Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1924, The Great Gatsby is a satirical look at the Jazz age, when the Rich’s endless partying and high-living would soon lead to disaster, which it did, in the form of the Wall Street crash. Many of the rich lives depicted did not earn their wealth through honest work; the Jazz age was notorious for its opening of the Black Market. The titular Jay Gatsby was one of these; Tom Buchanan was not. However, the writer expects us to judge Gatsby with more compassion than Tom, and for us to accept that it’s not just the job that makes the man.
The narrator of the novel is Nick Carraway, a seemingly honest, and at the start, rather naïve character, from the West, where the people led fair and simplistic lives. His first impressions of Gatsby are of him as a mysterious, popular, glamorous person:
“In his gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
Fitzgerald uses repetition of “and” to inform us of how much of everything there were as well as imagery to describe the food at the party, tantalising our taste buds and stirring our smells, applying heavy sensory appeal. Chapter III in The Great Gatsby features one of the most well-known descriptions in American literature, using metaphors, similes, and personification to romanticise the parties that Gatsby held:
“The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music”
Nick pines to be invited to one of the Gatsby’s parties, so that he can meet the secretive man. At the moment the writer is far from feeling sorry for him; they are entranced by him.
Tom is presented in a less flattering way. On Nick’s first meeting with him in the book, the words “supercilious” and “arrogant,” are used, showing Tom to be somewhat of a snob, a suspicion further proved as he shows off to Nick about his belongings, house, and lastly his wife Daisy. Daisy Fay Buchanan herself is somewhat of a mystery. She is very beautiful, and Nick, her cousin, acknowledges this. But Nick, though his inexperience, also knows that Daisy is more intelligent than she lets on, and some of her actions are purposely to entice:
“I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her.”
Women who knowingly seduce are usually manipulative and mercenary; Nick is allured into Daisy’s world, but Fitzgerald subtly reminds us to be careful about her. Nick’s dislike towards Tom increases, as everything Tom says is either pretentious smooth talk he has stolen from a book, or sexist and racist remarks:
“The idea is if we don’t like out the white race will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
His desire to prove himself to Nick constantly shows that he has an insecure edge, rather like a bully. The reader dislikes him immediately.
Although his work in organized crime gives Gatsby an edge of criminality, one of the main reasons he is a much more likeable character than Tom is his justification towards his illegal profession: love. Gatsby is, and always has been, in love with Daisy. Daisy had loved Gatsby, but when he left for the war, she found herself marrying Tom for two main reasons – she wanted money, and she could not wait five years for Gatsby. Despite this, Gatsby waits for her. He buys his mansion at its position so that he can be near Daisy, throws lavish parties in the hope that she shows up, and befriends Nick when he learns that he’s related to her. Love can make people do odd things, and as Gatsby has gone to such lengths to fulfil his thirst for her, it seems fair that he is reunited with Daisy. He had innocent goal which he hoped to achieve, but could only achieve by being corrupt, which is contradictory, like life itself. So Gatsby shouldn’t be blamed too much, instead he should be rewarded for being so loyal, a reward in the form of Daisy Buchanan.
Most bootleggers are driven by the motive of avarice, making them appear hateful but Jay Gatsby is not a greedy person. He is friendly and polite, and very patient, who even waits before asking Nick for his help:
“He had waited five years and brought a mansion so that he could “come over” some afternoon to a strangers garden.”
Gatsby is willing to wait all the time in the world for Daisy, as well as going to extreme lengths such as planning his home to be near her. He doesn’t even consider any other women, rejecting their advances immediately: “Gatsby’s very careful about women.” This is contrasting from Tom, who has many infamous “sprees.” Gatsby is instantly likeable, Tom, instantly dislikeable.
Unfortunately, Daisy’s husband Tom is a hulking, violent brute. Although Tom feels possessive of Daisy, he doesn’t make it clear enough to her than he cares about her until it is almost too late. He indulges in many affairs, and his latest, Myrtle Wilson. She is jealous of Daisy and craves to be like her, especially in the company of other people, she behaves as if she is the queen, and is surrounded by servants:
“The she flounced over to the dog, kissed it with ecstasy, and flounced into the kitchen, implying that a dozen chefs awaited her orders there.”
Nick finds out that evening about Myrtle and Tom’s crumbling marriages, causing the reader to question whether or not Daisy does herself deserve someone better, as an argument breaks out and Tom, rather drunkenly and angrily breaks Myrtle’s nose. This confirms what Daisy had earlier said about her husband being a “brute.” Earlier on, he had been menacing to Daisy, and now he is to Myrtle. As Nick continues to dislike Tom, so do we. Tom is corrupt from his riches, a common trait of rich in 1920s America. In fact, had this story occurred one hundred years earlier, it may have had a happy ending, but not in the 1920s, where rich girls do not marry poor boys.
In Chapter VII, the turning point of The Great Gatsby, everything, including the weather, is symbolic of emotions running. At the start, Daisy and Gatsby behave like a newly wedded couple, displaying their affections for each other any time Tom isn’t present. But then they travel into town and into a hotel room, where Tom reveals that he knows about Daisy’s affair with Gatsby, and he is furious about it:
“I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr Nobody from nowhere make love to your wife.”
However, Fitzgerald does not expect us to have any sympathy for him. Tom is a hypocrite to complain, as he has had more than enough affairs, despite being married to Daisy. What follows is a bitter and revealing confrontation between Gatsby, Daisy and Tom, as Gatsby tells Tom that Daisy is planning on leaving him, and that she never loved him, while Daisy uses her delicate demeanour to avoid speaking to Tom seriously about it. He is shocked:
“Not the time I carried you down from the Punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry?”
It is here that he is presented as a feeling, loving human for the first time in the book. However, this is short-lived as Tom reveals that Gatsby is a bootlegger, almost as his last resort, and all of a sudden, Daisy isn’t as interested in Gatsby, because his job could cause danger to her. This shows that Daisy is a manipulator, and will stay and go as she pleases, without any consideration for people’s feelings.
Gatsby’s love for Daisy is pleasant and innocent enough, but his thinking that she would divorce Tom and marry him is idealistic, delusional, wishful thinking. He goes out of his way to make things perfect for her:
“The whole caravansary had fallen in like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes.”
In the end he risks his own life to make sure she is happy, in the case of the car crash that killed Myrtle, which had Daisy behind the wheel. Gatsby says:
‘“I told Daisy I thought so. It’s better that the shock should come all at once. She stood it pretty well.”
He spoke as if Daisy’s reaction was the only thing that mattered.’
This is quite poignant, but it presents Gatsby as a doormat, for Daisy to walk all over as she pleases. Cars were a prominent fashion accessory in the 1920s and accidents caused by coupes would be frequent. However, many people were reckless with driving, which lead to many accidents. The car accidents in the novel are caused by the lack of caution from all that owned cars, the careless rich.
Sadly, Gatsby dies. Wilson, who believes that Gatsby was having an affair with his wife, murders him. Myrtle was indeed having an affair, but with Tom. In this sense, Gatsby’s death is paying for Tom’s mistakes, which Nick, along with the reader, feels is very unjust. But what makes it the epitome of injustice is the fact that Wilson, in a state of grief and despair, went to Tom’s house, thinking it was his yellow car than ran over his wife, and planning to kill him. Tom directs Wilson into Gatsby’s direction, knowing that Gatsby would die as a result. Nick wanders if Tom knew that it was Daisy who drove the car, and this is a question left in the air, for the reader to ponder over.
There are some parallels between Wilson and Gatsby that indirectly cause sympathy for both characters – their physical appearances are similar; they are both in love with women who are wrong for them, and they both die for love. The main difference between Wilson and Gatsby is that Wilson made a living from honest work, yet they both ended by dying a death as sticky and miserable as each others, so what is also implied is that in the Jazz age, wealth did not mean happiness, peace of mind did.
After he dies, the only people present at Gatsby’s funeral other than Nick and his father is Owl Eyes, a tiny procession, nothing like the size of Gatsby’s parties. Even Gatsby’s instructor into the corrupt world, Meyer Wolfshiem, is reluctant to speak to Nick about events, and when he does, he refuses to show up at the funeral. Daisy does not even write Nick a little, and when people call, Nick assumes they are calling to ask for details about the funeral, but this is yet another naïve thought – Klipspringer calls because he left a pair of shoes at Gatsby’s house. This is another example of how he was used, and since his demise, forgotten.
Henry Gatz’s adoration and fascination with all things related to his son is another way that the writer creates sympathy for Gatsby’s character. Gatz is poor, nothing like Gatsby appeared to be, yet we know that Gatsby was born into a family like this, and worked hard to get where he did. Nick uses emotive language on describing him for the first time, “helpless and dismayed,” and “bundled up in a long cheap ulster,” for us to pity him, thus, pitying Gatsby. Furthermore, when Gatz speaks about Jimmy’s childhood, it accentuates his potential, manners, and, though Jimmy Gatsby was never heavily condemned before for being a bootlegger, the few actions of his father completely relieve him of those indictments.
Before the funeral, Gatsby, real name Gatz’s, father reveals a schedule of his from when he was a young boy, revealing to-dos such as to stop smoking and be better to parents. The list appears features some endearing and sweet missions, and just the action of keeping a “General resolves” list is beautiful, and, at this moment, nostalgically sad. When Gatz says, “Jimmy was bound to get ahead,” he’s absolutely right, yet, the reader wonders how much further Jay Gatsby would’ve gotten ahead if he hadn’t met Daisy at the party when he was a soldier, only to have her dazzle and ruin his life.
Towards the end, Nick sees Tom, at first Tom tries to justify everything he did, knowing this is why Nick is angry with him:
“He was crazy enough to kill me if I hadn’t told him who owned the car.”
But then his sense of arrogance kicks in, and he tells himself, more than Nick, that he did the right thing: “That fellow had it coming to him.” Nick does not accept this, but he realises that Tom does, so he shakes his hand, although he had not forgiven Tom. His last thoughts on Tom and Daisy are:
“They smashed up things or creatures and retreated back into their vast carelessness.”
Deluged with money, Tom and Daisy are selfish, hedonistic people who don’t take anything seriously enough and always have their riches to hide behind. This is representative of the East as a whole – rich, corrupt beings, leading empty, hollow lives. At this point the writer expects us to sympathise with Gatsby – someone with such ideas, manners, and potential deserved someone better than Daisy, whom he viewed as his Goddess, his muse, his inspiration behind everything he did, who left Tom for a brief while to have her fun with Gatsby, but returned back to him when there was a disaster, due to her carelessness.
One of the messages of the book is that, perhaps, America doesn’t give enough recognition to its soldiers who fought in the war. Tom didn’t even go into the war, instead sending someone on his behalf, while he earns his wealth. Gatsby did the honest thing and went, then needed to get hold of money after the war, and the easiest way for him seemed to be on the Black market. The Jazz Age was also known for its obsession with materialism, real, or false. Nick, who started out so naïve, has travelled a personal voyage of discovery, learning what is right and wrong. Out of all the main characters presented, Nick, is the one who is closest to achieving the true American Dream.
Gatsby was by no means perfect, yet Nick chooses his representation of him to veer on hagiographical, because he realises, that out of the shallow, superficial people he meets in his 30th year, Gatsby is probably the best version of a human being. The Great Gatsby asks many questions, one of which is: “What is the American dream, and does it really exist?” It incorporates ideas of “Rags to Riches,” as well as happiness and discovery. Gatsby came to America, seeking it. He never received it, instead receiving several bullets, which killed him in an instant. Another branch of the American Dream that still exists today was to aspire to better things, which Gatsby also did, and all of his ambitions involved Daisy, someone who in the end, duped and used him. Tom argues that he had it coming, but when the events are weighed out, Gatsby is a much more pleasant character than Tom, as well as a man of hidden depths, and had more morals than both the Buchanans put together; he was much more than “just a big bootlegger.”