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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Book Notes
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THE NOVEL

THE PLOT - SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)

Nick Carraway, the narrator, is a young Midwesterner who, having graduated from Yale in 1915 and fought in World War I ("The Great War"), has returned home to begin a career. Like others in his generation, he is restless and has decided to move East to New York and learn the bond business. The novel opens early in the summer of 1922 in West Egg, Long Island, where Nick has rented a house. Next to his place is a huge mansion complete with Gothic tower and marble swimming pool, which belongs to a Mr. Gatsby, whom Nick has not met.

Directly across the bay from West Egg is the more fashionable community of East Egg, where Tom and Daisy Buchanan live. Daisy is Nick's cousin and Tom, a well-known football player at Yale, had been in the same senior society as Nick in New Haven. Like Nick, they are Midwesterners who have come East to be a part of the glamour and mystery of the New York City area. They invite Nick to dinner at their mansion, and here he meets a young woman golfer named Jordan Baker, a friend of Daisy's from Louisville, whom Daisy wants Nick to become interested in.

During dinner the phone rings, and when Tom and Daisy leave the room, Jordan informs Nick that the caller is a "woman of Tom's from New York."

The woman's name is Myrtle Wilson, and she lives in a strange, fantastic place half way between West Egg and New York City that Fitzgerald calls the "valley of ashes." The valley of ashes consists of huge ash heaps and a faded yellow brick building containing an all-night restaurant and George Wilson's garage. Painted on a large billboard nearby is a fading advertisement for an optician: the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, gazing out over this wasteland through a pair of enormous yellow spectacles.


One day Tom takes Nick to meet the Wilsons. Myrtle joins them on the next train to Manhattan, and the threesome ends up, along with a dog Myrtle buys at Pennsylvania Station, at the apartment Tom has rented for his meetings with Myrtle. Myrtle's sister Catherine and an unattractive couple from downstairs named McKee join them, and the six proceed to get quite drunk. The party breaks up violently when Myrtle starts using Daisy's name in a familiar fashion and Tom, in response, breaks her nose with a blow of his open hand.

Some weeks later Nick finally gets the opportunity to meet his mysterious neighbor Mr. Gatsby. Gatsby gives huge parties, complete with catered food, open bars, and orchestras. People come from everywhere to attend these parties, but no one seems to know much about the host. Legends about Jay Gatsby abound. Some say he was a German spy during the war, others, that he once killed a man. Nick becomes fascinated by Gatsby. He begins watching his host and notices that Gatsby does not drink or join in the revelry of his own parties.

One day Gatsby and Nick drive to New York together. Gatsby tells Nick that he's from a wealthy family in the Midwest, that he was educated at Oxford, and that he won war medals from many European countries. Nick isn't sure what to believe. At lunch Gatsby introduces Nick to his business associate, Meyer Wolfsheim, "the man who fixed the World Series in 1919."

At tea that afternoon Nick finds out from Jordan Baker why Gatsby has taken such an interest in him: Gatsby is in love with Daisy Buchanan and wants Nick to arrange a meeting between them. It seems that Gatsby, as a young officer at Camp Taylor in 1917, had fallen in love with Daisy, then Daisy Fay. He had been sent overseas, and she had eventually given him up, married Tom Buchanan, and had a daughter. When Gatsby finally returned from Europe he decided to win Daisy back. His first step was to buy a house in West Egg. From here he could look across the bay to the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He expected her to turn up at one of his parties, and when she didn't, he asked Jordan to ask Nick to ask Daisy. And so Nick does.

A few days later, in the rain, Gatsby and Daisy meet for the first time in five years. Gatsby is at first terrified, then tremendously excited. He takes Nick and Daisy on a tour of his house and grounds and shows them all his possessions, even his beautiful shirts from England. He shows Daisy the green light that he has been watching, and he insists that Klipspringer, "the boarder," play the piano for them. Klipspringer plays "Ain't We Got Fun," and Nick leaves.

Now, halfway through the book, Nick gives us some information about who Gatsby really is. He was originally James Gatz, the son of farm people from North Dakota. He had gone to St. Olaf College in Minnesota, dropped out because the college failed to promote his romantic dreams about himself, and ended up on the south shore of Lake Superior earning room and board by digging clams and fishing for salmon.

One day he saw the beautiful yacht of the millionaire Dan Cody and borrowed a rowboat to warn Cody of an impending storm. Cody took the seventeen-year-old boy on as steward, mate, and secretary. When Cody died, he left the boy, now Jay Gatsby, a legacy of $25,000, which the boy never got because of the jealousy of Cody's mistress.

The story of Gatsby's past breaks off, and Nick resumes his narration of Gatsby's renewed courtship of Daisy during the summer of 1929. Daisy and Tom come to one of Gatsby's parties, but Tom is put off by the vulgarity of Gatsby's world, and Daisy does not have a good time. Though Gatsby has been seeing Daisy, he's increasingly frustrated by his inability to recreate the magic of their time together in Louisville five years before.

The affair between Daisy and Gatsby now comes out into the open. Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Nick, and Jordan-the five major characters-all meet for lunch at the Buchanans and then decide to drive to New York. Daisy and Gatsby end up going together in the Buchanans' blue coupe, Tom, Nick, and Jordan drive in Gatsby's yellow Rolls Royce. The couple stop for gas at Wilson's garage, and Myrtle Wilson, watching from her window over the garage, thinks the car belongs to Tom.

The five arrive in the city and engage the parlor of a suite at the Plaza Hotel. Tom, drunk and agitated by now, starts ragging Gatsby about his past and attacking him for his phony English habit of calling people "old sport." Gatsby retaliates by telling Tom that Daisy is going to leave him. Tom calls Gatsby a cheap bootlegger. Like cowboys in the Old West, they duel back and forth for Daisy until Tom wins. Daisy will not go away with Gatsby, and the five-year dream is over. Tom sends Daisy and Gatsby home together in the yellow Rolls Royce, knowing that he has nothing more to fear. A couple of hours later Tom follows with Nick and Jordan. When they reach the valley of ashes, they see crowds of people in police cars. Someone was struck by a car coming from New York. That someone, they discover, was Myrtle Wilson, and the car had to be Gatsby's yellow Rolls Royce. When Nick gets back to East Egg, he finds Gatsby hiding in the shrubbery outside the Buchanans' house, unwilling to leave for fear that Tom might hurt Daisy. Gatsby tells Nick that Daisy was driving, but that-of course-he will take the blame. Nick leaves Gatsby "watching over nothing."

Nick goes to work the next morning, but is too worried about Gatsby to stay in New York. He takes an early train back to West Egg but arrives at Gatsby's too late. His friend's body is floating on an inflated mattress in the swimming pool, and George Wilson's dead body, revolver in hand, lies nearby on the grass. The crazed husband had spent the entire morning tracking down the driver of the yellow Rolls Royce. He found Gatsby before Nick did.

Nick tries to phone Daisy and Tom, but is told they've left town with no forwarding address. Calls to Meyer Wolfsheim produce similar results. Nick, it seems, is Gatsby's only friend.

News of Gatsby's murder is printed in a Chicago newspaper, where it is read by his father, Mr. Henry C. Gatz, now of Minnesota. Mr. Gatz arrives for the funeral, which is attended only by Nick, Owl Eyes (who loved Gatsby's books), and a smattering of servants. Meyer Wolfsheim, of course, has refused to get involved. Even Mr. Klipspringer, "the boarder," has sent his excuses.

Mr. Gatz, who loves his son very much, shows Nick a book which Jimmy owned as a boy. In the flyleaf Gatsby had written a schedule for self improvement: exercise, study, sport, and work. How far Gatsby had come from that dream, to this meaningless death!

Disgusted and disillusioned by what he has experienced, Nick decides to leave New York and return to the Midwest. He ends his relationship with Jordan Baker and learns from Tom Buchanan that it was he, Tom, who told Wilson where Gatsby lived. Before Nick leaves the East, he stands one more time on the beach near Gatsby's house looking out at the green light that his friend had worshipped. Here he pays his final tribute to Gatsby and to the dream for which he lived-and died.

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