The Great Gatsby
Plot: Nick Carraway, a young man, moves from Minnesota to New York and rents a house in the West Egg district of Long Island, populated by the noveau riches. He visits Daisy Buchanan, his cousin, and her husband Tom, who live in the East Egg district, the fashionable one. He immediately learns from Jordan Baker, a beautiful and cynical young woman, that Tom has an affair with Myrtle Wilson, a married woman who lives in the valley of ashes, an industrial wasteland outside town. A wealthy and young man lives next door to Nick: he is Jay Gatsby. He’s unbelievably rich, he lives in a huge and luxurious mansion and gives amazing parties. No one knows where his wealth comes from and everyone speculates about it. Nick sees that when he has no guests, Gatsby has the habit of standing alone on his lawn in the night watching a green light across the bay. Nick eventually receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties and some days later he has lunch with the man, who confesses he was deeply in love with Daisy when they were young and he was too poor to propose to her. Gatsby asks Nick to arrange a meeting between himself and Daisy to try a reunion.
Jay Gatsby: Gatsby was born poor and has always wished to be rich, but his desire is mainly driven by his love for Daisy. He is a practical and realistic man as far as business are concerned, but he’s innocent and even naïve when confronted with Daisy. He idealizes Daisy like a Renaissance sonneteer, imagining she’s perfect and never seeing her faults. Like the American dream, Gatsby’s dream collapses faced with selfishness and superficiality of feelings.
Daisy Buchanan: Daisy gives up true love twice: first when she does not wait for Gatsby to come back and marries the rich Tom Buchanan, then when she rejects Gatsby again for the sake of respectability. She’s basically weak and selfish, but she’s also a tragic character because she cannot avoid making the wrong choices: she makes them knowingly. She stands for the loss of values that characterizes the collapse of the American dream.
Nick Carraway: Nick is the ideal narrator because he knows both Daisy and Gatsby and sees the events both first hand and from the outside. He’s the ideal narrator also for his personality: as he tells the reader, he’s quiet and a good listener, so people tend to reveal their secrets to him. Anyway, he also stands for Fitzgerald himself, as he’s attracted from New York life style, but also aware of its dangers and basic immorality. This conflict is symbolized by his affair with Jordan Baker: he’s fascinated by her vivacity and her sophistication, but he is repelled by her dishonesty and her lack of consideration for other people. The tragic denouement makes him realize the terrifying moral emptiness hidden under the surface of New York lifestyle, symbolized by the valley of ashes.
Setting and Time
The story is set in the Twenties in New York’s four districts:
the East Egg, where the old aristocratic families live;
the West Egg, home of the noveau riches;
the Valley of Ashes, where workers and lower class people live and work;
New York City, the world of business, where it’s easy to make money with illegal activities like bootlegging.
The collapse of the America dream: Gatsby’s story symbolizes the disintegration of the America dream in a period of material prosperity and economic boom.The decline of social and moral values, substituted with cynicism and greed, is symbolized by the wild parties held at Gatsby’s mansion. According to Fitzgerald, the American dream has died due to the disillusionment consequent on the First World War and to the materialism encouraged by the economic boom. As Nick explains in Chapter 9, the American dream originally was the pursuit of happiness thanks to personal effort, but easy money and relaxed moral values have wasted it. The plot reflects this assessment, as Gatsby’s dream of being loved by Daisy is ruined by social differences, by his resorting to crime and by her materialism.
The green light: The green light represents Gatsby’s dream of winning back Daisy. As his dream is associated with the American dream, it also symbolizes it. In Chapter 9, Nick compares it to how America, rising out of the ocean, must have looked to early settlers of the new nation.
The Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg: They are a pair of bespectacled eyes painted on an old advertising poster over the valley of ashes. George Wilson sees them as the eyes of God staring down and judging American society as a moral wasteland. They may stand for Nick’s eyes, as he’s the only one in the novel who understands what’s going on. On the other hand, as they are only painted and consequently blind, they may represent the other characters’ blindness to what is actually happening.
The valley of ashes: The valley of ashes represents the moral and social decay of those who have devoted their life to the pursuit of wealth. It also represents the loss of vitality and consequent decay of the poor: George Wilson, forced to live and work in the valley, has lost his self esteem and his dignity. He will be able to gain them back only with two tragic actions: murder and suicide.