Study Guide for The Great Gatsby (1925)

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

The Mystery of the Epigraph:


Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry "Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!"

THOMAS PARKE D'INVILLIERS.


The Setting: Great Neck, Long Island and New York City at the dawn of the Jazz Age. The action of the novel takes place during the summer of 1922 over three months from late May to late August.

 

Chapter One (5-26)

 

Paragraph: Describe the frame which Fitzgerald creates for Gatsby's story. Why tell this story from the point of view of Nick Carroway?

Paragraph: What is it about Gatsby which so fascinates Nick? Why is he telling us Gatsby's story?

 

Nick’s Introduction (Fitzgerald’s Narrative Point of View) (5-7):

 

The narrator of Gatsby’s story is also a character in it: Nick Carroway. What does Nick tell us about himself? Gatsby himself is only revealed to us gradually, and he rarely holds center stage in the action. We see him through Nick's eyes and imagination. Why did Fitzgerald choose this curious lens through which to view his central character? (Compare to Marlow in Heart of Darkness) (The Ancient Mariner in Coleridge's 'Rime')


Nick is writing this memoir of his summer on Long Island a few years after the events which take place during the summer of 1922. As a way of explaining in part why Nick became friends with Gatsby, he begins by telling of some advice his father once gave him about reserving judgement of people. What did he mean? 

"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."  (6)

By the end of this summer, though, Nick has changed his mind about always 'reserving judgment about people' and decided to return home from the East, disgusted with ehat he has seen. It is only Gatsby, a person whom he feels he should scorn, who has escaped Nick's condemnation. 

What does Nick say about Gatsby which help us understand why Nick feels it is so important for him to tell us this story? (6-7) (QUOTE) Why is Nick writing this memoir?

Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don't care what it's founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction-- Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were relatedto one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament."--it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No--Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. (7)

Nick’s Background (7-9)

 

From what part of the country and which social class does Nick come? Does Nick's family  have any special claims to an upperclass bloodline? Where did he go to college?

How does he refer to his combat experience in the Great War (WWI)? (Why so glib?) (What impact did the war have on the generation of young men and women who came of age in the Roaring 1920’s?)

 

How old is Nick when he comes to New York City? What business did Nick come east to learn? (7) (We learn at the end of the chapter that part of the reason why Nick came east was to put behind him a broken engagement. (24))

 

How does Nick plan to become a ‘well-rounded man’? (How instead will he really learn about life during this summer?)

Describe the neighborhood on Long Island in which Nick settles. (What rent is he paying for the 'bungalow' next to Gatsby's mansion? How does that translate into today's dollars? See here.)

 West Egg vs. East Egg (9-10)

Paragraph: How does Fitzgerald characterize East Egg society as represented by the Daisy, Tom and Jordan?

 

Pay attention to fleeting images as they whir by in Fitzgerald's flawless prose. In a masterpiece like this one, every image takes you directly to the heart of the artist's purpose. What do you make of this one:

"Twenty miles from the city a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. they are not perfect ovals-- like the egg in the Columbus story, they are both crushed flat at the contact end-- but their physical resemblance must be a source of perpetual confusion to the gulls that fly overhead." (10)

There is that odd allusion to the Columbus story as Fitzgerald introduces us to the primary setting of his story, and we recall a time when the Western Hemisphere was brand new to the European mind: it was a place where dreams could be hatched... but there was something wrong with the eggs in the Columbus story.... This is where Daisy lives.


How is West Egg different from East Egg? (See map.)

 

Describe Gatsby’s mansion. (Hotel de Ville) How is this spectacular home different from the mansion of Tom and Daisy Buchanan? (Georgia Colonial Mansion)

 

Party #1: Dinner with the Tom Buchanans (10-26)

 

Tom Buchanan (10-12)

 

What was the highpoint of Tom Buchanan’s life? (10) (See picture of Pudge Heffinger.

Her husband, among various physical accomplishments, had been one of
the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven-- a
national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute
limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of
anti-climax. (11)

 

From what part of the country does Tom come? How has he made his money?

 

Note the cinematic way in which Fitzgerald gives Tom his entrance. (11) (QUOTE) (Georgia Colonial Mansion)

And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over 
to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all. Their house 
was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian
Colonial mansion
, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach
and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over
sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens-- finally when it reached
the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the
momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows,
glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy
afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his
legs apart on the front porch.

He had changed since his New Haven years. Now he was a sturdy straw-haired
man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner.
Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and
gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not
even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous
power of that body-- he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he
strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle
shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body
capable of enormous leverage-- a cruel body.

His speaking voice, a gruff husky tenor, added to the impression of
fractiousness he conveyed. There was a touch of paternal contempt in
it, even toward people he liked-- and there were men at New Haven who had
hated his guts.  (12) 

 

How does Fitzgerald convey Tom’s character in his physical description of him? (11)

 

Daisy Buchanan (12-14)

 

Note also the cinematic way in which Fitzgerald introduces Daisy (and Jordan) to us? (12) (QUOTE)

We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space,
fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end.
The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass
outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze
blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other
like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of
the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a
shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch
on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored
balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and
fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight
around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the
whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.
Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor. (12)

 

Nick is fascinated  by Daisy’s voice. What does she sound like? What is the source of her charm? (13-14) (QUOTE)

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. (13-14)

 

What about Daisy and Tom’s child? Does Nick get to meet the little girl?

 

How does Fitzgerald characterize Jordan in a few ‘rapid, deft’ strokes? (15) What scandal was she involved in that Nick vaguely remembers? (24)

I looked at Miss Baker, wondering what it was she "got done." I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her gray sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, discontented face. It occurred to me now that I had seen her, or a picture of her, somewhere before. (15)

 

Describe Daisy's reaction when she learns that Gatsby has come east? (15)

"Gatsby?" demanded Daisy. "What Gatsby?" (15)

 

 

The Dinner Scene (16-22)

 

Paragraph: How does Fitzgerald characterize the aristocratic class to which the Buchanans belong through their behavior at dinner?

 

Daisy complains about how Tom, that 'hulking brute' hurt her little finger.

 

Tom’s trumpets a Social Darwinist rationale for his racism and his contemptuous descriptions of the lower classes. (17-18)

 

How different is Daisy? What is the point of her story of the butler’s nose? (18)

 

Yet, she, unlike Tom, can speak this way and yet retain her charm. Why? (18)

 

Who calls Tom on the telephone during dinner and demands to speak with him? Whoever it is Daisy gets upset and jumps up from the table and goes into the house to argue with Tom. Jordan must explain: (19-20)

"You mean to say you don't know?" said Miss Baker, honestly surprised.
"I thought everybody knew."

"I don't."

"Why----" she said hesitantly, "Tom's got some woman in New York."

"Got some woman?" I repeated blankly.

Miss Baker nodded.

"She might have the decency not to telephone him at dinner time. Don't
you think?" (20-21)

What social rule about marital infidelity in the upper crust is Tom breaking? What is done and not done by the very rich in their love affairs?

 

Note the comment that Daisy makes when she returns to the dinner table. Here again we have one of those fleeting moments which reveal so much when imaginatively read:


She sat down, glanced searchingly at Miss Baker and then at me, and continued: "I looked outdoors for a minute, and it's very romantic outdoors. There's a bird on the lawn that I think must be a nightingale come over on the Cunard or White Star Line. He's singing away----" Her voice sang: "It's romantic, isn't it, Tom?" (20)  

 

Fitzgerald is alluding to the famous Keats poem "Ode to a Nightingale"? (Do you know it?) It was Fitzgerald's favorite poem. What is the purpose of this literary allusion? What does the image of the nightingale have to do with Fitzgerald’s conception of Daisy (and the American Dream)?

 

What, though, is the reality of Daisy’s marriage with Tom as she describes it to Nick when they are alone on the porch? (21-22) (QUOTE) Referring to her three year old daughter, Daisy says,

"I suppose she talks, and--eats, and everything."


"Oh, yes." She looked at me absently. "Listen, Nick; let me tell you what
I said when she was born. Would you like to hear?"


"Very much."


"It'll show you how I've gotten to feel about-- things. Well, she was less
than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether
with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it
was a boy or a girl. 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."  (21-22)

What makes Nick the most uneasy about Daisy’s proclamation of her unhappiness with Tom?

Paragraph: How does Fitzgerald characterize the aristocratic class to which the Buchanans belong through their behavior at dinner?

 

Gatsby’s Entrance (25-26)

 

Nick's introduction to the East ends with another haunting symbol. Notice the cinematic way in which Fitzgerald welcomes Gatsby on to the stage of his drama. (25-26) (QUOTE)

Already it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light, and when I reached my estate at West Egg I ran the car under its shed and sat for a while on an abandoned grass roller in the yard. The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone-- fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor's mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.

I decided to call to him. Miss Baker had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an introduction. But I didn't call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone-- he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was  from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced  seaward-- and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and  far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more  for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness. (25-26)


What do you make of Gatsby’s gesture?          

 

Paragraph: What is it about Gatsby which so fascinates Nick? Why is he telling us Gatsby's story?


Paragraph: How does Fitzgerald characterize East Egg society as represented by the Daisy, Tom and Jordan?


Paragraph: How does Fitzgerald characterize the aristocratic class to which the Buchanans belong through their behavior at dinner?