Often called “the Great American Novel,” F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby has been popular since first published in 1925. An instant hit with the flappers and philosophers of the Jazz Age, the story struck a cord and the reverberations are still felt today as the title appears on countless reading lists and is now a getting the star treatment from director Baz Luhrmann.
The tale is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young man fresh from Yale and World War I, as he moves East to be a bond trader on Wall Street. Renting a tiny cottage in West Egg, Long Island, Nick finds himself neighbors with the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Next door Nick is witness to decadent and lavish parties held at Gatsby’s immense mansion. Across the bay from Gatsby’s, a green light blinks on a dock on old monied East Egg. This happens to be the home of Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan and her philandering husband Tom.
Naive Nick quickly becomes embroiled in the exploits of the super wealthy, complete with trips to NYC, gangsters, and socialites. Tom takes Nick to meet his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, wife of poor mechanic George. They reside in the “valley of the ashes” between Long Island and New York City. This depressed and destitute border town is watched over by the eyes of Dr. T J Eckleburg, a billboard and silent witness of events to come.
Nick is then invited to one of Gatsby’s parties. Here he encounters Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker and finally meets the Jay Gatsby. Later, Nick learns that Gatsby and Daisy were sweethearts before the war. Separated by distance and social status, Daisy eventually married Tom instead. Now, Gatsby wants Nick’s help in reuniting with Daisy.
Events come to a head when the five travel to the Plaza Hotel in the city. Gatsby urges Daisy to confront Tom and tell him she never loved him. Tom counters with questions about Gatsby’s dubious origins and the real source of his millions. Unable to commit to Gatsby, Daisy wants to leave. Tom sends them home together as he, Nick and Jordan follow in another car. While speeding through the “valley of the ashes,” Daisy hits and kills Myrtle. Gatsby takes responsibility for the accident, trying to cover up the evidence. When Tom finds a distraught George Wilson at the scene of the accident, he tells him it was Gatsby in the yellow car.
Nick leaves Gatsby as he waits in vain for Daisy to change her mind. Taking a dip in the luxurious swimming pool he’s never used, Gatsby is shot to death by a vengeful George Wilson, who then takes his own life. Myrtle’s death and adultery is attributed to Gatsby. Daisy and Tom flee to Chicago, heedless of the destruction left in their wake. Nick remains to make arrangements for his deceased friend. Only Gatsby’s father, the stranger known as Owl Eyes and Nick are mourners at the funeral.
The Great Gatsby‘s themes are timeless and universal. The desire to achieve and accumulate doesn’t make you happy. You can’t buy love or friendship. You can look to the past, but rarely recapture those moments. As powerful as it was almost 90 years ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby is just a relevant today.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”