The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Summary and Themes | History Hit

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Summary and Themes

Analysis and summary of the key themes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's iconic novel set in 1920s America.

The Great Gatsby
Image Credit: / Wikimedia Commons

Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby is a classic piece of American fiction that is notable for author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ability to capture and dissect a broad cross-section of American society. The novel is told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, a former close friend of the eponymous Jay Gatsby, who met him when he moved to West Egg, a fictional place on modern-day Long Island, New York. Most of the action takes place over a few months in 1922.

The extravagantly wealthy Jay Gatsby orients his life around his desire to be reunited with Daisy Buchanan, the love he lost 5 years beforehand and who is now married to a man called Tom. Nick tells us of Gatsby’s quest to be reunited with Daisy via Gatsby’s famously lavish parties he throws as well as his shady underworld dealings.

When Daisy, driving Gatsby’s car, strikes and kills her husband Tom’s lover, Gatsby takes the blame and is ultimately shot and killed. In the aftermath, Nick muses that Gatsby was never who he appeared to be at all, and has been largely abandoned by all of his acquaintances in death.

Here’s a brief analysis of the key themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The American dream

Though The Great Gatsby appears to be a tragic love story, the main theme of the novel examines the state of 1920s America as a whole, and in particular the disintegration of the so-called ‘American dream’. Fitzgerald portrays the 1920s as an era of decadence and greed at the expense of social and moral values; Gatsby’s lavish parties represent the pursuit of pleasure and material wealth above more ‘noble’ goals.

After the end of World War One in 1918, young Americans were increasingly disillusioned as former Victorian social morals appeared hypocritical in the face of what had been a brutal war. The stratospheric stock market spike led to a sudden increase in national wealth and materialism, and meant that someone from any social background had the potential to become very wealthy, which was scorned by Americans with ‘older’ wealth. Moreover, alcohol was banned, which created a thriving illegal underworld of bootlegging, as represented through Wolfshiem and Gatsby’s dodgy dealings.

Nick and Gatsby both fought in World War One and are representative of the cosmopolitanism and cynicism that the war created, which is more widely evidenced by the socialites and speculators who attend Gatsby’s parties. There is a geographical divide, too: East Egg is representative of the already established aristocracy, while West Egg is full of the self-made rich. This divide is also emphasised in Daisy and Gatsby’s doomed love affair: he was never aristocratic enough for her family to accept him, nonetheless, he wants to make lots of money to impress her.

Love and marriage

The novel centres on two loveless marriages between Tom and Daisy Buchanan and George and Myrtle Wilson, both of which seem to be partnerships of convenience rather than genuine affection.

For instance, Myrtle indicates that she married George because she thought he was a ‘gentleman’, who could raise her class status. Similarly, Daisy nearly backed out of her marriage with Tom, and there is infidelity in their marriage. However, their shared social class and love of wealth are what ultimately bind them.

Even Gatsby’s desire for Daisy appears to be more a somewhat unattainable ideal than actual love; Nick remarks that after their early reunion, he senses that Daisy does not live up to Gatsby’s projected image of her. The moments of tenderness and warmth between Jordan Baker and Nick Carraway, though ultimately restrained, may be the only moments of true romantic warmth that the whole novel offers.

Past and future

Both Nick and Gatsby are perpetually troubled by time and struggle to live in the present. The past haunts Gatsby – who is prone to believing that you can repeat the past – whereas the future weighs down on Nick. Gatsby’s insistence upon pursuing Daisy and trying to recreate the conditions of their past love by wooing her with his wealth is ultimately misguided, since he assumes that his moment of connection with her years before will outweigh the years she has spent married to Tom.

Nick’s fear of the future is rooted in the economic trauma that plunged the country into depression in 1929 and ultimately spelled the end of the roaring twenties. There are glimpses throughout the novel that Nick recognises that the parties, wealth and glamour are all a façade that can ultimately never last, and that the economic depression will spell the destruction of all wealth, both old and new.

Lies and deceit

Throughout the novel, Fitzgerald implicitly asks the reader to consider whether anyone in the novel has an unblemished or entirely truthful character, and if not, where we should position our loyalties to them as characters. For instance, Nick claims to be one of the few honest people that he knows, and marks himself out as separate from the others in the novel who lie and cheat to get ahead. However, Nick is a fundamentally unreliable narrator who himself admits that he is narrating Gatsby’s story through a filter a year later.

Indeed, Gatsby’s entire image, even down to his name, is entirely fabricated. In this way, both Nick and Gatsby have built a successful disguise to fool others since Nick similarly controls the overall narrative of his character and thus how he appears. It seems to be the case that both cannot distinguish their true selves from the images of themselves that they project upon the world.

Gatsby engages in criminal dealings to make his money; however, though misguided and projected, his feelings towards Daisy appear sincere, and he is motivated to genuine kindness for her at different points throughout the novel. Tom Buchanan’s aristocratic status allows him to conduct ‘above board’ business dealings; however, much of the plot hinges around his illicit affair with Myrtle Wilson.

The climax of the novel is built upon a lie that has been twisted, since it was actually Daisy that hit and killed Myrtle when driving, and Tom that was having an affair with her: however, Gatsby is the one who pays the ultimate price. There is only one ‘character’ who is always watching, unable to be fooled: the eyes of God, or T. J. Eckleburg on the billboard, which are always disconcertingly watching.

Read The Great Gatsby on History Hit

The Great Gatsby – Chapter 1 with Summary
The Great Gatsby – Chapter 2 with Summary
The Great Gatsby – Chapter 3 with Summary
The Great Gatsby – Chapter 4 with Summary
The Great Gatsby – Chapter 5 with Summary
The Great Gatsby – Chapter 6 with Summary
The Great Gatsby – Chapter 7 with Summary
The Great Gatsby – Chapter 8 with Summary
The Great Gatsby – Chapter 9 with Summary

For an analysis of the novel’s key characters, and what they represent, click here.

Tags: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Lucy Davidson