- Join over 1.2 million students every month
- Accelerate your learning by 29%
- Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month
The Great Gatsby Character Analysis
Get to know the main characters in The Great Gatbsy by reading our detailed analysis and exemplar essays.
James Gatz of North Dakota re-invents himself as Jay Gatsby of Long Island, but we don’t learn this until Chapter 6. Similarly, Gatsby is first seen at the end of Chapter 1 but not met until the middle of Chapter 3. Tom Buchanan’s question of who Gatsby is is asked in Chapter 6, and Nick Carraway’s narrative is the attempt to answer it. There are, however, a number of other answers. Various characters suggest that he is a bootlegger (an illegal smuggler of alcohol when Prohibition had largely banned it in the U.S.); a German spy; had killed a man once; a nephew or a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm’s; nephew to Von Hindenburg (German field marshal in World War 1); and, more credibly, an Oxford man who had served in the U.S. army in that war.
When Owl-Eyes discovers that Gatsby’s books are real he exclaims: “This fella’s a regular Belasco,” referring to an American theatrical producer, famous for the detail and plausibility of his stage-sets. In other words, Gatsby has gone to enormous trouble to create a kind of credible fakery. His house is a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy. In this sense, the title of the novel suggests that he is like an impresario- stage-managing vast parties, like a Broadway or Hollywood tycoon. This is not, however, ultimately the kind of greatness Nick has in mind.
Gatsby’s romantic readiness, gift for hope, and incorruptible dream are the elements that Nick comes to admire, which make Gatsby great. They centre around his love for Daisy, and his pursuit of her, confident that he can repeat the past. The fact that Daisy is clearly unworthy of such devotion makes him more admirable Nick, conscious that Gatsby cannot persuade Daisy to admit that she never loved Tom, sees Gatsby’s quest as mystical as much as passionate. He observes of Gatsby that: “At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” The word “incarnation” , a religious term for God-in-man, places Gatsby in an ethereal context, comparable to that which “flowered” for the Dutch sailors arriving in the new world, pursuing the last and greatest of human dreams.
When he meets Gatsby’s father, Henry Gatz (the only character who ever refers to Gatsby as the unreformed Jimmy), Nick is shown Gatsby’s youthful schedule. Mr Gatz says “Jimmy was bound to get ahead,” but the regime of hard work and effort embraced by James Gatz is corrupted by easy money in the vicinity.
Nick is the narrator of a story that mainly centres around Gatsby. The narrative is his attempt to understand Gatsby, and, despite his claim that he’s inclined to reserve all judgements, to defend his friend, saying after Gatsby’s death: “I found myself on Gatsby’s side, and alone.” Indeed at the end, it is Nick who takes charge of Gatsby’s affairs and tries to get mourners to attend his funeral. Throughout the novel he has a tendency to tidy up, clearing the soap from Mr McKee’s face at the Plaza party, erasing an obscene word scrawled on the steps of Gatsby’s house.
He says at the start of the novel that “Gatsby...represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn,” but goes on to say that Gatsby turned out all right at the end. This paradox is explained via a narrative in which Nick pieces together the truth about Jay Gatsby through a mist of rumours. At times he is repelled by Gatsby’s obvious deceit, only to be swayed by that radiant and understanding smile. The excess and vulgarity of Gatsby’s parties is balanced by the spiritual intensity of his love for Daisy, and Gatsby’s astonishing confidence that you can after all repeat the past. However ludicrous this may seem, and however much Gatsby’s connections (as with Wolfshiem) are dubious and immoral, Nick believes that his friend’s idealism sets him apart, connecting him to the purity of aspiration of the first Europeans to reach America, and causing him to shout on the last occasion he sees Gatsby alive: “They’re a rotten crowd...You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
Daisy’s floral name (from a rather ordinary flower) connects to the metaphorical colour of money – gold. “Her voice is full of money,” Gatsby says of her, and she is driving Gatsby’s yellow car when she kills Myrtle. Myrtle, another plant name, suggests a tougher, coarser type. Daisy is the object of Gatsby’s quest, which Nick compares to the following of a grail. Gatsby obtains his object, his grail, and believes that he can re-create their previous love. Daisy betrays her husband, Tom, himself a serial adulterer, but then she also betrays Gatsby. After the accident, which barely mentions Daisy’s responsibility, Tom whisks her away and takes baggage with them, - a detail which suggests the lure of Tom’s enormous wealth. When Nick sees them through the window, as Gatsby waits protectively outside, he observes: “There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said they were conspiring together.” The conspiracy eradicates Gatsby from her life, and Nick cannot contact her when he is trying to get mourners for Gatsby’s funeral.
It is possible to see Daisy as the mistreated wife, really in love with Gatsby all the time she’s married to Tom. Her motivation is hard to explain but the very ordinariness of her name, and the shallowness of her personality, suggest that she is someone incapable of living up to the adoration that Gatsby heaps upon her. Her voice may be low and thrilling but she says nothing of significance in the novel. When forced to choose between Tom and Gatsby, that voice becomes pitiful and she breaks under her husband’s pressure. Even her daughter, 3 years old yet still “the baby”, seems an accessory to the Buchanan wealth. “Bles-sed pre-cious,” she calls her, but the child is relinquished by the nurse. Used to the buffer of servants and retainers, wealth comes naturally to Daisy, and in the end she follows it.
Tom comes from old money, as opposed to the new money of the 1920s embodied by Gatsby. His family were enormously wealthy, as the string of polo ponies and the string of pearls he gives Daisy (valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars), demonstrate. There is a kind of vigorous masculinity about him, Nick says he has “a body capable of enormous leverage – a cruel body.” Despite his own frequent adulteries, and his continuing affair with Myrtle Wilson – whose nose he breaks – he has no intention of allowing Daisy to go off with “Mr Nobody from Mr Nowhere,” his scornful description of Gatsby.
He sees this threat to his marriage as comparable to intermarriage between black and white. Early in the novel he expresses fears that the white race will be utterly submerged, considering himself very much one of the dominant race, ideas that Fitzgerald would live long enough to see feeding into Nazism and Fascism.
Tom defeats Gatsby by forcing Daisy to admit that she can’t say that she never loved Tom. Then, confident enough to send them off in the same car, he completes Gatsby’s destruction, by telling Wilson where he can find the man Wilson assumes killed his wife. “That fellow had it coming to him,” he declared, even though it was Daisy in fact driving the death car.
When Nick meets Tom after the funeral he at first refuses to shake his hand. Eventually he does because he sees that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. Nick sees him as a child, like Daisy, and he reflects: “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...”
Named after two makes of motor car, Jordan Baker, whose relationship with Nick provides a contrast to that of Gatsby and Daisy, fulfils a contradictory role in a novel full of rumours and half-truths. She lies about leaving a car out in the rain with the top down and is strongly suspected of cheating at a golf tournament. She’s also a bad driver! Despite this air of unreliability, there is no reason to doubt the truth of her account of the early meetings of Daisy, Gatsby and Tom, in Chapter 4. After the death of Myrtle, Jordan seems unusually unaffected, and Nick finds himself moving apart from her – “I’d had enough of all of them for one day,” – placing his loyalty with Gatsby.
At their final meeting Nick describes her as looking like a good illustration and her sporting prowess, open manner and freewheeling social life, make her part of the new women of the 1920s. She accuses Nick of being a bad driver, claiming to have been misled into thinking he was an honest, straightforward person. In reality, though regretfully, Nick sees her as part of the shallow materialistic world he finally rejects in his awe of Gatsby.