his return to the home to the Mid-West, which he identifies with respectable moral values and integrity.

Daisy Buchanan

A beautiful and sophisticated debutante from Louisville Kentucky, Daisy is the likeness of Fitzgerald's own wife, Zelda. As Gatsby labored to earn his fortune to prove himself worthy of Daisy, Fitzgerald struggled to prove his worth to Zelda. Daisy, who is married to the brutish Tom Buchanan, is vacuous and glib. She is primarily concerned with superficial frivolities, and judges the worth of others by the greatness of their fortunes.

During her youth in Louisville, Daisy falls in love with Jay Gatsby, a military officer who is stationed there during World War I. Gatsby deceives Daisy, telling her that he is from a wealthy background, and thus worthy of her love. The relationship, however, is discontinued when Gatsby must leave to serve overseas. Daisy promises to wait for Gatsby until his return, but, despite her promise, marries Tom in Gatsby's absence. She marries Tom because he is from a well-respected wealthy family, and can thus provide her the lavish lifestyle she so desires.

Daisy is unhappy in her failed marriage to Tom, who has conducted indiscreet affairs with numerous women. Daisy masks her discontent with a flimsy facade of girlish imprudence. Together, she and Tom have a two-year-old daughter, for whom Daisy shows little affection, except to praise her pretty white dress. She admits to Nick that her situation has made her bitter and cynical, and that upon the birth of her daughter, she had wished her baby would grow up a beautiful little fool so that she would not be hurt by men as Daisy has been. To guard against further emotional damage, Daisy, herself, plays the part of the "beautiful fool."

Although Daisy appears to care for Gatsby, she betrays him twice for Tom. First, when she marries Tom while Gatsby is overseas, and again when, after the accident in the valley of ashes, she flees with Tom, and abandons Gatsby. Further, she does not attend Gatsby's funeral; she fails to acknowledge his death whatsoever. Like Tom, Daisy is unfaithful and fickle.

Gatsby holds Daisy on a pedestal. Daisy is his idea of perfection, for she embodies all he values and aspires to: wealth, sophistication, and class. Gatsby's idea of Daisy, however, is unrealistically romantic, and she cannot live up to his idealized expectations of her.

Throughout the novel, Nick calls attention to the musical quality of Daisy's voice. Like the song of a mythological siren, Daisy's voice beckons its listeners to her, charming them as if she had cast a spell. Gatsby asserts that Daisy's voice is full of money, which is why it is so alluring.

Daisy shows no remorse after killing Myrtle Wilson while driving Gatsby's car through the valley of ashes. Instead, she selfishly orchestrates her departure from New York, and leaves Gatsby to suffer the blame for her actions. Daisy's actions are concurrent with the lack of values suffered by affluent Easterners, who commit heinous acts, but take no responsibility. At the close of the novel, Nick remarks that Tom and Daisy are "careless people," who cause destruction with clear conscience, and use their fortune to excuse and conceal their depravity.

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