Book Summary: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Book Summary: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Type of work: Human drama

Setting: New York City and Long Island; 1922

Principal characters

Nick Carraway, a young Midwest bond salesman, and the story’s narrator Jay Gatsby, a rich, young racketeer
Tom Buchanan, a wealthy playboy
Daisy Buchanan, his beautiful wife, and Nick’s cousin
Jordan Baker, an attractive pro golfer, and the Buchanans’ friend
George Wilson, a gas station owner
Myrtle Wilson, his wife – and Tom Buchanan’s mistress

The Great Gatsby Book Summary

After his return from the “Teutonic migration known as the Great War,” Nick Carraway felt too restless to work selling hardware in his Midwestern home town. He moved east to New York and entered the “bond business.” Settling on the low-budget side of Long Island in West Egg, Nick rented a bungalow next door to a mysterious, wealthy man-about-town known as Gatsby.

Shortly after arriving in New York, Nick was invited to dinner at the house of Tom and Daisy Buchanan on the more-fashionable side of Long Island. Nick did not know either Tom or Daisy very well, but he was Daisy’s second cousin and had attended Yale with Tom.

Tom led Nick into a back room of the Buchanan house, where they found Daisy talking with her friend Jordan Baker, a haughty yet beautiful young woman who appeared to be “balancing something on her chin.” By the time dinner was served on the porch, some untold tension was obviously building between Tom and Daisy, which climaxed after Tom left to answer a phone call.

When he did not return, Daisy stomped inside to see what was keeping her husband. Jordan hushed Nick before he could speak – she wanted to eavesdrop on the Buchanans’ muffled argument. Apparently Tom had met “some woman in New York …” When Nick arrived at his apartment that evening, he saw the figure of the reclusive Mr Gatsby himself, who had “come out to determine what share was his of [the] local heavens.” Nick almost called out to introduce himself to his neighbor, but something in Gatsby’s manner told Nick that he was content just then to be alone.

From what Nick could see, Gatsby was staring towards the city at a “single green light, minute and far away.” A couple of days later, Tom invited Nick to meet his mistress. He led Nick off the commuter train into a sleazy, unkempt area filled with garbage heaps. From there, they made their way to a second-rate gas station owned by a “spiritless man” named Wilson.

Under the pretext that he had a car he wanted to sell Wilson, Tom covertly arranged to meet Wilson’s dowdy, plump wife, Myrtle, in New York. On the ride into the City, Myrtle, along with her sister and a few friends, sat judiciously in a train car separate from Tom’s; then everyone took a taxi over to an apartment that Tom kept for his trysts with Myrtle. All that afternoon and evening the group drank whiskey and talked, while Nick tried unsuccessfully to find an excuse to leave. The party finally ended in a violent argument in which Tom broke Myrtle’s nose.

One of the few things Nick knew about Gatsby was that he threw lavish parties, where hundreds of people “came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” Finally, Nick was invited to one of the affairs, where he again ran into Jordan, and they mingled with others in conversations about who exactly the curious Gatsby was; it seemed none of the guests had even had a close view of their elusive host.

Rumors placed him as the Kaiser’s son, or as a German spy during the War, or maybe a fugitive killer. As the party wore on, Nick and Jordan found themselves sitting at a table with a rowdy, drunken girl and a man about Nick’s age. The two men began discussing their respective military service.

Then Nick’s new acquaintance introduced himself: he was Jay Gatsby. Much further into the evening, Jordan and Gatsby met in private to discuss something that Jordan said she was pledged not to reveal to anyone, not even Nick, until the right time. Weeks – and several parties – later, Gatsby arranged for Nick to have tea with Jordan, where she divulged the details of her conversation with Gatsby on the night of the party: It seemed that Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan had been well acquainted before the War.

Gatsby at that time was a young lieutenant waiting to go to the front, and Daisy was “just eighteen … by far the most popular of all the young girls in Louisville.” They had fallen in love. Unfortunately, Gatsby did not have the financial means to marry a girl of Daisy’s class.

When he was sent overseas, Daisy had decided that she could not wait, and married Tom Buchanan instead. Jordan then told Nick that Gatsby, still in love with Daisy, wanted him to invite Daisy to his place some afternoon and then let Gatsby “conveniently” drop in. Nick agreed to set things up.

And so, on a rainy afternoon, Gatsby and Daisy were reunited. After some nervous chitchat, Gatsby asked Daisy, along with Nick, to come next-door and see his place. As they moved from room to room and into the mansion’s well- kept gardens and pool area, Gatsby’s gaze was continually on Daisy.

Finally, as dusk was settling, Gatsby pointed out to Daisy that “if it wasn’t for the mist, we could see your home across the bay. …You always have a green light that burns all night.” The affair between Gatsby and Daisy went on for weeks, until one morning Gatsby unexpectedly asked Nick to lunch with him at Daisy’s the following day. The weather was broiling hot as Nick entered the Buchanan house.

Gatsby, Jordan, Tom and Daisy were all there, and, after some tension-filled conversation, including several subtle challenges between Tom and Gatsby, they all decided to drive to New York to escape the heat in a hotel room. Tom insisted on trading cars with Gatsby for the drive into the city, so Gatsby and Daisy took Tom’s car while Tom drove with Nick and Jordan in Gatsby’s new yellow roadster.

As Tom sped towards New York, he decided to spin by Wilson’s gas station to torment Mr Wilson for a few minutes. At the station, Nick noticed Myrtle peering out her second-story window: Her eyes, wide with jealous terror, were fixed not on Tom, but on Jordan Baker, whom she took to be his wife. Meanwhile, Wilson was relating to Tom how he suspected that his wife was involved with another man, and how the two of them would soon be moving west.

Feeling slandered and confused, Tom punched the gas pedal and raced off toward the city. There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind, and as we drove away Tom was feeling the hot whips of panic. His wife and his mistress, until an hour ago secure and inviolate, were slipping precipitately from his control.

Arriving in New York, Tom’s group met up with Gatsby and Daisy, and everyone retired to the Plaza Hotel to last out the heat sipping mint juleps. But soon Tom and Gatsby became embroiled in a heated argument. In anger, Gatsby roared that Daisy was in love with him now.

What’s more, he alleged that Daisy never did love Tom. Tom shouted that it was a lie, then turned to Daisy for acquittal. Although she wanted to side with Gatsby, she could not. “I can’t say I never loved Tom. … It wouldn’t be true,” she stuttered; but then she tearfully turned to tell her husband that she was leaving him. Tom was devastated that Daisy would take up with a bootlegging, racketeering criminal.

Gatsby headed for home in his roadster with Daisy at his side; Tom, Nick and Jordan drove a few miles behind. Suddenly Tom’s group came upon the scene of an accident in front of Wilson’s gas station. A woman, Myrtle Wilson, had been run over and killed; the “yellow car” that had hit her hadn’t even stopped. Tom, convinced that Gatsby had struck Myrtle, drove hurriedly on home. Tears streamed down his face. “The God damned coward!” he whimpered. “He didn’t even stop his car.”

After they came to the Buchanan house, Nick, deciding he’d had enough for one day, stepped out front to hail a taxi. There, concealed in the shadows, he found Gatsby, and learned about what had really happened: Daisy, angered and confused, had demanded to drive Gatsby’s car home.

When they had passed Wilson’s gas station, Myrtle, thinking it was Tom in the car, ran into the path of the speeding roadster. Now Gatsby was there in the yard to make sure Tom didn’t hurt Daisy. In time Nick convinced the shaken man to go home; Daisy would be alright.

All night George Wilson sat in a state of shock, weeping. By morning he had determined to punish the driver of the yellow car. He made his way to Tom’s house. But Tom, fearing for his own life, lied, and told the distressed Wilson that Gatsby had been Myrtle’s secret lover – and he was the owner of the yellow car.

Crazed with grief, Wilson sped to Gatsby’s estate. With the revolver he carried, he shot and killed the man as he swam in his pool. Wilson then turned the gun on himself. Nick tried to make Gatsby’s funeral a respectable affair.

But nobody came; only Nick, the minister, and Mr Gatz (Gatsby’s father from Minnesota) were there – not one of Gatsby’s party friends or racketeering buddies, not Daisy, not Jordan Baker. At the cemetery, an unknown man “with owl-eyed glasses” appeared. In a thick drizzle, the four of them laid the great Gatsby to rest.

…Owl-eyes spoke to me by the gate.
“I couldn’t get to the house,” he remarked.
“Neither could anybody else.”
“Go on!” he started. “Why, my God! They used to go there by the hundreds.”
He took off his glasses and wiped them. …
“The poor son-of-a-bitch,” he said.

After that summer, Nick returned to his modest Midwest town, no longer in awe of the big-city lights.

The Great Gatsby Reviews

The Great Gatsby is widely considered Fitzgerald’s finest novel. In Tom and Daisy, he creates two “careless people [who] smash up things and then retreat back into their money … and let other people clean up the mess. …” Gatsby, on the other hand, is larger than life, a hopeless and hopeful “great romantic,” who represents the worldly ambitions in all of us.

He believes in seizing the “green light” and the dreams of youth, no matter what the cost. Then there’s Nick, who insightfully describes both the careless cruelty of the Buchanans and the high-reaching dreams of Gatsby. He chronicles the events in an honest, sometimes breathless fashion, then shovels them all into a pile – for the reader to sort out.

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