Great Gatsby Characterization Essay

In The Great Gatsby, Daisy Fay Buchanan is the object of Jay Gatsby’s singular obsession, which means in many ways she is the center of the novel. But despite this, there is quite a bit we don’t know about Daisy Buchanan as a character – her inner thoughts, her desires, and even her motivations can be hard to read.

So what do we know about Daisy, and what would a typical analysis of her look like? Learn all about Daisy, Great Gatsby’s most alluring, controversial character, though her description, actions, famous quotes, and a detailed character analysis.

 

Article Roadmap

  1. Daisy as a Character
    • Physical description
    • Daisy's background
    • Actions in the novel
  2. Character Analysis
    • Quotes about and by Daisy
    • Common discussion topics
    • FAQ aswering student confusion about Daisy's motivations and actions

 

Quick Note on Our Citations

Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book. To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.

 

Daisy Buchanan's Physical Description

First up: what does Daisy look like?

“I looked back at my cousin who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. 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 had 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.” (1.33)

Now and then she moved and he changed his arm a little and once he kissed her dark shining hair. (8.16)

Note that Daisy’s magnetic voice is a central part of her description – Nick describes her voice before her physical appearance, and doesn’t even include key details like her hair color until much later on in the book. We’ll discuss Daisy’s voice in depth later in this post.

Also, note that Daisy is modeled after dark-haired beauty Ginevra King. King married another man despite Fitzgerald’s love for her (sound familiar?). Oddly, despite this biographical fact – and the clear description of Daisy's “dark shining hair” – all of the films show Daisy as blonde. 

 

 

Daisy Buchanan's Background

Daisy Buchanan, born Daisy Fay, is from a wealthy family in Louisville, Kentucky. Popular and beautiful, she was courted by several officers during World War I. She met and fell in love with Jay Gatsby, an officer at the time, and promised to wait for him to return from the war. However, she succumbed to pressure from her family and married Tom Buchanan instead. The next year, they had a baby girl together, Pammy.

Although Daisy is happy immediately after she and Tom are married, he begins having affairs almost immediately after their honeymoon to the South Seas. By the time Pammy is born, Daisy has become rather pessimistic, saying that the best thing in the world a girl can be is “a beautiful little fool” (1.118).

The couple move around to anywhere where “people played polo and were rich together” – specifically, they live in both Chicago and France before moving to Long Island (1.17). Despite associating with a partying crowd in Chicago, Daisy’s reputation comes out unscathed: “They moved with a fast crowd, all of them young and rich and wild, but she came out with an absolutely perfect reputation. Perhaps because she doesn't drink. It's a great advantage not to drink among hard-drinking people” (4.144).

By the beginning of the novel, Daisy and Tom hope to stay in New York permanently, but Nick is skeptical about this: “This was a permanent move, said Daisy over the telephone, but I didn't believe it” (1.17). Daisy frequently hosts her friend Jordan Baker, and seems desperate for something -- or someone -- to distract her from her restlessness and increasing pessimism.

To see how Daisy's background ties her in to the biographies of the other characters, check out our novel timeline.

 

Daisy's Actions in the Book

We first meet Daisy in Chapter 1. She invites Nick Carraway over to her home for dinner, where he is first introduced to Jordan Baker. Tom takes a call from his mistress Myrtle during the evening, creating some tension. Daisy later confesses dramatically to Nick about her marital troubles, but undercuts that confession with "an absolute smirk" (1.120). When Nick leaves he has already predicted Daisy won’t leave Tom: “It seemed to me that the thing for Daisy to do was to rush out of the house, child in arms--but apparently there were no such intentions in her head” (1.150).

In Chapter 5, Nick invites Daisy to tea over at his house. This is actually just an excuse for Jay Gatsby to come over and reunite with her after five years apart. After a tearful reunion, she tours Gatsby’s lavish mansion. Later, Nick leaves them alone and they begin an affair.

Daisy attends one of Gatsby’s riotous parties in Chapter 6 and hates it. This causes Gatsby to stop throwing his parties entirely. He also fires his old staff and brings a new staff sent by Meyer Wolfshiem to his house – in part because of his business but also to help keep his affair with Daisy secret.

In Chapter 7, Gatsby pushes Daisy to confront Tom, say she never loved him, and leave him. They originally plan to do this in Daisy and Tom’s house, but end up driving to Manhattan instead since everyone is so agitated. The confrontation ends up occurring in a room in the Plaza Hotel, and Daisy finds she can’t completely disavow Tom. This crushes Gatsby, and Tom, certain of his victory, tells Daisy she can drive home with Gatsby – he does this as a show of power; he’s confident that at this point Daisy will never leave him, even if she's left alone with Gatsby.

During that drive back to East Egg, Myrtle Wilson runs out in the road (she has confused Gatsby’s yellow car with Tom’s) and Daisy runs her over and continues without stopping. Myrtle is killed on impact.

The next day, she and Tom leave New York to avoid the fall out from the accident. She avoids contact from both Nick and Gatsby, such that we never see her response to Gatsby’s death or even her own response to killing Myrtle. This means our last glimpse of Daisy in the novel is at the end of Chapter 7, sitting across from Tom: “Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table with a plate of cold fried chicken between them and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement" (7.409).

So Nick leaves Daisy in Chapter 7 just as he did in Chapter 1 – alone with Tom, not happy, but not unhappy either. His prediction has turned out to be accurate: Daisy is too comfortable and secure in her marriage with Tom to seriously consider leaving it. We'll dig into more reasons why Daisy doesn't divorce Tom below.

 

In fairness, fried chicken makes just about any situation better.

 

Daisy Buchanan Quotes (Lines By and About Daisy)

She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. 'All right,' I said, 'I'm glad it's a girl. And I hope she'll be a fool--that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool." (1.118)

This deeply pessimistic comment is from the first time we meet Daisy in Chapter 1. She has just finished telling Nick about how when she gave birth to her daughter, she woke up alone – Tom was “god knows where.” She asks for the baby’s sex and cries when she hears it’s a girl. So beneath her charming surface we can see Daisy is somewhat despondent about her role in the world and unhappily married to Tom. That said, right after this comment Nick describes her "smirking," which suggests that despite her pessimism, she doesn't seem eager to change her current state of affairs.

 

"Here, dearis." She groped around in a waste-basket she had with her on the bed and pulled out the string of pearls. "Take 'em downstairs and give 'em back to whoever they belong to. Tell 'em all Daisy's change' her mine. Say 'Daisy's change' her mine!'."

She began to cry--she cried and cried. I rushed out and found her mother's maid and we locked the door and got her into a cold bath. She wouldn't let go of the letter. She took it into the tub with her and squeezed it up into a wet ball, and only let me leave it in the soap dish when she saw that it was coming to pieces like snow.

But she didn't say another word. We gave her spirits of ammonia and put ice on her forehead and hooked her back into her dress and half an hour later when we walked out of the room the pearls were around her neck and the incident was over. Next day at five o'clock she married Tom Buchanan without so much as a shiver and started off on a three months' trip to the South Seas. (4.140-2)

In this flashback, narrated by Jordan, we learn all about Daisy’s past and how she came to marry Tom, despite still being in love with Jay Gatsby. In fact, she seems to care about him enough that after receiving a letter from him, she threatens to call off her marriage to Tom. However, despite this brief rebellion, she is quickly put back together by Jordan and her maid – the dress and the pearls represent Daisy fitting back into her prescribed social role. And indeed, the next day she marries Tom “without so much as a shiver,” showing her reluctance to question the place in society dictated by her family and social status.

 

"They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. "It makes me sad because I've never seen such--such beautiful shirts before." (5.118)

During Daisy and Gatsby’s reunion, she is delighted by Gatsby’s mansion but falls to pieces after Gatsby giddily shows off his collection of shirts.

This scene is often confusing to students. Why does Daisy start crying at this particular display? The scene could speak to Daisy’s materialism: that she only emotionally breaks down at this conspicuous proof of Gatsby’s newfound wealth. But it also speaks to her strong feelings for Gatsby, and how touched she is at the lengths he went to to win her back.

 

“What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon,” cried Daisy, “and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” (7.74)

In Chapter 7, as Daisy tries to work up the courage to tell Tom she wants to leave him, we get another instance of her struggling to find meaning and purpose in her life. Beneath Daisy’s cheerful exterior, there is a deep sadness, even nihilism, in her outlook (compare this to Jordan’s more optimistic response that life renews itself in autumn).

 

“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.

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. . . . (7.105-6)

Gatsby explicitly ties Daisy and her magnetic voice to wealth. This particular line is really crucial, since it ties Gatsby’s love for Daisy to his pursuit of wealth and status. It also allows Daisy herself to become a stand-in for the idea of the American Dream. We'll discuss even more about the implications of Daisy's voice below.

 

"Oh, you want too much!" she cried to Gatsby. "I love you now--isn't that enough? I can't help what's past." She began to sob helplessly. "I did love him once--but I loved you too." (7.264)

During the climactic confrontation in New York City, Daisy can’t bring herself to admit she only loved Gatsby, because she did also love Tom at the beginning of their marriage. This moment is crushing for Gatsby, and some people who read the novel and end up disliking Daisy point to this moent as proof. Why couldn’t she get up the courage to just leave that awful Tom? they ask.

However, I would argue that Daisy’s problem isn’t that she loves too little, but that she loves too much. She fell in love with Gatsby and was heartbroken when he went to war, and again when he reached out to her right before she was set to marry Tom. And then she fell deeply in love with Tom in the early days of their marriage, only to discover his cheating ways and become incredibly despondent (see her earlier comment about women being “beautiful little fools”). So by now she’s been hurt by falling in love, twice, and is wary of risking another heartbreak.

Furthermore, we do see again her reluctance to part with her place in society. Being with Gatsby would mean giving up her status as old-money royalty and instead being the wife of a gangster. That’s a huge jump for someone like Daisy, who was essentially raised to stay within her class, to make. So it's hard to blame her for not giving up her entire life (not to mention her daughter!) to be with Jay.

 

Daisy Buchanan Character Analysis

To understand Daisy’s role in the story and to analyze her actions, understanding the context of the 1920s – especially the role of women – is key. First of all, even though women’s rights were expanding during th 1920s (spurred by the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1919), the prevailing expectation was still that women, especially wealthy women, would get married and have children and that was all. Divorce was also still uncommon and controversial.

 

Pictured: the biggest moment Daisy Buchanan could ever aspire to.

 

So Daisy, as a wife and mother who is reluctant to leave an unhappy marriage, can be seen as a product of her time, while other female characters like Jordan and Myrtle are pushing their boundaries a bit more. You can explore these issues in essays that ask you to compare Daisy and Myrtle or Daisy in Jordan – check out how in our article on comparing and contrasting Great Gatsby characters.

Also, make sure you understand the idea of the American Dream and Daisy as a stand-in for it. You might be asked to connect Daisy to money, wealth, or the American Dream based on that crucial comment about her voice being made of money.

Finally, be sure to read chapters 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 carefully for any Daisy analysis! (She doesn’t appear in Chapters 2, 3, 8, or 9.)

 

What does Daisy represent? Wealth, unrequited love, the American dream, or something else entirely?

Daisy definitely represents the old money class, from her expensive but relatively conservative clothing (like the white dress she is introduced in), to her “fashionable, glittering white mansion” (1.15) in East Egg, to her background, that “beautiful white girlhood” (1.140) spent in Louisville. You can also argue that she represents money itself more broadly, thanks to Gatsby’s observation that “her voice is full of money” (7.105).

She also is the object that Gatsby pursues, the person who has come to stand in for all of his hopes, dreams, and ambition: “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” (6.134). Because of this connection, some people tie Daisy herself to the American Dream – she is as alluring and ultimately as fickle and illusive as the promises of a better life.

Some people also say Daisy stands for the relatively unchanged position of many women in the 1920s – despite the new rights granted by the 19th amendment, many women were still trapped in unhappy marriages, and constrained by very strict gender roles.

For an essay about what Daisy represents, you can argue for any of these points of view – old money, money itself, the American Dream, status of women, or something else – but make sure to use quotes from the book to back up your argument!

 

Why is Daisy’s voice so important?

First, we should note the obvious connection to sirens in The Odyssey – the beautiful creatures who lure men in with their voices. The suggestion is that Daisy’s beautiful voice makes her both irresistible and dangerous, especially to men. By making her voice her most alluring feature, rather than her looks or her movement, Fitzgerald makes that crucial allusion clear.

He also makes it easier to connect Daisy to less-tangible qualities like money and the American Dream, since it’s her voice – something that is ephemeral and fleeting – that makes her so incredibly alluring. If Daisy were just an especially beautiful woman or physically alluring like Myrtle, she wouldn’t have that symbolic power.

Daisy’s beautiful voice is also interesting because this is a very chatty novel – there is a lot of dialogue! But Daisy is the only character whose voice is continually described as alluring. (There are a few brief descriptions of Jordan’s voice as pleasant but it can also come across as “harsh and dry” according to Nick (8.49).) This creates the impression that it doesn’t really matter what she’s saying, but rather her physicality and what she represents to Gatsby is more important. That in turn could even be interpreted as misogynistic on Fitzgerald’s part, since the focus is not on what Daisy says, but how she says it.

 

Discuss Daisy, Jordan, and the role of women in the 1920s. Are they flappers? Who's more independent?

This question might seem quite simple at first: Daisy is sticking to her prescribed societal role by marrying and having a child, while Jordan plays golf, “runs around town” and doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to marry. Daisy is conservative while Jordan is an independent woman – or as independent as a woman could be during the 1920s. Case closed, right?

Not quite! This could definitely be the impression you get at the beginning of the novel, but things change during the story. Daisy does seem to contemplate divorce, while Jordan ends up engaged (or so she claims). And even if Jordan is not currently engaged, the fact she brings up engagement to Nick strongly hints that she sees that as her end goal in life, and that her current golf career is just a diversion.

Furthermore, both Daisy and Jordan are also at the mercy of their families: Daisy derives all of her wealth and power from Tom, while Jordan is beholden to an old wealthy aunt who controls her money. They don’t actually have control over their own money, and therefore their choices.

So while Jordan and Daisy both typify a very showy lifestyle that looks liberated – being “flappers,” having sex, drinking alcohol (which before the 1920s was seen as a highly indecent thing for a woman to do in public), and playing golf in Jordan’s case – they in fact are still thoroughly constrained by the limited options women had in the 1920s in terms of making their own lives.

 

  

Do we really know Daisy as a character? Does anyone really know her?

One argument Daisy supporters (people who argue she’s misunderstood and unfairly vilified by certain reads of the novel) make often is that we don’t really know Daisy that well by the end of the novel. Nick himself admits in Chapter 1 that he has “no sight into Daisy’s heart” (1.17).

And readers aren’t the only people who think this. Fitzgerald himself lamented after the novel failed to sell well that its lack of success was due to the lack of major, well-developed female characters. In a letter to his editor, Fitzgerald wrote: “the book contained no important woman character, and women control the fiction market at present.”

In any case, I think our best glimpse at Daisy comes through the portion narrated by Jordan – we see her intensely emotional response to hearing from Gatsby again, and for once get a sense of how trapped she feels by the expectations set by her family and society. The fact that Nick turns the narrative over to Jordan there suggests that he doesn’t feel comfortable sharing these intimate details about Daisy and/or he doesn’t really value Daisy’s story or point of view.

So, unfortunately, we just don’t see much of Daisy’s inner self or motivations during the novel. Probably the character who knows her best is Jordan, and perhaps if Gatsby were from Jordan’s point of view, and not Nick’s, we would know much more about Daisy, for better or worse.

 

How would the novel be different if Daisy and Gatsby got together at the end?

The Great Gatsby would probably much less memorable with a happy ending, first of all! Sad endings tend to stick in your mind more stubbornly than happy ones.

Furthermore, the novel would lose its power as a somber reflection on the American Dream. After all, if Gatsby “got the girl,” then he would have achieved everything he set out to get – money, status, and his dream girl. The novel would be a fulfillment of the American Dream, not a critique.

The novel would also lose its power as an indictment of class in the US, since if Daisy and Gatsby ended up together it would suggest walls coming down between old and new money, something that never happens in the book.

That ending would also seem to reward both Gatsby’s bad behavior (the bootlegging, gambling) as well as Daisy’s (the affair, and even Myrtle’s death), which likely would have made it less likely Gatsby would have caught on as an American classic during the ultra-conservative 1950s. Instead, the novel’s tragic end feels somewhat appropriate given everyone's lack of morality.

In short, although on your first read of the novel, you more than likely are hoping for Gatsby to succeed in winning over Daisy, you have to realize the novel would be much less powerful with a stereotypically happy ending. Ending with Daisy and Tom as a couple might feel frustrating, but it forces the reader to confront the inescapable inequality of the novel’s society.

 

FAQ

 

Does anyone else hate Daisy?

At the end of the first read of Gatsby, many students don’t like Daisy much. After all, she turned Gatsby down, killed Myrtle, and then skipped town, even refusing to go to Gatsby’s funeral! Perhaps that’s why, on the internet and even in student essays, Daisy often bears the brunt of readers’ criticism -- many forums and polls and blogs ask the same question over and over: “does anyone else hate Daisy?”

But you have to remember that the story is told from Nick’s point of view, and he comes to revere Gatsby. And since Daisy turns Gatsby down, it’s unlikely Nick would be sympathetic toward her.

Furthermore, we don’t know very much about Daisy or her internal life – aside from Chapter 1, Nick doesn’t have any revealing conversations with her and we know little about how her motivations or emotions change over the novel. There are also hints that she is emotionally unstable – see her interactions with Gatsby, Jordan, and Nick in Chapter 7:

As [Tom] left the room again she got up and went over to Gatsby and pulled his face down kissing him on the mouth.

"You know I love you," she murmured.

"You forget there's a lady present," said Jordan.

Daisy looked around doubtfully.

"You kiss Nick too."

"What a low, vulgar girl!"

"I don't care!" cried Daisy and began to clog on the brick fireplace (7.42-8).

With her husband in the next room, Daisy kisses Gatsby, encourages Jordan to kiss Nick, and then starts dancing gleefully on the fireplace, only to calm down and begin crooning exaggeratedly as her daughter is brought into the room. These aren’t exactly the actions of a calm, cool, collected individual. They suggest immaturity at best, but at worst, emotional or even psychological instability. How can Daisy stand up to the weight of Gatsby's dreams and expectations if she's barely keeping it together herself?

Basically, be careful about jumping to conclusions about Daisy. It’s understandable – you could argue even it is Fitzgerald’s intention – that the reader doesn’t like Daisy. But you shouldn’t judge her more harshly than other characters in the book.

For more on Daisy's unpopularity among Gatsby fans, check out these recentdefenses of her.

 

Does Daisy really love Gatsby? Does Gatsby really love Daisy?

Daisy openly admits to loving both Tom and Gatsby, and the flashback scene suggests she really did love Gatsby before she married Tom. As we discussed above, it’s possible she doesn’t leave Tom partially because she’s wary of another heartbreak, along with her reluctance to give up her place in society.

Gatsby is in love with Daisy, but he loves her more for her status and what she represents to him (old money, wealth, the American Dream). In fact, Gatsby is willfully ignorant of Daisy’s emotions later in the novel: he lurks outside the Buchanans’ house at the end of Chapter 7, convinced that Daisy still intends to run away with him, while Nick observes that Daisy and Tom are closely bonded. Instead of loving Daisy as a person and seeking to understand her, he becomes carried away with his image of her and clings to it – a choice that leads to his downfall.

 

Why doesn’t Daisy just divorce Tom?

Divorce was still rate and controversial in the 1920s, so it wasn’t an option for many women, Daisy included. Plus, as we’ve discussed above, part of Daisy still loves Tom, and they do have a child together, which would make it even harder to divorce.

Finally, and most crucially, Daisy is very at home in her social world (as seen by how uncomfortable she is at Gatsby’s party), and also values her reputation, keeping it spotless in Chicago despite moving with a fast crowd. Would Daisy really be willing to risk her reputation and give up her social standing, even if it meant being free from Tom and his affairs?

 

Is Daisy the most destructive character in the book?

You could argue that since Daisy was the one who killed Myrtle, which led to the deaths of George and Gatsby, that Daisy is the most destructive character. That said, Gatsby’s obsession with her is what places her in the hotel that fateful night and sparks the whole tragedy.

Nick, for his part, faults both Daisy and Tom, as rich people who smash things up and leave the mess for others to clean up (9.146). However, Nick comes to admire and revere Gatsby after his death and doesn’t dwell on Gatsby’s role in Myrtle’s death.

As a reader, you can consider the events of the novel, the limitations of Nick’s narration, and your interpretation of the characters to decide who you think is the most destructive or dangerous. You can also decide if it's worth deciding which character is the most destructive -- after all, this is a novel full of immoral behavior and crime.

 

What’s Next?

Want to read even more in-depth about Daisy’s marriage to Tom and her affair with Gatsby? Learn all about love, desire, and relationships in Gatsby to find out how her relationships stack up to everyone else’s!

If you’re writing a compare and contrast essay featuring Daisy, make sure to read about the other character featured as well – here are our pages for Jordan and Myrtle.

Confused about the events of Chapter 7? Don’t be ashamed. It’s a monster chapter – more than double the length of the other chapters in the book! It also contains several intricate conversations and events that can be a bit hard to follow. Check out our summary of Chapter 7 for a clear breakdown and analysis.

 

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The man, the myth, the legend, Jay Gatsby is the titular hero of The Great Gatsby.

Nick first comes to know him as an incredibly wealthy, mysterious man who throws lavish parties, but we eventually learn his background: a boy from humble origins who is desperate to win back the love of a rich woman, Daisy, and loses everything in his last attempt to win her over.

So where did Gatsby get his money? Does he actually love Daisy? And what’s so “great” about him anyway? This guide explains Gatsby’s rags-to-riches story, what he does in the novel, his most famous lines, and common essay topics. Read on for an in-depth guide to all things Jay Gatsby.


Article Roadmap

  1. Gatsby as a character
    • Physical description
    • Gatsby's background
    • Actions in the novel
  2. Character Analysis
    • Quotes about and by Gatsby
    • Common discussion topics and essay ideas
    • FAQ clarifying confusing points about Gatsby

 

Quick Note on Our Citations

Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book. To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.

 

Jay Gatsby's Physical Description

We were sitting at a table with a man of about my age (3.60)

He smiled understandingly--much more than understandingly. 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 favor. 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. 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. (3.76) 

His tanned skin was drawn attractively tight on his face and his short hair looked as though it were trimmed every day. (3.93)

Gatsby’s very first appearance is a bit surprising and anti-climatic – he is presented as just another party-goer of Nick’s age before it’s revealed that he’s actually the famous Gatsby. That said, Nick’s description of Gatsby’s smile – “rare” and “full of eternal reassurances” that “understood you the way you wanted to be understood” – sets Gatsby apart as someone special and alluring.

Gatsby has tan skin and short hair, but otherwise most of Gatsby’s characterization comes through his dialogue and actions – Nick doesn’t linger on his physical appearance the way he does with other characters (especially Tom and Myrtle).

Perhaps Gatsby having more of a “blank slate” appearance allows the reader to more easily project his shifting characterization onto him (from mysterious party host to the military man madly in love with Daisy to the ambitious farmboy James Gatz), whereas characters like Tom Buchanan and Myrtle are more stiffly characterized.

 

Jay Gatsby's Background

Gatsby was born “James Gatz,” the son of poor farmers, in North Dakota. However, he was deeply ambitious and determined to be successful. He changed his name to “Jay Gatsby” and learned the manners of the rich on the yacht of Dan Cody, a wealthy man who he saved from a destructive storm and ended up being employed by. However, although Cody intended to leave his fortune to Gatsby, it ended up being taken by Cody’s ex-wife Ella Kaye, leaving Jay with the knowledge and manners of the upper class, but no money to back them up.

 

 

Gatsby ended up enlisting in the military during World War I. He met Daisy in Louisville before he was shipped out to Europe. In his uniform, there was no way for anyone to know he wasn’t wealthy, and Daisy assumed he was due to his manners. He kept up this lie to keep up their romance, and when he left she promised to wait for him.

Gatsby fought in the War, gained a medal from Montenegro for valor, and was made an officer. After the war ended, he briefly attended Oxford University through a program for officers, but left after five months. By the time Gatsby returned to America, he learned that Daisy had married and became determined to win her back.

Through Meyer Wolfshiem, Gatsby got into shady business (read: bootlegging, gambling) to get rich. It worked, and Gatsby accrued a huge sum of money in just 3 years. He moved to West Egg, bought an extravagant mansion and a Rolls Royce, and started throwing lavish parties and building up a reputation, all in the hopes of meeting Daisy again.

Luckily, an aspiring bond salesman named Nick Carraway moves in next door just as the novel begins. Nick is Daisy’s second cousin, and through that connection he is able to reunite with Daisy during the novel.

To see how Gatsby's life fits into the biographies of the novel's other characters, check out our timeline.

 

What Jay Gatsby Does in the Novel

Although Nick briefly glimpses Gatsby reaching out to Daisy’s green light at the end of Chapter 1, we don’t properly meet Gatsby until Chapter 3. Gatsby has been throwing lavish parties, and  he invites Nick Carraway to one. They meet, and Gatsby takes a liking to Nick, inviting him out on his hydroplane the next day. He also speaks to Jordan Baker in private, and reveals his past history with Daisy Buchanan.

In Chapter 4, he spends more time with Nick, telling him about his service in WWI as well as a made-up story about his past as the only surviving member of a wealthy family. Later, he has Jordan explain Gatsby and Daisy’s background in a bid to get Nick to help the pair reunite.

Through Jordan and Nick, Gatsby is thus able to meet with Daisy again and begins an affair with her in Chapter 5.

Throughout all of this Gatsby continues to do business with Meyer Wolfsheim and run his own bootlegging “business," mainly based on the mysterious phone calls he's always taking. Rumors begin to swirl about where he got his money. Tom Buchanan, in particular, is instantly suspicious of Gatsby when they meet in Chapter 6 and even more so after he and Daisy attend one of Gatsby’s parties. Daisy seems particularly unhappy and Gatsby frets.

At the beginning of Chapter 7, he stops throwing the parties, fires his current staff, and hires Wolfshiem’s people instead, telling Nick he needs discreet people – this makes the affair easier, but also hints at Gatsby’s criminal doings. In the climactic Manhattan confrontation with Tom and Daisy later in Chapter 7, Gatsby tries to get Daisy to admit she never loved Tom, and to leave him, but she doesn’t. Later in the same chapter, he and Daisy leave together to drive back to West Egg in Gatsby’s distinctive yellow car. However, Daisy is driving and hits and kills Myrtle Wilson, who ran out into the road since she thought the car was Tom’s. Gatsby resolves to take the blame for the incident and still believes that Daisy will leave Tom for him.

During Chapter 8, Gatsby confides in Nick about his past, the true story this time. At the end of Chapter 8, Gatsby is shot and killed by George Wilson, who believes Gatsby killed Myrtle and was the one sleeping with her. Meanwhile, Daisy and Tom have left town to avoid the repercussions of Myrtle’s death.

In Chapter 9, Gatsby’s funeral is sparsely attended, despite Nick’s efforts to invite people. Gatsby’s father does make an appearance, sharing some details about young Jay’s early ambition and focus. Nick leaves New York shortly after, disenchanted with life on the east coast. Thus Gatsby's actual death has caused Nick's metaphorical death of leaving New York forever.

 

Though real death is obviously much worse.

 

Jay Gatsby Quotes

Gatsby adopts this catchphrase, which was used among wealthy people in England and America at the time, to help build up his image as a man from old money, which is related to his frequent insistence he is “an Oxford man.” Note that both Jordan Baker and Tom Buchanan are immediately skeptical of both Gatsby’s “old sport” phrase and his claim to being an Oxford man, indicating that despite Gatsby’s efforts, it is incredibly difficult to pass yourself off as “old money” when you aren’t.

 

He reached in his pocket and a piece of metal, slung on a ribbon, fell into my palm.

"That's the one from Montenegro."

To my astonishment, the thing had an authentic look.

Orderi di Danilo, ran the circular legend, Montenegro, Nicolas Rex.

"Turn it."

Major Jay Gatsby, I read, For Valour Extraordinary. (4.34-39)

In this moment, Nick begins to believe and appreciate Gatsby, and not just see him as a puffed-up fraud. The medal, to Nick, is hard proof that Gatsby did, in fact, have a successful career as an officer during the war and therefore that some of Gatsby’s other claims might be true.

For the reader, the medal serves as questionable evidence that Gatsby really is an “extraordinary” man – isn’t it a strange that Gatsby has to produce physical evidence to get Nick to buy his story? (Imagine how strange it would be to carry around a physical token to show to strangers to prove your biggest achievement.)

 

He had passed visibly through two states and was entering upon a third. After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he was consumed with wonder at her presence. He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity. Now, in the reaction, he was running down like an overwound clock. (5.114)

In Chapter 5, the dream Gatsby has been working towards for years – to meet and impress Daisy with his fabulous wealth – finally begins to come to fruition. And so, for the first time, we see Gatsby’s genuine emotions, rather than his carefully-constructed persona. Nick finds these emotions almost as beautiful and transformative as Gatsby’s smile, though there’s also the sense that this love could quickly veer off the rails: Gatsby is running down “like an overwound clock.” In that sense, this moment gently foreshadows the escalating tensions that lead to the novel's tragic climax.

 

"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." (6.128-131)

This is probably Gatsby’s single most famous line. His insistence that he can repeat the past and recreate everything as it was in Louisville sums up his intense determination to win Daisy back at any cost. It also shows his naiveté and optimism, even delusion, about what is possible in his life – an attitude which are increasingly at odds with the cynical portrait of the world painted by Nick Carraway.

 

"Your wife doesn't love you," said Gatsby. "She's never loved you. She loves me." (7.238)

This is the moment Gatsby lays his cards out on the table, so to speak – he risks everything to try and win over Daisy. His insistence that Daisy never loved Tom also reveals how Gatsby refuses to acknowledge Daisy could have changed or loved anyone else since they were together in Louisville.

This declaration, along with his earlier insistence that he can “repeat the past,” creates an image of an overly optimistic, naïve person, despite his experiences in the war and as a bootlegger. Especially since Daisy can’t support this statement, saying that she loved both Tom and Gatsby, and Tom quickly seizes power over the situation by practically ordering Gatsby and Daisy to drive home together, Gatsby’s confident insistence that Daisy has only ever loved him feels desperate, even delusional.

 

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning----

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (9.153-154)

One of the most famous ending lines in modern literature, this quote is Nick’s final analysis of Gatsby – someone who believed in “the green light, the orgastic future” that he could never really attain. Our last image of Gatsby is of a man who believed in a world (and a future) that was better than the one he found himself in – but you can read more about interpretations of the ending, both optimistic and pessimistic, in our guide to the end of the book.

 

Jay Gatsby Character Analysis

If you read The Great Gatsby, odds are you will have to write at least one paper that analyzes Gatsby as a character or connects him to a larger theme, like money, love, or the American Dream.

To do this well, you should closely read Gatsby’s key scenes (meeting Daisy again in Chapter 5, the confrontation in the hotel in Chapter 7, his decision to take the blame in Chapter 8) along with his background, revealed over Chapters 6, 8, and 9. By understanding both Gatsby's past and his present in the novel, you can write about him confidently despite his many-layered personality.

It can be helpful to compare Gatsby to other characters, because it can make it easier to understand his attitude and motivations. Nick’s cynical nature makes Gatsby’s naiveté and optimism readily apparent, for example.

You should also consider how Gatsby’s interaction with the book’s famous symbols (especially the green light) reveal aspects of his character. 

Remember that there are many valid ways to interpret Gatsby, as he is a very complex, mysterious character. As long as you back up your arguments with evidence from the book you can connect Gatsby to various big-picture themes and ideas. We will explore that in action below with some common essay topics about Gatsby.

 

Gatsby is especially linked to the American Dream!

 

What makes Gatsby so great?

I think the best way to tackle this question is to ask “why is Gatsby called great” or “who thinks Gatsby is great?” That way you won’t get bogged down in an unoriginal argument like “well, he has a lot of money and throws amazing parties, and that’s pretty awesome, so…he’s pretty great I guess?”

Remember that the book is narrated by Nick Carraway, and all of our impressions of the characters come from his point of view. So the real question is “why does Nick Carraway think Gatsby is great?” Or in other words, what is it about Gatsby that captures cynical Nick Carraway’s imagination?

And the answer to that comes from Gatsby’s outlook and hope, not his money or extravagance, which are in fact everything that Nick claims to despise. Nick admires Gatsby due to his optimism, how he shapes his own life, and how doggedly he believes in his dream, despite the cruel realities of 1920s America. So Gatsby’s greatness comes from his outlook – even if, to many readers, Gatsby’s steadfast belief in Daisy’s love and his own almost god-like abilities come off as delusional.

 

Why is Gatsby obsessed with repeating the past?

Gatsby is not so much obsessed with repeating the past as reclaiming it. He wants to both return to that beautiful, perfect moment when he wedded all of his hopes and dreams to Daisy in Louisville, and also to make that past moment his present (and future!). It also means getting right what he couldn’t get right the first time by winning Daisy over.

So Gatsby’s obsession with the past is about control – over his own life, over Daisy – as much as it is about love. This search for control could be a larger symptom of being born into a poor/working class family in America, without much control over the direction of his own life. Even after he’s managed to amass great wealth, Gatsby still searches for control over his life in other ways. Perhaps he fixates on the reclamation of that moment in his past because by winning over Daisy, he can finally achieve each of the dreams he imagined as a young man.

 

How would the book be different if Gatsby “got the girl?”

The Great Gatsby would probably be much less memorable, first of all! Sad endings tend to stick in your mind more stubbornly than happy ones. Furthermore, the novel would lose its power as a reflection on the American Dream -- if Gatsby ended up with Daisy, the book would be a straightforward rags-to-riches American Dream success story. In order to be critical of the American Dream, Gatsby has to lose everything he’s gained.

The novel would also lose its power as an indictment of class in America, since if Daisy and Gatsby ended up together it would suggest walls coming down between old and new money, something that never happens in the book. Instead, the novel depicts class as a rigid and insurmountable barrier in 1920s America.

A happy ending would also seem to reward both Gatsby’s bad behavior (including crime, dishonesty, and cheating) as well as Daisy’s (cheating, killing Myrtle). This would change the tone of the ending, since Gatsby's tragic death seems to outweigh any of his crimes in Nick's eyes. Also,  Gatsby likely wouldn't have caught on as an American classic during the ultra-conservative 1950s had its ending appeared to endorse behavior like cheating, crime, and murder.

In short, although on your first read of the novel you more than likely are hoping for Gatsby to succeed in winning over Daisy, the novel would be much less powerful with a stereotypically happy ending.

 

How does Jay Gatsby represent the American Dream? Should we be hopeful or cynical about the status of the American Dream by the end of the novel?

There is a bit of a progression in how the reader regards the American Dream in the course of the novel, which moves in roughly three stages and corresponds to what we know about Jay Gatsby.

First, the novel expresses a cautious belief in the American Dream. Gatsby’s parties are lavish, Nick rides over the Queensboro bridge with optimism and the belief that anything can happen in New York (4.55-7), and we see some small but significant breaking of class conventions: Myrtle holding court at an apartment with Tom Buchanan (Chapter 2), the “modish” African Americans riding over the bridge with a white driver (4.56), old money and new money mingling at Gatsby’s party (Chapter 3).

However, this optimism quickly gives way to skepticism. As you learn more about Gatsby’s background and likely criminal ties in the middle-to-late chapters (4-8), combined with how broken George seems in Chapter 7 upon learning of his wife’s affair, it seems like the lavish promises of the American Dream we saw in the earlier half of the book are turning out to be hollow, at best.

This skepticism gives way to pessimism by the end of the novel. With Gatsby dead, along with George and Myrtle, and only the rich alive, the novel has progressed to a charged, emotional critique of the American Dream. After all, how can you believe in the American Dream in a world where the strivers end up dead and those born into money (literally) get away with murder?

So by the end of the novel, the reader should be pretty pessimistic about the state of the American Dream, though there is a bit of hope to be found in the way Nick reflects on Gatsby’s outlook and extends Gatsby's hope to everyone in America.

 

Is Gatsby a tragic hero?

How you answer this prompt will depend on the definition you use of tragic hero. The most straightforward definition is pretty obvious: a tragic hero is the hero of a tragedy. (And to be precise, a tragedy is a dramatic play, or more recently any work of literature, that treats sorrowful events caused or witnessed by a great hero with dignity and seriousness.) If we consider The Great Gatsby a tragedy, that would certainly make Gatsby a tragic hero, since he’s the hero of the book!

But in Aristotle’s (influential) and more specific definition, a tragic hero is a flawed individual who commits, without evil intentions, some wrong that leads to their misfortunate, usually followed by a realization of the true nature of events that led to his destiny. The tragic hero also has a reversal of fortune, often going from a high place (in terms of society, money, and status) to a ruined one. He also has a “tragic flaw,” a character weakness that leads to his demise.

Using Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero, Gatsby might not fit. There isn’t a sense that he commits some great wrong (unlike, say, the classic example of Oedipus Rex, who kills his own father and marries his mother) – rather, his downfall is perhaps the result of a few smaller wrongs: he commits crimes and puts too much faith in Daisy, who ends up being a killer. In that sense, Gatsby is more of a playful riff on the idea of a tragic hero, someone who is doomed from aiming too high and from trusting too much.

Especially since a huge part of The Great Gatsby is a critique of the American Dream, and specifically the unjust American society that all of the characters have to live within, the idea of a tragic hero – a single person bringing about his own fate – doesn’t quite fit within the frame of the novel. Instead, Nick seems to indict the society around Gatsby for the tragedy, not Gatsby himself.

 

Final Questions

 

Does Gatsby really love Daisy? Does Daisy really love Gatsby?

On the surface in Gatsby, we see a man doing whatever it takes to win over the woman he loves (Daisy). He even seems willing to sacrifice everything to protect her by taking the blame for Myrtle's death. However, he ends up killed for his involvement in the affair while Daisy skips town to avoid the aftermath. This can make it look like Gatsby loves Daisy truly while Daisy doesn't love him at all. However, the truth is much more complicated.

Gatsby claims to love Daisy, but he rarely takes into account her own feelings or even the fact that five years have passed since their first romance and that she's changed. In fact, he's so determined to repeat the past that he is unable to see that Daisy is not devoted to him in the way he thinks she is. Furthermore, Gatsby seems to love Daisy more for what she represents -- money, status, beauty -- than as an actual, flawed human being.

As for Daisy, it’s pretty clear she loved Gatsby up until she married Tom (see the bathtub scene as recounted by Jordan in Chapter 4), but whether she still loves him or is just eager to escape her marriage is harder to determine (you can read more in depth about Daisy right here).

Either way, there are certainly strong feelings on both sides. I don't think you could argue Daisy never loved Gatsby or Gatsby never loved Daisy, but their relationship is complex and uneven enough that it can raise doubts. Read more about love and relationships in Gatsby for more analysis!

 

What’s up with Nick and Gatsby’s friendship? Does Nick believe Gatsby? Why does Gatsby come to admire Nick?

Nick, for his part, starts out suspicious of Gatsby but ends up truly admiring him, to the point that he tells Gatsby that he’s worth more than Daisy, Tom, and their ilk put together. But why does Gatsby come to rely on Nick so much?

Part of the answer comes in Nick’s introduction, when he establishes himself as both part of a privileged group (his family is pretty wealthy and he’s a Yale graduate), but also someone who’s not as incredibly wealthy as the Buchanans – in short, Nick is the sort of person Gatsby wishes he was but not to the degree Gatsby would be jealous of him.

Perhaps more importantly, Nick establishes himself as relatively grounded and a good listener, which is the type of person lacking in Gatsby’s high-flying circles (hundreds of people come to his parties but Nick seems to be the first real friend he makes). Both Nick and Gatsby seem to recognize each other as kindred spirits – people both “within and without” of New York society, rich but not old money aristocracy. The cherry on top of this is the fact Nick is related to Daisy, and is thus a link to her Gatsby can use. So Gatsby starts confiding in Nick to get closer to Daisy, but continues because he finds Nick to be a genuine friend – again, something he severely lacks, as his poor funeral attendance suggests.

 

What’s up with the “Jay Gatsby is black” theory? Is there any chance it’s true?

Recently, some scholars have argued that another possible layer of The Great Gatsby is that Gatsby is actually part black, but passing as white. This would make Tom’s racist statements much more charged and ironic, if it’s true his wife is cheating on him with a black man. It would also explain Gatsby’s desire to completely sever ties to his past and reinvent himself with an old money background. However, many Fitzgerald scholars point out that Fitzgerald’s conversations with his editor about the book are well documented, and they never had any discussions about Gatsby’s race.

So basically, this theory is intriguing and can be argued for based on the text, but if you take a more historical/biographical approach it’s less likely to be true. You can read more about it here and decide for yourself if you believe it!

There are also similar theories that argue that Gatsby is Jewish. You can read one such theory in depth here.

 

Is Gatsby based on a real person? Is this a true story? Is there a Great Gatsby house I can go visit?

The Great Gatsby is not based on a true story, and there wasn’t a specific person in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life who inspired the character of Jay Gatsby.

However, F. Scott Fitzgerald did live briefly on Long Island (which is the inspiration for East Egg and West Egg) and spent time with New York celebrities. This was all during the 1920s, when bootlegging and organized crime were in their heyday. So he certainly could have been inspired by real life, newly-rich celebrities. (If you’re curious, the house Fitzgerald lived in is still standing on Long Island, but it’s not a tourist site like, say, Mark Twain’s house is.)

Finally, and perhaps most potently, Fitzgerald himself went through a Gatsby-like heartbreak. Before he married Zelda Sayre, he was in love with a wealthy woman named Ginevra King. A dark-haired beauty, Ginevra went on to marry a wealthy man, leaving F. Scott Fitzgerald behind and heartbroken. Those experiences may have all combined to create the character of Jay Gatsby (as well as Daisy Buchanan), but Jay isn’t based on any one person. You can also read more about F. Scott Fitzgerald's life and the history of the novel's composition.

 

What’s Next?

Still confused about how the last few chapters play out? Catch up with our summaries of chapters 7, 8, and 9.

Read more about Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship and how it stacks up to others in the novel over at our analysis of love, desire, and relationships in Gatsby.

Still wondering about Gatsby’s legacy? Is he a man to be admired or a cautionary tale of someone who put too much stock in an old love? Read about different ways to interpret the novel’s ending.

 

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