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.

Brief Summary

Nick Carraway, the narrator, recalls having dinner with his second cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom Buchanan at their mansion in fashionable East Egg, Long Island, a suburb of New York. He does not know the couple very well, though he went to Yale with Tom, who he describes as arrogant and brutish. Nick has just moved to neighboring West Egg, Long Island from the Mid-West. He lives in a ramshackle cottage beside Jay Gatsby's flashy mansion.

Nick feels awkward during his dinner with the Buchanans and Daisy's friend, professional tennis player Jordan Baker. Tom excuses himself from the meal to accept a call from his mistress. Later, Daisy reveals to Nick that she is unhappy and embittered by her circumstances. She and Tom have a baby daughter together, who Daisy wishes will grow up a beautiful little fool. Daisy intimates a romance between Jordan and Nick.

When Nick returns home from dinner, he sees Gatsby for the first time, but does not speak to him. Gatsby stands outside of his mansion, by the ocean, outstretching his arms toward a green light that shines from across the water.

Detailed Summary

Nick Carraway, the narrator and purported author of the story, recalls advice his father gave him when he was a young man that he has since been unable to forget: think twice before criticizing others, for not everyone has had as many advantages in life as he has. Nick's father also told him that people are born with sense of basic decency, but that not everyone is born with the same amount of it. Nick regards this idea as snobbish, though he believes it is true.

Consequently, Nick claims that he is non-judgmental, a characteristic that makes him vulnerable to strange relationships, and which he says attracts the "abnormal mind." While in college at Yale, Nick unintentionally attracted the friendship of many "wild, unknown" men who shared unsolicited, intimate secrets with him. Nick proclaims himself a tolerant man, though his tolerance has a limit. He tires of his friendships with mysterious men, and wants no more of them. He makes an exception for Gatsby, for whom he has genuine scorn. There is something "gorgeous" about Gatsby that Nick finds captivating; he is impressed by Gatsby's hopefulness and idealism. Nick has never met anyone else like Gatsby, and he doubts he ever will again.

Nick is from an esteemed, wealthy family in a Mid-Western city, presumably Chicago. The family descends from Nick's great uncle, whom Nick is told he resembles. In 1915, Nick graduated from "New Haven" (Yale), then fought in the Great War (World War I). He returned from the war feeling restless, and in 1922, decided to move to New York to learn the "bond business."

In New York, Nick and his unnamed colleague rent a cheap, ramshackle house together in the commuting town of West Egg, Long Island. West Egg, Nick says, is less fashionable than neighboring East Egg, where his second cousin (once removed) Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan reside. From his home, Nick can see the white palaces of East Egg glitter in the distance.

Initially, Nick feels lonely in West Egg, but is comforted when he aptly provides directions to a misguided stranger. As spring turns to summer, Nick feels reborn, convinced that his life will somehow change with the seasons. Beside Nick's dilapidated rental home stands an ostentatious mansion belonging to Jay Gatsby. Though he knows that Gatsby is his neighbor, Nick has never seen him.

Nick drives to East Egg to have dinner with Daisy and Tom, neither of whom he has seen since his return from the war. Together, Nick and Tom had attended Yale, where Tom had been a star football player, and had frivolously spent money provided by his wealthy Chicago family. Nick expresses disbelief at Tom's wealth and frivolity. Before settling in East Egg, Daisy and Tom had lived for a year in France, then had drifted restlessly from one wealthy community to another. Daisy claims that their move to East Egg is permanent, though Nick does not believe her. Tom, he thinks, will drift eternally, seeking out the irretrievable excitement of football games past. Nick is impressed by Tom and Daisy's grand mansion. Tom, wearing riding gear, greets Nick on the front porch. Nick notes that Tom appears changed since his college years. At thirty, Tom looks hardened and arrogant; he exudes aggression and barbarous masculinity. In college, Nick had sensed that Tom respected him and that he may now want to know Nick as a friend.

Tom escorts Nick inside his home, which he shows off as the former home of an oil tycoon. Daisy and her friend Jordan Baker sit motionless in the parlor, wearing white dresses that flutter elegantly in the breeze. Tom shuts the windows and the dresses fall, lifeless, to the floor. Nick has not met Jordan before, and at first finds her inanimate and blase. She sits silently, motionless,and acknowledges Nick with a mere nod of her chin. Daisy, however, is vibrant and girlish, and greets Nick with a silly, endearing laugh. Nick finds Daisy's voice has a musical quality; even her most foolish utterances sound charming. Nick tells Daisy that she is missed in Chicago, and Daisy jokes that she and Tom should move back immediately. Daisy then suggests that Nick see her and Tom's two-year-old daughter, who is asleep. Tom interrupts Daisy's banter, inquiring about Nick's employment. Nick is offended when Tom remarks that he has never heard of Nick's brokerage firm. Nick assures him that he will hear of it soon, if he stays in the East. Tom replies that he would be a fool to live elsewhere. Speaking for the first time since Nick's arrival, Jordan agrees with Tom.

Nick recognizes Jordan; he knows he has seen her before, perhaps in a picture. Snobbishly, Jordan notes that Nick lives in West Egg, and that he must therefore know Gatsby. Daisy is excited upon hearing Gatsby's name, and asks about him, but Tom interrupts her once more.

Nick remarks that Daisy and her refinement make him feel uncivilized. In reply, Tom fumes that civilization is crumbling because the black race is overpowering the white race. The butler calls Tom inside to take a phone call. Meanwhile, Daisy dotes on Nick, declaring him an absolute rose, then abruptly goes inside. Jordan tries, unabashedly, to listen in on Tom's telephone conversation, and explains to Nick that it is Tom's mistress calling.

Tom and Daisy are tense when they return, and Nick feels uncomfortable. Jordan and Tom retreat inside to the library, while Nick and Daisy stroll the veranda. Daisy confides in Nick that she has had "a very bad time," which has made her cynical. Nick asks Daisy about her daughter, as if to avoid a serious subject. Daisy tells him that when her daughter was born, she had turned her head and wept, hopeful that her child would become a "beautiful little fool" because "that's the best thing a girl can be in this world." The conversation makes Nick uneasy.

Later, Nick recognizes Jordan as a professional tennis player. She must go to bed and rest for her tournament the next day. Jordan bids goodnight to Nick, and Daisy insists that she will make the two a romantic match. Daisy reveals that she and Jordan are friends from their girlhood in Louisville.

As Nick leaves, Daisy asks if he is engaged. Nick replies that rumors of his engagement are merely gossip; he is too poor to marry. After dinner, Nick thinks that Daisy and her child should flee from their misery, though he does not believe Daisy has any such intentions.

When Nick returns home, he sees Gatsby for the first time. Gatsby stands outside of his mansion, extending his trembling arms toward a green dock light across the water. Nick decides not to call to him, as Gatsby looks deep in his own thoughts.

Analysis

In Chapter I of The Great Gatsby , Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, stands out as the most relatable, down-to-Earth character among a group of artificial, shallow millionaires. By explaining that he is non-judgmental, Nick attempts to establish himself as a trustworthy narrator, despite his somewhat snobbish assertion that he regards his moral character as better than that of most people.

Nick narrates the story as he experienced it during the summer of 1922. He reveals that he has returned to the Mid-West and considers his experience in New York retrospectively. Overall, he gives the impression that his New York experience was, overall, negative and notably bizarre.

Despite her vibrancy, Daisy is unhappy in her seemingly perfect, materially rich life. She wants her daughter to grow up a "beautiful little fool" because she thinks "that's the best thing a girl can be in this world," beautiful, so that she can be provided for by a man, and foolish so that she won't know when she's been hurt. Daisy's unhappiness indicates a significant theme: one can have all the material wealth in the world, but, beneath that veneer of perfection, still suffer misery and dissatisfaction. In simple terms, Chapter I recalls the cliche that things are not always as they appear.

If Nick is a pillar of tolerance, Tom is his marked opposite. Tom, clearly the antagonist of the novel, is the embodiment of arrogance and selfishness, which Nick hints is the result of his privileged upbringing. Tom has invested solely in shallow frivolities, and displays passion only when he tries to incite a racist argument. Moreover, he lacks common moral decency, as he is unapologetic and crudely indiscreet about his affair with another woman. Both Nick and Tom originate from similar economic and educational backgrounds (both come from wealthy Mid-Western families, both went to Yale), yet Nick lives in a ramshackle cottage while Tome languishes in his extraordinary wealth.

Chapter I establishes a marked distinction between East Egg and West Egg, different sections of Long Island, New York. Although both Gatsby and Tom are each very wealthy men, their respective residences are symbolic of their socio-economic positions. Tom's tasteful mansion in fashionable East Egg is indicative of his blue-blooded roots, whereas Gatsby's gaudy mansion in flashy West Egg indicates his membership in the gauche class of "new rich." Unlike Tom, Gatsby probably did not inherit his wealth from an ancestor. His residence in West Egg, home to the "new rich," is a clue that he is most likely a self-made man. East Egg evokes class, aristocracy, and exquisite breeding. Jordan epitomizes the bored, condescending attitude East Egg represents. By contrast, West Egg is home to men like Gatsby, who make a garish display of their hard-earned fortune.

Gatsby is a character of great mystery. Nick is drawn to him by his idealism and romantic hopefulness, his confidence to champion possibility. When Nick sees Gatsby for the first time, reaching out to the green light, he does not know where the light is coming from, or why Gatsby is reaching for it. This event foreshadows events to come. Also foreboding is Daisy's recognition of Gatsby's name. As of yet, it is unclear how she may know him, or if she knows him at all.

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