The novel basically begins after the story - that is, Gatsby's story - has ended. The narrator is a young man named Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate from the Midwest who has come to the East Coast to learn the bonds business. At the novel's start, Nick tells us that he has moved back to the Midwest because he had abhorred the people whom he had met in New York, except for a man named Gatsby. It was Gatsby's romantic readiness and ability to dream big dreams that distinguished him from the shallow, materialistic hopes of the image-conscious and morally bereft young aristocrats who had surrounded them on the East Coast.
Nick flashes back to the summer of 1922, the strange summer that he had met and befriended a man named Gatsby. Nick lives on West Egg, which is dramatically different from its more conservative, aristocratic, "old money" East Egg. West Eggers are the nouveau riche who have recently acquired great wealth (through various means, some of which involved criminal activities) but lacked the social connections and the family background to make them members of the most elite social circles. Nick's second cousin, Daisy Buchanan, lives on East Egg, and he goes to visit her and her blue-blooded husband, Tom, one afternoon. At lunch that day, he meets their friend, a professional golfer named Jordan Baker, who reveals to him that Tom has been having an affair. Nick later meets Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson, and spends an afternoon with them in New York City.
On West Egg, Nick lives next door to a mysterious man named Gatsby, who owns an enormous Gothic mansion and throws huge, lavish parties every weekend. Hundreds of people attend his parties, most of whom are celebrities or wealthy young socialites. One day, Nick receives an invitation to go to one of Gatsby's parties, and when he attends that night and runs into Jordan Baker, they hear wild rumors flying around about Gatsby's past because no one seems to know where he had come from. People suspect that he had been a German spy during the war, and others suggest that he had murdered men while he had been serving. Nick doesn't know who to believe but finally meets Gatsby, who is an average-looking man with an extraordinary smile. At the party, Gatsby asks to speak to Jordan alone and speaks to her behind closed doors for hours.
Nick and Jordan begin dating, and one day at lunch, Jordan tells Nick that Gatsby and Daisy had been in love while he had been a young soldier stationed in Louisville after the war. When he was sent to Europe, Daisy found it unbearable to be alone, and she married the wealthy Tom Buchanan. At Gatsby's request, Nick stages a meeting between him and Daisy at Nick's house, and even though there is initial tension and confusion at first, Daisy and Gatsby begin to carry on an affair.
At this point in the narration, Nick flashes back to Gatsby's history, which Gatsby tells him days later. It turns out that Jay Gatsby began life as James Gatz, a young man who had grown up in a middle-class family in North Dakota and who had despised being one of the faceless, voiceless members of the rat race. He had left a small college in Minnesota in search of something bigger, and when he saw the enormous yacht of Dan Cody on Lake Superior, he had sniffed opportunity. He introduced himself as Jay Gatsby, and even though Cody didn't leave him a fortune, Gatsby had still come away with what he prized most - a self-created image that he knew could win him anything he wanted.
Even though Nick doesn't find out this information about Gatsby's past until later, he tells it to the reader because he doesn't want us to form negative opinions of Gatsby, as everyone else has. The story jumps ahead to a party that Daisy, Tom, and Nick attend at Gatsby's house, and even though the party is as festive and crazy as his others have been, there is a different note in the air with the Buchanans' presence, for they see the West Egg crowd as savage, raw, and unrefined - completely different from their own conservative East Egg social circle. That night, Gatsby tells Nick more about his past relationship with Daisy, and Nick realizes that Gatsby believes that he can change the past. She had been the most beautiful, wealthy, and privileged girl in Louisville, and he can't bear the thought that he has lost her. Gatsby has empowered himself so deeply with his sense of self-invention that he has the confidence to believe that he can fix what has hurt him in the past.
On the hottest day of the summer, Nick, Jordan, and Gatsby all have lunch at the Buchanans' house, and Tom tries to wear down Gatsby's credibility because he is very suspicious of his background and too-cool demeanor. He realizes that Gatsby and Daisy are having an affair, and to ease the tension, Daisy suggests that they all take a trip to New York City. They end up drinking at a suite at the Park Plaza hotel, and a heated argument finally breaks out between Tom and Gatsby. Tom accuses Gatsby of being a good-for-nothing bootlegger, and Gatsby tells Tom that Daisy had never loved him. Daisy, who is too confused and indecisive to say anything, finally tells them that she had loved them both - a statement that shocks Gatsby because he had believed that she had loved him alone.
On the way back to Long Island, Gatsby drives with Daisy, and Tom drives with Jordan and Nick. Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson, had been arguing with her husband George while they had all been in New York City, and just as Gatsby and Daisy drive past the Wilsons' gas station, Myrtle runs in front of the car to try and speak to them, but they end up running over her and killing her. Tom, Nick, and Jordan, who had been behind the other car but too far away to have seen the accident, stop at the gas station and discover that George Wilson has been driven insane with feelings of utter helplessness and solitude. Tom is struck with rage and grief when he realizes that it had been Gatsby who had hit her and that he hadn't even stopped his car to see if she had been killed.
Gatsby later reveals to Nick that Daisy had been the one who was driving the car, but he refuses to believe that she still cannot be his. Nick realizes what careless and immoral people the Buchanans - and their entire circle of friends - are, and he tells Gatsby the next day that he is worth all of them put together because his untainted dream gives him hope and value in Nick's eyes.
Nick leaves Gatsby to go to work, and Nick later finds out that during that day, after he had left Gatsby, a deranged George Wilson had found out that Gatsby was the owner of the car that had struck Myrtle and had finally hunted him down at his mansion. Nick later discovers that Wilson had killed Gatsby that afternoon and then had decided to turn the gun on himself.
Nick tries to get people to come to Gatsby's funeral, but his illegal connections make people nervous about going, and Nick even finds that most of his friends don't even like him. One of the few people who attends his funeral is his father, Henry Gatz, who reveals to Nick that Jimmy Gatz had always had been big dreams and big hopes and that he alone had the work ethic and the vision to make his dreams come true. After the funeral, Nick returns to the Midwest because he is disgusted by the people whom he had met in New York and has tired of living a fast-paced, wild lifestyle. He realizes that Gatsby had carried the same dream in his heart that millions of Americans had been cherishing for centuries - the dream of seeing what could be and then chasing it down with the hopes of winning it. What had prevented Gatsby from achieving his dream were the pettiness and cruelty of others, but the American Dream would still continue in the hearts and minds of others for centuries to come.
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