World War 1 (1914-1918) had a big impact on America in the 1920’s. After all the death and destruction, people adopted a ‘live for today’ attitude.
The 1920’s are known as the Jazz Age: a time of music, dancing, drinking and fun. In the book, Gatsby’s lavish parties attract crowds of ‘nameless’ people in search of a good time.
The prohibition laws of 1919 made it illegal to sell liquor in America. Corrupt individuals made fortunes by “bootlegging”. Many government officials were bribed. In the book, Meyer Wolfsheim and Jay Gatsby are involved in illegal activities.
In the 1920’s many left the small towns in search of a good life in the cities (e.g. Nick Carraway). Fortunes were made by investing in stocks and shares. Historically wealthy families (“old money”) despised the self-made millionaires (“new money”).
As a boy, James Gatz was disciplined and determined. He rejected poverty and dreamed of a better life.
A chance meeting with Dan Cody, a retired millionaire, allowed James Gatz to 'die' and his alter ego, Jay Gatsby, to be 'born'.
Dan tutored Jay in the high life (and the evils of drinking too much alcohol!), and taught him to move effortlessly in upper class social circles. Jay learned to be charming and use his charisma to get his own way.
When he was swindled out of the inheritance that Dan left him, Jay was once again penniless.
Enlisting in the army gave him an air of respectability and a uniform to hide his poverty behind.
It allowed him to mix with a beautiful young lady called Daisy, with whom he fell hopelessly in love. Their "month of love" was cut short by Jay's deployment to the battlefields of France during World War I. Despite not having the means to maintain Daisy's lifestyle, he promised to come back and marry her.
After the war - in which Gatsby distinguished himself - he was rewarded with a bursary to study at Oxford University in England. While this further added to his ambition of becoming a 'gentleman', it had unintended consequences.
Tom Buchanan, a fabulously wealthy bachelor from an established family, arrived in town and swept Daisy off her feet. They were soon married.
This was the definitive moment of Jay's life.
Daisy knew that her love for Gatsby was impossible because of his lack of money. She married Tom because he was a 'good catch' and would be able to look after her materially.
Gatsby was devastated. He resolved to do whatever it took to make himself worthy of her love. He dedicated his life to winning her back.
From that point on, he worked hard to make a fortune of his own. Together with a shady underworld figure, Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby made money from bootlegging and other scams. In five short years he went from poverty and obscurity to wealth and fame.
Unfortunately his dream was always doomed to fail. As Nick said, "You can't turn back time." In any event, Daisy could never have lived up to his idealized expectations.
So what makes Gatsby great?
While others pursued wealth or their own pleasures, Gatsby pursued love. Whatever he did, he did for one reason - his love for Daisy. What could be more romantic?
He was the underdog. He faced impossible obstacles that others would have baulked at, but he was not deterred. How can you not admire his audacity and determination?
He was totally, absolutely, 100% committed to his dream. He worked steadfastly for five long years, never wavering from his goal. Surely his single-mindedness and commitment is great?
On the surface Daisy is beautiful, glamorous, sophisticated and seductive, but her true character is shallow, manipulative, self-centered and childish.
Her life's ambition is summed up in her hopes for her daughter: that she'll be a "beautiful little fool" - beautiful so that she'll get a good man; a fool so that she won't notice what he does.
This attitude leads her to choose Tom's materialism over Jay's love ... twice!
Her behavior towards others is careless and irresponsible. We see this especially after Myrtle's death when she is happy for Jay to take the blame and suffer the consequences while she moves on with her life.
But perhaps her most reprehensible act - and the one for which she deserves Nick judgment of her as “foul dust” - is her behavior after Jay's death. She didn't even attend his funeral.
Now that's cold!
Nick is a decent and honest man with strong principles (although he does tell a few white lies on occasion!). People like him and open up to him, especially Gatsby.
He comes from a good family in the middle of America. He is excited to move to the East Coast and work in New York, but the events of the summer of 1922 make him disillusioned and cynical.
After watching Gatsby’s dream die Nick realizes that the fast life on the East Coast is a cover for the terrifying moral emptiness that the Valley of Ashes symbolizes. Having gained this maturity he returns to Minnesota in search of a quieter life with traditional moral values.
Tom comes from a fabulously wealthy family. In his youth he was a successful sportsman but he has failed to achieve anything notable since.
Despite his university education at Yale, he soaks up everything he reads without thinking and, as a result, has some bizarre racial beliefs.
Because of his wealth, he is arrogant and condescending, especially towards those who are newly rich (like Gatsby). He is also dismissive and mocking of Wilson.
The sense of entitlement that money gives Tom also leads him to treat Daisy with contempt - his infidelity began on their honeymoon! - and it's only when he senses competition from Gatsby that Tom reawakens his interest in Daisy.
He also disrespects Daisy in the way he handles his affairs. He accepts phonecalls from his mistress at home, and is quite open about being seen with her in public.
He seems genuinely upset at Myrtle's death, more so than he is at his wife's affair, but moves on quickly.
Tom and Daisy band together and probably strengthen their relationship as a result of the tragic events. It seems theirs is a relationship that suits them both: Daisy is a trophy wife and Tom is a walking wallet.
Nick ultimately judges him, along with Daisy, to be “foul dust”.
Personally, I think Myrtle's a skank and I'd have her tested for STD's!
Myrtle incorrectly assumed that George was a gentleman (i.e. had money), and married him. When she found out that she had been mistaken, she became bitterly disillusioned and disappointed with her life and blamed her husband for it.
She scorns and belittles him as a result, even going so far as to assume that he's not worthy to "lick her shoes".
Despite her humble upbringing, she is a snob who yearns for social status. She longs to live the high life that Daisy lives, and puts on airs-and-graces in a ridiculous display of pretension at her party!
Myrtle's account of her introduction to Tom reveals a lot about her. Of all the things she could remember, she remembers the clothes he was wearing, even down to his shoes! Basically she saw a rich man in an expensive suit and thought: Yeh, baby, yeh! (Ironically, she made the same assumption about George but it turned out he had borrowed the suit!)
She is seductive and uses her sexuality to try to secure a better future for herself but, as much as she deceives George about the affair, she is herself deceived by Tom, who has no intention of leaving Daisy. She believes his lies and carries on hoping.
On the face of it, George is a bit of a loser. However, with some love and encouragement instead of derision from his wife ... who knows???
George is an honest and principled man who does the best he can, but, for whatever reason, his business is failing. He is one of the “ash-grey men” who live in the Valley of Ashes.
He is distraught over his wife’s affair and locks her up. His answer to it is to move back west where people subscribed to more traditional values.
He goes crazy after Myrtle’s death and, acting on information given by Tom, kills Gatsby and then himself.
This is such a sad waste of a life, as suicide always is.
Jordan is a long-time friend of Daisy, and like Daisy, she is rich, spoiled and self-indulgent.
Although Nick is attracted to Jordan, he is ultimately put off by her lack of “interior rules” (i.e. morals). We see this in a number of ways:
She plays professional golf but was accused of cheating in a tournament.
Jordan nearly has an accident and Nick tells her she should be more carefull. She replies that others should be careful of her. In other words, others must take full responsibility while she acts with impunity.
Nothing seems to phase Jordan (e.g. the affairs, the death of Myrtle), even though they should!
Although Nick ultimately puts her in the category of “foul dust”, I must confess to liking Jordan. Despite her shortcomings, she's a feminist icon: a proud, strong, independent woman who lives life on her own terms. You go girl!
The major theme of the book is a critique of the American Dream.
Other themes include:
Dreams vs Reality
The American Dream:
“The American Dream” is an important concept in The Great Gatsby. It is based on the American Declaration of Independence which promised citizens “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The American Dream is the belief that all Americans are entitled to happiness and should pursue it.
“The pursuit of happiness” was intended to be a spiritual quest -
Spiritual values were corrupted by the pursuit of money and the good life. Materialism and selfishness became the foundation of “the pursuit of happiness”.
In the book, Jay Gatsby pursues the American Dream. He has great material wealth (dishonestly gained!) but finds no happiness. He uses his wealth to pursue happiness with Daisy Buchanan but fails. He loses Daisy and, ultimately, his own life.
Myrtle Wilson also pursues the American Dream. She uses Tom Buchanan as her vehicle to happiness and a better life. Ironically, her pursuit of the American Dream claims her life in the end. It is Daisy Buchanan, the very person who Myrtle aspires to be, who is responsible for her death.
George Wilson’s pursuit of the American Dream goes wrong. He has the means to get wealthy BUT his business fails. He has the means to be happy BUT his wife is unfaithful. The American Dream proves elusive for George and in the end, he loses everything.
Tom and Daisy are supposedly living the American Dream. However, despite their riches, they are bored and unhappy. They are too shallow and self-absorbed to find purpose or meaning in life. They are materially wealthy but are spiritually bankrupt and fail to fulfill the true meaning of the American Dream.
Nick Carraway is the only character who truly pursues the American Dream. He is honest and hard working, and his pursuit of wealth is guided by his moral compass. His character and work ethic – on which the American Dream is really built – should ensure that he, alone, succeeds in fulfilling it.
Materialism is the pursuit of material possessions (money, houses, etc).
East Egg represents “old money”.
“Old money” (people who inherit wealth) scorn and reject “new money” (people who, like Gatsby, earn it) and believe themselves to be socially superior.
These people lived careless, superficial lives with no purpose. They take no responsibility for their actions and Nick judges them to be “foul dust”. Gatsby tries to gain acceptance into this world by a vulgar show of wealth.
West Egg represents “new money”. These people often flaunted their money in a vulgar and common way.
Failure to achieve material success leads to feelings of futility and hopelessness (e.g. the Wilson’s).
Dreams vs Reality:
Gatsby dreams of Daisy are:
Idealistic (i.e. not based in reality)
Extravagant (i.e. over the top)
Incorruptible (i.e. won’t fade)
Built on the dreams of an adolescent (i.e. unrealistic and naïve)
The reality is very different. Daisy could never be that perfect and Gatsby sets himself up for disappointment. Also, Gatsby cannot erase her life with Tom.
Nick dreams of an exciting and fulfilling life in the East … but returns hardened and disillusioned.
Myrtle dreams of escaping her life in the valley of ashes … but dies in it.
George Wilson also dreams of escaping the valley of ashes in an attempt to save his marriage … but he can't escape it either.
The difference in social classes is a major concern of the novel. We are shown the upper class consisting of Tom and Daisy. They are characterised as being superficial, careless and hollow and they look down on the lower classes.
This is contrasted heavily by George Wilson and Gatsby. They are sincere and loyal and strive to improve their lives, not just for themselves but for those they love as well.
Men are seen as the providers. Gatsby lost Daisy because he couldn't provide for her, thereby opening the door for Tom, who provides for her with his old money.
George works hard to provide for his wife (although she expects more than he can provide).
Women are seen as possessions or accessories, and they define themselves by their ability to attract wealthy men.
In a sense, both Daisy and Myrtle are emprisoned by their husbands. Daisy is controlled by Tom's wealth and status. The payoff for her life of privilege is to be trapped in a life of betrayal and hurt. Myrtle is literally emprisoned by her husband who tries to control her by locking her up in a room!
Fully answer the following questions on each chapter of the novel:
Summarize the key events of the chapter in point form. Your summary should include details of the following: a) What happens? b) To whom? c) By whom? d) Why? e) With what result?
What does the chapter reveal about the characters? Look specifically at the following factors: a) What the characters think and say about themselves? b) What the characters think and say about each other? c) What their actions and reactions reveal about themselves?
What symbols are referenced in the chapter? What do they signify?
How is our understanding of the major themes deepened? Look specifically at the following factors: a) Which themes are explored in the chapter? b) Through which actions or circumstances are these themes explored?
Once we have completed the novel, complete the following Book Report on it: