Characterization of the Main Characters in The Great Gatsby
Sabine Jessica Stackmann
G1 Literary Studies
June 10, 2003
1. Introduction 3
2. Justifiable characters 3
2.1. Nick Carraway 3
2.2. Jay Gatsby 4
3. Careless characters 4
3.1. Tom Buchanan 4
3.2. Daisy Buchanan 5
3.3. Jordan Baker 6
4. Ambitious characters 7
4.1. Myrtle Wilson 7
4.2. Jay Gatsby 8
5. Shipwrecked characters 9
5.1. George Wilson 9
5.2. Jay Gatsby 9
6. Conclusion 10
All main characters in "The Great Gatsby" are somehow connected to each other, whatever relationship they have or don′t have. In the following I will describe how the characters are linked with one another and which specialties they posses.
Moreover, I intend to examine to what extent they are influenced by money and that this matter, that plays such a great role in their lives, finally makes them collapse.
2. Justifiable characters
2.1. Nick Carraway
The crucial thing about Nick is that he has an exceptional position; even though he acts as a narrator, he is not really the protagonist. As this is not a popular way for telling a story, the reader could possibly ask himself if Nick is reliable. The narrator himself responds to this question at the very beginning by assuring that he is "inclined to reserve all judgments" (Gatsby, 7), and that turns out to be true, as he reports rather objective. He only forbears that the people in the story -except Gatsby- don′t conform to the "fundamental decencies" (Gatsby, 7), which were taught to him by his father. He also acts according to that; when he thinks that he loves Jordan he is eager to "get [him]self out of that tangle back home" (Gatsby, 65) before being able to contract a relationship with her. Regarding all the other "careless" people he knows he can justly say, "I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known" (Gatsby, 66).
Not only Nick claims his honesty and care, but also Jordan once says to him, "I hate careless people. That′s why I like you" (Gatsby, 65). Another proof for that trait of character is the fact that he is the only one who looks after a proper funeral for his friend Gatsby. Being Gatsby′s (only) friend is somehow Nick′s most important part in the book. Although he "disapprove[s] of him from beginning to end" (Gatsby, 160), he is the one who backs up Gatsby when he breathes his last.
At the very beginning of the book the reader is told the reason for Nick′s tolerance toward others. His father once told him, "Whenever you feel like criticising anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven′t had the advantages that you′ve had" (7). That explains why Nick surely judges others, but never by reproaching them with their faults.
When he breaks up with Jordan he says, "I′m thirty. I′m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor" (185). He then is "tremendously sorry" for being so jaded by all those careless people.
2.2. Jay Gatsby
There is one feature about Gatsby that the narrator admires a lot. It is
[...] one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it [...]. It face[s]
- or seem[s] to face - the whole eternal world for an instant [...]. It [understands] you
just so far as you wanted to be understood [...], and assure[s] you that it [has]
precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you [hope] to convey (Gatsby, 54).
Nick states in the beginning, "Gatsby represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn." But he "turned out all right at the end" (Gatsby, 8), what probably means that although Jay is a bootlegger and makes up rumors about his past, he is always candid in his relationships towards other people. To Nick, he is "worth the whole damn bunch put together" (Gatsby, 160).
Their relationship is a friendly contact. Gatsby is grateful to meet someone who doesn′t make up any stories about him, but meets him with candidness and tolerance. In contrast, Nick admires Jay and his charisma, although he doesn′t admit that.
Moreover, they are connected by their experiences of the war; they both belong to the so-called "lost generation".
3. Careless characters
3.1. Tom Buchanan
By reading Nick′s first description of Tom, one could think that Nick admires him or at least once admired him for being "one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven" (Gatsby, 12). But you can recognize immediately that this former "national figure" is now "one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax" (Gatsby, 12), and that he deserves rather pity than admiration or envy, that one could feel when regarding Tom′s "enormous wealth" (Gatsby, 12). In contrast to his "supercilious manner" (Gatsby, 13) and his "arrogant eyes [that...] had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward" (Gatsby, 13), Nick "always had the impression that [Tom] approved of [Nick] and wanted [him] to like him with some harsh, defiant wistfulness" (Gatsby, 13). This contributes to his authoritative appearance with his "body capable of enormous leverage" (Gatsby, 13), able to silence his wife with one biting retort and break the nose of his lover with one sharp blow (Gatsby, 43).1 Also his voice with "a touch of paternal contempt in it, even toward people he liked" (Gatsby, 13) reveals that he treats Nick like a kind of a younger brother, for instance by turning Nick around "politely and abruptly" (Gatsby, 14) or "literally forc[ing him] from the car" (Gatsby, 30).
The only weak moment the reader witnesses is when he learns that Myrtle has been killed. Nick records his reaction: "In a little while I heard a low husky sob, and saw that the tears were overflowing his face. `The God damned coward!′ he whimpered. `He didn′t even stop his car.′ " (Gatsby, 148).
But that is altogether how the narrator sees him; Tom sees himself as a refined person, who believes to know about the superiority of the Nordic race, who is "standing alone on the last barrier of civilization" and has to defend "family life and family institutions"( Gatsby, 136). But he fails to see that his own adultery endangers such values and that his social strength only derives from his family′s wealth.2
Nevertheless, Tom strikes Nick as not being able to be content with what he possesses, as he feels that Tom will "drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game" (Gatsby, 12).
3.2. Daisy Buchanan
Unlike her husband, Daisy is not that self-conscious. All that she wanted to achieve was a wealthy life, which was offered to her by Tom, and not by Gatsby - the one she actually loved. She had married Tom Buchanan, as "she wanted her life shaped now" - she couldn′t wait for Jay after the war - "and the decision must be made by some force [...]. That force took shape [...] with [...] Tom [...]. Daisy was flattered" (Gatsby, 157).
In spite of being a charming and lovely young woman, she gives herself over to her passiveness; she lets it happen that she lives an unhappy relationship with Tom cheating on her. But one can imagine that she longs for more attention when she asks Nick if she is missed by the people in her home town Chicago (Gatsby, 16). Moreover, she takes into consideration to take back Gatsby, who actually made her and winning her back the very center of his life.
But this temporary change of mind cannot dissemble what she desires her daughter and herself to be, namely a fool. According to her opinion, "that′s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool" (Gatsby, 24). Surely feeling deceived by her husband, she actually wishes that she wasn′t so "sophisticated" (Gatsby, 24) and had never got wind of Tom′s affairs. Nick fancies that Daisy is supposed "to rush out of the house, child in arms - but apparently there [are] no such intentions in her head" (Gatsby, 27), for she somehow still loves that man she once was so mad about with "unfathomable delight" (Gatsby, 83).
Although Daisy seems to be a charming person in the beginning, she turns out to be a careless, money-oriented hypocrite. Her "absurd, charming little laugh", her "low, thrilling voice" (Gatsby, 15) and her whole appearance make the reader like her and understand Gatsby′s craving for her. But when Gatsby boasts about with his wealth and Daisy starts crying only because of his "beautiful shirts" (Gatsby, 99), the fact that love and marriage are chiefly a matter of money for her can′t be concealed.
In the end Nick concludes, that "they were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made..." (Gatsby, 186)
Although Tom cheats on her and although Daisy isn′t very happy in her marriage, those are two people who match up quite well. They both want to live a wealthy life without many commitments except towards each other. It seems to Nick that even though Daisy sometimes dreams of a more romantic ideal of her life, she "assert[s] her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belong" (Gatsby, 24).
3.3. Jordan Baker
Jordan is described as "a slender, small-breasted girl, [...] her grey sun-strained eyes look back at [Nick] with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, discontented face" (Gatsby, 17). Thus she is apparently a beautiful young woman, and although she and Daisy strike Nick as being "as cool as their white dresses" and despite their "eyes in the absence of all desire" (Gatsby, 18), she turns out to be a companionable person. Serving single Nick as a companion at Gatsby′s parties, where she actually brings him and Gatsby together, they soon detect their sympathy for each other. She is also willing to help arranging a meeting between Daisy and Gatsby. The reason for that is given in chapter IV, when she tells Nick about Daisy′s and Gatsby′s former romance: "[Gatsby] looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at sometime, and because it seemed romantic to me I have remembered the incident ever since" (Gatsby, 81).
Although she is "incurably dishonest" (Gatsby, 64), Nick thinks that "dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply" (Gatsby, 65), and he enters into a relationship with her, as he feels lonely and has "no girl whose disembodied face float[s] along the dark cornices and blinding signs" (Gatsby, 87) like Gatsby.
Like Tom and Daisy, Jordan has been born into a world influenced by money and her character reveals that she has been spoiled by it. Her behavior has become very indifferent and she takes it for granted, that she is unaccountable.3 A conversation with Nick in chapter III suits best to show that:
`You′re a rotten driver,′ [Nick] protested. `Either you ought to be more careful or you
oughtn′t to drive at all.′
`I am careful.′
`No you′re not.′
`Well, other people are,′ she said lightly.
`What′s that got to do with it?′
`They′ll keep out of my way,′ she insisted. `It takes two to make an accident.′
After having experienced all those careless people′s behavior and being disgusted by them, Nick also breaks up with her. He intends to go back home because he has "had enough of all of them [...], and suddenly that included Jordan too" (Gatsby, 149).
Jordan is rather a substitute to Nick; he only dates her due to the fact that he also wants a girl that he can admire. Her outer appearance might satisfy that wish for him, but she can′t correspond to his intrinsic values, as she′s also one of the rich careless people, whom he objects.
4. Ambitious characters
4.1. Myrtle Wilson
Apparently, Myrtle wants to get rid of her old life and her husband, whom she doesn′t love anymore or never even loved. She remarks that she only "married him because [she] thought he was a gentleman, [...] but he wasn′t fit to lick [her] shoe" (Gatsby, 41), what tells the reader a lot about how she regards and treats her husband. She also tells him that she visits her sister every time she meets Tom in their apartment in New York Gatsby, (Gatsby, 32).
Basically, what is important for her is to break out of her former life, and therefore she needs Tom. But she′s satisfied with only being his "girl", for she somehow knows or fears that Tom will not abandon Daisy for her. So she is content with all the material things she receives when she′s demanding them, like a "lavender-coloured [taxi] with grey upholstery", or "a dog and other purchases" (Gatsby, 34). It′s so ingenuous for her to act like that, so that she and Tom aren′t even ashamed of showing their betrayal in front of Nick, who is actually a cousin of Daisy′s (Gatsby, 35).
Nick describes that "her personality has undergone a change" when she puts on a new dress, so that her "vitality [...is] converted into impressive hauteur" Gatsby, (36). Her (and her sister′s) behavior shows a certain disparaging tone towards people that belong to a lower social layer than her (Gatsby, 37-38) and she acts like she′s superior to them, trying to seem as if she was a rich person.
Myrtle admires Tom for being rich. She tells Nick about her first meeting with Tom: "He had on a dress suit and patent leather shoes, and I couldn′t keep my eyes off him" (42). That shows that her affection for him is very money-oriented, and she likes him because he′s the exact opposite from her husband. For Tom, she is a nice pastime for a change from his wife Daisy.
4.2. Jay Gatsby
As I said before, Jay makes Daisy and winning her back the very center of his life; he buys a house that looks across the bay straight to where she lives and he tells Jordan that "he′s read a Chicago paper for years just on the chance of catching a glimpse of Daisy′s name" ( Gatsby, 86). He would have done everything for her; so when he perceives that he can only have a chance by achieving a certain financial status, he isn′t even reluctant to become a bootlegger.
When they finally meet in chapter V he passes through three states. "After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he [is] consumed with wonder at her presence" (Gatsby, 99).
A revealing scene occurs when Nick and Jay discuss Gatsby′s dream of Daisy taking him back: "`You can′t repeat the past.′ `Can′t repeat the past?′ he cried incredulously. `Why of course you can!′ [...] `I′m going to fix everything just the way it was before,′ he said, nodding determinedly. `She′ll see′ " (Gatsby, 117). Unlike Nick, who is a realist, Gatsby is a dreamer 4
5. Shipwrecked characters
5.1. George Wilson
In my opinion, George is the most wretched character. Outwardly being "a blond, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome" (Gatsby, 31), the best description for Wilson is actually "Myrtle′s husband". Seeming to be a very inconsiderable person, he is "one of those worn-out men: when he [isn′t] working, he [sits] on a chair in the doorway and stare[s] at the people and the cars that [pass] along the road. [...] He [is] his wife′s man and not his own" (Gatsby, 143). Tom describes him to Nick as "so dumb [that] he doesn′t know he′s alive" (Gatsby, 32).
His wife doesn′t treat him with respect; when Tom visits them, she is "walking through her husband as if he were a ghost" (Gatsby, 31); she states that she "made a mistake [...] when [she] married him" (Gatsby, 41). But she is actually the only contact he has. He loves her anyhow and can′t accept to lose her.
When he finds out that his wife lives a double life, he decides not to accept that, but to migrate together with her. In chapter VII he explains calmly to his neighbor, "I′ve got my wife locked in up [in the flat]. She′s going to stay there till the day after to-morrow, and then we′re going to move away" (Gatsby, 143). This shows how desperate he really is.
But his plans don′t work out even, as his wife escapes and is killed in a car accident while she′s trying to escape from him.
Being totally distressed about her death, he is really paralyzed at first, so that Tom has to "pick up Wilson like a doll" (Gatsby, 148) in order to prevent him from collapsing. But then he calms down and "the quality of [his] incoherent muttering change[s]" (Gatsby, 163). He then seeks revenge, and the only desperate thing he can do yet is to locate the driver of the "death car" (Gatsby, 144) and kill him.
5.2. Jay Gatsby
Even when Gatsby has achieved a status, in which Daisy would be at his feet, he hasn′t the heart to contact her, but hopes that she will sometimes appear at one of his parties. Believing that he won her back in the end, he is surprised and crestfallen at Daisy′s confession that she didn′t love only him but also her husband (Gatsby, 139), as he already "felt married to her" (Gatsby, 155).
His love for Daisy finally dispatches him. He would never tell on her, so he is made responsible for Myrtle′s death and is killed.
The majority of the characters and their relations in Fitzgerald′s novel are stamped by money - even the love between two people. Perhaps that is why they are all doomed to failure. Above all, Gatsby has to experience that. He "does not see that the corruption at the base of his fortune [...] compromises his vision of life with Daisy" (Lewis, 52), as she is a kind of ideal for him, and an ideal can′t be won with lies and deceit.
But although the characters shipwreck because of their problematic dependency on money, the reader is impressed most of the time by all the wealth and possession in that glamorous world of the roaring twenties. Daisy and her voice are able to represent that at its best. When Gatsby remarks that her voice is "full of money", Nick has to admit: "That was it. [He′d] never understood it before. It was full of money - that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals′ song of it... High in a white palace the king′s daughter, the golden girl" (Gatsby, 126).
The dream that is dreamt by Gatsby doesn′t have a future, but only a past, "for it is in memories that the dream can live" (Lewis, 54).Gatsby himself is the best example for that; he tries to repeat the past, but the more he tries, the further he steps back, and in the end, he dies. Nick contemplates his experiences: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (Gatsby, 188).
Fitzgerald, Francis Scott. The Great Gatsby. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1994.
Lewis, Roger. "Money, Love and Aspiration in The Great Gatsby." New Essays on The Great Gatsby. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Cambridge: UP, 1985. 41-57.
Pelzer, Linda C. Student Companion to Francis Scott Fitzgerald. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000.
"The Great Gatsby - Character Analysis." Homework Online.
<http://www.homeworkonline.com/tgg/charJordan.asp>. Recalled in March 2003.
"Characterization in The Great Gatsby." Adrian Jones. <http://www.innogize.com/papers/gatsby.html>. Recalled in March 2003.
Linda C. Pelzer, Student Companion to Francis Scott Fitzgerald (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000) 86.
Linda C. Pelzer, Student Companion to Francis Scott Fitzgerald (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000) 86.
"The Great Gatsby - Character Analysis." Homework Online.<http://www.homeworkonline.com/tgg/charJordan.asp>. © 1998-2003.
"Characterization in The Great Gatsby" <http://www.innogize.com/papers/gatsby.html> Apr. 1996