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The Great Gatsby

Term Definition
The Great Gatsby

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald portrays life in the period of American history that has come to be known as the Roaring Twenties. The title character, for example, throws extravagant parties for all the people in the city. However, what truly distinguishes Fitzgerald's novel is the darker themes that are present within it. These include: old money versus new money, greatness versus mediocrity, and the betrayal of the American Dream.

Summary and Plot of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is the 1925 magnum opus of American novelist and short story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940). The novel is often cited as classic tale of wealth versus poverty, a theme still relevant today.

In the summer of 1922, Yale-educated bond salesman and WWI vet Nick Carraway takes up residence in West Egg, Long Island, next to the mansion of ostentatious bootlegging millionaire Jay Gatsby. He visits nearby East Egg to dine with his cousin Daisy Fay Buchanan and her husband Tom, with whom Nick attended college, and they set him up romantically with stylish, fun-loving Jordan Baker. Tom conducts a tempestuous affair with Myrtle Wilson, and Jay throws a party with the expressed purpose of romancing Daisy, with whom he'd once been an item. Tom hypocritically objects to his wife's infidelity, but sends her off with Jay on a dare. While heading home, Nick, Jordan, and Tom discover that Myrtle has been struck by Gatsby's vehicle; Daisy was driving, but Jay takes the blame. The victim's cuckolded husband, George, places blame on the millionaire, and avenges his wife in a double murder/suicide. Disillusioned with Northeastern decadence, Nick holds a funeral for Jay and breaks up with Jordan before heading back to the Midwest.

Themes & Characters

Though its events are confined to a single summer and locale, The characters of The Great Gatsby in many ways symbolize the often decadent prosperity of American life in the Roaring Twenties: a time of hedonistic party-going fueled by the rise of jazz, a booming stock market, and widespread demand for liquor in the wake of Prohibition. With expanded income opportunities afforded by a healthy economy, more Americans were rising into the upper class. Personifying this very phenomenon is the novel's titular character, who attains his wealth as a bootlegger of liquor.

The novel's twin locations, West Egg and East Egg, symbolize the dichotomy between the nouveaux riche and the old aristocracy of 1920s America. The former, as exemplified by the dandyish Gatsby, are rendered as glitzy, crass, and lacking in etiquette. The old rich, as represented by the high-styling characters of Daisy and Jordan, are portrayed as refined, subtle, and elegant. However, the high-brow aesthetics of the East Eggers are undermined by an apparent lack of empathy; the Buchanans, for example, seem not to care about the hurt they cause others or one another. Gatsby, by contrast, has a deep love for Daisy that compels him to cover for her guilt in Myrtle's death. Ironically, his good qualities are what do him in, while the Buchanan's selfishness enables their escape by the story's end.

More Information and Film Versions of The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald was motivated to write the The Great Gatsby after frequenting parties of the Long Island elite during the early 1920s. Most of the writing, however, was completed after his 1924 relocation to the French Riviera. He spent some time straining over a title for the novel, and briefly wished to name it Under the Red, White, and Blue. A poor seller in its own time, the book had received little renown by 1940: the year of the then-dejected author's death. During the Second World War, however, the novel picked up steam, and eventually made its way into the American literary canon.

The Great Gatsby has been adapted to the big screen multiple times, starting in 1926 with a now-lost silent feature. In 1949, Paramount distributed a copyright-challenged version starring Alan Ladd in the titular role. The most recent adaptation, however, is the studio's 2013 remake starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway.

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