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 and Tom take the train from West Egg to New York City. On the way there, Tom insists that they get off the train to see his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, who lives with her husband, George Wilson, an auto mechanic, in the valley of ashes. The valley is a sullen, gray place whose inhabitants, particularly Wilson, are lifeless and drab. Myrtle, by contrast, is vibrant and sensuous. The large, bespectacled eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg preside over the valley of ashes from an old billboard advertisement visible from the train.

Myrtle accompanies Tom and Nick to New York, where they meet with her sister, Catherine, at her apartment. There, they have a small cocktail party with Mr. and Mrs. McKee. Nick is irritated by the gossip and obnoxious conduct of the others. He tries to leave the party, though he does not succeed.

Drunk, Myrtle slanders Daisy, and when she will not stop at Tom's command, Tom breaks her nose. This ends the party, and Nick, who is drunk for only the second time in his life, takes the 4 a.m. train back to Long Island.

Detailed Summary

Nick and Tom ride the commuter train from West Egg to New York City. The train passes through the valley of ashes, a gray, desolate place in the borough of Queens, where New York's ashes are discarded. From the train, passengers can see an old, weather-beaten billboard advertising the services of Doctor T.J Eckleburg, whose larger-than-life visage stares out from the poster. The Doctor's eyes, blue and bespectacled, watch, unflinching, over the valley. His gigantic blue eyes and yellow spectacles are disturbingly prominent.Tom demands that he and Nick exit the train at a stop in the valley of ashes. He physically forces Nick from the train car, and leads him to a mechanic's garage. Nick senses that Tom is drunk and feeling violent, having tanked up during lunch. The garage is owned by George Wilson, who is the husband of Tom's lover, Myrtle, a short, round woman who radiates sensuality. Like the valley in which he lives, Wilson is ashen and lackluster, a limp, spriritless figure whose business appears to be suffering. Myrtle, in contrast, exudes a reckless vivacity.

Myrtle accompanies Tom and Nick to New York, but she rides in another car, for the sake of discretion. She tells Wilson that she is going to see her sister in the city.

In New York, Myrtle buys a gossip magazine and asks Tom to buy her a puppy from a street vendor, which he does. Myrtle wants to get the dog for the apartment Tom keeps for their affair. Afterward, they meet with Myrtle's sister, Catherine, who is as vibrant a woman as her sister; she has fiery red hair and wears excessive makeup and costume jewelry.

Uptown, at Catherine's apartment, they have cocktails with Mr. and Mrs. McKee, an irritating couple. Her apartment is overcrowded with large furniture, and Nick notices copies of gossip magazines on a table. Catherine's guests indulge in liquor, and Nick claims this is only the second time in his life he has ever been drunk.

Catherine reports that Gatsby is rumored to be a blood relation of Kaiser Wilhelm, who ruled Germany during World War I, and that Gatsby's German inheritance is the source of his wealth. Nick is irritated by the obnoxious conduct of the other guests, and attempts, unsuccessfully, to leave. As Myrtle becomes increasingly drunk, she becomes increasingly loud and haughty. She slanders Daisy, and Tom gives her a harsh warning never to mention his wife's name again. Myrtle retorts that she may say whatever she likes, and says Daisy's name repeatedly. In reaction, Tom breaks her nose, and, as a result, breaks up the party. Drunk, Nick leaves Catherine's apartment with Mr. McKee, and waits in Pennsylvania Station for the 4 a.m. train to Long Island.

Analysis

The valley of ashes is in stark contrast to both flashy West Egg and glamorous East Egg. It is a barren, desolate place signifying spiritual decay and capitalist destruction. The valley serves as an industrial dumping ground, and is littered with the refuse of capitalism. There are no mansions to disguise its blight, as there are on Long Island. Every aspect of the valley is ghostly and dreary, including its inhabitants. The people of the valley are ashen and lifeless, and lack the resources to hide their ugliness. The wealthy people of Long Island suffer the same spiritual ugliness, but hide behind a veneer of glamour and riches.

Wilson epitomizes the downtrodden, honorable working man. He is weak and impoverished, the absolute opposite of Tom, who cherishes frivolity and lives a life of ease and luxury. Likewise, Myrtle is in stark contrast to Wilson. She exudes vivacity and luminosity, but lacks the strong moral character of her husband.

The significance of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg and his watchful eyes is never explicitly defined, though the image is commonly interpreted as a symbolic representation of God. The advertisement is in disrepair, and may symbolize the disintegration of moral standards in modern civilization. During the 1920's, when the book takes place, society underwent major ethical and social changes; the puritanical values of the 19th century were displaced by the hedonistic principles and practices of the Jazz Age. Nick upholds the honorable traditional values of times past, which are challenged by the indulgent behavior of those who surround him.

At once, Nick is fascinated and repulsed by Tom, Myrtle, Catherine, and the McKees. Their ostentatious, shallow behavior and meaningless gossip disgust him, though he observes them as though captivated by their ridiculous decorum. These characters embody all that Nick detests: gaudiness, gossip, and immorality. He is especially disdainful of gossips, and takes notice of the gossip magazines that Myrtle and her sister Catherine read. When Catherine gossips about Gatsby, telling Nick that he is related to Kaiser Wilhelm, she intensifies Nick's suspense about the mysterious Gatsby. Catherine's gossip is also indicative of Gatsby's public, and perhaps notorious,image. Regardless of his reputation, he is undoubtedly well known among New Yorkers.

Tom's stance as the novel's antagonist is accentuated by his brutal violence toward Myrtle. He breaks her nose not to defend Daisy, but to protect his own pride, and to prove that Myrtle cannot undermine him. Although Myrtle rides discreetly in another train car on the way to New York, Tom is shamelessly public about his affair with her once they arrive in the city. Throughout the novel, New York City is portrayed as a place without bounds. While both East Egg and West Egg are extremely wealthy, and the valley of ashes impoverished and oppressively gray, New York is wild and alive, the place to be anonymous and free of inhibitions.

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