'The Great Gatsby' Plot Summary

"The Great Gatsby" book laying on a wooden surface.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel "The Great Gatsby" takes place among the New York elite during the Roaring Twenties. The story, told from the perspective of a naïve young narrator, focuses on a mysterious millionaire, the woman he loves, and the self-absorbed denizens of their wealthy neighborhood.

Nick Arrives in West Egg

Nick Carraway, a World War I veteran and recent Yale graduate from the Midwest, moves to New York in the summer of 1922 to work as a bond salesman. He rents a small home on Long Island in the neighborhood of West Egg, which is largely populated by wealthy, self-made men. Nick is intrigued by Jay Gatsby, who lives in the lavish mansion next door. Gatsby is a mysterious recluse who throws massive parties but never makes an appearance at any of them. Across the bay, a distance away but directly across from Gatsby’s dock, there is a green light that seems to draw Gatsby’s attention.

After settling in, Nick drives to the other side of the bay to the mirroring neighborhood of East Egg, where his flapper cousin Daisy Buchanan lives. Daisy is married to the arrogant and mean-spirited Tom Buchanan, a former college classmate of Nick's. Soon, Nick discovers that Daisy's dock is the source of the green light. Daisy introduces Nick to her friend Jordan, a professional golfer who gives Nick a crash course in their social circle.

Nick also learns that Tom is unfaithful to Daisy. Tom has a mistress named Myrtle Wilson who lives in the “valley of ashes," the stretch of land between West Egg and New York City, where poor workers live surrounded by industrial waste. Despite this new knowledge, Nick goes with Tom to New York City, where they attend a party at the apartment Tom stays in with Myrtle for their assignations. The party is hedonistic and crass, and the evening quickly devolves into a violent fight between Tom and Myrtle. After Myrtle repeatedly brings up Daisy, Tom's barely-concealed anger bubbles up and he hits Myrtle until he breaks her nose.

Nick Meets Gatsby

Nick finds himself at one of Gatsby’s parties, where he runs into Jordan and finally meets Gatsby himself. Both Jordan and Nick are taken aback at how young Gatsby is. Nick is particularly surprised to realize that he and Gatsby served in the same division during the war. This shared history seems to generate unusual friendliness in Gatsby towards Nick.

Jordan tells Nick what she knows of Gatsby’s past. She explains that, when Gatsby was a young military officer preparing to fight in Europe, Daisy was part of a group of debutantes doing volunteer work alongside the soldiers. The duo shared a flirtation, Gatsby fell in love, and Daisy promised to wait for him to return from the war. However, their different social backgrounds — Gatsby from humble origins, Daisy from a wealthy family — precluded a relationship, and Daisy ultimately met and married Tom.

Jordan goes on to explain that ever since returning from the war and making a fortune, Gatsby has been throwing lavish parties in hopes of attracting Daisy's attention from across the bay. So far, however, his plan has not worked and he has been relegated to gazing at the green light on her dock.

Over time, Nick begins dating Jordan. Gatsby and Nick strike up a friendship. Despite their different life experiences and world views, Gatsby and Nick share an optimism that borders on naïveté. Since Nick is Daisy’s cousin, Gatsby uses their connection as a cover to arrange a meeting for himself with Daisy. Nick willingly agrees to the scheme and invites Daisy over to his house for tea but doesn’t tell her that Gatsby will be there.

Gatsby and Daisy's Affair Unravels

The reunion between Gatsby and Daisy is awkward and uncomfortable at first but over the course of the summer, they begin a full-fledged affair. Gatsby confides in Nick that he wants Daisy to leave Tom for him. When Nick reminds him that they can't recreate their past, Gatsby insists that they can — and that money is the key.

Daisy and Gatsby are successful in keeping the affair under wraps for a while. One day, Daisy accidentally speaks about Gatsby in front of Tom, who immediately deduces that his wife is having an affair and flies into a rage.

Tom uses Daisy as a weapon, telling Gatsby that he could never understand the kind of history that Tom has with Daisy. He also reveals the truth of how James Gatz, a poor officer, became Jay Gatsby, the millionaire: bootlegging alcohol and possibly other illegal dealings. Tom forces Daisy to make a choice then and there: him or Gatsby. Daisy insists that she has loved both men but chooses to remain in her stable position married to Tom. She drives Gatsby back to Long Island in Gatsby’s car, while Tom drives with Nick and Jordan.

This proves to be a fatal mistake. Myrtle, who recently had a fight with Tom, sees them driving by and runs out in front of Gatsby’s car in an attempt to catch Tom’s attention and reconcile with him. Daisy doesn’t stop in time and hits Myrtle, killing her. A panicked and distraught Daisy flees the scene. Gatsby reassures her that he will take the blame for the accident. When Nick arrives and gets the details, he goes to check on Daisy. He finds Daisy and Tom calmly eating dinner together, apparently reconciled.

Tragedy Finally Strikes

Nick returns to check on Gatsby, who mournfully tells him about his first, long-ago courtship of Daisy. Nick suggests that Gatsby leave the area alone but Gatsby refuses. He says goodbye to Nick, who heads to work for the day.

Myrtle’s suspicious husband George confronts Tom. George tells Tom that he believes the yellow car that killed Myrtle belonged to Myrtle’s lover. He explains that he has long suspected that Myrtle was unfaithful but never figured out who she was having an affair with. Tom informs George that the yellow car belongs to Gatsby and gives him Gatsby’s address so that George can get his revenge. George goes to Gatsby’s home, shoots Gatsby, and kills himself. Nick organizes Gatsby’s funeral. Only three people attend: Nick, an anonymous partygoer, and Gatsby’s estranged father, who expresses pride in his late son’s achievements.

Later, Nick runs into Tom, who openly admits to sending George Wilson to Gatsby. Tom says that Gatsby deserved to die. Tom expresses more unhappiness about losing his apartment in the city than all the death and trauma he has recently witnessed. Having come face-to-face with the careless people of West Egg, Nick feels that the true “dreamers” have died along with Gatsby. He moves away and returns to the Midwest.

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Prahl, Amanda. "'The Great Gatsby' Plot Summary." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-summary-4580222. Prahl, Amanda. (2021, August 1). 'The Great Gatsby' Plot Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-summary-4580222 Prahl, Amanda. "'The Great Gatsby' Plot Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-summary-4580222 (accessed May 28, 2023).