'The Great Gatsby' Overview

F. Scott Fitzgerald's critique of Jazz Age decadence

A copy of The Great Gatsby on a mirrored display
A first edition of The Great Gatsby.

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The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, is F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous novel. Set during the Roaring 20s, the book tells the story of a group of wealthy, often hedonistic residents of the fictional New York towns of West Egg and East Egg. The novel critiques the idea of the American Dream, suggesting that the concept has been corrupted by the careless pursuit of decadence. Though it was poorly received in Fitzgerald’s lifetime, The Great Gatsby is now considered a cornerstone of American literature.

Plot Summary

Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, moves to the Long Island neighborhood of West Egg. He lives next door to a mysterious millionaire named Jay Gatsby, who throws extravagant parties but never seems to show up at his own events. Across the bay, in the old-money neighborhood of East Egg, Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan lives with her unfaithful husband Tom. Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson, is a working-class woman married to mechanic George Wilson.

Daisy and Gatsby were in love before the war, but they were separated due to Gatsby’s lower social status. Gatsby is still in love with Daisy. He soon befriends Nick, who agrees to help Gatsby rekindle his affair with Daisy by acting as go-between.

Gatsby and Daisy restart their affair, but it is short lived. Tom soon catches on and becomes furious over Daisy's unfaithfulness. Daisy chooses to stay with Tom due to her unwillingness to sacrifice her social position. After the confrontation, Daisy and Gatsby drive home in the same car, with Daisy driving. Daisy accidentally hits and kills Myrtle, but Gatsby promises to take the blame if need be.

Myrtle’s suspicious husband George approaches Tom about the death. He believes that whoever killed Myrtle was also Myrtle's lover. Tom tells him how to find Gatsby, suggesting that Gatsby was the driver of the car (and thus indirectly suggesting that Gatsby was Myrtle's lover). George murders Gatsby, then kills himself. Nick is one of only a few mourners at Gatsby’s funeral and, fed up and disillusioned, moves back to the Midwest.

Major Characters

Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is a mysterious, reclusive millionaire who climbed from a poor upbringing to immense wealth. He's an idealist fixated on grandeur and romance, but his relentless attempts to woo Daisy and free himself from his past only brings more tragedy upon him.

Nick Carraway. Nick, a bond salesman who's new to West Egg, is the narrator of the novel. Nick is more easygoing than the wealthy hedonists around him, but he is easily awed by their grand lifestyles. After witnessing the fallout from Daisy and Gatsby’s affair as well as the careless cruelty of Tom and Daisy, Nick becomes more jaded and leaves Long Island for good.

Daisy Buchanan. Daisy, Nick's cousin, is a socialite and flapper. She is married to Tom. Daisy displays self-centered and shallow characteristics, but the reader occasionally sees glimmers of greater depth beneath the surface. Despite renewing her romance with Gatsby, she is too unwilling to give up the comforts of her wealthy life.

Tom Buchanan. Tom, Daisy's husband, is wealthy and arrogant. He also displays hypocrisy, as he regularly carries on affairs of his own but becomes furious and possessive when he realizes Daisy is in love with Gatsby. His anger over the affair leads him to mislead George Wilson into believing his wife had an affair with Gatsby—a lie that ultimately results in Gatsby's death.

Major Themes

Wealth and Social Class. The pursuit of wealth unites most of the characters in the novel, most of whom live a hedonistic, shallow lifestyle. Gatsby—a “new money” millionaire—finds out that even immense wealth does not guarantee crossing over the class barrier. In this way, the novel suggests that there is a significant difference between wealth and social class, and that social mobility is more illusory than the characters think.

Love. The Great Gatsby is a story about love, but it is not necessarily a love story. No one in the novel truly feels “love” for their partners; the closest anyone comes is Nick’s fondness for his girlfriend Jordan. Gatsby’s obsessive love for Daisy is the center of the plot, but he is in love with a romanticized memory rather than the "real" Daisy.

The American Dream. The novel critiques the American Dream: the idea that anyone can achieve anything if they work hard enough. Gatsby works tirelessly and acquires enormous wealth, but he still winds up alone. The misfortune faced by the novel's wealthy characters suggests that the American Dream has become corrupted by the greedy pursuit of decadence and wealth.

Idealism. Gatsby’s idealism is his most redeeming quality and his biggest downfall. Although his optimistic idealism makes him a more genuine character than the calculating socialites around him, it also leads him to hold onto hopes that he should let go of, as symbolized by the green light he stares at across the bay.

Historical Context

Fitzgerald was famously inspired by both the Jazz Age society and the Lost Generation. The novel is steeped in the historical context of the era, from flapper and bootlegging culture to the explosion of “new money” and industrialization. In addition, Fitzgerald’s own life was reflected in the novel: like Gatsby, he was a self-made man who fell in love with a bright young ingenue (Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald) and strived to be “worthy” of her.

The novel can be read as Fitzgerald’s attempt to critique Jazz Age society and the concept of the American Dream. The decadence of the era is portrayed critically, and the idea of the American Dream is depicted as a failure.

About The Author

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a key figure in the American literary establishment. His work often reflected on the excesses of the Jazz Age and the disillusionment of the post-World War I era. He wrote four novels (plus one unfinished novel) and over 160 short stories. Although he became something of a celebrity in his lifetime, Fitzgerald's novels didn’t achieve critical success until they were rediscovered after his death. Today, Fitzgerald is hailed as one of the great American authors.

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Prahl, Amanda. "'The Great Gatsby' Overview." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-overview-4582166. Prahl, Amanda. (2021, September 2). 'The Great Gatsby' Overview. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-overview-4582166 Prahl, Amanda. "'The Great Gatsby' Overview." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-overview-4582166 (accessed June 2, 2023).