The titular novel “The Great Gatsby”, is considered one of the greatest pieces of writing of the 20th century and hailed as a classic by readers everywhere. In this novel, one can find, not only an intriguing story, but a tangled web of psychological complexities between its characters. It is a tale of desire and deception, of how reality comes crashing down on us when we appreciate it the least. It is a tragic tale, and a cautionary one at that, but with so many themes at play, like all great classics, there is always something to be discovered with each reading of the novel therein.
The central characters, Jay Gatsby (the title character), Nick Carraway (the first-person narrator), Daisy Buchannan (Jay’s love interest), and Tom Buchannan (Daisy’s dangerously unstable husband) paint a fascinating picture just by themselves. At one point in the novel (which we will refer to a bit later), there is a love triangle between Jay, Tom, and Daisy (Daisy being at the top of said triangle), and Daisy is left with a choice to make: Tom or Jay? This story spends a significant amount of time building the reader’s relationship with Jay Gatsby, encouraging us to take a liking to him, and yet, he is not the one who is chosen. Not only that, but the novel comes to an end shortly after Jay Gatsby’s sudden assassination. This leaves shocked readers with one question: why is it that Daisy chooses Tom over Jay? What is the author really trying to tell us? That is the theme we will be exploring in this character analysis of “the Great Gatsby”.
Backtracking to the beginning of the story; our tale opens by introducing our narrator: the aforementioned Nick Carraway, who serves as a third-person observer to the events that unfold in the story that follows. He is a veteran of the first world war and has come to New York in 1925 (the year our story takes place) to seek a career on Wall Street, ends up finding a job selling bonds. He settles in a small “eye-sore” of a house in a housing district outside New York City called West Egg (“Gatsby” 7). Daisy, his first cousin, lives with her wealthy husband in a gargantuan mansion directly across the bay from Nick in the wealthy suburb of East Egg, explaining that this is the neighborhood of the old-fashioned rich; those who come from prestigious, wealthy families who made their money through traditional businesses. The previously mentioned West Egg, where Nick now lives, is known as the neighborhood of the newly rich, who made their millions through the recent stock market boom on wall street (and in some cases, through illegal business). The first thing Nick notices in his own neighborhood is the rather hard-to-miss mansion next door. He visits Daisy, having not seen her in some time and meets her husband, Tom Buchannan, a businessman and an apparent racist. Through his cousin, he meets a woman named Jordan Baker, with whom he quickly becomes intimately involved with. Jordan is a bit of a gossiper, and almost immediately reveals to Nick certain information concerning Tom Buchannan’s longtime affair with a woman from the impoverished district nicknamed The Valley of Ashes. Jordan also fills Nick in on the various rumors surrounding a certain “Jay Gatsby”, whom Nick learns, is the reclusive owner of the mansion next door back in West Egg. Eventually, Nick finds himself guarding Tom’s secrets as he is taken across the bridge to a private flat where Tom spends time with his mistress. Curiously, Tom does not seem to be concerned about exposing such information to Nick, his wife’s cousin. Through this strange endeavor, Nick realizes that he knows more about the drama and politics of East Egg than he does about his own neighborhood on the opposite side of the bay. He begins to inquire more and more about the mysterious Mr. Gatsby. He learns, both through rumor and first-hand observation, that his mystery neighbor holds enormous parties at his mansion, and in his curiosity, Nick feels some sort of attraction to these festive events, and eventually receives an invitation of his very own (making him the only person to have ever received a personal invitation from Mr. Gatsby). At this party, Nick encounters Jordan, and the two end up feeding their curiosity and search the mansion for Gatsby. Upon suddenly encountering the man himself, Nick and Jordan were surprised to see how young he was, given his decorated reputation. Mr. Gatsby seems to have taken a liking to Nick, given the personal invitation and the fact that he recognizes Nick as a fellow member of the same division from the Great War. After some time, Nick learns that Gatsby knew Daisy years ago, and had a brief, romantic exchange with her. Gatsby has loved Daisy ever since and she had considered Mr. Gatsby her one true love, but he something had fallen through all those years ago and Daisy ended up marrying the next rich suitor she could find: Tom Buchannan. Mr. Gatsby requests Jordan and Nick’s assistance in arranging a secret reunion between himself and Daisy, which Nick obliges. Upon seeing Mr. Gatsby for the first time in over five years, it would seem that Daisy still has very strong feelings for Mr. Gatsby and possibly married Tom for his money alone. The affair continues to develop and Tom’s suspicions continue to grow. Tom’s suspicions were not only of the existence of an affair between Daisy and Gatsby, but were also of the source of Gatsby’s wealth. Even Nick himself finds something odd in Gatsby’s frequent claims concerning his past, which contain tales of his supposedly wealthy, dead relatives, war heroics, and his having attended Oxford after the war. Nick even meets an associate of Gatsby’s whom Jay, himself, even reveals that this associate was the man who “fixed the 1919 world series” (“Gatsby” 79). Eventually, both Nick and Tom discover the truth (albeit through different methods); that Gatsby came from a penniless mid-western family, and although he did serve in the Great War, he had acquired his wealth through gambling, selling drugs, and bootlegging. The difference is that Tom pressed Gatsby’s associates while Nick was told the truth by Gatsby himself, as his trusted friend. Once Gatsby’s past was revealed, Tom eventually confronted him at a dinner party, challenging his alleged educational background and taunting him about his low-caste upbringing. This causes Gatsby to fly off the handle and nearly strike Tom, yet he doesn’t. This little episode causes Daisy to struggle over who she wants to choose, as she realizes that, even though the plan was for her to tell Tom that she never loved him, she realized she couldn’t. Gatsby and Daisy leave the scene in a hurry, taking Gatsby’s car back home to East Egg. In the process, they pass through the Valley of Ashes, where Tom’s mistress Myrtle lives, and end up accidentally hitting her with the car in the process. Gatsby’s car speeds off, never stopping to check on Myrtle. Tom, Jordan, and Nick discover the scene, apparently left behind by Gatsby, which infuriates Tom. Tom then assures Myrtle’s grieving husband that Gatsby was not only responsible for the accident, but that he was most likely the man she was having an affair with (of which Myrtle’s husband was, indeed, aware). Later, when a shocked Nick encounters a hiding Jay Gatsby, he expresses his extreme disapproval of Gatsby’s hit-and-run actions. Gatsby reveals to Nick that it was Daisy who was driving at the time, while Gatsby protested, but now seeks to protect her. Nick had seen Tom reassuring Daisy back in East Egg, and did not have the heart to tell Gatsby that she may not be contacting him, as Gatsby was now expecting. Tragically, as Gatsby awaited Daisy’s call, he was shot and killed by Myrtle’s husband, who then committed suicide on the spot. The papers and tabloids wrote the story off as a “bootlegger kills mistress” revenge story, thus tainting Gatsby’s reputation. Only reporters were present at Gatsby’s wake, not a single friend or associate besides Nick was in attendance. As for Daisy, there was nothing, she “hadn’t even sent a flower” (“Gatsby” 186). In fact, Nick finds that he is unable to contact Daisy or Tom at all and learns that they have left New York entirely without a trace. The story then reaches its conclusion, leaving Nick repulsed by the city he once loved.
The way in which the story ends leaves the reader with many questions concerning human nature, and a demand for further explanation as to why exactly Daisy might have chosen her “repulsive” husband Tom over Gatsby, whom she claimed was her one, true love. First of all, we have the rocky exchange between Tom and Gatsby near the end of the story, where Daisy proclaims her love Gatsby and reluctantly states that she “never” loved Tom. Which Tom then replies by largely disregarding her actions and focuses his attention on Gatsby, picking apart this magnificent persona Gatsby had worked so hard to create, which sends Gatsby over the edge. Some might see Gatsby’s display of rage as the turning point which scares Daisy into not following through with her decision to leave Tom, while the hit-and-run accident merely triggered her self-preservation instincts and caused her to return to Tom as a means of escape from responsibility for the accident. This would imply that abandoning Gatsby was merely incidental, that she might have preferred to run away with him after all. Another possibility is that whatever Tom says to her immediately following the accident was the deciding factor. It is interesting that Tom’s confrontation with Daisy is never explained fully in that we do not know what was said. However, we can expect that he offered her a way out of this predicament, as Daisy would have been fully aware of her husband’s ability to cover up what happened and pin it on his now hated rival; Jay Gatsby. But could it be possible that Tom also lied to Daisy in that moment and managed to convince her of the same things that he convinced Myrtle’s husband back in the Valley of Ashes; that it was Gatsby who was having an affair with Myrtle and could probably care less about Daisy? This is less likely, since Daisy was in the car and was the one responsible for Myrtle’s death, knowing that the idea of Gatsby taking the opportunity to cover-up an affair was next to impossible. Another possibility is that Daisy, having been raised in a family where economically beneficial marriages were a priority, is highly motivated by money. After all, we learn that Gatsby wrote a letter to her during the war, telling the truth about his nonexistent wealth at the time. Rather than waiting for him (as one might expect if he is her so-called “true” love), she marries the wealthiest man she could find regardless of whether or not she actually loved him. Was it the pressure to marry and fulfill one’s expected gender role that drove her to marry Tom at the time? Or was it simply a matter of money? After all, she falls head-over-heels for Gatsby when they reunite during the events of the novel. What was it about running away with Mr. Gatsby was really appealing to her? She would have knowingly left her husband behind, which generally understood and perhaps, even a big part of Gatsby’s motivation, but what of her daughter? It is only briefly mentioned that Tom and Daisy have a daughter together, but she is nowhere to be seen in the story. Did Daisy ever really take Gatsby’s offer seriously, or was this just an emotional escape for her; a way of getting even with Tom for his own affair with Myrtle? As for Mr. Gatsby, what makes him a likeable character outside of his charm? He lied to everyone for years, became involved in any number of illegal trades with gangsters and corrupt politicians alike, profiting off of unfortunate alcoholics and drug addicts, just so that he could become rich enough to get Daisy’s attention one day. It is also slightly disturbing that he knew where Daisy lived so that he could build his new mansion across the bay from hers. That is dedication to a very intense obsession. But one also wonders how it is that Gatsby was able to find out where she lived, and if he had the time to build a mansion in West Egg, then for how long was he waiting for the right chance to approach her? It is sad to see how Jay Gatsby felt he needed to be wealthy in order to qualify for Daisy. Evidence points to the fact that Daisy is motivated by money, but one still wonders; if Gatsby had told her the truth and proposed to her during their first encounter years ago, would she have turned him down?
Money seems to be a motivating factor behind each of the key character’s actions; you have Daisy, who once again may or may not be motivated by money as exhibited by her taste in men, Tom inherited his money, but believes his inheritance gives him status and power in a kind of caste system, Jay Gatsby tries to “buy the love of Daisy Buchannan”(Hoover “Myth of the American Dream”), but even Nick is only able to serve as our narrator because of his coming to New York to seek his fortune on Wall Street. Aside from this, the cautionary tale contained within the story seems to be a warning of what comes from the excess, how the characters are punished for their journey into decadence and willingness to do any number of unspeakable things in order to accomplish their goals. This story was described as a “cautionary tale of the decadent downside of the American Dream” because of the events that unfold therein (Churchwell “What Makes Gatsby Great?”). Jay Gatsby is killed ultimately because of his involvement with Daisy Buchannan, but what happens after his death is further punishment for doing business with criminals: his former associates strip his mansion of everything valuable as it was through their business that he was able to acquire such wealth. They made Gatsby, so they took back what they felt was theirs after his death. Despite Gatsby’s method of attaining great wealth, he is nevertheless able to rise above class differences and shatter Tom Buchanan’s idea of class and inheritance (Gillespie “Creative Destruction”). In any case, with all the tangled webs, the prestige of one’s image and reputation, the dynamic between male and female desires, what is most striking about this story is the way in which everything goes to hell in the end. All of the ambitions and dreams of each of the characters not only remain unfulfilled in the end, but are almost impressively trampled upon by misfortune. This story ends with “everything leading to tragedy” (Symkus “Gatsby: Why is it so Great?”). In 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a letter to his publisher, expressed his desire to write something “extraordinary, beautiful, simple and intricately patterned” (Fitzgerald “Something Extraordinary”), one can say that these words incidentally describe what would one day be called “The Great Gatsby” rather well.
Fitzgerald, F.Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925.
Fitzgerald, F.Scott. “Something Extraordinary.” Letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his publisher Maxwell Perkins. 1922. Letters of Note: Uk / US. 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 19 May. 2014.
Hoover, Bob. The Great Gatsby Still Challenges the Myth of the American Dream. Pitzburgh Post-Gazette. 10 May. 2013. Web. 19 May. 2014.
Curchwell, Sarah. What Makes the Great Gatsby So Great?. The Guardian. 3 May. 2013. Web. 18 May. 2014.
Gillespie, Nick. The Great Gatsby’s Creative Destruction. Reason.com. 29 April. 2013. Web. 18 May. 2014.
Symkus, Ed. Gatsby: What’s So Great About it?. The Boston Globe. 04 May. 2013. Web. 20 May. 2014.