By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Great Gatsby is the quintessential Jazz Age novel, capturing a mood and a moment in American history in the 1920s, after the end of the First World War. Rather surprisingly, The Great Gatsby sold no more than 25,000 copies in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime. It has now sold over 25 million copies.
If Fitzgerald had stuck with one of the numerous working titles he considered for the novel, it might have been published as Trimalchio in West Egg (a nod to a comic novel from ancient Rome about a wealthy man who throws lavish parties), Under the Red, White and Blue, or even The High-Bouncing Lover (yes, really).
How did this novel come to be so widely acclaimed and studied, and what does it all mean? Before we proceed to an analysis of Fitzgerald’s novel, here’s a quick summary of the plot.
The Great Gatsby: plot summary
Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, is a young man who has come to New York to work on the stock exchange. He lives on the island of West Egg, where his neighbour is the wealthy Jay Gatsby, who owns a mansion.
One evening, Nick is dining with his neighbours from East Egg, Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Tom is having an affair, and goes to answer the phone at one point; Daisy follows him out of the room, and their fellow guest, a woman named Jordan Baker, explains to Nick about Tom’s mistress.
A short while after this, Nick is with Tom when Tom sets up a meeting with his mistress, Myrtle, the wife of a garage mechanic named Wilson. Nick attends a party with Tom and Myrtle; Tom hits his mistress when she mentions Daisy’s name.
In the summer, Gatsby throws a number of lavish parties at his mansion. He meets Jordan Baker again and the two are drawn to each other. Nobody seems to know the real Gatsby, or to be able to offer much reliable information about his identity. Who is he?
Gatsby befriends Nick and drives him to New York. Gatsby explains that he wants Nick to do him a favour: Jordan Baker tells him that Daisy was Gatsby’s first love and he is still in love with her: it’s the whole reason Gatsby moved to West Egg, so he could be near Daisy, even though she’s married to Tom. Gatsby wants Nick to invite both him and Daisy round for tea.
When they have tea together, Gatsby feels hopeful that he can recover his past life with Daisy before she was married. However, he knows that Daisy is unlikely to leave Tom for him. When she expresses a dislike for his noisy parties, he scales down his serving staff at his house and tones down the partying.
When they are all at lunch together, Tom realises that Daisy still loves Gatsby. Tom goads Gatsby as he realises he’s losing his mistress and, now, his wife. While staying together in a suite at the Plaza Hotel, Daisy tells Tom that she loves both men.
On their way back home, Gatsby’s car accidentally hits and kills Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress, who has rushed out into the road after her husband found out about her affair. Tom finds her body and is distraught. Nick learns that Daisy, not Gatsby, was driving the car when Myrtle was killed.
Gatsby also tells Nick that he had built himself up from nothing: he was a poor man named James Gatz who made himself rich through the help of a corrupt millionaire named Dan Cody.
The next day, Nick finds Gatsby dead in his own swimming pool: Wilson, after his wife was killed by Gatsby’s car, turned up at Gatsby’s mansion to exact his revenge. Wilson’s body is nearby in the grass. The novel ends with Nick winding up Gatsby’s affairs and estate, before learning that Tom told Wilson where he could find Gatsby so he could take revenge.
The Great Gatsby: analysis
The Great Gatsby is the best-known novel of the Jazz Age, that period in American history that had its heyday in the 1920s. Parties, bootleg cocktails (it’s worth remembering that alcohol was illegal in the US at this time, under Prohibition between 1920 and 1933), and jazz music (of course) all characterised a time when Americans were gradually recovering from the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic (1918-20).
One reason The Great Gatsby continues to invite close analysis is the clever way Fitzgerald casts his novel as neither out-and-out criticism of Jazz Age ‘values’ nor as an unequivocal endorsement of them. Gatsby’s parties may be a mere front, a way of coping with Daisy’s previous rejection of him and of trying to win her back, but Fitzgerald – and his sympathetic narrator, Nick Carraway – do not ridicule Gatsby’s behaviour as wholly shallow or vacuous.
Fitzgerald’s choice to have a first-person narrator, rather than a more detached and impersonal ‘omniscient’ third-person narrator, is also significant. Nick Carraway is closer to Gatsby than an impersonal narrator would be, yet the fact that Nick narrates Gatsby’s story, rather than Gatsby telling his own story, nevertheless provides Nick with some detachment, as well as a degree of innocence and ignorance over Gatsby’s identity and past.
Nick Carraway is both part of Gatsby’s world and yet also, at the same time, an observer from the side-lines, someone who is not rich and extravagant as many in Gatsby’s circle are, yet someone who is ushered into that world by an enthusiastic Jay Gatsby, who sees in Carraway a man in whom he can confide.
Nevertheless, Fitzgerald deftly sets the world of West Egg, with Gatsby’s mock-chateau and swimming pool, against the rather grittier and grimier reality for most Americans at the time. If Gatsby himself symbolises the American dream – he has made himself a success, absurdly wealthy with a huge house and a whole retinue of servants, having started out in poverty – then there are plenty of reminders in The Great Gatsby that ‘the American dream’ remains just that, a dream, for the majority of Americans:
About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.
This is the grey, bleak, industrial reality for millions of Americans: not for them is the world of parties, quasi-enchanted gardens full of cocktails and exotic foods, hydroplanes, and expensive motorcars.
Yet the two worlds are destined to meet on a personal level: the Valley of Ashes (believed to be modelled on Corona dump in Queens, New York, and inspired by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) is where Wilson’s garage is located. The dual tragedy of Gatsby’s and Wilson’s deaths at the end of the novel symbolises the meeting of these two worlds.
The fact that Gatsby is innocent of the two crimes or sins which motivate Wilson – his wife’s adultery with Tom and Daisy’s killing of Myrtle with Gatsby’s car – hardly matters: it shows the subtle interconnectedness of these people’s lives, despite their socioeconomic differences.
What’s more, as Ian Ousby notes in his Introduction to Fifty American Novels (Reader’s Guides), there is more than a touch of vulgarity about Gatsby’s lifestyle: his house is a poor imitation of a genuine French chateau, but he is no aristocrat; his car is ‘ridiculous’; and his very nickname, ‘the Great Gatsby’, makes him sound like a circus entertainer (perhaps a magician above all else, which is apt given the magical and enchanted way Carraway describes the atmosphere and detail at Gatsby’s parties).
And ultimately, Gatsby’s lavish lifestyle fails to deliver happiness to him, too: he doesn’t manage to win Daisy back to him, so at the same time Fitzgerald is not holding up Gatsby’s ‘success’ uncritically to us.
Is Gatsby black? Although he is known for having been played in film adaptations by Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio, and the novel does not state that Gatsby is an African American, the scholar Carlyle V. Thompson has suggested that certain clues or codes in the novel strongly hint at Gatsby being a black American who has had to make his own way in the world, rising from a poor socio-economic background, and not fully accepted by other people in his social circle because of racial discrimination.
Whether we accept or reject this theory, it is an intriguing idea that, although Fitzgerald does not support this theory in the novel, that may have been deliberate: to conceal Gatsby’s blackness but, as it were, hide it in plain sight.
In the last analysis, The Great Gatsby sums up the Jazz Age, but through offering a tragedy, Fitzgerald shows that the American dream is founded on ashes – both the industrial dirt and toil of millions of Americans for whom the dream will never materialise, and the ashes of dead love affairs which Gatsby, for all of his quasi-magical properties, will never bring fully back to life.
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A terrific novel and not bad adaptation as a movie by DiCaprio, I thought! While some of the comments on here are a little excessive, there is much to be said for the symbolism in the book. I rather like the fact that ‘West Egg’ and ‘East Egg’ surely hints at questioning who is the ‘good egg’ and who is ‘the bad egg’. The place names are so unusual that this must be deliberate (‘bad egg’ has been around since at least 1855) and we’re left to wonder just what is good and bad here. No character comes out smelling of roses in this story, which – for me – makes the novel utterly compelling.
Well said, Ken. It’s the subtlety of the characterisation which makes it for me – I know a lot of critics and readers praise the prose style, but I think it’s the way Fitzgerald uses Carraway’s narration to reveal the multifaceted (and complex) nature of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and even himself that is so masterly. I’ve just finished analysing the opening paragraphs of the novel and will post that up soon!
This is such a widely misunderstood book, by scholars as well as regulars.
Daisy was the victim of love. She would’ve married Jay while he was in the army. Also, Jay’s so-called symbolic “reaching” is nothing more than him trying to understand self love, to attain it, to unravel the “mystery! ” of it. But he never realizes he’s totally in love with himself, which is his biggest issue other than preying on Daisy’s real love.
And Nick ” Carraway” …. Care-a-way, care-a-way… What self-appointed moral man witnesses nakedly two married plotters sceam against a neighbor they like, or any person in serious need of legal, emotion aid, AND DOES NOTHING. Yeah, care a way, Nick, just not your way! And Come On!! who the hell doesn’t judge others….that’s the ENTIRE POINT OF EVERY BOOK AND LIFE.
WHAT preyed on Gatsby preys upon every person everywhere. Influences of life and choices we make because if them. Gatsby’s such an interesting, centralized
, beloved character because he represents everyone’s apparent embracement of the childhood notion, ” we can have it all and make our own consequences, and if not, let’s see if I can manipulate time successfully. Gatsby’s us the full human demonstration of self love at all costs and quite deliberately finding a way disguise and masquerade and mutate and thus deny this very fact while simultaneously trying to make it MAGICAL AND MYSTICAL.
ARTISTS, from geniuses to so-called laypeople, are all simple people with very basic emotions. That’s where ALL starts. They are not Gods, nor do they desire misunderstanding. Frankly, they just wanna see if you have any common sense. Once you get passed that, all literature resembles EVERY aspect of life.
While I could imagine and accept a modern film version of Gatsby as black, I really can’t espouse the notion that Fitzgerald had that in mind. If you know anything about American society in the 1920s, you’d know that you didn’t have to be black or of some other minority to be outside the winner’s circle. US society may still have tons of problems accepting that all people are created equal, but back then, they weren’t even thinking about blacks et al very much. They were quite happy to ostracize Italians, Irish, Catholics, etc, without batting an eye.
The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels. Thank you for the detailed analysis!
I can also add that Fitzgerald includes lots of symbols in the novel. To my mind, one of the most vivid symbols is a giant billboard with the face of Doctor TJ Eckleburg which is towering over the Valley of Ashes. These eyes are watching the dismal grey scene of poverty and decay. I guess the billboard symbolizes the eyes of God staring at the Americans and judging them.
In case seomeone is interested in symbols in The Great Gatsby, there is a nice article about it. Here: https://custom-writing.org/blog/symbols-in-the-great-gatsby
One of my favorite novels. I have always loved this book. No matter how may times I read it, more is revealed.
I regret the several hours wasted in slogging through this low-prole distraction.
You might want to start with something like Dick and Jane.