ClassicNote on The Great Gatsby
Short Summary of The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is a specific portrait of American
society during the Roaring Twenties, yet tells the quintessential American story
of a man rising from rags to riches only to find that whatever benefits his
wealth affords, it cannot grant him the privileges of class and status. The
central character is Jay Gatsby, a wealthy New Yorker of an undetermined
occupation known mostly for the lavish parties he throws every weekend at his
mansion but suspected of being involved in illegal bootlegging and other
clandestine activities. However, the narrator is Nick Carraway, a young
mid-westerner from a prominent family who came to New York to enter the
bond business. Carraway is involved in all of the events of the novel, yet does
not play a significant active role; he is only a passive observer.
When Nick arrives in New York, he soon visits his relatives, the Buchanans,
who live in East Egg. Nick resides in the nearby (and less fashionable) West
Egg, where Gatsby also lives. Like Nick, Tom Buchanan is from a prominent
family from the mid-west. Tom is a former athlete at Yale, a vulgar and
insecure man preoccupied with the decline of society and of class boundaries. It
is soon revealed that Tom is having an affair with a woman in the city. His
wife, Daisy, is Nick’s second cousin. She carries herself with an insubstantial
manner. While seemingly nave, she claims to be terribly sophisticated. Also at
the Buchanans’ home is Jordan Baker, a professional golfer and close friend of
Daisy. After visiting Tom and Daisy, Nick goes home that night, where he sees
Gatsby watching a green light across the bay. He stretches his arms out toward
it, as if to grasp the green light.
Tom Buchanan takes Nick into New York, and on the way they stop at George
Wilson’s garage. Tom has been having an affair with his wife, Myrtle, and Tom
tells her to join them later in the city. The garage is in the ‘valley of ashes,’ as
Fitzgerald describes it, a vast, desolate area. Other than Wilson’s garage, the
only other feature of note is a large advertisement for an optometrist, two large
eyes that look over the barren area. When Tom and Nick arrive in the city, they
visit with Myrtle and her sister, Catherine McKee. They gossip about Gatsby,
who they believe to be related to the Kaiser or perhaps a murderer. Around
Tom and away from her husband, the earthy Myrtle Wilson adopts an affected,
pretentious tone. She and Tom argue about Daisy, and Tom breaks her nose.
Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker attend a party at Gatsby’s mansion. At the
party, few of the attendees are actually invited guests or even know Gatsby.
Even Nick, when he first meets Gatsby, does not recognize him. Gatsby asks to
speak to Jordan Baker alone, and after talking with Gatsby for a significant time
she tells Nick that she learned some remarkable news which she cannot yet tell
him. During this time, Nick and Jordan begin a half-hearted romance, spending
time together occasionally while often losing sight of one another.
Some time later, Gatsby visits Nick’s home and invites him to lunch. At this
point Gatsby’s origins are unclear, but Gatsby clarifies the story: he tells Nick
that he is from a wealthy San Francisco and was educated at Oxford after
serving in the Great War (for which he received a number of decorations).
However, his tentative manner indicates that he may be lying to Nick. He tells
Nick that Jordan Baker soon will reveal to Nick the remarkable news that
Gatsby had told her. At lunch, Gatsby introduces Nick to an associate, Meyer
Wolfsheim, a notorious criminal noted for fixing the 1919 World Series. When
Nick sees the Buchanans there, Gatsby mysteriously avoids them. Later, Jordan
Baker tells Nick the story of Gatsby, recounting that he had fallen in love with
Daisy Buchanan before the war and implying that he still is in love with her.
She also implies that Daisy has been in love with Gatsby as well.
Gatsby has Nick arrange a meeting between him and Daisy. Gatsby has
planned every detail to perfection. When he shows her his mansion, it is an
ostentatious display of his wealth and possessions. Yet Gatsby behaves
awkwardly toward Daisy. Gatsby had built up such grandiose dreams for
reuniting with Daisy that any meeting was bound to disappoint.
The true story of Jay Gatsby is revealed. He was born James Gatz in North
Dakota. He had his name legally changed at seventeen, soon after he met the
wealthy Dan Cody, who served as Gatsby’s mentor until he died. While Gatsby
received none of Cody’s fortune, it was from Cody that Gatsby was introduced
to the lifestyle of the wealthy.
While out horseback riding, Tom Buchanan comes upon Gatsby’s mansion,
where he meets Nick. Tom takes an immediate dislike to Gatsby, for he was
part of the ‘new rich.’ Still, he accompanies Daisy to the next party that Gatsby
throws, where he is rude and condescending towards Gatsby. Nick realizes that
what Gatsby wants is for Daisy to fully renounce her husband and to take back
the years that had passed since he and Daisy first parted. This is Gatsby’s great
flaw: he believes that he can escape the past and undo what he and Daisy have
After reuniting with Daisy, Gatsby stops throwing the elaborate parties at his
mansion. The only reason why he threw such lavish parties was the chance that
Daisy (or someone who knew her) might attend. Now that they are together
once more, Gatsby finds no reason to continue the practice. Daisy invites
Gatsby, Nick and Jordan to lunch at her house. Around her husband, Daisy is
indiscreet. She even tells Gatsby that she loves him when Tom can hear. The
group goes off to New York, stopping by Wilson’s garage, where they learn
that Wilson will soon move west with his wife he recently realized something
about his wife and they decided that they must get away. When they leave,
Nick sees Myrtle go into hysterics, for she sees Jordan and suspects that she is
In the city, the group goes to a suite at the Plaza Hotel. Tom and Gatsby have a
bitter confrontation: Tom exposes Gatsby for his low origins, while Gatsby tells
Tom about his affair and how Daisy does not love him. Yet Gatsby demands
too much: he wants Daisy to admit that she never loved Tom, but she cannot
truthfully admit that.
When Gatsby takes Daisy back to New York, he allows her to drive in order to
calm her nerves. When they pass Wilson’s garage, Daisy swerves to avoid
another car and ends up hitting Myrtle, killing her. Gatsby explains this to Nick,
who advises him to leave town until the situation calms. He refuses to leave,
however. He remains in order to watch Daisy’s mansion across the bay and
make sure that she is safe. However, George Wilson, driven mad by the death
of his wife, goes to search out the killer. Tom Buchanan points him toward
Gatsby. Wilson shoots Gatsby before committing suicide.
After the murder, the Buchanans leave town to avoid responsibility for the
events that had occurred. Nick is left to organize the funeral, but finds that few
have any concern for Gatsby. Of Gatsby’s main confidants, only Meyer
Wolfsheim shows a modicum of regret, and few attend the funeral. However,
Nick does find Gatsby’s father, Henry Gatz, and brings him to New York for
the funeral. It is from him that Nick learns the extent of Gatsby’s vision and his
grand plans for self-improvement and achievement.
Thoroughly disgusted with life in New York, Nick decides to return to the
mid-west. Before leaving, Nick sees Tom Buchanan once more. Tom tries to
elicit some sympathy from Nick, thinking that all of his actions were thoroughly
justified. Nick leaves New York, realizing that Gatsby differed from all of his
peers, for he had grand dreams and goals, yet was unable to transcend the
boundaries and limitations that his origins and his past history had given him.