Jay Gatsby (James Gatz) in The Great Gatsby

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson analyzes the title character of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. It explores Jay Gatsby's significance both within the novel named for him and as one of the most iconic characters in all of literature.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby: There's a Reason He's ''Great''

F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, is widely esteemed as one of the best and most important novels in all of American literature--and for good reason. In it, Fitzgerald creates some of the most memorable characters in all of fiction, from the shallow dream girl, Daisy Fay Buchanan to the jaded narrator, Nick Carraway.

And then, of course, there is the man himself, Jay Gatsby, who has come to represent all the glamour and the tragedy of 1920s America, a period nostalgically referred to as The Jazz Age.

Book Jacket for 1925 Novel First Edition
The Great Gatsby

Who Is Jay Gatsby and What Makes Him So Great?

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Gatsby is his ability to be all things to all people, because no one ever, truly, ''really'' knows him. Time and time again, the characters speculate about Gatsby and his background. Usually what they envision is far more about who ''they'' want Gatsby to be, who they need him to be (the rumors about Gatsby run the gamut from Oxford graduate to hot-tempered murderer).

But the fact is that no one really knows anything about Gatsby--many of those who regularly attend his ubiquitous parties have never even met the man himself. And that is precisely how Gatsby wants it.

Small Town Boy Makes Good

Perhaps Gatsby's greatest appeal is that he seems to embody the American Dream. His incredible wealth and audacious lifestyle reflect the limitless possibilities of the Roaring Twenties, but what makes his success even more incredible are Gatsby's humble origins.

Late in the novel, it is revealed that Gatsby, whose real name is James Gatz, was born of a destitute family in North Dakota. At a young age, he struck out on his own to make his fame and his fortune.

The First Great Tycoon

Gatsby's not just rich: he makes the Trumps and the Hiltons look like paupers. And he knows how to capitalize on his wealth in order to make his name a household word. Gatsby is no retiring miser quietly counting his money behind closed doors. His ostentatious parties and gaudy excess have one goal in mind: to make him the object of speculation, fascination, and awe.

Every inch of him, from his dress and his speech to the lighting of his mansion and manicure of his lawn, is purposely designed to convey the image he wishes to project: The Great Gatsby--mystery and wonder.

James Gatz is dead, and along with him the boy of penniless origins. Further, the truth of Gatsby's fortune, made by bootlegging (the illegal sale of alcohol in the Prohibition era) and other criminal activities, does not come to light until the end of the novel, after Gatsby's glamorous mask has crumbled.

The Knight in Shining Armor

Though this fabulous life would seem to be everything that anyone could want, we learn early in the novel that this is not the case for Gatsby. No, for Gatsby, wealth and fame are simply a means to an end. And that end is a girl: Daisy Buchanan. Daisy is from the old money elite. A southern debutante, her family name and fortune go way, way back.

To Daisy's family, its history is just as important as its future, and more specifically, the stock into which the heirs will marry. So when, five years prior to the start of the novel, a young, unmarried Daisy falls for a then-penniless solider with no family pedigree named Gatsby, her family will have none of it.

She breaks it off with her young soldier, who later returns from World War I determined to win her back in the only way he knows how: by making a name for himself--and a boatload of cash.

The Tragic Hero

Despite Gatsby's incredible success, there is something profoundly sad in his story, because one of the few obstacles that Gatsby is unable to overcome is time: in the years since Gatsby has been gone, life has moved on.

Daisy has married Tom Buchanan, a wealthy but brutal man with an old family name and all the social connections a young heiress needs. Though their marriage is an unhappy one, marked by infidelity and estrangement, her ties to Tom are irrevocable.

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