The Great Gatsby is the quintessential novel of the Roaring Twenties. It is a story about the promise of wealth and privilege turning to ashes, about the American Dream gone awry.
James Gatz is a penniless Midwestern youth who comes back from the Great War determined to become somebody important. His dream is fueled by his devotion to Daisy, a breezy socialite who is secure in her inherited wealth, whose enchanting voice is “full of money.” Through various shady business deals in New York City, he succeeds in transforming himself into Jay Gatsby, who buys a lavish mansion across Long Island Sound from the equally imposing mansion of Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan.
Another penniless young man from the Midwest, Nick Carraway, lives in a small bungalow next door to Gatsby’s estate. Nick commutes into New York each day to work his somewhat aimless job in the “bonds business” and to gaze wistfully at the lives of the rich and famous. He is a distant cousin of Daisy, who likes to invite him over for tea so she can have a handsome young man to flirt with in front of her husband (who is rumored to “have a woman” in the city) and so she can confide in him all her romantic sorrows.
When Gatsby discovers Nick’s connection with Daisy, he seizes this chance to display to her all the splendor of his new identity and lure her away from Tom. With Nick as a go-between, he arranges to meet Daisy and to rekindle the love they shared before the attractively wealthy Tom came on the scene.
These bare details make the characters sound coldly calculating, but what makes this novel so compelling is all the romantic illusions they have about themselves and each other. At times Nick, who is the narrator, is completely charmed and taken up into the dream, and at other times he has a razor-sharp insight into the meagerness behind the façade.
The reader’s experience is similar. Fitzgerald’s prose is so beautiful and Gatsby’s almost boyish hopefulness is so absolute that we really want to believe it will all work out for him. He flashes his smile and for a moment we see him as Daisy did when she first met him—a handsome, charming young man in a soldier’s uniform who pays her the irresistible compliment of placing her at the center of his world.
When reality comes crashing down, we can no longer deny that Gatsby’s romantic longing is prettified adultery, that wrenching apart people’s lives to satisfy your hopes and dreams has a rebound effect. Gatsby and Tom’s mistress Myrtle pay the price, and it seems that Daisy and Tom come away unscathed, protected by their money and their unabashed devotion to selfishness. The one last hope we are left with is that Nick, who is in many ways like James Gatz once was, has learned the cost of at least one version of the American Dream.