Study Guide

The Great Gatsby Analysis

  • Tone

    Cynical, Controlling

    Nick is one cynical little cookie. Even though Nick reserves explicit judgment on the characters, Fitzgerald still manages to implicitly criticize through his narrator's tone. (Think about how ludicrous Myrtle seems when, although she isn't upper class, she still tries to look down on her husband.) Let's take a look at two passages. This first one is from Chapter 1, when Nick is hanging out with the Buchanans and Jordan for the first time:

    "I love to see you at my table, Nick. You remind me of a – of a rose, an absolute rose. Doesn't he?" She turned to Miss Baker for confirmation: "An absolute rose?"

    This was untrue. I am not even faintly like a rose. She was only extemporizing, but a stirring warmth flowed from her, as if her heart was trying to come out to you concealed in one of those breathless, thrilling words. Then suddenly she threw her napkin on the table and excused herself and went into the house.

    Nick may be aware of the ridiculousness of certain social circumstances, but he's also aware of the seductive quality of the upper class. The tension between the two produces this cynical tone, where it's almost as though he's mocking himself for being taken in by it. "Untrue," he says: "I am not even faintly like a rose." At the same time, he responds to her words, seeing them as "stirring" and thrilling."

    Take My Word For It

    In the end, Nick passes along his judgment as the absolute truth. For instance, take a look at this excerpt from the last few pages of the novel, when Nick has become disillusioned with his former acquaintances:

    I couldn't forgive [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. 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....

    I shook hands with him; it seemed silly not to, for I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child. (9.143-44)

    Nick sums us Tom and Daisy as "careless." We don't get to decide for ourselves (or, at least, Nick doesn't want us to); we're just supposed to believe him, and believe his interpretations of events. But we know that Nick already feels torn about these people, torn between hard-nosed cynicism and romantic indulgence. Can we really trust him?

  • Genre

    Literary Fiction, Modernism, Satire

    We admit it, "literary fiction" is a little bit of a cop-out: it's an umbrella term for a story or novel that focuses more on character development and style than on page-turning plots. Less Twilight; more Freedom. This is the kind of lit that you usually read in school: books that provoke discussion over what it all means.

    The Great Gatsby definitely fits. Fitzgerald is much more interested in plumbing the depths of Gatsby's heart and in experimenting with symbolic language than he is in working through the latest forensic evidence to figure out who hit Myrtle with his (or her) car. We're not talking CSI: West Egg.

    And the way Nick's narration jumps around, shifting from dialogue to personal meditation to foreshadowing and back again, tips us off that The Great Gatsby is also a Modernist work. It's fragmented and non-linear, because it's trying to get at difficult truths that a more realistic book might not capture. (So, if The Great Gatsby floats your boat, check out some of our learning guides on Fitzgerald's fellow modernists, like Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce.)

  • What’s Up With the Title?

    For such a short title, The Great Gatsby raises a lot of questions. Is Gatsby great? Or is Fitzgerald being ironic? And why is he "the" great Gatsby? Let's break it down.

    The way we see it, there are three ways to read the title. First, there's the surface level of Gatsby's persona. He's one of the wealthiest people on Long Island, and definitely one of the wealthiest in West Egg. He's got a mansion loaded with the nicest, most expensive stuff. And his parties... oh the parties. Any one of them would qualify as a legendary event in itself, and he hosts at least one every weekend. He gives all of his guests first-class treatment, even though he doesn't really know any of them—down to sending some rando girl a new dress after she tears hers at his party.

    Gatsby is a local celebrity, and everyone has a theory about how he's gotten to be so wealthy. In short, everyone seems to know his name and is endlessly interested in his life. So in that way, he's, well, "great." He seems to live a dream-like existence; he even briefly wins back the girl of his dreams.

    Isn't It Ironic

    Then there's the ironic reading: Gatsby's dream-like life is a sham. He rises to the top of society in a dishonest way; he's earned his fortune through illegal activities. The "old money" folks see right through his appearance. He's not "great" to them – he's a phony. And when his house of cards crumbles, all those friends of his turn out to simply be people who take advantage of his generosity and riches.

    Great Heart

    But then there's a third way of looking at that adjective. Although Nick doesn't quite approve of Gatsby's means, he knows that Gatsby's driven by a noble emotion: love. Also, Nick believes that Gatsby is truly a good person; the man is generous, loyal, and sincere. In this way, Gatsby is great. He's a victim of Tom and Daisy's selfish, shallow addiction to their wealth and lifestyle, and, in the end, Nick sides with him.

    A Book by Any Other Name

    The Great Gatsby wasn't Fitzgerald's first stab at a title. He came up with a whole list, including:

    • Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires
    • Gatsby
    • Gold-Hatted Gatsby 
    • The High-Bouncing Lover 
    • On the Road to West Egg 
    • Trimalchio
    • Trimalchio in West Egg
    • Under the Red, White, and Blue

    So, did Fitzgerald make the right choice? How would our reading of the book change if he'd gone with one of these other titles? And is Gatsby truly great?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Gatsby is dead; Myrtle and George Wilson are dead; Tom and Daisy have fled back West; and there's Nick, standing on Gatsby's beach and "brooding on the old unknown world" (9.150), thinking that we all chase after our dream, believe that one day we'll achieve it—and all the while, we're "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into our past" (9.151).

    Way to send us off, right? This is a tricky passage, and we don't want to beat all the life out of it by offering you The One Interpretation. But here's what we think is going on: Nick realizes that chasing a future dream just ends up miring us in the past. All of our dreams are based on visions of our past self, like Gatsby who in the past believed that he would end up with Daisy and who believed in the American myth of the self-made man. By chasing these dreams into the future, he just ended up destroying himself.

    And we think that this is a larger metaphor for post-World-War-I America. The U.S. is bound to a certain vision of its past—but what is that past? Is it a world that Gatsby believes in, a world where men can make themselves? Or is it Tom's world, where self-creation was always a myth, and what really matters is your family and your breeding?

    One last question. Does this ending leave us feeling that there's a way to move forward—or, does looking to the future mean ending up like the only character who seems unaffected by the events of the summer: the hard, dishonest Jordan?

  • Setting

    Gatsby's New York Video

     

    Long Island and New York City in the Early 1920s

    Great Gatsby is set in New York City and on Long Island, in two areas known as "West Egg" and "East Egg"—in real life, Great Neck and Port Washington peninsulas on Long Island. Long Island's beach communities really were (and still are) home to the rich and fabulous of the New York City area, and Fitzgerald actually lived in a small house in West Egg. Apparently, he listened to his teachers and wrote what he knew, because Nick describes his own house as "an eyesore" that's "squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season" (1.14).

    These people are rich, and they have a lot of leisure time to spend worrying about how they're perceived socially. Nobody seems particularly interested in politics, or religion, or even education (you need the degree, but you don't need to have learned anything): instead, they spend their time conforming to certain standards, like not wearing pink suits (7.132). This setting matters, because it means that a lot takes place through innuendo and suggestion. There's very little violence or even outright arguing—people snap at each other and make snide comments, but these aren't the type of people to settle things with violence, at least not with each other. That's why the violent acts—Tom breaking Myrtle's nose; Wilson shooting Gatsby—take place between classes. It's not rich people beating up other rich people; it's violent conflict between the rich and the poor.

    East Side/ West Side

    the great gatsby setting

    (Click the map infographic to download.)

    Rich people do like to spend their time drawing subtle distinctions between types of wealth. Nick tells us right away that East Egg is the wealthier, more elite of the two Eggs. Despite all his money, Gatsby lives in West Egg, suggesting that he has not been able to complete his transformation into a member of the social elite. The distance that separates him from Daisy isn't just the water of the bay; it's also class.

    The second contrast is between the city scenes and the suburban ones. Like Nick Carraway, Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby commute into the city for their respective lines of work, while the women are left behind. This geographical divide ends up being a gender distinction, too. But the city is important in other ways, too; Tom only interacts with his mistress in the city, and Gatsby only sees Meyer Wolfsheim there. They both use the city to hide their goings-on from the people they value on Long Island.

    Roaring Twenties

    We open in the early 1920s: just after World War I, and right in the middle of Prohibition, when alcohol was effectively illegal. We say "effectively," because plenty of people manufactured, sold, and drank alcohol anyway—like all the characters in the book, who seem to be constantly drunk, and Gatsby, who made his money bootlegging: selling illegal alcohol.

    But it's not all champagne and yellow Rolls-Royces. Myrtle and George Wilson inhabit a totally different setting: the grey valley of ashes that joins the fabulous worlds of the Eggs and Manhattan. Fitzgerald didn't know yet, but we do, that the excesses of the 1920s collapsed with the stock market in 1929--leading to a much grayer, grimmer life all over the country. Did Fitzgerald suspect that the fabulous lifestyles of Tom and Daisy's crowd were doomed from the start?

  • What’s Up With the Epigraph?

    What, you've never heard of Thomas Parke D'Invilliers? That's because Fitzgerald made him up. This is breaking the normal rules of epigraphs, which usually use someone else's words and not the author's. On top of that, this fictional Thomas guy made an appearance in another one of Fitzgerald's novels as a typical college intellectual in This Side of Paradise. So basically, we get an idea of Fitzgerald's trickiness and perhaps literary hubris before the story even begins.

    The epigraph seems to be talking about someone using material deception in order to win a girl. In other words, bling yourself out to attract the attention of a woman who wouldn't otherwise notice you. And that's just what Gatsby does.

    But notice that it's not just a gold hat—the "lover" of this epigraph is bouncing, too. Okay, now picture a man bouncing up and down while wearing, say, a gold top hat. Did you giggle a little? We're pretty sure this is supposed to be kind of absurd, like Fitzgerald is telling us already that there's no way this situation can possibly end well.

    Poor, gold-hatted Gatsby.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    For the most part, Gatsby is straightforward. It's got some funny 1920s turns of phrase, like "ecstatic cahoots" (8.46), but you're not going to run into too many unfamiliar words.

    But that doesn't mean the book is easy. Narrator Nick has a literary bent, so occasionally he lets loose with something like this:

    His gorgeous pink rag of a suit made a bright spot of color against the white steps, and I thought of the night when I first came to his ancestral home, three months before. The lawn and drive had been crowded with the faces of those who guessed at his corruption – and he had stood on those steps, concealing his incorruptible dream, as he waved them good-by. (8.46)

    Hard? Not exactly. The toughest word is "incorruptible," and we bet you've got that one. But the way he moves from the present to the past, and really-not-clear-at-all phrases like "concealing his incorruptible dream"—make this a paragraph that you're going to want to read slowly.

    But, then again, why wouldn't you want to take your time over knockout sentences like that?

  • Writing Style

    Hold on to your hats, Shmoopsters, because once you ride the Fitzgerald train, there's no stopping. You'll be hurtling through this plot faster than you can say "T.J. Eckleburg." It seems to us that F. Scott Fitzgerald loves winding sentences that begin with one idea, person, or location and end up somewhere else entirely. Because of this, he draws amazing connections. In this example, watch how he begins with personality and ends with earthquakes:

    If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. (1.4)

    How's that for some plate tectonics? Our speaker talks about the "unbroken series of successful gestures" that characterizes personality, but we can't help but think of the series of successful words that live in this very sentence. Unlike a personality, these words are broken up by three commas. We can't get enough of the commas and semi-colons that live in The Great Gatsby; they are everywhere, and they make for some juicy, action-packed sentences. Sometimes, we have to read sentences over and over again, just to make sure we actually did read the phrases "whole caravansary" and "card house" in the same sentence (8.15).

    These commas tell us that, while Fitzgerald may like beautifully ornate sentences, he also loves to enforce order. The sentences may look like they're rambling, but there's always a map.

  • Gatsby's Books

    owl eyes great gatsby

    (Click the symbolism infographic to download.)

    An owl-eyed man at a Gatsby party sits in awe in the library, murmuring with amazement that all the books on Gatsby's shelves are "real books":

    "See!" he cried triumphantly. "It's a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too - didn't cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?" (3.50)

    Quick Brain Snack: books used to come with their pages uncut, meaning that the sheets that are folded to make the books aren't sliced open on the top. You'd have to cut them open before reading. If you didn't, everyone would know that you hadn't actually read the book.

    Gatsby's uncut books tell us that much of what Gatsby presents to the world is a façade. He wants people to believe that he's a well-educated man, an Oxford man, but in fact he only spent a short time there after the war. He wants people to think that he's well-read, but he's never even cracked the covers. So, the simple answer is that the books represent the fact that Gatsby is a fraud. He's built up an image of himself that isn't consistent with the facts of his life. But you could also argue that the unopened, unread books represent Gatsby himself: eternally mysterious, eternally unopened.

    Well, maybe not eternally mysterious. We think we've got some ideas: check out his "Character Analysis" for a peek inside those flashy covers.

  • The Owl-Eyed Man

    (Click the symbolism infographic to download.)

    Speaking of those books, what's up with that guy in the library? We did list the owl-eyed man as a character, but we're not so sure that he really qualifies. Even Nick reduces him from a man to a pair of eyes. So we're thinking he's really more of a symbol than a full-blown character. (Disagree? Check out his "Character Analysis" for some tasty evidence.)

    And, yes, we are getting to the point. First, there's the owl bit; owls are a symbol of wisdom, but can also be an omen of death (we don't know how that came about, either, but we're thinking someone got their signals crossed). Did you notice that it was the owl-eyed man who had the car accident outside of Gatsby's house? And that, shortly after he got out of the car, he revealed that someone else was driving? He really is acting as an omen, or a harbinger, of death. Spooky, right?

    Four Eyed

    But it's really the glasses bit that has our hearts beating faster right now. A man with large eyes and spectacles would be expected to be more perceptive than those around him, right? And Fitzgerald makes sure we notice the glasses; the guy is always taking them off and wiping them: "He took off his glasses and wiped them again, outside and in" (9.118). Is all that wiping the reason that the owl-eyed man is the only one of Gatsby's guests who really gets him?

    Well, he is the only guest who, in doubting Gatsby, is also wise enough to investigate further. And when he does investigate, he understands what he sees: "See!" he cried triumphantly. "It's a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too – didn't cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?" (3.41-49).

    There's a lot stuffed into that paragraph, so let's unpack it: first, the owl-eyed man is surprised (and a little delighted) to find out that the books are real. So, Gatsby's done his due diligence in trying to fool people: he's actually gone out and purchased real books. But, as the man discovers, he hasn't cut the pages and actually read them. That's because he's the perfect Belasco, a reference to theater producer David Belasco. Gatsby knows how much he has to do to fool people, and he knows that he doesn't need to cut the pages. Nobody in this crowd is going to check, because they're just as fake as he is. That's what the owl-eyed man sees.

    Goodbye, Gatsby

    If you're as interested in the owl-eyed man as we are, you should check out the scene at the end where he's the only former guest to come to Gatsby's funeral. Why would that be? Exactly.

  • T. J. Eckleburg

    tj eckleburg

    (Click the symbolism infographic to download.)

    The first time we see the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, they're looming over the valley of ashes, which Nick and the others have to pass through any time they travel between the Eggs and the city: "above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg" (2.2) The ashes are, as ashes tend to be, "desolate" and "grotesque" (2.1). Think of the valley of ashes as one big, grey reality check. Compare Gatsby's lavish parties of fresh fruit and live music and champagne to this land of smokestacks and ash-men, and you quickly realize that not all the world is as privileged as our cast of characters.

    But the valley of ashes can also be seen as more commentary on the American Dream. The America of The Great Gatsby is ashen, decaying, and barren. And the Wilsons live there, which means their whole sordid story—the infidelity, immorality, lack of compassion, and anger—is associated with this failed American Dream, too. Lovely.

    The Eyes Have It

    Which brings us to the eyes. T.J. Eckleburg's billboard is the second notable pair of eyes in the novel (owl-eyes being the first). But these ones are a little different from those of the party-going bibliophile: "The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose" (2.2).

    This description is only slightly less freaky once you realize that they're not actually giant disembodied eyes; they're on a billboard, an ad for an eye doctor.

    Nick goes on for three sentences about these weird, disembodied eyes before actually explaining that they're on a billboard. He gives your mind time to picture eerie images, to wonder what's going on, even to form other notions of what the eyes could be. Clearly, to us, the readers, the eyes are more than just a billboard.

    Not long before the Tom vs. Gatsby showdown, Nick notes the eyes again keeping a "watchful vigil" (7); and then, George takes Myrtle to the window (from which, we know, the billboard is visible) and tells her she can't fool God. Wilson makes the same connection you might be: the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg are always watching, and so are the eyes of God.

    There are a few directions you can take from here. The first is that, despite the absence of religion from the characters in this story, God is still there. He's all seeing, ever-present, and, as Nick points out, frowning. Things are not well in the valley of American ashes. The other shot you could take at this is to say that God has been replaced by capitalism. Instead of a truly religious representation, the best this world can do is manifest God in a billboard – an advertisement.

    The Waste Land

    One last thing. If T. J. Eckleburg and his valley of ashes sounds a lot like T. S. Eliot and his "Waste Land," A+ for you: you were clearly paying attention in English class. T. J. Eckleburg is Fitzgerald's nod to Modernist poet T. S. Eliot, whose vision of a post-World War I society was just about as depressing as Fitzgerald's. So, what to make of this allusion? Is Fitzgerald setting up Eliot to be the god-like prophet of his generation? Or is he indirectly tying Eliot to the valley of ashes?

  • The Green Light

    green light great gatsby

    (Click the symbolism infographic to download.)

    Green Means Go

    We hate to think about the amount of ink that's been spilled writing about the green light in Gatsby. This is a grade-A, prime-cut symbol: the "single green light" on Daisy's dock that Gatsby gazes wistfully at from his own house across the water represents the "unattainable dream," the "dream [that] must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it" (1.152, 9.149).

    Okay, you're right: it's not quite that simple. The green light also represents the hazy future, the future that is forever elusive, as Nick claims in the last page of the novel: "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter – to-morrow we will run farther, stretch out our arms farther…." (9.149). But if the green light represents Gatsby's dream of Daisy, in the past, then how does it represent the future, as well? Is the future always tied to our dreams of the past?

    One last thing. Red-green traffic lights began to be installed in the U.S. in the 1910s and 1920s. Coincidence? Maybe. But our money's on not.

  • Colors

    color symbolism great gatsby

    (Click the symbolism infographic to download.)

    Somewhere Over the Rainbow

    The green light isn't the only symbolic color in Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald uses color like a preschooler let loose with tempera paints—only a little more meaningfully. Let's break it down:

    Yellow and Gold: Money, Money, Money. Oh, and Death.

    First off, we've got yellows and golds, which we're thinking has something to do with…gold (in the cash money sense). Why gold and not green? Because we're talking about the real stuff, the authentic, traditional, "old money" – not these new-fangled dollar bills. So you have Gatsby's party, where the turkeys are "bewitched to dark gold," and Jordan's "slender golden arm[s]" (3.19), and Daisy the "golden girl" (7.99), and Gatsby wearing a gold tie to see Daisy at Nick's house.

    But yellow is different. Yellow is fake gold; it's veneer and show rather than substance. We see that with the "yellow cocktail music" at Gatsby's party (1) and the "two girls in twin yellow dresses" who aren't as alluring as the golden Jordan (3.15). Also yellow? Gatsby's car, symbol of his desire—and failure—to enter New York's high society. And if that weren't enough, T. J. Eckleburg's glasses, looking over the wasteland of America, are yellow.

    White: Innocence and Femininity. Maybe.

    While we're looking at cars, notice that Daisy's car (back before she was married) was white. So are her clothes, the rooms of her house, and about half the adjectives used to describe her (her "white neck," "white girlhood," the king's daughter "high in a white palace").

    Everyone likes to say that white in The Great Gatsby means innocence, probably because (1) that's easy to say and (2) everyone else is saying it. But come on – Daisy is hardly the picture of girlish innocence. At the end of the novel, she's described as selfish, careless, and destructive. Does this make the point that even the purest characters in Gatsby have been corrupted? Did Daisy start off all innocent and fall along the way, or was there no such purity to begin with? Or, in some way, does Daisy's decision to remain with Tom allow her to keep her innocence? We'll keep thinking about that one.

    Blue: This One's Up For Grabs

    Then there's the color blue, which we think represents Gatsby's illusions -- his deeply romantic dreams of unreality. We did notice that the color blue is present around Gatsby more than any other character. His gardens are blue, his chauffeur wears blue, the water separating him from Daisy is his "blue lawn" (9.150), mingled with the "blue smoke of brittle leaves" in his yard.

    His transformation into Jay Gatsby is sparked by Cody, who buys him, among other things, a "blue coat"—and he sends a woman who comes to his house a "gas blue" dress (3.25). Before you tie this up under one simple label, keep in mind that the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg are also blue, and so is Tom's car. If blue represents illusions and alternatives to reality, maybe that makes the eyes of God into a non-existent dream. As for Tom's car…well, you can field that one.

    Grey and a General Lack of Color: Lifelessness (no surprise there)

    If the ash heaps are associated with lifelessness and barrenness, and grey is associated with the ash heaps, anyone described as grey is going to be connected to barren lifelessness. Our main contender is Wilson: "When anyone spoke to him he invariably laughed in an agreeable colorless way" (2.17). Wilson's face is "ashen," and a "white ashen dust" covers his suit (2.17), and his eyes are described as "pale" and "glazed." We're not too surprised when she shows up with a gun at the end of the novel.

    Green: Life, Vitality, The Future, Exploration

    Last one. We're thinking green = plants and trees and stuff, so it must represent life and springtime and other happy events. Right?

    Well, the most noticeable image is that green light we seem to see over and over. You know, the green light of the "orgastic future" that we stretch our hands towards, etc. etc. (9.149). Right before these famous last lines, Nick also describes the "fresh, green breast of the new world," the new world being this land as Nick imagines it existed hundreds of years before. Green also shows up—we think significantly—as the "long green tickets" that the rich kids of Chicago use as entry to their fabulous parties, the kind of parties where Daisy and Tom meet, and where Gatsby falls in love. So green does represent a kind of hope, but not always a good one.

    When Nick imagines Gatsby's future without Daisy, he sees "a new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about...like that ashen fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees." Nick struggles to define what the future really means, especially as he faces the new decade before him (the dreaded thirties). Is he driving on toward grey, ashen death through the twilight, or reaching out for a bright, fresh green future across the water?

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Peripheral Narrator)

    Nick Carraway is our first-person narrator, but he's not the center of the story—and that makes him a peripheral narrator, someone who's always on the outside looking in. He tells us at the beginning of the first chapter that "I'm inclined to reserve all judgements, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores" (1.3). Translate? People like to tell Nick their stories. And boy do we get stories: Gatsby's story, of course, but also Tom's story, Jordan's story, Daisy's story, and even the story of the Wilsons.

    Ultimately, Nick's major character trait – reserving judgment – allows him to be almost an "invisible" narrator, similar to a traditional third-person omniscient point of view. Which leaves us with a question (or three): why choose a first-person narrator at all? Why not just a third-person and be done with it? And how "invisible" and "non-judgmental" is Nick, really?

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage

      It's fun to have a crush. Will he ask to borrow your pencil in Biology? Will she walk by you in the hall today? Did he really just ask for your phone number?

      It's not so fun when the object of your crush is married with a two-year-old child. But Gatsby still acts like this is middle school: his crush on Daisy has driven him to bootleg alcohol, buy a house across the bay, throw lavish parties, and befriend Nick. Talk about anticipation! We sure hope it pays off.

      Dream Stage

      Well, kind of. When Nick reunites Daisy with Gatsby, they fall back in love. For a few weeks, it's gravy: she spends her afternoons with him, and he thinks he's thisclose to getting her to leave her studly husband and run off with him. Dream until your dreams come true, Jay.

      Frustration Stage

      Oops. It turns out Gatsby has focused all his attention on an illusion, on a dream, rather than an actual person. The reality, of course, fails to live up to his expectations. Daisy isn't the same innocent teenager she used to be. She's a mom with a kid and a family, and no desire to upend her entire life. Talk about frustrating.

      Nightmare Stage

      Tom challenges Gatsby's claim on Daisy, but it's not a straightforward mano-a-mano duel; it's a sneering battle of who has more social power. (Hint: it's not the up-by-his-bootstraps bootlegger.) Gatsby's dream starts to slip irretrievably away. He loses Daisy to Tom – in more ways than one.

      Destruction or Death Wish Stage

      Now for a classically tragic ending with a lot of people ending up dead. The thing to keep in mind here is that there are more "deaths" than the literal ones. Gatsby's image of Daisy is now completely dead in the mind of the reader (because she leaves Gatsby behind), and the fiction of Jay Gatsby dies with the arrival of the real James Gatz's father. Talk about tragedy.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition

      East or West, Home is Best

      Our narrator Nick Carraway is back from World War I and renting a house in West Egg, a small but fancy town on Long Island. Cousin Daisy and her ex-football player husband Tom live across the bay in fancier East Egg. Jay Gatsby, Nick's next door neighbor, is a wealthy newcomer who throws large parties weekly, during which his guests are happy to drink his (illegal) booze while snubbing him for being (1) nouveau riche and (2) possibly involved in some shady activities.

      If you said that sounds like a good set up for some juicy conflict—you'd be right.

      Conflict

      Call Me, Maybe?

      Gatsby wants something he can't have: Daisy, and a shot at being in the American upper class. Tom wants something he can't have: a mistress and a wife who know nothing about each other. Nick wants something that he definitely can't have: all these crazy people to stop being crazy. Oh, and the hot young golf pro, Jordan. He'll have her, too.

      Complication

      Jay Gatsby, Meet James Gatz

      Tom Buchanan takes an instant disliking to Gatsby, even before he knows that Daisy is weeping over Gatsby's beautiful shirts. His investigation complicates matters considerably. Turns out, Jay Gatsby is really James Gatz, a poor kid who earned all his wealth from organized crime (gambling, bootlegging liquor). Uh-oh. No wonder Gatsby has so much trouble fitting in.

      Climax

      The Love Train

      Tom and Gatsby have a tense but understated showdown around who gets to control Daisy, and (surprise) Tom wins. He seals his victory by letting them drive home together, just to rub it in Gatsby's face. But when the others follow behind, they discover that Myrtle was killed by a speeding yellow car that failed to stop. Apparently, a meteoric rise to the top sometimes comes with casualties.

      Suspense

      Wrong Direction

      Gatsby watches Daisy's house all night, worried that Tom will do something to her now that her infidelity has been revealed. We don't blame him: he broke his mistress's nose just for saying Daisy's name. What's going to happen to our intrepid anti-hero?

      Denouement

      Pool Boy

      Nick starts digesting last night's events and comes to the understandable conclusion that "They're a rotten crowd" (8.45). We're with you on that one, Nick. It's too bad Gatsby didn't have the same revelation: George Wilson finds him in the pool and then kills both Gatsby and himself in retaliation for mowing down his wife.

      Conclusion

      Don't Follow the Light

      Daisy and Tom have fled, Nick and Jordan have broken up, and Gatsby is dead. We end with Gatsby's dismal funeral, of course, sparsely attended by Nick, Gatsby's father, and the owl-eyed man who once marveled at all of Gatsby's books. And Nick sends us off with this enigmatic conclusion: the future is always out of reach. Instead, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" (9.151).

          
    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Hidy-ho, Neighbor

      Nick meets his party-hardy next-door neighbor, the immensely wealthy Jay Gatsby, who has a suspicious past and a suspicious access to illegal alcohol. Turns out, that suspicious past also includes a flight with Nick's distant relative Daisy, now married to a belligerent and wealthy Yalie. The first act ends when Nick arranges a meeting between Jay and Daisy.

      Sparks aren't the only thing that fly.

      Act II

      Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

      Daisy and Gatsby resume their love affair. Tom isn't too pleased, despite the fact that he has himself a little bit on the side. After digging into Jay's past, Tom reveals the shocking truth one hot night: Jay is a bootlegger. Gasp! Rich people are rich; do nasty things to each other.

      Act III

      It Happened One Night

      Daisy returns to Tom, obviously, because she's old money and Gatsby is new money, and new money is okay if you're attending its fabulous parties—but you aren't actually going to leave your society husband to marry it. On the way home from New York City, Gatsby's car hits and kills Tom's mistress. Tom isn't too upset, but the woman's husband is. He murders Gatsby; Tom and Daisy flee back west, and Nick stays behind to pick up the pieces. And apparently write a book.