'The Great Gatsby' Characters: Descriptions and Significance

The characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby represent a specific segment of 1920s American society: the rich hedonists of the Jazz Age. Fitzgerald’s own experiences during this era form the basis of the novel. In fact, several characters are based on people Fitzgerald encountered, from a famous bootlegger to his own ex-girlfriend. Ultimately, the novel's characters paint a complex portrait of an amoral American society, drunk on its own prosperity.

Nick Carraway

Nick Carraway is a recent Yale graduate who moves to Long Island after getting a job as a bond salesman. He is relatively innocent and mild-mannered, especially when compared to the hedonistic elite among whom he lives. Over time, however, he becomes wiser, more observant, and even disillusioned, but never cruel or selfish. Nick is the novel's narrator, but he has some qualities of a protagonist, as he is the character who undergoes the most significant change in the novel.

Nick has direct connections to several of the novel's characters. He is Daisy’s cousin, Tom's schoolmate, and Gatsby's new neighbor and friend. Nick is intrigued by Gatsby’s parties and eventually earns an invitation into the inner circle. He helps to arrange Gatsby and Daisy’s reunion and facilitates their growing affair. Later, Nick serves as witness to the tragic entanglements of the other characters, and ultimately is shown to be the only person who genuinely cared for Gatsby.

Jay Gatsby

Ambitious and idealistic, Gatsby is the epitome of the “self-made man.” He is a reticent young millionaire who rose from humble origins in the American Midwest to a position of prominence among the Long Island elite. He hosts lavish parties that he never seems to attend and obsesses over the objects of his desire—especially his longtime love, Daisy. All of Gatsby's actions seem to be driven by that single-minded, even naïve, love. He is the protagonist of the novel, as his actions drive the plot.

Gatsby is first introduced as the reclusive neighbor of the novel’s narrator, Nick. When the men meet face-to-face, Gatsby recognizes Nick from their mutual service during World War I. Over time, Gatsby's past is slowly revealed. He fell in love with the wealthy Daisy as a young soldier, and since then has dedicated himself to becoming worthy of her by building up his image and fortune (which he makes through bootlegging liquor). Despite his best efforts, Gatsby’s idealistic fervor is no match for the bitter realities of society.

Daisy Buchanan

Beautiful, frivolous, and rich, Daisy is a young socialite with no troubles to speak of—at least, that's how it seems on the surface. Daisy is self-absorbed, somewhat shallow, and a little vain, but she's also charming and high-spirited. She has an innate understanding of human behavior, and she comprehends the harsh truths of the world even as she hides from them. Her romantic choices seem to be the only choices she makes, but those choices represent her efforts to create the life she really wants (or can handle living).

We learn about Daisy's past through the characters' recollections of events. Daisy first encountered Jay Gatsby when she was a debutante and he was an officer on his way to the European front. The two shared a romantic connection, but it was brief and superficial. In the subsequent years, Daisy married the brutal but powerful Tom Buchanan. However, when Gatsby re-enters her life, she falls back in love with him. Nevertheless, their brief romantic interlude cannot overcome Daisy's sense of self-preservation and her desire for social status.

Tom Buchanan

Tom is the brutal, arrogant, and wealthy husband of Daisy. He is a deeply unlikeable character for reasons including his careless infidelity, possessive behavior, and barely-disguised white supremacist views. While we never learn exactly why Daisy married him, the novel suggests that his money and position played a significant role. Tom is the novel’s primary antagonist.

Tom is openly engaged in an affair with Myrtle Wilson, but he expects his wife to be faithful and look the other way. He becomes enraged at the possibility that Daisy is having an affair with Gatsby. When he realizes that Daisy and Gatsby are in love, Tom confronts them, reveals the truth of Gatsby’s illegal activities, and separates them. He then falsely identifies Gatsby as the driver of the car that killed Myrtle (and indirectly as Myrtle's lover) to her jilted husband, George Wilson. This lie leads to Gatsby's tragic end.

Jordan Baker

The ultimate party girl, Jordan is a professional golfer and the group’s resident cynic. She’s very much a woman in a man’s world, and her professional successes have been overshadowed by scandal in her personal life. Jordan, who dates Nick for most of the novel, is known to be evasive and dishonest, but she also offers a representation of the new opportunities and expanded social freedoms embraced by women in the 1920s.

Myrtle Wilson

Myrtle is the mistress of Tom Buchanan. She engages in the affair in order to escape a dull, disappointing marriage. Her husband, George, is a serious mismatch for her: where she is vivacious and wants to explore the decade’s new freedoms, he is boring and somewhat possessive. Her death – being accidentally hit by a car driven by Daisy – sets into motion the final, tragic act of the story.

George Wilson

George is a car mechanic and the husband of Myrtle, whom he doesn’t seem to understand. George is aware that his wife is having an affair, but he doesn’t know who her partner is. When Myrtle is killed by a car, he assumes that the driver was her lover. Tom tells him that the car belongs to Gatsby, so George tracks down Gatsby, murders him, and then kills himself.

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Prahl, Amanda. "'The Great Gatsby' Characters: Descriptions and Significance." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-characters-4579831. Prahl, Amanda. (2021, September 8). 'The Great Gatsby' Characters: Descriptions and Significance. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-characters-4579831 Prahl, Amanda. "'The Great Gatsby' Characters: Descriptions and Significance." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-characters-4579831 (accessed June 4, 2023).