- Discuss Gatsby’s character as Nick perceives him throughout the novel. What makes Gatsby “great”?
In one sense, the title of the novel is ironic; the title character is neither “great” nor named Gatsby. He is a criminal whose real name is James Gatz, and the life he has created for himself is an illusion. By the same token, the title of the novel refers to the theatrical skill with which Gatsby makes this illusion seem real: the moniker “the Great Gatsby” suggests the sort of vaudeville billing that would have been given to an acrobat, an escape artist, or a magician.
Nick is particularly taken with Gatsby and considers him a great figure. He sees both the extraordinary quality of hope that Gatsby possesses and his idealistic dream of loving Daisy in a perfect world. Though Nick recognizes Gatsby’s flaws the first time he meets him, he cannot help but admire Gatsby’s brilliant smile, his romantic idealization of Daisy, and his yearning for the future. The private Gatsby who stretches his arms out toward the green light on Daisy’s dock seems somehow more real than the vulgar, social Gatsby who wears a pink suit to his party and calls everyone “old sport.” Nick alone among the novel’s characters recognizes that Gatsby’s love for Daisy has less to do with Daisy’s inner qualities than with Gatsby’s own. That is, Gatsby makes Daisy his dream because his heart demands a dream, not because Daisy truly deserves the passion that Gatsby feels for her. Further, Gatsby impresses Nick with his power to make his dreams come true—as a child he dreamed of wealth and luxury, and he has attained them, albeit through criminal means. As a man, he dreams of Daisy, and for a while he wins her, too. In a world without a moral center, in which attempting to fulfill one’s dreams is like rowing a boat against the current, Gatsby’s power to dream lifts him above the meaningless and amoral pleasure-seeking of New York society. In Nick’s view, Gatsby’s capacity to dream makes him “great” despite his flaws and eventual undoing.
- What is Nick like as a narrator? Is he a reliable storyteller, or does his version of events seem suspect? How do his qualities as a character affect his narration?
Nick’s description of himself in the opening chapter holds true throughout the novel: he is tolerant and slow to judge, someone with whom people feel comfortable sharing their secrets. His willingness to describe himself and the contours of his thoughts even when they are inconsistent or incomplete—his conflicted feelings about Gatsby, for instance, or the long musing at the end of the novel—makes him seem trustworthy and thoughtful. His position in relation to the other characters gives him a perfect vantage point from which to tell the story—he is Daisy’s cousin, Tom’s old college friend, and Gatsby’s neighbor, and all three trust and rely on him. Though Nick participates in this story and its events certainly affect him, The Great Gatsby is not really his story in the sense of being about him. However, it is his story in the sense that it is of crucial importance to him: he defines himself in the process of writing it. Indeed, he struggles with the story’s meaning even as he tells it. Though Nick professes to admire Gatsby’s passion as a lover and a dreamer, Nick’s own actions in his relationship with Jordan Baker cast an ironic pall over his admiration: with Jordan, Nick is guarded, cautious, and skeptical. Overall, Nick suggests that Gatsby is an exception to his usual ways of understanding and judging the world, and that his attraction to Gatsby creates a conflict within himself.
3. What are some of The Great Gatsby’s most important symbols? What does the novel have to say about the role of symbols in life?
Apart from geographic locations, the two most important symbols in the novel are the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The first is a perfect example of the manner in which characters in The Great Gatsby infuse symbols with meaning—the green light is only a green light, but to Gatsby it becomes the embodiment of his dream for the future, and it beckons to him in the night like a vision of the fulfillment of his desires. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg work in the same fashion, although their meaning is less fixed. Until George Wilson decides that they are the eyes of God, representing a moral imperative on which he must act, the eyes are simply an unsettling, unexplained image, as they stare down over the valley of ashes. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg thus emphasize the lack of a fixed relationship between symbols and what they symbolize: the eyes could mean anything to any observer, but they tend to make observers feel as though they are the ones being scrutinized. They seem to stare down at the world blankly, without the need for meaning that drives the human characters of the novel.
In general, symbols in the novel are intimately connected to dreams: Gatsby’s dream of Daisy causes him to associate her image with everything he values, just as he associates the green light with his dream for the future. In reading and interpreting The Great Gatsby, it is at least as important to consider how characters think about symbols as it is to consider the qualities of the symbols themselves.
4. How does the geography of the novel dictate its themes and characters? What role does setting play in The Great Gatsby?
Each of the four important geographical locations in the novel—West Egg, East Egg, the valley of ashes, and New York City—corresponds to a particular theme or type of character encountered in the story. West Egg is like Gatsby, full of garish extravagance, symbolizing the emergence of the new rich alongside the established aristocracy of the 1920s. East Egg is like the Buchanans, wealthy, possessing high social status, and powerful, symbolizing the old upper class that continued to dominate the American social landscape. The valley of ashes is like George Wilson, desolate, desperate, and utterly without hope, symbolizing the moral decay of American society hidden by the glittering surface of upper-class extravagance. New York City is simply chaos, an abundant swell of variety and life, associated with the “quality of distortion” that Nick perceives in the East.
Setting is extremely important to The Great Gatsby, as it reinforces the themes and character traits that drive the novel’s critical events. Even the weather matches the flow of the plot. Gatsby’s reunion with Daisy begins in a ferocious thunderstorm and reaches its happiest moment just as the sun comes out. Tom’s confrontation with Gatsby occurs on the hottest day of the summer. Finally, Gatsby’s death occurs just as autumn creeps into the air. The specificity of the settings in The Great Gatsby contributes greatly to the creation of distinct zones in which the conflicting values of various characters are forced to confront each other.
Suggested Essay Topics
- In what sense is The Great Gatsby an autobiographical novel? Does Fitzgerald write more of himself into the character of Nick or the character of Gatsby, or are the author’s qualities found in both characters?
- How does Gatsby represent the American dream? What does the novel have to say about the condition of the American dream in the 1920s? In what ways do the themes of dreams, wealth, and time relate to each other in the novel’s exploration of the idea of America?
- Compare and contrast Gatsby and Tom. How are they alike? How are they different? Given the extremely negative light in which Tom is portrayed throughout the novel, why might Daisy choose to remain with him instead of leaving him for Gatsby?