Gatsby is the eponymous hero of the book and is the main focus. However, although Gatsby has some qualities which are typically heroic, other aspects of his character are closer to the typical villain, e.g. he is a liar and probably a criminal.
Jay Gatsby- self made man
Gatsby is a classic example of a self-made man. But he can also be understood to be a self-made man in a non-typical sense - he invented the glamorous persona of 'Jay Gatsby'. Born James Gatz, to "shiftless and unsuccessful farm people'" in North Dakota it seemed that he virtually disowned his family. For instance, he told Nick that his parents were dead. Gatsby retains our sympathy, however, because he does not have a mercenary nature.
It is hinted that Gatsby made his fortune through gambling and bootlegging. He has obviously been a close associate of the sinister Meyer Wolfshiem, the 'man who fixed the World Series in 1919'. During his parties he is frequently told that people in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia are trying to contact him - these places were centres of organised crime in the 1920s. However, his activities remain shadowy, if murky, and we are not aware of any victims or any involvement in violence. Thus Gatsby never alienates the reader, and, paradoxically, emerges as an honourable man.
Nick comments on Gatsby's 'extraordinary gift for hope'. Gatsby's memorable first appearance in the book is in the moonlight, stretching out his arm yearningly. He even seems to be 'trembling' with emotion. Gatsby's dream is always expressed as a noble emotion, conveyed by the use of the language of Arthurian legend: "he had committed himself to the following of a grail." Nick describes Gatsby's 'sensitivity to the promises of life' as a unique and admirable quality.
Gatsby is devoted to Daisy. He buys a mansion in Long Island and throws lavish parties, actively encouraging gate-crashers, in the hope that she might one day appear at one. His love for her, although physical, is also spiritual and altruistic. His bashfulness when he meets her again is comic and endearing, and he is at his most heroic when he takes the blame for Myrtle's death in order to spare Daisy from any difficulties.
Jay Gatsby- The Great Gatsby
Gatsby is "great" because of the magnitude of his dream. Nick is touched by Gatsby's "wonder" and "belief", and is reminded of the positive feelings of the first Dutch settlers in New England, arriving at "a fresh, green breast of the new world." Gatsby remains optimistic and true to his dream. However, there is more than a touch of irony in the use of "great", as Daisy is so unworthy of his adoration, and when Gatsby dies, nobody attends his funeral.
Nick Carraway- Overview
Nick is the narrator. The story is told in flashback, through his eyes, looking back on the events of two years earlier (1922). Nick guides our views of Gatsby, for example, by telling us at the start that he "turned out all right at the end."
Nick Carraway-Reliable Narrator
Nick tells us his father taught him to "reserve all judgements" on people, since they may not have shared his "advantages". Nevertheless, he says his tolerance has "a limit", which is intriguing as an introduction. Modest and unassuming, one of the few things Nick takes pride in is his honesty: "I am one of the few honest people I have ever known". We thus expect a fair and unbiased account of events from him.
Nick comes from the Midwest of the USA (possibly Minnesota – although this is not specifically said) and moves East to pursue a career working in the finance industry. The Midwest is associated with traditional, conservative values, unlike the more glamorous, racy lifestyle of New York.
Nick Carraway- An Everyman
In some senses Nick can be seen as an 'everyman' – a normal person observing how the rich live and play. But his own family are 'well-to-do' (they own a wholesale hardware business), and his cousin Daisy is rich. He is also a graduate of Yale, one of the most prestigious and expensive universities in the USA.
Nick Carraway- Observer and Participant
Nick spends a lot of time, particularly at the beginning of the novel, observing and reporting on the action, rather than being involved in it directly. But he does become a participant too – he has the classic supporting role as the hero's friend, while his girlfriend is the heroine's friend.
Nick Carraway-A Moral Voice
Nick seems more genuine and caring than some of the other characters. When he first goes to a party at Gatsby's, he seeks Gatsby out (presumably to thank him for his invitation), while the others at the party gossip about Gatsby and enjoy themselves.
Similarly, after Gatsby's death, Nick is the only one who shows concern. Nick can therefore be seen as the moral compass of the story. He refuses Gatsby's offer of a dubious scheme that could make him "a nice bit of money". When he meets Jordan, nothing happens between them at first because of the "interior rules that act as brakes on my desires…".
But it could also be argued that he's not a very effective moral compass. While Nick prides himself on his honesty, he pursues a relationship with a woman he states to be "incurably dishonest". He enjoys Jordan's company as she is beautiful (in an unusual, non-conventional way) and a celebrity – so he is willing to make the excuse that "dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply". His feelings for her are not clear – he says, "I wasn't actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity".
Nick's feelings for Jordan perhaps mirror his feelings for life in the north-east as a whole, i.e. when he goes to a party in New York, he says he is "simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life".
Daisy Buchanan-The reality of Daisy
Daisy is charming but manipulative. Nick notes how she gazes at him as if "there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see", adding drily, "That was a way she had." Daisy is lazy and rather passive – she doesn't bother to stand when Nick arrives, joking that she is "paralysed with happiness" to see him.
Perhaps this attitude extends to her husband's infidelity, which she tolerates, an attitude which baffles Nick. Yet her life of luxury seems to leave her bored and dissatisfied:" 'What'll we plan? What do people plan?'"
Daisy seems to lack any strength of character or courage. She flees the scene when she accidentally kills Myrtle, and allows Tom go on believing that it was Gatsby who was driving.
Daisy Buchanan-Daisy's world
Coming from Louisville, Kentucky - which is in the geographic area of the USA classed as 'the South' - Daisy could be seen as conforming to the old-fashioned southern model of femininity: she hopes that her daughter grows up "a fool - that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool." Daisy's attitude could alternatively be viewed as a shrewd (albeit cynical) one. In a world dominated by men, intelligence in a woman could lead to frustration and unhappiness.
Daisy has always been sheltered by money. After her initial fling with Gatsby, she "vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life, leaving Gatsby nothing"; she survived, "gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor".
Daisy Buchanan-The Image of Daisy
Daisy is presented initially as an ethereal, almost angelic presence, reclining elegantly with Jordan on a couch, each wearing a long white flowing dress, "fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after short flight around the house". Daisy is constantly linked to the colour white. Her name suggests a pristine white flower. When she was a young woman, she "dressed in white, and had a little white roadster".
Daisy Buchanan-Feelings for Gatsby
Jordan tells Nick that when Daisy's family prevented her from seeing Gatsby off to war, she protested by not speaking to them "for several weeks". This relatively short period of time suggests her feelings were not very deep. A year later, Daisy was rumoured to be engaged to someone else, and a few months after that she married Tom, although according to Jordan, Daisy had doubts the night before the wedding after receiving a letter from Gatsby.
When she rekindles her affair with Gatsby, she seems to be greatly moved by the opulence of Gatsby's home and possessions – she buries her head in his expensive shirts and sobs about their beauty. Jordan had said to Nick that 'Daisy ought to have something in her life'. We are unsure if Daisy finds the affair simply a diversion, or even a means of revenge on Tom, who is constantly unfaithful to her.
But the best she can say to Gatsby when he forces her to choose between him and Tom is that she loves him as well. When Gatsby tries to persuade her to leave Tom, she backs down: Nick comments, "she had never, all along, intended doing anything at all."
Tom Buchanan- Overview
Tom is a character with few redeeming qualities. He represents the worst aspects of the super-rich in American society whose money insulates them from the normal constraints of law or morality. Nick describes them as "careless people – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money."
Tom Buchanan-Wealth and Privilidge
The first image of Tom is one of ownership and domination in front of his vast mansion: "Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch". Nick describes how the extent of his wealth "rather took your breath away". It has been entirely inherited – he doesn't work for a living and presumably never has.
The description of him as "Tom Buchanan of Chicago" suggests his high status and sense of entitlement. He despises Gatsby for his lack of background, dismissing him as "Mr Nobody from Nowhere", an insult that seems to destroy Gatsby in Daisy's eyes. Although he was educated at Yale, he seems limited intellectually, but made his mark there in sport where he was a famous player in their (American) football team. Nick describes him as "one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax."
Tom Buchanan-Morality and Promiscuity
Tom is an compulsive womaniser, with a preference for lower class women whom he treats with contempt and violence. He breaks Myrtle's nose, Daisy complains he has hurt her little finger, and, in the past, he caused a chambermaid he was having an affair with to break her arm after crashing his car, while he himself, typically, was unscathed.
He does, however, seem to love Daisy in his own, possessive fashion, recalling moments of tenderness during the confrontation at the Plaza Hotel: "the day I carried you down from the Punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry."
Tom Buchanan-Physical power
Tom comes over as an intimidating figure, as he still retains the powerful physique of the star football player – "a cruel body", according to Nick. As well as frequently hurting people, he also bullies the people around him. He imposes his will on Nick and "insists" with a "determination... that bordered on violence" that Nick meet his mistress Myrtle.
His practised brutality is captured in the way he assaults Myrtle: "Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand."
Although cuckolding him, he treats Wilson with unabashed disdain, knowing that Wilson cannot retaliate as he needs his business. He seems to enjoy the confrontation with Gatsby at the Plaza hotel, "exulting and laughing" afterwards.
Tom Buchanan-sexist and racist
Tom is a racist: he supports the ideas put forward in a book called "'The Rise of the Coloured Empires'", describing it as "scientific stuff". He is a male chauvinist, complaining of Jordan and Daisy that they "run around" too much.
Jordan Baker- Celebrity
Jordan is well known for being a golf champion. Nick had had seen her photograph in magazines many times: "everyone knew her name". Nick admits he is flattered to escort her.
Jordan Baker- Beauty
Jordan is attractive, but in a non-conventional way, perhaps even somewhat : "like a young cadet".
Jordan Baker- dishonesty
Nick describes her as "incurably dishonest" and remembers hearing a "critical, unpleasant story" about her when he first meets her, and recalls later that she was accused of cheating in a golf tournament. She also lied about ruining a friend's leather car upholstery.
At first Nick is too dazzled by her fame to condemn her for this.
Jordan Baker- Recklessness
Jordan drives so close to some workmen she "flicked a button on one man's coat", an incident which anticipates the death of Myrtle. Nick teases Jordan about being a "rotten driver". This becomes a metaphor for her careless attitude to life and other people.
After Myrtle's death, Jordan wants to go on socialising, and reproaches Nick for wanting to go home, saying "'It's only half past nine'". This causes the scales to fall from Nick's eyes and he ends the relationship soon after.
Myrtle Wilson- Lack of priviliedge
Myrtle (and her husband George) represent the lower classes. They live in the 'valley of ashes', an area literally and symbolically impoverished, a great contrast to the luxury of the mansions of Long Island. George tries to imprison her when he learns of her infidelity, and it is in her attempt to escape that she is killed.
Myrtle Wilson-Contrast to Daisy
Myrtle is described as having a raw sexuality, perhaps something that wouldn't be found in refined women of the upper classes like Daisy, who is cool and ethereal. Myrtle dresses in strong colours: dark blue and brown, which contrast with Daisy's signature colour, white. Myrtle's rowdy drinks party in chapter two is like a caricature of Daisy's elegant dinner party in chapter one.
Myrtle Wilson- Aspiration
Myrtle is attracted to the handsome, powerful (physically and socially) Tom, and is immensely dissatisfied with her husband. She enjoys playing the 'lady of the manor' in the flat Tom rents for her: "'I told that boy about the ice.' Myrtle raised her eyebrows in despair at the shiftlessness of the lower orders." However, Myrtle's pretentions are as ridiculous as the overlarge furniture with its "scenes of Versailles".
Myrtle is a victim of the selfish exploitation of the upper classes, but she is not a sympathetic character, being herself hard and heedless of others' feelings.
George Wilson- Unsuccessful
George owns an ailing garage located in the 'valley of ashes'. Nick describes the interior as "unprosperous and bare" with the only car visible being the "dust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner". This image, while symbolising much about Wilson's pathetic life, ominously prophecises Myrtle's death.
Tom patronises Wilson and tantalises him with the prospect of business. Myrtle despises him for his lack of material success.
George Wilson- Contrst with Tom
Whereas Tom comes across as strong, forceful and energetic, Wilson seems weak and demotivated, described as "blond, spiritless and anaemic."
The men do have some things in common though. They share a love for Myrtle, and each fears losing his wife.
George Wilson- Jealous
Although Wilson is portrayed as a weak man, he loves his wife and is tormented by knowing she is unfaithful. He dreams of taking her away – to somewhere unknown in the West - in order to save their marriage. His jealousy drives him to extreme action: he locks Myrtle into a room above the garage.
George Wilson- Tragic
George develops as a tragic figure in his grief over losing Myrtle, rocking himself back and forth and muttering incoherently. He is intent on avenging Myrtle's death and finding the driver of the yellow car. Tipped off by Tom as to the identity of the owner, his "ashen, fantastic figure" stalks Gatsby and shoots him. He then turns his gun on himself. Like Myrtle, George is ultimately a victim of the hedonism of the rich.
Meyer Wolfsheim- Criminal
Meyer Wolfshiem is an underworld figure, who associates with gangsters such as "Rosy Rosenthal" and is involved in various illegal activities. Gatsby tells Nick he is famous for having "fixed the 1919 World Series". His character was based on Arnold Rothstein, a real life gambler whom Fitzgerald had met. Wolfshiem clearly illustrates Gatsby has criminal connections as he knows Gatsby well.
It would be regarded as particularly reprehensible to fix a baseball game as this is regarding as the American sport. Nick says, "It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people – with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe."
Meyer wolfsheim- Jewish Caricature
While richly comic, the portrait may disturb readers of post-Holocaust generations as it mocks Wolfshiem's ethnic appearance with his "expressive nose" and his Jewish accent: "a business gonnection". However, this anti-Semitic tone is endemic in many pre-World War II English writers from John Buchan, reaching back through Dickens to Shakespeare. All the upper-class characters in the novel are WASPs, who were considered the elite in the US at that time.
Meyer Wolfsheim-Plot device
Wolfshiem provides a source of information about Gatsby to Nick (and the reader), filling in the missing details of Gatsby's rags to riches career path after the war. He is an example of the type of fair-weather friends who have surrounded Gatsby: after the shooting he initially refuses to speak to Nick and then subsequently declines to come to Gatsby's funeral. This reveals the selfishness and callousness of this kind of society.