Curriculum Vital

The Education Umbrella Guide to The Great Gatsby 
Character profiles

Nick Carraway | Daisy Fay Buchanan | Tom Buchanan | Jordan Baker | Myrtle Wilson | George Wilson |

Jay Gatsby | Meyer Wolfshiem | Henry C. Gatz | Catherine Wilson

These character profiles are part of the Education Umbrella guide to The Great Gatsby. Free to download or store in our Education Cloud, our guide contains everything students need to understand F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous jazz age tale.

Nick Carraway

I was rather literary in college—one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the 'Yale News'—and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the 'well-rounded man.'

Biography

Nick Carraway is the narrator of The Great Gatsby. He is a talented, intelligent and ambitious man who, by chance, becomes the link between his second cousin Daisy and the man hopelessly in love with her, his neighbour, Jay Gatsby.  

1893
Nick is born in the Midwest to a prosperous family.

1915
Nick graduates from New Haven college.

1917
Nick fights in the Great War. He enjoys his service so much that he returns to the Midwest restless.

Spring, 1922
Nick moves to New York to 'learn the bond business.' His father promises to finance him for a year.

Analysis

Arriving in New York, Nick rents a house on the island of West Egg, the ‘less fashionable’ of the two Egg islands. In neighbouring East Egg live Nick’s second cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan, whom Nick knows from his college (university) days. The ‘colossal’ house next to Nick's is owned by a man he knows only as Jay Gatsby.

Though he describes his own modest house as ‘an eye-sore… squeezed between two huge places’, Nick nevertheless reflects that his low rent of $80 a month offers him the ‘consoling proximity of millionaires.’ As the summer progresses, however, Nick finds the ubiquitous presence of wealth and largesse increasingly tiresome and ugly. After just one summer he abandons his project and returns to the Midwest.

Nick’s wit, warmth and honesty (he is, he believes, one of the few honest people he knows) provide an important counterbalance to the moral decadence of his environment. For example, in chapter two, during a gathering at the flat Tom Buchanan rents for his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, Nick yearns to go to Central Park and enjoy the sunset. Dragged into one rambling conversation after another, he feels, ‘both within and without… enchanted and repelled.’

This innate innocence is equally glaring in Nick’s relationship with Jordan Baker. In chapter three he gently reproaches Jordan for her reckless driving:

'Suppose you met somebody just as careless as yourself.'

'I hope I never will,' she answered. 'I hate careless people. That’s why I like you.'

At the end of the novel, with everything in tatters, Nick concludes that Tom and Daisy, like Jordan, are simply ‘careless people’ who ‘smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’ He is one of the hapless people who has to ‘clean up the mess’, though one senses frustration at himself for being ‘careless’ enough to become involved with such people.

Nick gladly engenders the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby, the source of much of the misery that follows. As Gatsby’s dream begins to unravel, Nick offers solace and perspective, but he never suggests that his fellow mid-westerner end his dangerous pursuit. Having come to the east coast to become a ‘well-rounded’ gentleman, Nick leaves with a feeling of emptiness and vexation.

As with Myrtle Wilson, the choice of name is fitting: ‘Carraway’ sounds vaguely like ‘carried away’. Though he claims in chapter three to be ‘full of interior rules that act as brakes’ on his ‘desires’, Nick can’t help but get swept up in the current that eventually kills Gatsby and Myrtle.

Even at the end of chapter seven, when he has 'had enough' of Gatsby, Daisy, Jordan and Tom, Nick heeds the advice of his father with which he begins the novel:

'Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'

Nick is sometimes said to be an ‘unreliable’ narrator. That is not to say that his account is factually inaccurate, but rather his naivety (evident, for example, in his shock at Tom’s ‘woman in the city’, and his disbelief that someone could ‘fix’ the World Series) precludes a true understanding of the events. Somewhat conversely, because Nick is so new and inexperienced, some readers find it hard to believe that he could function simultaneously as matchmaker, confidante, lover and secretary.

Given the importance of the love story between Daisy and Gatsby, it is easy to lose track of Nick’s own brief romance. Fitzgerald skilfully and subtly brings Nick back to the foreground of the reader’s attention just when we might begin to take him for granted. An interesting example of this comes in the dead heat of hotel suite in chapter seven, after Tom appears to have vanquished Gatsby. After Gatsby and Daisy leave, Tom rather absurdly offers some whiskey to Nick, who declines absent-mindedly because he has realised that it is his birthday:

I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade. Thirty—the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.

He is pulled from this depressing reverie by the presence of Jordan Baker, who, 'unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age.' Later, though, his enthusiasm for Jordan does indeed become ‘thinner’, until they separate acrimoniously. 

Nick’s relationship with Jordan reflects his brief stay on the East coast. In chapter eight she telephones him at his workplace. Nick says:

Usually her voice came over the wire as something fresh and cool as if a divot from a green golf links had come sailing in at the office window but this morning it seemed harsh and dry.

Before returning to the Midwest, Nick reluctantly arranges a final meeting with Jordan, where, he observes, she looks 'like a good illustration.' She, in turn, claims to be engaged to another man, before reminding him of his criticism of her driving (in chapter three):

'You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn’t I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride.'

'I’m thirty,' I said. 'I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.'

She didn’t answer. Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.

For Jordan to claim that Nick is a figuratively ‘bad driver’ is not only rather tasteless (given that her friend Daisy recently ran over and killed Myrtle), but also untrue. Nick plays his role of figurative chauffeur very well: he brings Daisy and Gatsby together, shows restraint towards Tom and Daisy’s ‘careless’ and immoral behaviour, and remains loyal to his friend Gatsby to the very end. However, while he is ‘honest’ (or certainly not dishonest), he is not always ‘straightforward’, least of all with himself. He must have known that he could never find lifelong happiness with the ‘clean, hard, limited’ Jordan and her ‘universal skepticism’, yet he pursues her to such a point that it is somewhat ungallant of him to allow their relationship to lapse and fade with the summer. 

One of Nick’s on-going struggles in New York is his fondness for his native Midwest. In chapter nine he says:

I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all---Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

Perhaps that ‘deficiency’ is, in fact, honesty.

What will Nick make of his Midwest home upon his return? Will it still seem like 'the ragged edge of the universe', as it did before he left? If so, where is he to go? He clearly still yearns, as he says at the beginning of the novel, for the world 'to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.' Perhaps this is no longer possible in America, or at least not in New York.   

Daisy Fay Buchanan

Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth—but there was an excitement in her voice that men who cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.

Biography

Daisy is Nick’s second cousin once removed and the wife of Tom Buchanan, with whom she has a two-year-old daughter. In the summer of 1922, when the novel is set, she is 23 years old. Her youth, beauty and wit are juxtaposed by an intense sadness and pessimism that she is not always able to stifle.

October 1917
18-year-old Daisy Fay, 'by far the most popular of all the young girls in Louisville,' meets Lieutenant Jay Gatsby. They fall in love instantly. That winter she tries to go to New York to bid farewell to Gatsby before his deployment in Europe, but her mother forbids it. Distraught, Daisy doesn’t speak to her family for several weeks.

Autumn, 1918
Once again in good spirits, Daisy has her 'debut ball.'

February, 1919
Daisy becomes engaged to Tom Buchanan of Chicago.

June, 1919
Daisy and Tom are married in a lavish ceremony, then have a three-month honeymoon in the South Seas.

April, 1920
Daisy gives birth to a baby girl. Soon after the birth the couple moves to France for a year.

Autumn, 1921
Daisy and Tom return to Chicago, and finally settle in East Egg a few months before Nick arrives.

Analysis

With her blonde hair, white dresses, sunny disposition and ‘beautiful white girlhood’, Daisy represents the vanishing purity of America. She also represents the country’s harmful contradictions.

Fitzgerald warns of the fragility of Daisy’s innocence in chapter one. As his second cousin tells an amusing story about her butler’s nose, Nick remarks,

For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection on her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened—then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.

Fittingly, once the sun has set, this bright, yellow woman loses her sunny demeanour, and the small gathering becomes marked by awkward tension between Daisy and Tom. Soon afterwards, Daisy says to Nick, ‘I’ve had a very bad time… and I’m pretty cynical about everything.’ This cynicism is most evident in her attitude to her daughter: ‘I suppose she talks, and—eats, and everything,’ she tells Nick. She then admits that when she found out her child was a girl, she wept and said, ‘I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’

Daisy, though, is no ‘fool’. Much of her pessimism is caused directly and indirectly by her ‘hulking’ husband, a man so brutish that he accidentally bruises Daisy’s hand.

Given the curious contrast between Tom and Daisy, it would be tempting and easy to suppose that the latter married the former for his money. Through a combination of Nick and Jordan we learn why such an assumption is false. In chapter eight Nick describes the restlessness Daisy felt when Gatsby did not return quickly from the war:

She wanted her life shaped now, immediately--and the decision must be made by some force--of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality--that was close at hand.

That force took shape in the middle of spring with the arrival of Tom Buchanan. There was a wholesome bulkiness about his person and his position and Daisy was flattered.

Do not be misled by the word 'money'. In chapter four, Jordan explains that during his courtship of Daisy Tom gave his future wife a string of pearls worth $350,000, an enormous sum even today and an astronomical amount in the 1920s. Daisy, though, was unmoved. The night before the wedding she retreated to her bedroom and, for the first and last time in her life, took a drink of alcohol. As she continued to drink she became more emotional, until eventually she binned the pearls and declared she had changed her mind about the wedding, all the while clutching and inadvertently destroying what we presume is a letter from Gatsby. Only the intervention of Jordan saved her and the ceremony.

As significant as her rejection of Tom’s ostentatious display of wealth is Daisy’s permanent distaste for alcohol. To not drink at all is an impressive feat of self control for one so immersed in the Highball lifestyle of Prohibition-era New York. Her abstinence is one reason why she is able to survive in Tom’s 'fast crowd.' That Gatsby, though himself only a light drinker, both engenders heavy drinking and is likely involved in the illegal trade of alcohol contributes to Daisy’s irrevocable change of heart towards her first love.

At first, though, Daisy is delighted to be reunited with Gatsby. With Nick’s help, she and Gatsby briefly rekindle their lost romance. ('I looked once more at them and they looked back at me, remotely, possessed by an intense life,' says Nick in chapter five.) It is when in chapter six she attends one of Gatsby’s parties for the first time that her passion begins to wane; she says otherwise to Tom, but she is quietly repulsed by the whole thing: 'She saw something awful in the very simplicity she failed to understand,' says Nick. Her innate modesty resurfaces in the following chapter during the climactic exchange that finally ruins what Tom witheringly describes as Gatsby’s “presumptuous little flirtation.”

In the baking heat of that New York afternoon, Daisy is abruptly presented with a choice between the immorality of her husband and the illegality of her lover. She does not so much choose the former as flee the latter. Why?

The first reason is her aforementioned distrust of showy wealth. Gatsby never realises that the joy Daisy shows towards, say, his expensive shirts is nothing compared to the happiness she felt when she first kissed the penniless Lieutenant Gatsby in 1917. Before the tumultuous scene in the stifling hotel suite, Gatsby says to Nick that Daisy’s voice is “full of money.” Nick agrees:

That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it… High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…

They are wrong. And Gatsby is similarly (and damagingly) mistaken later in the chapter when, grappling with Tom for Daisy’s affection, he says to his rival,

She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me. It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved any one except me!

Gatsby’s self-centred rewriting of the past further erodes Daisy’s love. Despite everything her husband has done to her, Daisy contradicts Gatsby and admits ‘in a pitiful voice’ that she did once love Tom.

For Daisy to admit that she loved Tom, albeit briefly, is to signal that she is no longer the innocent woman Gatsby fell in love with in 1917. She has been seduced by Tom’s power and wealth – and now perhaps fears his wrath. 

The third and final trauma for Daisy is Tom’s revelation that Gatsby has earned his money from criminal dealings. Faced with Tom’s accusations, Gatsby tries to clear his name:

… he began to talk excitedly to Daisy, denying everything, defending his name against accusations that had not been made. But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself…

Daisy’s last act with Gatsby is to accidentally run over Myrtle Wilson – her husband’s mistress – in Gatsby’s yellow car. Then, safely hidden behind her husband’s immense wealth and physical frame, Daisy flees New York without facing justice for her crime or acknowledging the murder of her lover. The deadly collision of slim, blonde, white-clad Daisy with dark, buxom Myrtle brings together all the immorality and perverted control of the novel: Tom arrogantly orders Daisy to return home with Gatsby, unaware that his mistress, Myrtle, has become deranged with jealousy and desperation.  

Used wife, broken lover, part-time mother, unwitting killer: Daisy represents the moral decay of 1920s America. She possesses some of the Puritanism that brought America Prohibition, yet barely notices her own daughter. She doesn’t engage in the criminality or vileness of Gatsby or Tom, but then doesn’t really do much beyond lying languidly on her sofa. (‘What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon… and the day after that, and the next thirty years?’ she asks in chapter seven.) She can’t support Gatsby’s bootlegging, but is willing to suffer her ‘hulking’ and ‘revolting’ husband’s unsubtle dalliances. She doesn’t drink, but she does flaunt her affair with Gatsby in her house while her husband and daughter are in another room. She loathes the noise and excess of Gatsby’s parties, then runs over an innocent woman and leaves her for dead. Nick’s conclusion is simple: ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’

Tom Buchanan

I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.

Biography

Tom Buchanan is the husband of Daisy Fay Buchanan, with whom he has a two-year-old daughter. Born into a wealthy Chicago family, he possesses a significant fortune.

Tom attended New Haven college at the same time as Nick, where he was, 'one of the most powerful ends that ever played... a national figure in a way.' 30 years old in the summer of 1922, Tom enjoys horse riding and owns a stable with a number of polo ponies.

Analysis

For all his money, physical strength and apparent virility, Tom Buchanan is deeply insecure. He worries not just for his own possessions (including his wife and mistress) but also for the future of his race. Born into wealth and prestige, this bellicose, boastful and ignorant male represents the diminishing influence of hereditary power in America.

In chapter one Nick describes Tom as ‘one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savors of anti-climax.’ In 1922, 30-year-old Tom is ‘a sturdy, straw haired man… with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner.’ His ‘effeminate’ riding clothes cannot hide the power of a body ‘capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.’

What Nick doesn’t realise is that Tom is a shameless adulterer. During that first dinner Tom receives a call from his ‘woman in New York,’ Myrtle Wilson. Where Daisy manages to only suffer some accidental bruising on her little finger from Tom’s ‘cruel body’, Myrtle, in chapter two, feels its full force. 

Despite that bloody incident, Tom clearly prefers Myrtle’s dark curvaceous unintelligence to Daisy’s slender white innocence. One might think that Tom maintains his marriage simply for the purposes of breeding. In chapter one he announces that he is reading a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires, which warns that the white race will soon be out-bred by non-white races. In chapter seven during the punctuating exchange with Gatsby, Tom at first flounders when confronted with the possibility that he might lose his white family unit: ‘Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.’

Though the adulterous Tom is, of course, a preposterous hypocrite, he is genuinely hurt by the idea that Daisy has never loved him. When, at Gatsby’s behest, Daisy makes this claim, Tom replies,

'Not that day I carried you down from the Punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry?' There was a husky tenderness in his tone. '… Daisy?'

It works. Perhaps because it is so rare, Tom’s pathos is enough to remind Daisy that she did, in fact, love her husband once. 

As Nick concludes in chapter nine, Tom, like Daisy, is ‘careless’, in thought and belief, as well as deed. Furthermore, at the beginning of the novel, Nick correctly predicts that Tom and Daisy’s move to East Egg is far from ‘permanent’: aware that he has played a part in his mistress’s death, Tom flees with his wife and daughter while he can. 

However, the final image of Tom in chapter seven suggests a new man might emerge from the sordid tragedy of Myrtle's death: he and Daisy drink beer and talk calmly at their kitchen table, as Gatsby waits in the shadows for an act of violence that never comes. 

As well carelessness, Tom shares another common flaw with Gatsby: he longs to repeat the past. As Nick notes in chapter one, ‘I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.’ That game, like the world of racial segregation, is gone, but the ‘dramatic turbulence’ remains. 

Jordan Baker

She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her grey sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming discontented face.

21-year-old Jordan Baker is a childhood friend of Daisy. Now resident in New York, she has no family except, according to Daisy, 'one aunt about a thousand years old.' She is a champion golfer and a sportswear model.

In her book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, Sarah Churchwell points out that Jordan was the name of a brand of car popular in America in the early 1920s. It is fitting, therefore, that Ms Baker makes the most revealing remark about her character while driving somewhat recklessly with Nick:

‘They’ll keep out of my way,’ she insisted. ‘It takes two to make an accident.’

‘Suppose you met somebody just as careless as yourself.’

‘I hope I never will,’ she answered. ‘I hate careless people. That’s why I like you.’

This taking of liberties on the road reminds Nick of a rumour he heard about Jordan before he met her. It was whispered that she cheated in a golf tournament, and the scandal very nearly reached the newspapers. We are not told why it didn’t, but from Nick’s remark in chapter nine that Jordan could have a number of men at 'the nod of her head' we can hazard a guess.

That there were female sporting celebrities in 1920s America might come as a surprise to some modern readers. Jordan is, in fact, based on the 1922 US Women’s Amateur golf champion Edith Cummings. As Churchwell notes in Careless People, in the summer of 1924 Cummings became the first sportswoman on the cover of Time magazine, just as Fitzgerald was penning The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald included other details in the novel that would surprise readers of that era. Recall the scene in chapter four involving the limousine driven by a white chauffeur in which sit ‘three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl’ (the kind of situation that Tom warns of). Jordan is part of the changing social order.

The one person who can count on Jordan’s loyalty is Daisy. The two grew up together in Louisville, Kentucky. ‘I was flattered she wanted to speak to me, because of all the older girls I admired her the most,’ Jordan tells Nick in chapter four as she explains the truth about Daisy and Gatsby. Well aware that Tom has a ‘woman in the city’, Jordan is quite happy to engender Daisy’s affair with Gatsby because she believes ‘Daisy ought to have something in her life.’

What exactly the ‘clean, hard, limited’ Jordan wants in her life, though, is unclear. She appears attracted to Nick mostly because he does not bore her – or ask that she move too much to upset that ‘invisible object’ forever balancing on the end of her chin.

In their final meeting, Jordan admits to Nick that she was ‘careless’ to fall for him, and that their abrupt breakup left her feeling ‘dizzy’, which shows that her ‘hard’ exterior is not quite as solid as Nick thinks. As if to prove otherwise, though, she parts forever with the claim that she doesn’t ‘give a damn’ about him. 

Jordan’s hair, Nick notes, is the colour ‘of an autumn leaf.’ Once Nick’s interest in Jordan wanes at the end of the summer, this delicate leaf, like the ‘good illustration’ she is, shows her true colours.

Myrtle Wilson

She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crepe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering.

Myrtle Wilson is the wife of the garage and petrol station owner George Wilson and the mistress of Tom Buchanan.

Myrtle’s first name is symbolic. A myrtle is a type of evergreen shrub that produces purple-black berries, from the French mirtil, meaning blueberry. With her dresses of dark blue complementing her dark name, Myrtle is the antithesis of bright, blonde and white-clad Daisy. 

We first meet Myrtle as Tom and Nick stop for petrol at George’s garage on their way to New York. After 'walking through her husband as if he were a ghost,' she orders George to get some chairs. He complies instantly. While he is gone, Tom and Myrtle hastily arrange an assignation in New York. It’s an easy affair to maintain because, Tom explains to Nick, Myrtle simply tells her husband that she is going to visit her sister Catherine.

Once reunited with Tom in New York, Myrtle shows that she is an extravagant shopper and happy to profit from Tom’s largesse. After they leave the train station she buys two gossip magazines and some makeup, then lets four older taxis go past before selecting a new one. As they are travelling she spots a man selling dogs and decides she would like one, saying, "I want to get one for the apartment. They're nice to have – a dog." Tom pays for it, unimpressed with the whole idea. They then move on to the city apartment that Tom keeps for him and Myrtle. Nick is reluctant to stay, but Myrtle insists, promising him that he can meet Catherine, “said to be very beautiful by people who ought to know.” This remark about her own sister shows a startling level of superficiality.

That evening, after her guests arrive, Myrtle changes her outfit for a second time. She now wears, 'an elaborate afternoon dress of cream coloured chiffon.' Chiffon is a light fabric made of silk. The name comes from the French word 'chiffe'which means rag. A chiffe molle is a person who is timid or submissive. The irony is that Myrtle becomes louder and more assertive in her chiffon dress, so much so that Tom eventually hits her and breaks her nose.

Prior to this incident, Catherine asks Myrtle why she married her husband. Myrtle says, ‘I thought he was a gentleman... I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn't fit to lick my shoe.’ She then reveals that she found out after their marriage that, much to her horror, her husband borrowed a suit for their wedding. From this it is easy to see why she would be attracted to the wealthy, well dressed and virile Tom.

As the guests eagerly share a second bottle of whiskey, Myrtle, now quite drunk, tells Nick about her first meeting with Tom. She ends the story by saying, ‘All I kept thinking about, over and over, was 'You can't live forever, you can't live forever’.’ This tautological remark proves prophetic when, deranged with jealousy, Myrtle is hit and killed by the car she believes is being driven by her lover’s wife.

Just as there is symbolism in Myrtle’s name, there is greater and much grimmer symbolism in her death. In chapter seven, seeing what she takes to be Tom’s yellow car, Myrtle flees the house in which her now suspicious husband is trying to keep her prisoner. It’s not Tom behind the wheel, though, but Daisy, who doesn’t see Myrtle running out into the road until it’s too late. The impact leaves Myrtle’s left breast ‘swinging loose like a flap.’ This awful image echoes at the end of the novel when, reflecting on all that has passed, Nick becomes ‘aware of the old island that flowered here once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world.’ Here ‘breast’ is meant as something that nourishes. Tom, by contrast, regards Myrtle’s breasts as nothing more than sexual objects. His greed and lust leaves part of the New World bloodied and disfigured.

George Wilson

He was a blonde, spiritless man, anaemic and faintly handsome. When he saw us a damp gleam of hope sprang into his light blue eyes.

George Wilson is the husband of Myrtle Wilson. A car mechanic and petrol station owner, he is unaware that his wife is Tom’s mistress. He ends the novel determined to avenge Myrtle's death.

Early in the novel Tom describes George as being ‘so dumb he barely knows he’s alive’. Nick notes that Myrtle appears to move through George as if he is a ghost. These descriptions prove prophetic when George, one of the ‘poor ghosts’ of the ‘new world’, drifts ‘fortuitously’ to the house of the man he believes was both his wife’s love and killer. The last thing Gatsby sees is an ‘ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.’ After killing Gatsby, the ghost-like, ‘ashen’ George turns the gun on himself.

Before the accident that kills Myrtle, George's neighbour Michaelis hears a row between George and Myrtle. George explains that he has locked his wife in the house. Michaelis is shocked:

They had been neighbours for four years and Wilson had never seemed faintly capable of such a statement. Generally he was one of these worn-out men: when he wasn't working he sat on a chair in the doorway and stared at the people and the cars that passed along the road. When any one spoke to him he invariably laughed in an agreeable colorless way. He was his wife's man and not his own.

In chapter eight we learn that two days before the accident George finds a dog leash hidden in a drawer and begins to suspect his wife of having an affair, linking the event to when his wife came back a few weeks ago with a bruised and bloodied face. His anger and paranoia rapidly grow out of control. Through Michaelis we learn that he and Myrtle had been married for 12 years, that they do not have any children and that they are not part of a church. George then reveals that he told his wife that she could fool him but she could not ‘fool God.’ As he says this he looks intently at the huge eyes in the advertisement of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg.

George is a simple, lower class man whose job is to service the upper classes by repairing their cars and filling them with petrol. He plays no part in the excess and extravagance of the time, but when the rich world encroaches on his simple life he rebels. He is unique among the characters in believing in God and that his wife’s immoral behaviour will be punished in the afterlife. However, he evidently does not believe in the Christian commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, which extends to self slaughter.

George perhaps serves as a warning that the rich and poor worlds are not as separate as those in the former would like to believe. His desire to avenge his humiliation reminds us that our actions have consequences beyond our immediate compass of space and time.  

Jay Gatsby

When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby who represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament”—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

Biography

Jay Gatsby is the anti-hero of The Great Gatsby. Born James Gatz to a poor family in the Midwestern US, Gatsby rapidly achieves fame and fortune when he joins a criminal network in New York in the early 1920s. Charming, handsome and courageous, Gatsby uses his fabulous wealth to pursue his one and only love, Daisy Fay Buchanan. From promising beginnings, the love story ends in despair and tragedy.  

Circa. 1892
James Gatz is born in North Dakota to parents who are ‘shiftless, unsuccessful farm people.’

Age 15
James Gatz attends the small Lutheran college of St. Olaf in southern Minnesota. After two weeks, ‘dismayed’ by the school’s ‘ferocious indifference to the drums of his destiny… and despising the janitor’s work with which he was to pay his way through’, he leaves.

Age 15 ½
James Gatz works on the shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota, as 'a clam digger and a salmon fisher or in any other capacity that brought him food and bed.’

Age 17
James Gatz sees Dan Cody’s yacht Tuolomee drop anchor in Lake Superior. Enchanted, he sails out to inform Cody that the wind may soon change and damage his yacht. For the first time he introduces himself as Jay Gatsby. Impressed by his character, Dan Cody hires Jay Gatsby. For the next five years, Gatsby serves as ‘steward, mate, skipper, secretary, and even jailor’ on Cody’s yacht as it sails around the world.

October 1917
Now a lieutenant in the US army, Gatsby meets Daisy Fay Buchanan in Louisville, Kentucky. After a brief courtship, Gatsby and Daisy fall in love and enjoy a brief but passionate romance: ‘He took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously—eventually he took Daisy one still October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand.’

November 1917
Gatsby and Daisy have their last meeting before Gatsby’s deployment to Europe.

1918
Gatsby serves in the US army in France during the closing months of the Great War. His bravery earns him a promotion to Major and decorations from “every Allied government… even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!”

November 1918
The Great War ends.

Early 1919
Gatsby attends Oxford University for five months as part of a post-war education programme organised by the US army.

June 1919
Impatient with Gatsby, Daisy marries Tom Buchanan. Gatsby, still in England, receives a letter informing him of the wedding.

Autumn 1919
Gatsby returns to Louisville, Kentucky to search for Daisy, unaware that Tom and Daisy are on their honeymoon. He stays a week and then goes to New York. Penniless and with only his army uniform for clothing, Gatsby meets Meyer Wolfshiem in a pool-room in Manhattan and asks for a job. Wolfshiem takes pity on the young Gatsby and hires him.

1921-22
Through hard work in Wolfshiem’s gang, Gatsby becomes wealthy enough to purchase his enormous house in West Egg, across the bay from Tom and Daisy’s house on neighbouring East Egg.

Summer 1922
Gatsby meets his neighbour, Nick Carraway, Daisy’s second cousin.

Analysis

The eponymous protagonist of Fitzgerald’s jazz age tale, Jay Gatsby is one of the most celebrated and studied characters in American literature. Wealthy in appearance yet disarmingly modest in character, Gatsby is the pinnacle of America’s social structure and the nadir of American excess.

Gatsby is a rainbow of symbolism: he wears a pink suit, drives a yellow car, walks a blue lawn and, above all, reaches for a green light. He drinks very little, dances a good ‘conservative’ fox-trot and has no real friends. Amid a screeching torrent of fakes, façades and falseness, Gatsby’s warm smile is as real as his books.

Despite the rapidity of Gatsby’s rise from rags to riches, it would be erroneous to classify him as part of the ‘American Dream’. For one thing, as Sarah Churchwell points out in her book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, the term was not coined until 1932, seven years after The Great Gatsby was published. Perhaps it’s also the case that such a term could not be attributed to Gatsby even in hindsight: the ‘American Dream’ was meant for more modest – and honest – success.

Certainly, though, Gatsby’s displays of courage and perseverance could have been plucked from the stories of Horatio Alger, Jr., the 19th century American author whose work, mostly set in New York City, features honest young lads pulling themselves up from the gutter and achieving success through grit, determination and good fortune. Alger, Jr.’s short stories rarely went beyond the first days of success, but if they had it’s unlikely the characters would have developed into Gatsby’s classical alter-ego, ‘Trimalchio’.

At the beginning of chapter seven Nick says, 'It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night – and, as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over.' The reference is to a character in a 1st century Roman novel who earns fame and fortune through hard work. With his newfound wealth he throws huge, lavish parties that feature vast quantities of food, all designed to impress his fellow citizens. At one such gathering, he has his guests act out his opulent funeral.

Trimalchio represents more than just Jay Gatsby's alter-ego: his name was very nearly the title of the novel. 'I have now decided to stick to the title I put on the book. Trimalchio in West Egg’, Fitzgerald wrote to a friend shortly before The Great Gatsby was published in 1925. ‘The only other titles that seem to fit it are Trimalchio and On the Road to West Egg. I had two others, Gold-hatted Gatsby and The High-bouncing Lover but they seemed too light.' Fortunately, in this as in many things, Fitzgerald was too late.

From the moment they meet, Nick is unsure of Gatsby’s true character and motives. The friendship starts well, though, thanks to Gatsby's beaming smile:

It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

But just when the smile is about to overwhelm Nick,

Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.

Gatsby quickly ingratiates himself with Nick, not just as a shortcut to Daisy’s heart, but because, like Jordan, he believes that Nick is not a ‘careless’ person. Nick, though, never full trusts his neighbour. In chapter four, Gatsby tells Nick a series of clumsy lies about his past while speeding to New York in his ostentatious yellow car, including the embarrassing claim that he is from the ‘Mid-western’ city of San Francisco.

That Gatsby has lied becomes clear in the following chapter when, emotional from being reunited with Daisy, he lets slip to Nick that it took him “just three years” to earn the money to buy his mansion. When Nick reminds Gatsby that he claimed to have inherited his money, Gatsby fumbles for a branch of truth before being saved by Daisy’s arrival.

The difficulty for Nick is that he desperately wants Gatsby’s fairy-tales to be real. In chapter seven, when Gatsby finally (and somewhat sheepishly) explains the truth about his Oxford days (‘It was an opportunity they gave to some of the officers after the Armistice’), Nick says, ‘I wanted to get up and slap him on the back. I had one of those renewals of complete faith in him that I’d experienced before.’

This biographical note from Gatsby comes just before he and Tom begin jousting openly for Daisy’s affection. Gatsby initially believes he has won the day, but Tom has not yet played his trump card, which is that he knows Gatsby is a fraud.

As Churchwell writes in Careless People, Tom suspects Gatsby because of his clothes. (“An Oxford man… Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.”) Tom also happens to be present a week prior to this when Gatsby makes an amateurish social faux pas: in chapter six Tom visits Gatsby’s mansion while on a ride with two snobbish friends:

He [Gatsby] was profoundly affected by the fact that Tom was there. But he would be uneasy anyhow until he had given them something, realizing in a vague way that that was all they came for.

After a couple of drinks and some tedious pleasantries, the female guest in Tom’s trio invites Gatsby to supper at her house. Gatsby agrees and leaves to get ready. Tom is astounded: “My God, I believe the man’s coming… Doesn’t he know she doesn’t want him?”

Tom’s investigation of Gatsby leads him to the conclusion that would have been obvious to any reader in the mid 1920s: Gatsby, under the careful auspices of Meyer Wolfshiem, is a bootlegger dealing in illegal booze (illegal because of a law passed by the US Congress in 1919). Several times throughout the novel Gatsby receives urgent long-distance phone calls, an uncommon occurrence at that time. These furtive communications suggest that all is not well in Gatsby’s empire, a suspicion that is confirmed in chapter nine when, following Gatsby’s death, a man named Slagle phones from Chicago to report that one of their junior henchmen has been arrested mid deal.

The demise of Gatsby’s business mirrors his tragic love story. He believes that Daisy decided to marry Tom only because he (Gatsby) was poor and far away. He doesn’t realise that the latter was much more pressing to Daisy than the former. Daisy is a tad shallow and materialistic, but that does not extend to illegality: when Tom reveals the true nature of Gatsby’s work, she is horrified.

Gatsby’s great fault, apart from his smuggling racket, is that he wants to resurrect a vanished moment. Nick warns him against this after Daisy, visibly jaded, leaves Gatsby’s party:

'I wouldn’t ask too much of her,' I ventured. 'You can’t repeat the past.'

'Can’t repeat the past?' he cried incredulously. 'Why of course you can!'

He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

'I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,' he said, nodding determinedly. 'She’ll see.'

One of the ironies of this hopeless nostalgia is that Gatsby has not even mastered the fiction of his own past. A second, more profound irony is that in trying to recreate a lost paradise Gatsby faintly resembles the man whose church he rejected, the 16th century German theologian Martin Luther.

Martin Luther was a pious Catholic who became disillusioned by his church’s practice of selling ‘indulgences’. At that time, for the right fee a priest could expunge a man of his sins and thus secure his place in heaven. Luther rejected this, and yearned for the original, purest form of Christianity. He believed that eternal salvation could only be secured by belief in Jesus Christ. In October 1517 he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg and, in so doing, launched the Protestant Reformation.

With the money it made from the sale of ‘indulgences’, the Holy See (the Catholic church) financed the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest churches in the world, and the Apostolic Palace, the residence of the pope. With his similarly immoral wealth Jay Gatsby purchases his own opulent enclave in West Egg.

At the age of 15 James Gatz (as he then was) spent two weeks at a Lutheran college in southern Minnesota before fleeing in frustration for the shores of Lake Superior, the first step on his road to West Egg fame (or infamy). Years later, Gatsby is buried by a Lutheran minister.

In between comes the moment in October 1917 when Gatsby and Daisy share their first kiss:

His heart beat fast and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.

The above passage is the second time Nick utters ‘Gatsby’ and ‘God’ in the same breath. In chapter six, describing the moment Jay Gatz became Jay Gatsby, Nick says,

The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s Business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty.

Did Fitzgerald intend Gatsby to be a Christ-like figure? There are some superficial similarities: Gatsby draws huge crowds while he is alive, but dies in his 30s and is buried with only a handful of friends and family present; he leaves home at a young age, wanders vast distances and re-emerges with the power to attract a cult-like following; he appears capable of miracles; he garners wonder, scorn and scepticism in equal measure; and in his hour of need he is shunned by somebody (Daisy) who had claimed to love him, as Jesus is denied three times by Peter.

Nick’s relationship with Gatsby adheres to Jesus’ command to ‘love thy neighbour’: Nick loves Gatsby the neighbour, but despises the Lord of that ‘vast, vulgar, meretricious beauty’, that ‘incoherent failure of a house’. Clearly, though, it is the former that shines through. In chapter eight, with the summer ending, Nick leaves Gatsby with his first and only compliment: 'They’re a rotten crowd… You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.' He then adds:

I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time. His gorgeous pink rag of a suit made a bright spot of color against the white steps and I thought of the night when I first came to his ancestral home three months before. The lawn and drive had been crowded with the faces of those who guessed at his corruption—and he had stood on those steps, concealing his incorruptible dream, as he waved them goodbye.

Having elicited wonder and disapproval in Nick, Gatsby’s final act is to earn his neighbour’s pity. In chapter nine, we hear for the last time that reassuringly warm refrain ‘old sport’ as the slain Gatsby implores Nick from beyond the grave: 'Look here, old sport, you’ve got to get somebody for me. You’ve got to try hard. I can’t go through this alone.' 

Nick tries first with Meyer Wolfshiem. When he refuses, Nick returns to Gatsby’s mansion to console the one person who really does care about Gatsby, his father, Henry C. Gatz. Mr Gatz shows Nick the daily schedule Gatsby wrote when he was a boy. Amid the list of mental and physical exercises is a note reminding the young James Gatz to ‘Be better to parents.’ Gatsby keeps this promise. He visits his dad and even buys him a new house: the other side of ‘His Father’s Business.’

“I keep it full of interesting people, night and day,” Gatsby tells Daisy as they survey his mansion. “People who do interesting things. Celebrated people.” Unfortunately, this is one area where Gatsby did not imitate Jesus. He would have done better to chase the charlatans from his temple.

Meyer Wolfshiem

Meyer Wolfshiem, a ‘small, flat-nosed Jew’ with ‘two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril’, is a senior member of Gatsby’s criminal network. According to Gatsby, it was Wolfshiem who fixed the 1919 World Series of baseball. 

When in chapter seven Tom begins trying to expose Gatsby as a criminal he accuses him of being "one of that bunch that hangs around with Meyer Wolfshiem." Tom knows that Daisy will recognise this as a Jewish name even if she doesn't know who Wolfshiem is. At the time this would have been enough to convince her that Gatsby was involved in something sinister.

In chapter nine Nick sends a letter to Wolfshiem informing him of Gatsby's death and asking him to visit. Wolfshiem replies by telegram that he is devastated by what has happened, but ‘cannot get mixed up’ with Gatsby. Nick goes to Wolfshiem's office to try and persuade him to come to the funeral. The name on his door is 'The Swastika Holding Company.' This is not a reference to the Nazis. Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in 1924-25, at which time Adolf Hitler had only just been released from prison. Long before Hitler adopted it as the symbol of the Nazi party, the swastika was an ancient Aryan symbol of good luck. Fitzgerald has perhaps used it here to enhance Tom's idea that the native race is being taken over by outsiders, in this case Jews.

Wolfshiem tells Nick the story of how he how first encountered Gatsby, 'made him' a businessman and 'raised him up out of nothing, right out of the gutter.' When Nick tells him about the funeral, Wolfshiem begins crying and explains that he can't come, saying:

When a man gets killed I never like to get mixed up in it any way. I keep out. When I was a young man it was different – if a friend of mine died, no matter how, I stuck with them to the end. You may think that's sentimental but I mean it – to the bitter end.

Wolfshiem represents much of what Tom fears – a secretive outsider cheating his way to fortune, polluting one of the most enjoyable American pastimes, baseball. He has no loyalty to Gatsby, although he feels great affection for him, and bids Nick farewell with the words, ‘Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead. After that my own rule is to let everything alone.’ It is debatable whether Wolfshiem adheres to the first part his rule.

Fitzgerald based Wolfshiem largely on Arnold Rothstein, a Jewish-American racketeer. In her book Careless PeopleSarah Churchwell writes of Rothstein, 'He was the liaison between New York's underground economy and its official one, involved at a very high level in labour-union racketeering... He owned and protected a wide variety of shady financial endeavours... Nothing was ever proven: Rothstein was indicted repeatedly, but never convicted. He was murdered in 1928, shot in the back as he left a poker game.'

Nick's descriptions of Wolfshiem show a certain level of prejudice and wilful stereotyping of Jews that at the time was typical even in educated people: he highlights Wolfshiem's greed, large nose, unchecked body hair and thick accent. (Ironically, 'Gatz' has a Jewish ring to it, which is likely one of the main reasons Jay changed it to Gatsby.) Churchwell writes of this anti-Semitic streak, 'It is... a jarring moment of dissonance in a novel mostly characterized by remarkable tonal control: these flickers of racism are the only moments in The Great Gatsby when Fitzgerald mistakes for comedy what was, in fact, a vast historical tragedy.'

(A note on the spelling from Sarah Churchwell, author of Careless People: 'Fitzgerald couldn't spell. Given that he based the character on the Jewish-American racketeer Arnold Rothstein (the man widely believed to have fixed the 1919 World Series of baseball), he clearly meant ei. But he spelled it ie and for some reason the scholarship has protected that spelling while correcting others. I think it's silly but the convention is now definitely to spell it ie, respecting Fitz's original (wrong) spelling. Those who correct it are out of step. I wouldn't (and didn't).')

Henry C. Gatz

It was Gatsby's father, a solemn old man very helpless and dismayed, bundled up in a long cheap ulster against the warm September day. His eyes leaked continuously with excitement and when I took the bag and umbrella from his hands he began to pull so incessantly at his sparse grey beard that I had difficulty in getting off his coat.

Henry is Jay Gatsby's father. He lives in Minnesota, a state in the northern midwest region of the US on the border of Lake Superior.

At first Henry is distraught by his son's death, but as he becomes aware of the splendour Gatsby's house he begins to feel proud and amazed. When Nick asks Henry if he'd like to take his son's body home he declines, saying, ‘Jimmy always liked it better down East. He rose up to his position in the East.’ This is an interesting contradiction of Nick’s claim that Gatsby, like himself, is a Midwest man at heart; and it certainly appears that Gatsby would have done better not to come to New York.

Henry believes his son would have achieved greatness and helped ‘build up the country’, a poignantly ironic prediction given that his son in fact adds to America’s corruption and illegality.

Henry has an imagined idea of his son’s life. With great excitement he shows Nick a photograph of his son's house that Gatsby had sent him. Nick observes, ‘He had shown it so often that I think it was more real to him now than the house itself’, a sardonic and ironic remark given the fantastical nature of what Nick describes as ‘that vast incoherent failure of a house’. 

Rather touchingly, Henry adds that his son visited him two years ago and bought him the house that he currently lives in. ‘Of course we was broke up when he run off from home but I see now there was a reason for it. He knew he had a big future in front of him,’ he says. He then shows Nick a precise daily schedule of work and exercise that Jay kept as a teenager. This schedule features a list of 'Resolves' that includes no smoking or chewing tobacco and 'Be better to parents.'

Catherine Wilson

[A] slender, worldly girl of about thirty with a solid sticky bob of red hair and a complexion powdered milky white. Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face. When she moved about there was an incessant clicking as innumerable pottery bracelets jingled up and down upon her arms.

Catherine is Myrtle Wilson's sister. From the moment we meet her we have the impression of someone artificial: she uses a lot of gel to fix her hair in place and makeup to make her face ‘milky white’, and has plucked her eyebrows and redrawn them at a ‘rakish’ angle, meaning that they suggest immorality. To make it worse, the eyebrows are growing back slightly, which makes her face seem ‘blurred.’ Her ‘innumerable pottery bracelets’ make a lot of noise whenever she moves, which provides an unwelcome complement to her ‘shrill’ voice. Nick continues:

She came in with such proprietary haste and looked around so possessively at the furniture that I wondered if she lived here. But when I asked her she laughed immoderately, repeated my question aloud and told me she lived with a girl friend at a hotel.

‘Proprietary’ means relating to ownership, from the French propriétaire, meaning owner. In other words, Catherine entered the flat with such speed and in such a way that Nick thought she owned the place. When he asks her if she does own the place she laughs ‘immoderately’, and mocks Nick for thinking such a thing. Fittingly, this vapid woman lives not at a fixed address, but at a hotel.

Not only does Catherine engender Myrtle’s affair with Tom (Myrtle tells her husband that she is going to New York to visit Catherine), during the investigation into her sister’s death she tells the police that Myrtle was always faithful to her husband.