Characterization in The Great Gatsby

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  • 0:03 Characterization
  • 0:55 Tom Buchanan
  • 1:57 Daisy Buchanan
  • 2:39 The Wilsons
  • 3:43 Jay Gatsby
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

When you read 'The Great Gatsby', one of the most compelling parts of the story is the way F. Scott Fitzgerald describes his characters. This lesson explores the role of characterization in 'The Great Gatsby'.


Have you ever read a story or a novel where the characters seem to leap off the page? They seem so life-like, so incredibly real that it was like watching them act out a movie in your own mind. How exactly do authors create such vivid and memorable characters for their readers? Why, characterization, of course!

Characterization is the process of developing and describing a character. These descriptions generally include aspects of physical appearance like hair color, gender, and clothing. Characterization also gives insight into the personality of characters and how they interact with each other.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is a master of characterization. His intense attention to detail brings the characters in The Great Gatsby to life. Fitzgerald goes beyond the obvious with his descriptions. He creates a sense of feeling, energy, and emotion around each character that makes the reader a participant in the story.

Tom Buchanan

Tom Buchanan is one of the first characters we meet aside from the narrator Nick Carraway. We learn from Carraway that Tom takes the stereotype of a 1920s wealthy white male to a new extreme. Tom was a college hero, …one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven…one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors anti-climax. From this description, you get the sense that Tom was a big man on campus and probably has a high degree of self-importance.

Seeing Tom Buchanan for the first time since college, Carraway reflects on his appearance and demeanor as an older man: Now he was a sturdy, straw-haired man of thirty...Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward…you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved...It was a body capable of enormous leverage--a cruel body. You get the impression that Tom is a harsh and powerful man, a person who projects the body and mentality of a bully.

Daisy Buchanan

Shortly after meeting Tom Buchanan for the first time, the reader meets the lovely Daisy Buchanan. True to form, Fitzgerald's writing moves beyond the obvious physicality of Daisy to the impact of her 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…there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget…

Carraway's description of Daisy is magical. Could such a delicate and compelling human being actually exist? The reader gets the distinct impression that Daisy's personality is magnetic. Her staggering charm captivates people and draws them to her.

The Wilsons

F. Scott Fitzgerald often defines characters in terms of one another. One of the best examples of this is George and Myrtle Wilson. George Wilson was a, ...blond, spiritless man, anæmic, and faintly handsome. When he saw us a damp gleam of hope sprang into his light blue eyes. Carraway's description of George and his surroundings is bleak. The man seems broken and defeated, a victim of poor circumstances. Meanwhile, George Wilson's wife is like a live wire: Her face…contained no facet or gleam of beauty, but here was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering.

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