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The Great Gatsby

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English Literature

F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby is a tale of love, loss, and memory, with recognisable characters questioning the meaning of the American Dream. Welcome to the 'Roaring Twenties'!

Plot Summary of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is set in 1920s New York, specifically Long Island in 1922, in a period known as the 'Roaring Twenties'.

The Roaring Twenties was a period in America just after the First World War when there was lots of partying and excess as a kind of release after the trauma of war. It was characterised by decadence and the pursuit of pleasure. There was a huge economic boom in the decade that led to the mass production of goods, leading increased consumerism. At the same time, the 1920s was also a time of prohibition: the production and sale of alcohol was banned, which led to the growth of the black market. The decade ended quite literally with a crash with the Wall Street Crash of 1929. This led to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This is all key to the context of The Great Gatsby, which captures this period from the perspective of an author who lived through it. The novel is about a mysterious, wealthy man called Jay Gatsby, but is narrated by the much quieter character Nick Carraway.

Remember! Because Nick is the narrator, The Great Gatsby is in the first person.

Nick and Jay Gatsby are neighbours in an area called West Egg in Long Island. This is mostly home to people who come from 'new money'; that is, those that have made their money themselves and have not inherited it. Nick and Jay Gatsby soon become friends but, despite the grand parties that he hosts in his mansion for New York's elite every night, it is clear that Gatsby has something to hide. These secrets are revealed gradually to Nick as the novel develops. Much of this is helped by his relationship with Jordan Baker, a beautiful and aloof golfer. She is a close friend of a woman called Daisy Buchanan, who also happens to be Nick's cousin.

It becomes clear, through Jordan's investigations, that Gatsby hosts these grand parties in the hope that his teenage sweetheart, Daisy, will attend. Daisy lives across the lake in East Egg with her arrogant and brutal rich husband Tom Buchanan. East Egg is where those that come from 'old money', or inherited money, live. They tend to look down on those in West Egg. Nick reintroduces Gatsby and Daisy and the two appear to fall back in love. Daisy cheats on Tom with Gatsby, and Gatsby truly believes that she will leave Tom and start a new life with him.

But things are not so simple. Tom Buchanan discovers Daisy's adultery and in a dramatic confrontation scene, Daisy admits that she loves both Gatsby and Tom. It is now unlikely that she will run away with Gatsby as he had hoped. It was revealed earlier in the novel that Tom has been cheating on Daisy with a local woman, Myrtle Wilson, who is married to his mechanic, George, a harsh and abusive man. As you may be able to guess, this story does not have a happy ending and Gatsby does not get the girl.

On their way back from the hotel in New York where the confrontation had taken takes place, Daisy drives into Myrtle. Nick learns that Gatsby intends to take the blame for this because of his devotion to Daisy despite all that has happened. Before Gatsby can do this, Tom tells George that Gatsby hit Myrtle and George then assumes this is the man Myrtle has been having an affair with. In a case of mistaken identity, George shoots and kills Jay Gatsby, ending both his life and all that he represents. Nick is devastated by this, unlike everyone else who surrounded Gatsby, Daisy included. He holds a funeral for him and then leaves New York. Nick has become disillusioned by how fake everyone in Gatsby's life was and feels as though they have abandoned a man who was naive but well-meaning.

Who was the author of The Great Gatsby?

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby. Born in 1896, he is now considered one of the best and most influential English language writers of the 20th century. His other works include The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) and Tender is the Night (1934). He was married to the eccentric and troubled Zelda Sayre. Fitzgerald is thought to have masterfully captured the Roaring Twenties in his work. He died of heart problems in 1940, aged 44.

Key Themes in The Great Gatsby

The American Dream

This is one of the most important themes in Fitzgerald's novel. The American Dream is the idea that in America anyone can succeed through hard work, regardless of background and circumstances. America is the 'land of opportunity'. The Great Gatsby questions this idea in its treatment of Gatsby. Jay Gatsby believes that, despite his poor background, he can have everything he wants: wealth, success, and, most importantly, Daisy Buchanan.

"I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before...She'll see". This exemplifies Gatsby's unrealistic aims of returning to the past regarding his relationship with Daisy. (Chp. 6)

But he has none of these things in the end. Even though he has become very wealthy through illegal activities, he is still looked down upon by those that are part of 'Old Money', like Tom and Daisy. This is exemplified by Tom's referral to Gatsby as 'Mr Nobody from Nowhere' (Chp. 7). To be thought of in this manner is Gatsby's greatest fear and serves to prove that no matter how much money he has, he is still regarded as below the aristocrats. Gatsby never attains the same status as them and ends the novel by losing his life.

Can you think of any more examples of the American Dream in books you've read or films you've seen?

Love and dysfunctional marriages

The Great Gatsby is full of examples of unhealthy relationships. Tom and Daisy Buchanan cheat on each other yet remain together, Myrtle cheats on George who is also abusive, and Gatsby begins an affair with Daisy while aware that she is married. Even Nick Carraway, in his relationship with Jordan Baker, eventually becomes disillusioned with her and breaks off the relationship because she too has abandoned Gatsby. The relationship that is the driving force of the novel is the one between Gatsby and Daisy, and this too is problematic. Gatsby's love for Daisy is really closer to an obsession. Nostalgia is very important in The Great Gatsby and this is a key trait of Jay Gatsby's. He is obsessed with the idea of a young Daisy; but this daisy no longer exists.

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams - not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. Nick on Gatsby's nostalgia (Chp. 5)

Money and corruption

As we have already mentioned, many characters in The Great Gatsby can be divided into old (inherited) and new (earned) money. But money is a corrupting influence in this novel. Tom, Daisy, and Jordan are from the established aristocracy. They lack empathy and often look down on those who have new money or no money. Their money has made them snobbish and allows them to believe they can do what they please with few consequences. Jay Gatsby is also not innocent. He is from new money and not snobbish, but he has gained his wealth through illegal means. Nick meets Meyer Wolfshiem in New York, a man Gatsby has done business with, an untrustworthy and dangerous man.

He's the man who fixed the World's Series back in 1919. Gatsby on Meyer Wolfshiem (Chp. 4)

This insinuates that what Gatsby is involved in is a world of criminality. The parties that Gatsby hosts with his money also allow New York's wealthy to pursue hedonistic pleasure, which is not portrayed positively in the novel.

Gatsby at one point describes Daisy's voice as 'full of money' (Chp. 7). Despite the promises she made to Gatsby, Daisy abandons him and uses her and Tom's wealth to simply leave New York. She does not have to deal with the repercussions of what she has done to both Gatsby and Myrtle. Do you believe Fitzgerald would have portrayed her differently if she had not been corrupted by (or so full of) money?

Literary Devices in The Great Gatsby

Literary devices are important in any analysis of this novel:

The Unreliable narrator

We know that The Great Gatsby is narrated retrospectively from Nick Carraway's perspective. But just how trustworthy a narrator is he? On the first page of the novel, Nick tells us that he is 'inclined to reserve all judgements' which suggests that he is unbiased. But why is he so insistent about this, and are there indicators that this isn't entirely true? If Nick has written this story then he has also written the title The Great Gatsby. This suggest some kind of bias. The deep care Nick develops for Gatsby is most obvious in the wake of Gatsby's death. He is devastated and cannot remain in New York any longer. This obviously strong friendship calls into question the truthfulness of the story Nick tells.

After Gatsby's death the East was haunted for me. Nick Carraway (Chp. 9)

Symbolism

Fitzgerald uses quite a lot of symbolism in The Great Gatsby. The most important symbol is the green light at the end of Tom and Daisy's dock. Jay Gatsby often spends his days gazing at it from his house opposite theirs; Nick once sees him reaching for it with an outstretched hand. The green light represents Gatsby's dreams of gaining Daisy and, more broadly, perhaps represents the effort to fulfil the American Dream. However, he fails to reach both it and Daisy. Another symbol is Gatsby's bright yellow car. It represents how the new rich spend their money. It is a gaudy car that those from old money, like Tom, judge. This shows that Gatsby is not used to having wealth and also shows his naivety.

Can you think of any more examples of symbolism in The Great Gatsby?

How has The Great Gatsby contributed to English Literature?

The Great Gatsby was not commercially successful. However, it saw a revival in the mid 20th century and went on to become one of the most well-known novels of the century. It has been adapted for film and is still popular today.

Perhaps the most important contribution The Great Gatsby made to English Literature was its critical and nuanced exploration of the American Dream. This is still a very popular theme in American literature and Fitzgerald breaks it down and exposes the issues it possesses. This can be seen in Gatsby's idealism and Daisy's abandonment of him.

Who are the main characters in The Great Gatsby?

CharacterDescriptionKey Traits
Jay Gatsby
The main character. A mysterious man in his early thirties with lots of secrets. He fought in the First World War but made his money (which he has lots of!) through illegal activities, which he tries to hide. A close friend of Nick. Deeply in love with Daisy.
Idealistic. Naive. Romantic. Nostalgic.
Nick Carraway
Narrator. A young stockbroker who has recently broken off an engagement. Observes more than participates in events. Daisy's cousin and Gatsby's close friend. Has a relationship with Jordan Baker.
Observant. Intelligent. Compassionate. Loyal.
Daisy Buchanan
A wealthy young woman from an aristocratic family. Moves through life with little care for others. Married to Tom and has an affair with Jay Gatsby. Cousin of Nick and friend of Jordan.
Careless. Selfish. Materialistic. Privileged.
Tom Buchanan
A wealthy polo player who was a football star in Yale. A harsh man who is very sure of his own opinions. Married to Daisy but a serial cheater (he is currently cheating on her with Myrtle). Former classmate of Nick's.
Arrogant. Deceitful. Stubborn. Careless.
Jordan Baker
An amateur golfer from old money. Suspected of cheating in a tournament. Represents the newfound freedom American women had at this time with her independence. Close friend of Daisy. In a relationship with Nick Carraway.
Aloof. Confident. Independent. Shallow.
Myrtle Wilson
A lower-class woman married to George Wilson, Tom's mechanic. In an abusive and toxic marriage with George. Become's Tom's mistress in an effort to move up the social scale. Killed by Daisy Buchanan.
Trapped. Ambitious. Abused.

The Great Gatsby - Key takeaways

    • The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
    • It is set in 1922, in the postwar Roaring Twenties.
    • The Great Gatsby is narrated in the first person by Nick Carraway but the central and title character is Jay Gatsby.
    • The novel is about Gatsby's nostalgic and idealistic pursuit of Daisy Buchanan, an old flame and now a married woman, who turns out to be selfish and careless, ultimately betraying him.
    • Some of the key themes in The Great Gatsby are the American Dream and its failure, dysfunctional marriages, and corruption.
    • Fitzgerald uses an unreliable narrator and symbolism.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is about Jay Gatsby, a newly wealthy man in 1920s New York, and his nostalgic quest to regain his lost love, Daisy Buchanan, a married, aristocratic woman who ends up betraying him.

The Great Gatsby was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Great Gatsby was set in 1922, during the Roaring Twenties.

The Great Gatsby is not a true story, it is a fictional novel. However, some characters are thought to have been loosely based on real people, for example, Jordan Baker.

The Great Gatsby is so famous because it taps into many of the key issues of 1920s America and the human experience more broadly. The difficulty of achieving one's goals is relatable to many people in many contexts. The American Dream is also a very important theme in American literature.

Final The Great Gatsby Quiz

Question

When is The Great Gatsby set?

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Answer

1922

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What city is The Great Gatsby set in?

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Answer

New York

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Question

What person is The Great Gatsby narrated in?

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Answer

First person

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Question

Who narrates The Great Gatsby?

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Answer

Nick Carraway

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Question

Why does Gatsby stare at the green light at the end of Daisy's dock?

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Answer

Because it represents his hopes and dreams for getting Daisy back.

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What are some of the key themes in The Great Gatsby?

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Answer

The American Dream, Love and Dysfunctional Marriages, and Money and Corruption.

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Who is Tom Buchanan having an affair with?

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Answer

Myrtle Wilson

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Who really hits Myrtle with a car?

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Answer

Daisy

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Can you name some of the symbols Fitzgerald uses in The Great Gatsby?

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Answer

The green light, and Gatsby's bright yellow car.

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Who wrote The Great Gatsby?

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Answer

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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What kind of narrator could we regard Nick Carraway as?

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Answer

Unreliable narrator

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Who reveals many of Gatsby's secrets to Nick?

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Answer

Jordan Baker

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Can you name some of Gatsby's key traits?

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Idealistic. Naive. Romantic. Nostalgic.

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Why does Myrtle Wilson enter into a relationship with Tom?

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To improve her social status.

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What does the American Dream mean?

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Answer

The American Dream is the idea that anyone, regardless of background or circumstances, can succeed in America if they work hard.

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