While The Great Gatsby is a highly specific portrait of American society during the Roaring Twenties, its story is also one that has been told hundreds of times, and is perhaps as old as America itself: a man claws his way from rags to riches, only to find that his wealth cannot afford him the privileges enjoyed by those born into the upper class. The central character is Jay Gatsby, a wealthy New Yorker of indeterminate occupation. Gatsby is primarily known for the lavish parties he throws each weekend at his ostentatious Gothic mansion in West Egg. He is suspected of being involved in illegal bootlegging and other underworld activities.
The narrator, Nick Carraway, is Gatsby's neighbor in West Egg. Nick is a young man from a prominent Midwestern family. Educated at Yale, he has come to New York to enter the bond business. In some sense, the novel is Nick's memoir, his unique view of the events of the summer of 1922; as such, his impressions and observations necessarily color the narrative as a whole. For the most part, he plays only a peripheral role in the events of the novel; he prefers to remain a passive observer.
Upon arriving in New York, Nick visits his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom. The Buchanans live in the posh Long Island district of East Egg; Nick, like Gatsby, resides in nearby West Egg, a less fashionable area looked down upon by those who live in East Egg. West Egg is home to the nouveau riche, people who lack established social connections, and who tend to vulgarly flaunt their wealth. Like Nick, Tom Buchanan graduated from Yale, and comes from a privileged Midwestern family. Tom is a former football player, a brutal bully obsessed with the preservation of class boundaries. Daisy, by contrast, is an almost ghostlike young woman who affects an air of sophisticated boredom. At the Buchanans's, Nick meets Jordan Baker, a beautiful young woman with a cold, cynical manner. The two later become romantically involved.
Jordan tells Nick that Tom has been having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, a woman who lives in the valley of ashes, an industrial wasteland outside of New York City. After visiting Tom and Daisy, Nick goes home to West Egg; there, he sees Gatsby gazing at a mysterious green light across the bay. Gatsby stretches his arms out toward the light, as though to catch and hold it.
Tom Buchanan takes Nick into New York, and on the way they stop at the garage owned by George Wilson. Wilson is the husband of Myrtle, with whom Tom has been having an affair. Tom tells Myrtle to join them later in the city. Nearby, on an enormous billboard, a pair of bespectacled blue eyes stares down at the barren landscape. These eyes once served as an advertisement; now, they brood over all that occurs in the valley of ashes.
In the city, Tom takes Nick and Myrtle to the apartment in Morningside Heights at which he maintains his affair. There, they have a lurid party with Myrtle's sister, Catherine, and an abrasive couple named McKee. They gossip about Gatsby; Catherine says that he is somehow related to Kaiser Wilhelm, the much-despised ruler of Germany during World War I. The more she drinks, the more aggressive Myrtle becomes; she begins taunting Tom about Daisy, and he reacts by breaking her nose. The party, unsurprisingly, comes to an abrupt end.
Nick Carraway attends a party at Gatsby's mansion, where he runs into Jordan Baker. At the party, few of the attendees know Gatsby; even fewer were formally invited. Before the party, Nick himself had never met Gatsby: he is a strikingly handsome, slightly dandified young man who affects an English accent. Gatsby asks to speak to Jordan Baker alone; after talking with Gatsby for quite a long time, she tells Nick that she has learned some remarkable news. She cannot yet share it with him, however.
Some time later, Gatsby visits Nick's home and invites him to lunch. At this point in the novel, Gatsby's origins are unclear. He claims to come from a wealthy San Francisco family, and says that he was educated at Oxford after serving in the Great War (during which he received a number of decorations). At lunch, Gatsby introduces Nick to his business associate, Meyer Wolfsheim. Wolfhsheim is a notorious criminal; many believe that he is responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series.
Gatsby mysteriously avoids the Buchanans. Later, Jordan Baker explains the reason for Gatsby's anxiety: he had been in love with Daisy Buchanan when they met in Louisville before the war. Jordan subtly intimates that he is still in love with her, and she with him.
Gatsby asks Nick to arrange a meeting between himself and Daisy. Gatsby has meticulously planned their meeting: he gives Daisy a carefully rehearsed tour of his mansion, and is desperate to exhibit his wealth and possessions. Gatsby is wooden and mannered during this initial meeting; his dearest dreams have been of this moment, and so the actual reunion is bound to disappoint. Despite this, the love between Gatsby and Daisy is revived, and the two begin an affair.
Eventually, Nick learns the true story of Gatsby's past. He was born James Gatz in North Dakota, but had his name legally changed at the age of seventeen. The gold baron Dan Cody served as Gatsby's mentor until his death. Though Gatsby inherited nothing of Cody's fortune, it was from him that Gatsby was first introduced to world of wealth, power, and privilege.
While out horseback riding, Tom Buchanan happens upon Gatsby's mansion. There he meets both Nick and Gatsby, to whom he takes an immediate dislike. To Tom, Gatsby is part of the "new rich," and thus poses a danger to the old order that Tom holds dear. Despite this, he accompanies Daisy to Gatsby's next party; there, he is exceedingly rude and condescending toward Gatsby. Nick realizes that Gatsby wants Daisy to renounce her husband and her marriage; in this way, they can recover the years they have lost since they first parted. Gatsby's great flaw is that his great love of Daisy is a kind of worship, and that he fails to see her flaws. He believes that he can undo the past, and forgets that Daisy's essentially small-minded and cowardly nature was what initially caused their separation.
After his reunion with Daisy, Gatsby ceases to throw his elaborate parties. The only reason he threw such parties was the chance that Daisy (or someone who knew her) might attend. Daisy invites Gatsby, Nick and Jordan to lunch at her house. In an attempt to make Tom jealous, and to exact revenge for his affair, Daisy is highly indiscreet about her relationship with Gatsby. She even tells Gatsby that she loves him while Tom is in earshot.
Although Tom is himself having an affair, he is furious at the thought that his wife could be unfaithful to him. He forces the group to drive into the city: there, in a suite at the Plaza Hotel, Tom and Gatsby have a bitter confrontation. Tom denounces Gatsby for his low birth, and reveals to Daisy that Gatsby's fortune has been made through illegal activities. Daisy's real allegiance is to Tom: when Gatsby begs her to say that she does not love her husband, she refuses him. Tom permits Gatsby to drive Daisy back to East Egg; in this way, he displays his contempt for Gatsby, as well as his faith in his wife's complete subjection.
On the trip back to East Egg, Gatsby allows Daisy to drive in order to calm her ragged nerves. Passing Wilson's garage, Daisy swerves to avoid another car and ends up hitting Myrtle; she is killed instantly. Nick advises Gatsby to leave town until the situation calms. Gatsby, however, refuses to leave: he remains in order to ensure that Daisy is safe. George Wilson, driven nearly mad by the death of his wife, is desperate to find her killer. Tom Buchanan tells him that Gatsby was the driver of the fatal car. Wilson, who has decided that the driver of the car must also have been Myrtle's lover, shoots Gatsby before committing suicide himself.
After the murder, the Buchanans leave town to distance themselves from the violence for which they are responsible. Nick is left to organize Gatsby's funeral, but finds that few people cared for Gatsby. Only Meyer Wolfsheim shows a modicum of grief, and few people attend the funeral. Nick seeks out Gatsby's father, Henry Gatz, and brings him to New York for the funeral. From Henry, Nick learns the full scope of Gatsby's visions of greatness and his dreams of self-improvement.
Thoroughly disgusted with life in New York, Nick decides to return to the Midwest. Before his departure, Nick sees Tom Buchanan once more. Tom tries to elicit Nick's sympathy; he believes that all of his actions were thoroughly justified, and he wants Nick to agree.
Nick muses that Gatsby, alone among the people of his acquaintance, strove to transform his dreams into reality; it is this that makes him "great." Nick also believes, however, that the time for such grand aspirations is over: greed and dishonesty have irrevocably corrupted both the American Dream and the dreams of individual Americans.