The Great Gatsby/Super Notes Automatic A+ Have you ever felt that there were two of you battling for control of the person you call yourself? Have you ever felt that you weren’t quite sure which one you wanted to be in charge? All of us have at least two selves: one who wants to work hard, get good grades, and be successful; and one who would rather lie in the sun and listen to music and daydream. To understand F. Scott Fitzgerald, the man and the writer, you must begin with the idea of doubleness, or twoness. Fitzgerald himself said in a famous series of essays called The Crack Up, the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. Everything about Fitzgerald is touched by this idea.
For example, he both loved and hated money. He was attracted to the life of the very rich as an outsider who had very little, and at the same time he hated the falseness and hypocrisy and cruelty of their lives. He was disciplined, knowing that he had to have great mental and physical self-control to succeed as a writer, but he was often unable to exercise those very qualities he knew he would need in order to succeed. He loved his wife Zelda more than anything in his life, and yet he hated her for destroying his talent. Part of him lived a dazzling life full of parties, gaiety, and show; and part of him knew that this sort of life was a complete sham.
All of this doubleness Fitzgerald puts into the novel you are about to read: The Great Gatsby. As you begin reading think about Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, and Jay Gatsby, the hero of the novel, as the two sides of Fitzgerald. Think of Fitzgerald as putting into his two main characters both of the people that he knew he had within him. As you read, ask yourself whether or not you have these two people within you: Nick, the intelligent and disciplined observer; and Gatsby, the passionate and idealistic dreamer who wants his dream so much that he will sacrifice everything for it. Fitzgerald himself seemed genetically destined for doubleness. His mother’s father, P.
F. McQuillan, went to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1857, at the age of twenty-three. In twenty years he built up–literally from nothing–an enormously successful wholesale business. He was a totally self-made man, and from him Scott inherited a sense of self-reliance and a belief in hard work. The Fitzgeralds, on the other hand, were an old Maryland family.
Scott himself–Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was his full name–was named for his great, great, great grandfather’s brother, the man who wrote The Star Spangled Banner. And Edward Fitzgerald, Scott’s father, was a handsome, charming man, but one who seemed more interested in the family name than in hard work. The McQuillan and the Fitzgerald in Scott vied for control throughout his childhood. He was a precocious child, full of energy and imagination, but he liked to take short cuts, substituting flights of fantasy for hard work. On his seventh birthday in 1903 he told a number of the older guests that he was the owner of a yacht (perhaps the seeds of Gatsby’s admiration for Dan Cody’s yacht in the novel).
As an adolescent he loved to play theatrical games–pretending to be drunk on a streetcar or telephoning an artificial limb company to discuss being fitted for a false limb. He was an excellent writer and a vivid satirist of his classmates, but his marks were not good; so, like so many Midwestern boys, he was shipped East to boarding school, where he would be taught discipline and hard work. In September of 1911, with the words and music of Irving Berlin’s new song Alexander’s Ragtime Band uppermost on his mind, he enrolled at the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, a popular Roman Catholic school among Midwestern families. Here he was to have two years to ready himself for a good Ivy League College, preferably Princeton or Yale. Scott chose Princeton, but Princeton very nearly didn’t choose him. The doubleness in Scott is beautifully illustrated by the way in which he maneuvered himself into Princeton. An avid writer and reader, Fitzgerald tended to read what he liked and ignore his school work, and therefore he failed his entrance exams during his senior year. After a summer of study, he took them again and failed them again.
Finally on September 24, 1913, his seventeenth birthday, he appeared before the Admissions Committee and convinced them to accept him. Personal magnetism was able to achieve what hard work had not. One of the things Scott inherited from his Grandfather McQuillan was ambition. Scott was a fierce competitor, and if he wanted something badly enough he could work like a demon. What Scott wanted were women and popularity, and the way to win women and be popular, he had learned at Newman, was with money, good looks, and athletics.
He didn’t have the first, but he had the second, and he worked very, very hard at the third by trying out for freshman football. His problem was that he was only 5′ 6 and weighed only 130 pounds, which doesn’t get one very far in football. So he scrapped the football pads and found another outlet for his energy and his ambition: writing musical comedies. One of the most prestigious organizations at Princeton was and still is the Triangle Club, a group that writes and produces a musical comedy every year. (Among its graduates are the actors Jimmy Stewart and Jose Ferrer.) Fitzgerald devoted most of his energies at Princeton to the Triangle Show, writing the book and lyrics in his freshman year and the lyrics in his sophomore year. He was elected secretary of the club, and was in line to become its president–something he wanted more than anything in his life.
But it was not to be. In December of 1915, the fall of his junior year, he was sent home with malaria. He was told when he returned in March that he would have to fall back a year and that he was academically ineligible for the Triangle presidency. In the spring of 1917 his class graduated, and Scott was left behind to complete his senior year. He never did; instead, he enlisted in the army. Why? Perhaps because he wanted to be a hero, and the United States was about to make the world safe for democracy. Perhaps because college was no fun anymore. Perhaps because beautiful women love young men in uniform.
Whatever the reason, Fitzgerald left Princeton in November and found himself in the summer of 1918 stationed at Camp Sheridan, outside Montgomery, Alabama. Here 2nd Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald met Miss Zelda Sayre, who was to become his wife and the single most important influence on his life. Zelda was seventeen, and a combination of tomboy and Southern belle. She was used to having her own way with her traditional parents, and she very much enjoyed being courted by the officers from Camp Sheridan, just as Daisy in The Great Gatsby is courted by the young officers at Camp Taylor. It was love at first sight.
Just as Jay Gatsby, an outsider with no money and no respectable family, falls utterly in love with Daisy Fay, so the Midwestern outsider Scott Fitzgerald fell head over heels in love with the Montgomery belle Zelda Sayre. He loved her beauty, her daring, her originality. He loved her crazy, romantic streak which matched his own. He proposed to her, and she turned him down. Like Jay Gatsby, he was too young and he had no money, and she could not be sure he would ever amount to anything.
So he went off to war but, unlike Gatsby, he never got to Europe. By the time his regiment had been sent overseas, the Armistice had been signed and his dreams of military glory had to be set aside with the football pads and the presidency of the Triangle Club. But Scott was determined to be famous, and in March of 1919–this time like Nick Carraway–he went to New York to learn his trade. Scott’s trade was writing and he had written, during his long, lonely months in the army, a novel about life at boarding school and at Princeton. But no one would publish it and Zelda, who had finally promised to marry him, changed her mind.
In what he called his long summer of despair, he went home to St. Paul, rewrote his novel, and submitted it to Charles Scribner’s Sons. Maxwell Perkins, a young editor who was to become Fitzgerald’s friend and supporter for life, accepted the book. In March of 1920, Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published. This Side of Paradise made Fitzgerald famous.
It also made Zelda change her mind again. On April 3, 1920, in the Rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, they were married. Within two years they became the most notorious young couple in America, symbolizing what Fitzgerald called The Jazz Age. The Jazz Age began, Fitzgerald tells us in his short story, May Day, in May of 1918. It ended with the stock market crash of 1929.
The Jazz Age brought about one of the most rapid and pervasive changes in manners and morals the world has ever seen, changes that we are still wrestling with today. It was a period when the younger generation–men and women alike–were rebelling against the values and customs of their parents and grandparents. After all, the older generation had led thousands of young men into the most brutal and senseless war in human history. People of Fitzgerald’s age had seen death, and when they came back, they were determined to have a good time. How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, now that they’ve seen Paree was one of the most popular songs of the day.
And have a good time they did. The saxophone replaced the violin; skirt hemlines went up; corsets came off; women started smoking; and Prohibition, which was supposed to stop drinking, only reshaped it into secret fun. The public saloon, now illegal, was replaced by the private cocktail party, and men and women began drinking together. Parties like the ones given by Gatsby began to thrive, and hoodlums became millionaires in a few months by controlling the bootleg liquor business. Scott and Zelda not only chronicled the age, they lived it. They rode down Fifth Avenue on the tops of taxis; they dove into the fountain in front of New York’s famous Plaza Hotel.
Scott fought with waiters, and Zelda danced on tabletops. They drank too much and passed out in corners; they drove recklessly and gave weekend parties, which were not too different from the ones Gatsby gives in the novel and which lasted until the small hours of Monday morning. In the midst of all this, Fitzgerald tried to write. Part of him believed in work and tried repeatedly to discipline himself, to go on the wagon, to give up parties. Many years later in a beautiful letter to his daughter Scottie, he talked about the tension of those years: When I was your age I lived with a great dream. The dream grew and I learned to speak of it and make people listen. Then the dream divided one day when I decided to marry your mother..
I was a man divided–she wanted me to work too much for her and not enough for my dream. The dream, of course, was his dream of being a great writer. This Side of Paradise had made him famous because it was the first novel that honestly described the life-style of the new generation, but his work during the first three years of his marriage was not nearly what he knew it could have been, and so in 1923 he set out to write a book that he could be proud of. In July 1923, Zelda wrote a friend: Scott has started a new novel and retired into strict seclusion and celibacy. The new novel of course was The Great Gatsby, and the ten months he devoted to that novel was artistically the most disciplined ten months of his life.
The novel was published in the spring of 1925. Though sales were disappointing, the criticism was very positive. Great writers like the novelist Edith Wharton and the poet T. S. Eliot wrote Fitzgerald letters of congratulations. And Gertrude Stein, who called Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway members of a lost generation, gave great praise to the book. Hemingway himself, a new friend of Fitzgerald’s in 1925, loved The Great Gatsby.
Fitzgerald was never again to reach the success of Gatsby. Until 1925 the Nick Carraway in him had sustained him enough to keep him writing well, but just as Gatsby’s love for Daisy drove him to tragedy, so Fitzgerald’s love for Zelda occupied more and more of his time. To maintain the social style she loved, he wrote stories for the popular magazines of the time, like Cosmopolitan, Smart Set, and the Saturday Evening Post. Maintaining a dizzying social life, Scott, Zelda, and their daughter Scottie moved from New York City to Great Neck, Long Island (the model for West Egg in Gatsby), eventually on to Paris and the Riviera, and finally back to the United States. He could not finish another novel, and he could not make Zelda happy.
She became more and more depressed, and finally in April 1930, Zelda had a complete breakdown and had to be hospitalized. The great stock market crash of 1929 had ended America’s decade of prosperity, and Zelda’s breakdown in 1930 ended the Fitzgerald’s decade as the symbol of The Jazz Age. The party was over. From 1930 until his death in Hollywood in 1940, Scott struggled to regain the stature he had earned with The Great Gatsby, but he never could. He wrote Tender is the Night, which is a beautiful novel, during the early ’30s, but when the book was published in 1934, America was not interested in a story about rich Americans partying on the French Riviera.
This was the Depression, and the novelists in demand were Sherwood Anderson and John Steinbeck, writers who talked about the plight of poor people. Scott continued to care for Zelda, who was to spend the rest of her life in and out of sanitariums. He also kept writing. But during 1935 and 1936 he had his own breakdown, which he recorded brilliantly in the series of essays for Esquire called The Crack Up. Desperate for money, he took a job as a script writer for M-G-M in 1937, where he worked on and off for the next two years.
With the support of his friend the columnist Sheilah Graham, in 1939 he began a new novel. Called The Last Tycoon, this book was based on the career of the legendary Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg, whom Fitzgerald greatly admired. But Fitzgerald’s years of dissipation caught up with him, and he died of a heart attack on December 21, 1940. Even unfinished, The Last Tycoon is a fine novel, almost as good as Gatsby. But for a long time the world didn’t know that.
At the time of his death all of Fitzgerald’s books were out of print. Scott who? Oh, that guy that used to write about the ’20s. Well, he was much more than that, and during the 1950s and 1960s people started reading Scott Fitzgerald again. Today he is considered one of America’s great novelists. The Great Gatsby, along with The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, has become a book we can’t do without if we want to understand ourselves.
Fitzgerald asks us to read this book with that same double vision with which he wrote it. He asks us to participate emotionally in the lives of its characters, especially Gatsby. And he asks us to stand back from them as Nick does and see what is wrong with them. He asks us to love and to evaluate at the same time, perhaps in the say way that Nick both loves and criticizes Gatsby. Nick Carraway, the narrator, is a young Midwesterner who, having graduated from Yale in 1915 and fought in World War I (The Great War), has returned home to begin a career. Like others in his generation, he is restless and has decided to move East to New York and learn the bond business.
The novel opens early in the summer of 1922 in West Egg, Long Island, where Nick has rented a house. Next to his place is a huge mansion complete with Gothic tower and marble swimming pool, which belongs to a Mr. Gatsby, whom Nick has not met. Directly across the bay from West Egg is the more fashionable community of East Egg, where Tom and Daisy Buchanan live. Daisy is Nick’s cousin and Tom, a well-known football player at Yale, had been in the same senior society as Nick in New Haven.
Like Nick, they are Midwesterners who have come East to be a part of the glamour and mystery of the New York City area. They invite Nick to dinner at their mansion, and here he meets a young woman golfer named Jordan Baker, a friend of Daisy’s from Louisville, whom Daisy wants Nick to become interested in. During dinner the phone rings, and when Tom and Daisy leave the room, Jordan informs Nick that the caller is a woman of Tom’s from New York. The woman’s name is Myrtle Wilson, and she lives in a strange, fantastic place half way between West Egg and New York City that Fitzgerald calls the valley of ashes. The valley of ashes consists of huge ash heaps and a faded yellow brick building containing an all-night restaurant and George Wilson’s garage. Painted on a large billboard nearby is a fading advertisement for an optician: the eyes of Dr.
T. J. Eckleburg, gazing out over this wasteland through a pair of enormous yellow spectacles. One day Tom takes Nick to meet the Wilsons. Myrtle joins them on the next train to Manhattan, and the threesome ends up, along with a dog Myrtle buys at Pennsylvania Station, at the apartment Tom has rented for his meetings with Myrtle.
Myrtle’s sister Catherine and an unattractive couple from downstairs named McKee join them, and the six proceed to get quite drunk. The party breaks up violently when Myrtle starts using Daisy’s name in a familiar fashion and Tom, in response, breaks her nose with a blow of his open hand. Some weeks later Nick finally gets the opportunity to meet his mysterious neighbor Mr. Gatsby. Gatsby gives huge parties, complete with catered food, open bars, and orchestras. People come from everywhere to attend these parties, but no one seems to know much about the host. Legends about Jay Gatsby abound.
Some say he was a German spy during the war, others, that he once killed a man. Nick becomes fascinated by Gatsby. He begins watching his host and notices that Gatsby does not drink or join in the revelry of his own parties. One day Gatsby and Nick drive to New York together. Gatsby tells Nick that he’s from a wealthy family in the Midwest, that he was educated at Oxford, and that he won war medals from many European countries. Nick isn’t sure what to believe.
At lunch Gatsby introduces Nick to his business associate, Meyer Wolfsheim, the man who fixed the World Series in 1919. At tea that afternoon Nick finds out from Jordan Baker why Gatsby has taken such an interest in him: Gatsby is in love with Daisy Buchanan and wants Nick to arrange a meeting between them. It seems that Gatsby, as a young officer at Camp Taylor in 1917, had fallen in love with Daisy, then Daisy Fay. He had been sent overseas, and she had eventually given him up, married Tom Buchanan, and had a daughter. When Gatsby finally returned from Europe he decided to win Daisy back.
His first step was to buy a house in West Egg. From here he could look across the bay to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He expected her to turn up at one of his parties, and when she didn’t, he asked Jordan to ask Nick to ask Daisy. And so Nick does. A few days later, in the rain, Gatsby and Daisy meet for the first time in five years. Gatsby is at first terrified, then tremendously excited.
He takes Nick and Daisy on a tour of his house and grounds and shows them all his possessions, even his beautiful shirts from England. He shows Daisy the green light that he has been watching, and he insists that Klipspringer, the boarder, play the piano for them. Klipspringer plays Ain’t We Got Fun, and Nick leaves. Now, halfway through the book, Nick gives us some information about who Gatsby really is. He was originally James Gatz, the son of farm people from North Dakota.
He had gone to St. Olaf College in Minnesota, dropped out because the college failed to promote his romantic dreams about himself, and ended up on the south shore of Lake Superior earning room and board by digging clams and fishing for salmon. One day he saw the beautiful yacht of the millionaire Dan Cody and borrowed a rowboat to warn Cody of an impending storm. Cody took the seventeen-year-old boy on as steward, mate, and secretary. When Cody died, he left the boy, now Jay Gatsby, a legacy of $25,000, which the boy never got because of the jealousy of Cody’s mistress.
The story of Gatsby’s past breaks off, and Nick resumes his narration of Gatsby’s renewed courtship of Daisy during the summer of 1929. Daisy and Tom come to one of Gatsby’s parties, but Tom is put off by the vulgarity of Gatsby’s world, and Daisy does not have a good time. Though Gatsby has been seeing Daisy, he’s increasingly frustrated by his inability to recreate the magic of their time together in Louisville five years before. The affair between Daisy and Gatsby now comes out into the open. Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Nick, and Jordan–the five major characters–all meet for lunch at the Buchanans and then decide to drive to New York.
Daisy and Gatsby end up going together in the Buchanans’ blue coupe, Tom, Nick, and Jordan drive in Gatsby’s yellow Rolls Royce. The couple stop for gas at Wilson’s garage, and Myrtle Wilson, watching from her window over the garage, thinks the car belongs to Tom. The five arrive in the city and engage the parlor of a suite at the Plaza Hotel. Tom, drunk and agitated by now, starts ragging Gatsby about his past and attacking him for his phony English habit of calling people old sport. Gatsby retaliates by telling Tom that Daisy is going to leave him.
Tom calls Gatsby a cheap bootlegger. Like cowboys in the Old West, they duel back and forth for Daisy until Tom wins. Daisy will not go away with Gatsby, and the five-year dream is over. Tom sends Daisy and Gatsby home together in the yellow Rolls Royce, knowing that he has nothing more to fear. A couple of hours later Tom follows with Nick and Jordan. When they reach the valley of ashes, they see crowds of people in police cars. Someone was struck by a car coming from New York.
That someone, they discover, was Myrtle Wilson, and the car had to be Gatsby’s yellow Rolls Royce. When Nick gets back to East Egg, he finds Gatsby hiding in the shrubbery outside the Buchanans’ house, unwilling to leave for fear that Tom might hurt Daisy. Gatsby tells Nick that Daisy was driving, but that–of course–he will take the blame. Nick leaves Gatsby watching over nothing. Nick goes to work the next morning, but is too worried about Gatsby to stay in New York.
He takes an early train back to West Egg but arrives at Gatsby’s too late. His friend’s body is floating on an inflated mattress in the swimming pool, and George Wilson’s dead body, revolver in hand, lies nearby on the grass. The crazed husband had spent the entire morning tracking down the driver of the yellow Rolls Royce. He found Gatsby before Nick did. Nick tries to phone Daisy and Tom, but is told they’ve left town with no forwarding address.
Calls to Meyer Wolfsheim produce similar results. Nick, it seems, is Gatsby’s only friend. News of Gatsby’s murder is printed in a Chicago newspaper, where it is read by his father, Mr. Henry C. Gatz, now of Minnesota.
Mr. Gatz arrives for the funeral, which is attended only by Nick, Owl Eyes (who loved Gatsby’s books), and a smattering of servants. Meyer Wolfsheim, of course, has refused to get involved. Even Mr. Klipspringer, the boarder, has sent his excuses. Mr.
Gatz, who loves his son very much, shows Nick a book which Jimmy owned as a boy. In the flyleaf Gatsby had written a schedule for self improvement: exercise, study, sport, and work. How far Gatsby had come from that dream, to this meaningless death! Disgusted and disillusioned by what he has experienced, Nick decides to leave New York and return to the Midwest. He ends his relationship with Jordan Baker and learns from Tom Buchanan that it was he, Tom, who told Wilson where Gatsby lived. Before Nick leaves the East, he stands one more time on the beach near Gatsby’s house looking out at the green light that his friend had worshipped.
Here he pays his final tribute to Gatsby and to the dream for which he lived–and died. Nick Carraway is the narrator of The Great Gatsby; he is also a character in the novel. When you think about him, you have to think about what Fitzgerald is using him for. You also have to look at him as a person. Nick, is first of all, Fitzgerald’s means of making his story more realistic. Because Nick is experiencing events and telling us about them in his own words, we’re more likely to believe the story.
After a while we almost begin to experience the events as Nick does; the I of each of us as readers replaces the I of Nick. (For more details, see Point of View.) Nick is a narrator whose values you should have no trouble identifying or at least sympathizing with. He’s not mad or blind to what’s going on around him. He’s a pretty solid young man who has graduated from Yale University, served his country in the First World War, and decided to go into the bond business. He comes from a solid Midwestern family, from whom he has learned some pretty basic values.
He is honest, but not Puritanical or narrow minded. He is tolerant, understanding, and not hasty to judge people. He is the sort of person you might talk to if you wanted a sympathetic ear. But his toleration has limits. He doesn’t approve of everything.
These are some of the qualities that make Nick a reliable narrator, someone whose story we are likely to believe. It seems often that his values are pretty close to those of the author. Nick is in a perfect position to tell the story. He is a cousin of Daisy Buchanan’s, he was in the same senior society as Tom Buchanan at Yale, and he has rented, during the summer of 1922, a house right next to Jay Gatsby. He knows all the characters well enough to be present at the crucial scenes in the novel. The information he doesn’t have but needs in order to tell his story, he gets from other characters like Jordan Baker, the Greek restaurant owner Michaelis, and Gatsby himself. Nick knows things because people confess to him, and people confess to him because he is tolerant, understanding, and sympathetic.
Nick has that capacity, which Fitzgerald felt was so terribly important (see The Author and His Times), of holding two contradictory opinions at the same time. He both admires Gatsby and disapproves of him. He admires Gatsby both because of his dream and because of his basic innocence; and he disapproves of Gatsby for his vulgar materialism and his corrupt business practices. (Nick does not want to become involved with Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s underworld connection.) One of the things that makes Nick special is that he understands Gatsby. Nobody else in the novel-not even Daisy-really understands him.
Nick is, at the novel’s end, Gatsby’s only friend, even though he disapproves of many things which Gatsby stands for. Almost nobody comes to Gatsby’s funeral, and if it weren’t for Nick, there would probably not even have been a funeral. Would you have gone? Some readers think Nick is too sympathetic to Gatsby. They think that Nick ought to be mature enough to see what is wrong with Gatsby’s dream. They feel that Nick should be more critical of Gatsby, and force us as readers to be more critical, too. They believe that Nick in the closing pages, is too sentimental and that his judgment is not as reliable as we might think. There’s no critical agreement on this issue, so you’ll have to make up your own minds as you read the book.
As you’re deciding about Nick’s powers of judgment–particularly in the opening and closing pages where he talks about himself–keep in mind that Nick is a Midwesterner and his values are colored by the values of the world in which he grew up. Many readers have remarked that the novel is based on a contrast between the solid, traditional, conservative Midwest and the glamorous, glittering, fast-paced world of the East. Nick (like Scott Fitzgerald, his creator) is from Minnesota. He comes East to experience the new and exciting world of New York that is very different from Minneapolis-St. Paul.
At the end, he chooses to leave the East and return to the Midwest. By that choice he seems to be saying to us that he has tried the East and found it missing something he needs: a basic set of values. So he goes home, where values still exist. Think about the two worlds–the Midwest and the East and what they represented for Nick (and by extension, Fitzgerald) and what they might represent for you. The title of this novel is The Great Gatsby. If you like paradoxes, start with this one: he is neither great nor Gatsby (his real name was Gatz). He is a crook, a bootlegger who has involved himself with Meyer Wolfsheim, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series.
He has committed crimes in order to buy the house he feels he needs to win the woman he loves, who happens to be another man’s wife. Thus a central question for us as readers is, why should we love such a man? Or, to put it in other word, what makes Gatsby great? Why, despite all these things, does Fitzgerald invite us to cry out with Nick, ‘They’re a rotten crowd’.. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’? We are asked to love Gatsby, even admire him to a point, because of his dream. That dream is what separates Gatsby from what Nick calls the foul dust [that] floated in the wake of his dreams.. It is not merely what is known as the American Dream of Success–the belief that every man can rise to success no matter what his beginnings.
It is a kind of romantic idealism, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, Nick calls it. It is a belief in fairytales and princesses and happy endings, a faith that life can be special, remarkable, beautiful. Gatsby is not interested in power for its own sake or in money or prestige. What he wants is his dream, and that dream is embodied in Daisy. He must have her, and, as the novel’s epigraph on the title page suggests, he will do anything that is required in order to win her.
But dreams don’t always show on the outside. The Great Gatsby is a kind of mystery story with Gatsby as the mystery. Who is he? All the way through the novel people keep asking that question and answering it falsely. They answer it falsely because they aren’t really interested in who Gatsby is. They have heard things about him–that he killed a man, that he was a German spy in World War I–and they pass these bits of gossip on to other people.
So the myth of Gatsby–the collection of false stories about him–hides the Gatsby that we come gradually to know through the efforts of Nick Carraway. Nick genuinely cares who Gatsby is, and in Chapters IV, VI, VIII, and IX he presents us with the story of Gatsby’s past as he has learned it from Jordan Baker, from Gatsby himself, and eventually, from Gatsby’s father. No one else but Nick knows or understands Gatsby’s background except maybe his father and Owl Eyes–and they, significantly, are the only ones present at his funeral. Fitzgerald invites us to share Nick’s understanding of Gatsby as we read the novel. He makes us see behind the surface of the man who at first glance looks like a young roughneck.
And he forces us to ask, as we finish the book, what this dream is that Gatsby has dedicated himself to. Is it a worthwhile dream? Is it our dream, too? Can we love Gatsby and be critical of his dream at the same time? Fitzgerald makes us ask these questions and then lets us find our own answers. Tom Buchanan, Nick tells us, had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven–a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax. He is also very wealthy, having brought a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest to Long Island. This double power–the size of his body and his bankroll–colors our feelings about Tom Buchanan. Because he is both very strong and very rich, Tom is used to having his own way.
Nick describes him as having a rather hard mouth and two shining arrogant eyes. When we first meet him in Chapter I, he reveals his crude belief in his own superiority by telling Nick that he has just read a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires. The book warns that if white people are not careful, the black races will rise up …