Nick Carraway, a young man from Minnesota who recently moved to New York to learn about the bond business, opens his story by describing himself. He is tolerant, slow to judge, and a good listener. As a result, people tend to share their secrets with him, including someone named Gatsby. Gatsby, Nick says, had a beautiful dream, but the people surrounding him ruined that dream. Nick is so disgusted with these people and their New York lifestyle that he has left New York and returned to Minnesota.
In the summer of 1922, however, Nick had just arrived in New York and rented a house on a part of Long Island called West Egg. Unlike the conservative, aristocratic East Egg, West Egg is home to the “new rich,” those who, having made their fortunes recently, have neither the social connections nor the refinement to move among the East Egg set. West Egg is characterized by lavish displays of wealth and garish poor taste. Nick’s West Egg house is next to Gatsby’s mansion, a sprawling Gothic monstrosity.
Nick is unlike his West Egg neighbors–he graduated from Yale and has social connections on East Egg. One night, he drives out to East Egg to have dinner with his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan, a former member of Nick’s social club at Yale. Tom, a powerful figure dressed in riding clothes, meets Nick on the porch. Inside, Daisy lounges on a couch with her friend Jordan Baker, a competitive golfer who yawns as though bored by her surroundings.
Tom tries to interest the others in a racist book called The Rise of the Colored Empires, by a man named Goddard. Daisy teases Tom about the book, but is interrupted when Tom leaves the room to take a phone call. Daisy follows him, and Jordan tells Nick that the call is from Tom’s lover in New York.
After an awkward dinner, the party breaks up; Jordan wants to go to bed because she has a golf tournament the next day. As Nick leaves, Tom and Daisy hint that they would like him to take a romantic interest in Jordan.
When Nick arrives home, he sees Gatsby for the first time, standing on the lawn with his arms reaching out toward the dark water. Nick looks out at the water, but all he can see is a distant green light that might mark the end of a dock.
Halfway between West Egg and New York City sprawls a desolate plain, a gray valley where New York’s ashes are dumped; the men who live here work at shoveling up the ashes. Over the valley of ashes, two huge blue eyes stare down from an enormous sign. These spectacle-rimmed eyes–the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg–are the last vestige of an advertising gimmick by a long-vanished eye doctor, and they watch unblinking over everything that happens in the valley of ashes.
Tom drives Nick to George B. Wilson’s garage, which sits on the edge of the valley of ashes. Tom’s lover Myrtle is Wilson’s wife, and lives there with him. Wilson is a lifeless, yet handsome man; Myrtle has a kind of desperate vitality. Tom takes Nick and Myrtle to New York, to the Morningside Heights apartment he keeps for his affair with Myrtle. Here they have a party with Myrtle’s sister Catherine and a couple named McKee. Catherine has bright red hair, wears a great deal of makeup, and tells Nick that she has heard Gatsby is the nephew or cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm, the ruler of Germany during the first World War. The McKees, who live downstairs, are a horrid couple: Mr. McKee is pale and feminine, Mrs. McKee is shrill. The group proceeds to drink to excess–Nick claims that this party is only the second time in his life that he has been drunk.
The ostentatious behavior and conversation of everyone at the party repulses Nick, and he tries to leave. At the same time, he finds himself fascinated by the lurid spectacle of the group. Myrtle grows louder and more obnoxious as she drinks, and shortly after her new puppy arrives, she begins to talk about Daisy. Tom responds by lashing out with his open hand and breaking her nose, which brings the party to a screeching halt. Nick leaves, drunkenly, with Mr. McKee, and ends up taking the four a.m. train back to Long Island.
Gatsby has become famous for the elaborate parties he throws every weekend at his mansion, and now Nick receives an invitation. At the party, guests mill about exchanging rumors about their host–no one seems to know the truth about Gatsby’s wealth or personal history. Nick runs into Jordan Baker, whose friend, Lucille, speculates that Gatsby was a German spy during the war.
Gatsby’s party is almost unbelievably luxurious: guests marvel over his Rolls Royce, his swimming pool, his beach, crates of fresh oranges and lemons, buffet tents in the gardens overflowing with a feast, and a live orchestra playing under the stars. Liquor flows freely. In this atmosphere of opulence and revelry, Nick and Jordan set out to find Gatsby. Instead, they run into Owl Eyes, a middle-aged man with huge spectacles who sits poring over the unread books in Gatsby’s library.
At midnight, Nick and Jordan go outside to watch the entertainment. Suddenly, a young man with a magnificent smile appears and introduces himself as Gatsby. Gatsby looks like a roughneck, but his speech is elaborate and formal–he has a habit of calling everyone “old sport.” As the party progresses, Nick becomes increasingly fascinated with Gatsby. He notices that Gatsby does not drink and keeps himself separate from the party, standing alone on the marble steps watching his guests.
At two o’clock in the morning, as husbands and wives argue over whether to leave, Gatsby goes inside to take a phone call from Philadelphia, and Nick starts to walk home. On his way, he sees Owl Eyes struggling to get his car out of a ditch.
Nick then proceeds to describe his everyday life, to prove that he does more with his time than simply attend parties. He works in New York City, through which he also takes long walks, and he meets women. After a brief relationship with a girl from Jersey City, Nick follows Daisy and Tom’s advice and begins seeing Jordan Baker. Jordan is dishonest; Nick even knows that she cheated in her first golf tournament. Nick feels attracted to her despite her dishonesty–even though he himself claims to be one of the few honest people he has ever known.
Nick lists all the people who attended Gatsby’s parties that summer, a roll call of ridiculous names including the Cheadles, and the O.R.P. Schraders, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia. He then describes a trip to New York with Gatsby for lunch. As they drive, Gatsby tells Nick about his past, but his story seems highly improbable–he claims to be the son of wealthy, now deceased parents from the Midwest, but when Nick asks which Midwestern city he is from, he says “San Francisco.” He then claims to have been educated at Oxford, collected jewels in the capitals of Europe, hunted big game, and been awarded medals in the war by multiple European countries. Nick is skeptical, but Gatsby produces a medal from Montenegro and a picture of himself playing cricket at Oxford.
Gatsby’s car speeds through the valley of ashes and enters the city. A policeman pulls Gatsby over for speeding, but Gatsby shows him a white card, and the policeman apologizes. In New York, Gatsby takes Nick to lunch and introduces him to Meyer Wolfsheim, who, he claims, was responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series. Wolfsheim is a shady character with underground business connections; he gives Nick the impression that the source of Gatsby’s wealth may be unsavory. For his part, Wolfsheim remains in awe of Gatsby’s refinement and social grace.
After the lunch in New York, Jordan Baker tells Nick that Gatsby is in love with Daisy Buchanan. According to Jordan, during the war, before Daisy married Tom, she was a beautiful young girl in Louisville, Kentucky–all the military officers in town were in love with her. Daisy fell in love with Lieutenant Jay Gatsby. Though she chose to marry Tom after Gatsby left for the war, she drank herself into numbness the night before her wedding, after she received a letter from Gatsby. Tom has been unfaithful throughout their marriage, but Daisy has apparently remained faithful.
Jordan tells Nick that Gatsby bought his mansion in West Egg solely to be near Daisy. Nick remembers the night he saw Gatsby stretching his arms out to the water, and realizes that the green light he saw was the light at the end of Daisy’s dock.
According to Jordan, Gatsby has asked her to convince Nick to arrange a reunion between Gatsby and Daisy. Gatsby is terrified Daisy will refuse and asks Nick to invite her to tea without telling her that he, Gatsby, will be there as well.
That night, Nick meets Gatsby on the lawn. Gatsby seems agitated and almost desperate to make Nick happy–he invites him to Coney Island, then for a swim in the pool; he offers to get Nick’s grass cut and tries to give him some money. Nick refuses the money, but agrees to invite Daisy to his house.
It rains the day of the meeting, and Gatsby is terribly nervous. He worries that even if Daisy accepts his advances, things between them won’t be the same as they were in Louisville. Daisy arrives, but Gatsby has suddenly disappeared. Then there is a knock at the door; Gatsby had gone for a walk around the house in the rain before coming back to meet Daisy.
At first, Gatsby’s reunion with Daisy is terribly awkward. Gatsby knocks Nick’s clock over and tells Nick the meeting was a mistake. When Nick leaves the two alone for half an hour, he returns to find them radiantly happy. Outside, the rain has stopped, and Gatsby invites Nick and Daisy over to his house, where he shows them his possessions. Daisy is overwhelmed by his luxurious lifestyle, and when he shows her his extensive collection of English shirts, she begins to cry. Gatsby tells Daisy about the nights spent outside, staring at the green light at the end of her dock, dreaming about their future happiness.
Nick wonders whether Daisy can possibly live up to Gatsby’s vision of her. Gatsby calls in Klipspringer, a strange character who seems to live at Gatsby’s mansion, and has him play the piano. Klipspringer plays a popular song called “Ain’t We Got Fun?”, and Nick leaves Gatsby and Daisy together.
Nick describes Gatsby’s early life. He was born James Gatz on a North Dakota farm, and though he attended college at St. Olaf’s in Minnesota, he dropped out after two weeks. He worked on Lake Superior the next summer fishing for salmon and digging for clams. One day he saw a yacht owned by Dan Cody, a wealthy copper mogul, and rowed out to warn him about an impending storm. The grateful Cody took young Gatz, who gave his name as Jay Gatsby, on board his yacht as his personal assistant. Traveling with Cody to the Barbary Coast and the West Indies, Gatsby fell in love with wealth and luxury. When Cody died, he left Gatsby $25,000, but Cody’s mistress prevented Gatsby from claiming his money. Gatsby dedicated himself to becoming a wealthy and successful man.
Several weeks have gone by since Gatsby and Daisy were reunited, and Nick hasn’t seen either of them. Stopping by Gatsby’s house one afternoon, he is alarmed to find Tom Buchanan there. Tom has stopped at Gatsby’s house with Mr. and Mrs. Sloane, with whom he has been out riding; Gatsby invites them to stay for dinner, but they refuse. To be polite, they invite Gatsby to dine with them, and he accepts, not realizing the insincerity of the invitation. Tom is contemptuous of Gatsby’s lack of social grace, and highly critical of Daisy’s habit of visiting Gatsby’s alone. He is suspicious, but has not yet discovered Gatsby and Daisy’s secret love.
The following Saturday night, Tom and Daisy go to a party at Gatsby’s. Tom has no interest in the party and actively dislikes Gatsby, but he wants to keep an eye on Daisy. Gatsby’s party impresses Nick much less this time around, and even Daisy has a bad time. Tom upsets her by telling her that Gatsby’s fortune comes from bootlegging.
Gatsby seeks out Nick after Tom and Daisy leave the party; he is unhappy because Daisy had such an unpleasant time. Gatsby wants things to be exactly the same as they were before he left Louisville. Nick reminds Gatsby that he cannot recreate the past, and Gatsby, distraught, protests that he can.
Preoccupied by his love for Daisy, Gatsby has called off his parties, which he had held primarily to lure Daisy. He has also fired his servants to prevent gossip, and replaced them with connections of Meyer Wolfsheim.
On the hottest day of the summer, Nick drives to East Egg for lunch at Tom and Daisy’s house. Here, he finds Gatsby and Jordan Baker. When the nurse brings in Tom and Daisy’s baby girl, Gatsby is stunned. During the awkward afternoon, Gatsby and Daisy cannot hide their love for one another, and Tom finally deciphers their situation.
Stewing for a confrontation, Tom agrees with Daisy’s suggestion that they should all go to New York together. Nick rides with Jordan and Tom in Gatsby’s car; Gatsby and Daisy ride together in Tom’s car. Stopping for gas at Wilson’s garage, Nick, Tom, and Jordan learn that Wilson has discovered his wife’s infidelity–though not the identity of her lover–and plans to move her to the West. As the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg stare down over the valley of ashes, Nick perceives that Tom and Wilson are in the same position.
In the oppressive New York City heat, the group decides to take a suite at the Plaza Hotel. Tom begins his confrontation with Gatsby by mocking his habit of calling people “old sport.” He accuses Gatsby of lying when he claimed to have attended Oxford. Gatsby responds that he did attend Oxford–for five months, in an army program following the war. Tom asks Gatsby about his intentions with Daisy, and Gatsby replies that Daisy loves him, not Tom. Tom claims that he and Daisy have a history that Gatsby could not possibly understand; he then accuses Gatsby of running a bootlegging operation. Daisy, who began the afternoon in love with Gatsby, feels herself moving closer and closer to Tom as she watches the confrontation. Tom realizes he has won, and sends Daisy back to Long Island with Gatsby to prove Gatsby’s inability to hurt him. As the confrontation ends, Nick realizes that today is his thirtieth birthday.
Driving back to Long Island, Nick, Tom, and Jordan discover a frightening scene on the border of the valley of ashes. Someone has been killed by an automobile, and Michaelis, the Greek who runs the restaurant next to Wilson’s garage, tells them it was Myrtle, run down by a car coming from New York. The car struck her, paused, then sped away. Nick realizes Myrtle must have been hit by Gatsby and Daisy, driving back from the city in Gatsby’s yellow Rolls Royce. Tom thinks that Wilson will remember the yellow car from that afternoon. He also suspects that Gatsby must have been the driver.
Back at Tom’s house, Nick waits outside, and finds Gatsby hiding in the bushes. Gatsby says he waited to make sure Tom would not hurt Daisy. He tells Nick that Daisy was driving when the car struck Myrtle, but that he, Gatsby, will take the blame. Still worried about Daisy, Gatsby sends Nick to check on her. Nick finds Tom and Daisy eating cold fried chicken and talking. They have reconciled their differences, and Nick leaves Gatsby standing alone in the moonlight.
Late that night, Nick goes to visit Gatsby at his mansion. Gatsby tells him about courting Daisy in Louisville in 1917. He loved her for her youth and her vitality, and idolized her social position, wealth, and popularity. Daisy promised to wait for him when he left for the war, but after he left, she married Tom.
Early that morning, Gatsby’s gardener tells Gatsby that he plans to drain the pool. Yesterday was the hottest day of the summer, but this morning autumn is in the air, and the gardener worries that the falling leaves will clog the pool drains. Gatsby tells the gardener to wait a day; he has never used the pool, he says, and wants to go for a swim. Nick tells Gatsby good-bye, but as he walks away, he turns back and shouts that he thinks Gatsby is worth more than the Buchanans and all their friends.
Nick rides the train to New York, but feels too distracted to work, and he even refuses to meet Jordan Baker for a date. Riding back to West Egg on the train, he looks out at the valley of ashes. He tells us what George Wilson was doing at that same moment, which he learned later from Michaelis and the newspapers.
Wilson stayed up all night talking to Michaelis, and in the morning he was overwhelmed by the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg illuminated by the dawn. He believes they are the eyes of God, and leaps to the conclusion that whoever was driving the car that killed Myrtle must have been her lover. He decides that God demands revenge, and leaves to track down the owner of the car. He looks for Tom, because he knows Tom knows the car’s owner–he saw Tom driving the car earlier that day, but he knows Tom did not kill his wife, because Tom arrived later with Nick and Jordan.
Nick hurries back to West Egg, and finds Gatsby floating dead in his pool. After Tom told Wilson that Gatsby was the owner of the car, Wilson went to the mansion, shot Gatsby, then shot himself.
Nick imagines Gatsby’s final thoughts, and pictures him disillusioned by the meaninglessness and emptiness of life without Daisy, without his dream.
Nick tries to hold a large funeral for Gatsby, but all of Gatsby’s former friends and acquaintances have either disappeared–Tom and Daisy, for instance, move away with no forwarding address–or refuse to come, like Meyer Wolfsheim and Klipspringer. The latter claims he has a social engagement in Westport, and asks Nick to send along his tennis shoes; outraged, Nick hangs up on him.
The only people to attend the funeral are Nick, Owl Eyes, a few servants, and Gatsby’s father, Henry C. Gatz, who has come all the way from Minnesota. Henry Gatz is proud of his son, and saves a picture of his house; he also fills Nick in on Gatsby’s early life, showing him a book on which a young Gatsby had written a schedule for self-improvement.
Nick is sick of the East and its empty values, and decides to move back to the Midwest. He breaks off his relationship with Jordan, who suddenly claims that she is engaged to another man. Just before he leaves, he encounters Tom on Fifth Avenue. Nick first refuses to shake Tom’s hand, but eventually he accepts.
On his last night in West Egg, Nick walks over to Gatsby’s empty mansion and erases an obscene word someone has written on the side of the house. As the moon rises, Nick imagines the island with no houses, and thinks of what it must have looked like to the explorers who discovered the New World centuries before. He imagines that America was once a goal for dreamers, just as Daisy was for Gatsby. But Gatsby–whose wealth and success so closely mimic the American dream–fails to realize that the dream has already ended, that his goals have become hollow and empty. Nick imagines that people everywhere are motivated by similar dreams, and by a desire to move forward into a future where their dreams are possible. Nick pictures their struggles to create that future as boats moving against the current of a river–a river which inevitably carries them back into the past.