For most readers, “The Great Gatsby” is a story about mystery, intrigue, and deception. Even those big floating eyes on the book cover have an enigmatic, come-hither dreaminess. Gatsby is a mystifying figure who appears out of nowhere, buys a mansion, and embarks on what appears to be a crusade to get every person in a five-mile radius completely hammered. His inexplicable entrance into an uber posh area of New York City sparks a flurry of questions. Does he have a secret past? Has he assumed a false identity? Is the source of his income dubious? Does he have ulterior motives? Is that is his real hair?
Yup, pretty much. The mystery surrounding Gatsby evaporates pretty quickly once we realize that basically everything we suspect him of is true. In fact, the purpose of Gatsby’s mission is almost laughably single-minded: he wants to get the girl. Gatsby isn’t a complicated man: the clothes, the money, the mansion, the persona, the parties… everything can be explained by the same motivating factor. That’s more straightforward than can be said for any other person in the novel.
Gatsby’s intense determination begs the question: who is this mystery girl and how can I get her number? Unfortunately, Daisy Buchanan isn’t nearly as easy to understand – or admire – as Gatsby. She’s spoiled, selfish, materialistic, and weak-willed, to say nothing of the fact that she up and married someone else when Gatsby went to war. That being said, she does appear to genuinely return Gatsby’s feelings, even if she doesn’t have enough backbone to leave her husband. So why does Jay Gatsby make such a fuss over her? Although we can never quite decide if she’s a good or a bad person, Daisy does exude a certain mesmerizing something, particularly in the quality of her voice. (Think Professor Snape, but with more X chromosomes.)
As for her husband, Tom is a wealthy, arrogant, abusive, adulterous jock – the kind of guy who kicks the dog after a bad day at work. He’s incredibly manipulative and has a particular talent for exploiting people’s weaknesses. After all, although Gatsby’s persona seems more than a little fishy to everyone around him, only Tom takes the initiative to investigate his past. Once he realizes that his wife has feelings for Gatsby, Tom strategically employs the truth of Gatsby’s bootlegging ways to deter Daisy from pursuing the relationship. Although Tom’s despicable behavior may tempt us to believe that Daisy is more victim than villain, the fact that Daisy chooses him over Gatsby forces us to question, Obi-Wan-style, which is worse: the fool or the fool who follows him.
Interestingly, the most fleshed-out of all the Great Gatsby characters is probably the narrator, Nick Carraway, who bares his thoughts and feeling for the world / English students everywhere to see. He starts the book off with a little of the ol’ thou-shalt-not-judge, but although he can effortlessly schmooze with all manner of folk, he soon tells us readers, secret-diary style, how much he despises all the high-society ingrates that surround him. Our Spidey senses can’t help but perk up and take note of these hypocrisies. Sure, we’re grateful for the fact that Nick is the only person who understands or appreciates Gatsby, but really, what else does the guy have going for him?
When things go south for Gatsby, Nick very unceremoniously dumps his fling, Jordan – apparently as a matter of principle, since she wasn’t really guilty of anything except associating with the wrong crowd. (You know, the one Nick has been hanging out with this whole time.) Nick seems to want to dissociate himself from everything that isn’t Gatsby, but Jordan isn’t fooled for a second, charging him with being just as phony and insensitive as everyone else. Before long, we realize that the main reason we ever liked Nick is that he likes Gatsby. Too bad being able to recognize a good person isn’t the same thing as being one.