The Mysterious Identity of Jay Gatsby

The Great Gatsby: A Mystery Novel?

Did F. Scott Fitzgerald attempt to write a mystery novel with The Great Gatsby? How is Fitzgerald’s masterpiece informed by detective fiction?

In this blog post, I claim that Fitzgerald reworks the genre conventions of the detective novel in The Great Gatsby. The mystery invoked by his novel does not pertain to the question of who has committed a crime. Instead, Fitzgerald organizes the mystery around the identity of the title character: that is, around the question of who Jay Gatsby really is. Throughout the nine chapters of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway plays the role of a detective responsible for sorting through rumors and getting to the truth of his neighbor’s identity.

Why does it take so long for the title character to make an appearance in this novel? Why does he suddenly disappear in the moments when we feel like we’re finally getting to know him? 

If you’re a teacher who’d like to explore this aspect of the novel with your students, you’ll definitely want to check out this Complete Teaching Unit on The Great Gatsby. Save yourself hundreds of hours of prep time while amplifying student engagement with the Complete Teaching Unit on The Great Gatsby!


Chapter 1: A Figure in the Shadows

At the end of the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway glimpses “a figure” whom he describes as having “emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion” (20). If this figure appears rather suddenly, he also disappears suddenly. For after Nick glances at the water and sees nothing but a green light in the distance, he looks back to find that the figure has vanished: “When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished” (21). Why might Fitzgerald choose to associate Gatsby with words like “figure,” “shadow,” and “vanish”? What connotations are suggested by those words? How, for instance, does “vanish” differ from synonyms like “depart” or “disappear”?

Here, Fitzgerald is clearly mobilizing the genre conventions of the mystery novel. Mystery novels are often referred to as “whodunnits” because they put the reader in the position of a detective challenged with figuring out which character committed a crime. Mystery novels utilize suspense in order to provoke the reader’s desire to keep reading in order to learn more. That’s why literary scholars refer to mystery novels as being “epistemophilic”: they provoke a desire for knowledge. So on the most basic level, Fitzgerald is using the conventions of the mystery novel in order to draw readers in, to make us want to learn more, to make us eager to read the next few chapters.

But what distinguishes The Great Gatsby from a traditional mystery novel is that its mystery pertains not to the question of who committed a crime but rather to the question of who the main character really is. Fitzgerald endows his novel with the title The Great Gatsby only to deny readers any quick or direct access to the title character. Not only does it take an unusually long time for the title character to make an appearance in the novel, but when he does finally appear, he is enshrouded in darkness and glimpsed at a distance.

What’s more, Gatsby’s actions have the effect of increasing the mystery that surrounds his character. For not only does Gatsby give an “intimation” that he wishes to be left “alone,” but he appears to be “trembling” as he “stretche[s] out his arms” toward the “dark water” and the “single green light” (20, 21). Enigmatic words like “figure,” “shadow,” and “vanish” serve to heighten his character’s mysteriousness. Readers are left wondering about questions such as the following: Who is the title character? Why is he alleged to be “great”? Why has he come outside to stand “alone” in the moonlight? Why is he “trembling”? Why does he stretch out his arms toward the “green light” on a distant dock?

Literary scholar Barbara Will points out that the vanishing act at the end of the first chapter is the first of many scenes in which Gatsby will vanish: “Gatsby ‘vanishes’ at other key moments in the text: in his failure to appear at his own parties, in his unknowable past and shady business dealings, and in his smile, which ‘assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished—’ (48). As this last sentence suggests, Gatsby even vanishes — literally — from the signifying system of the text itself: the dash, the graphic mark of his unrepresentability, is insistently emphasized whenever he speaks or is spoken about” (Barbara Will, “The Great Gatsby and the Obscene Word.” College Literature 32:4 (Fall 2005): 129).

One of Fitzgerald’s greatest achievements in The Great Gatsby may inhere in how he reveals the title character precisely in and through his acts of vanishing. In an early draft of the novel, Fitzgerald has the narrator describe Gatsby as being “provokingly elusive” (F. Scott Fitzgerald Archive, Special Collections, Princeton University Library.) As we will see, Gatsby’s very elusiveness may be precisely what — paradoxically — gives him away. Literary scholar Barbara Will makes the point thus: “[H]is character can only be revealed through the moments in which he vanishes from the narrative, through oxymorons, through dashes — all of which point to an unrepresentability at the center of this textual reality” (Barbara Will, 132). 

Approaching this text as a mystery novel can dramatically increase student engagement. For a resource packet loaded with discussion questions on the mystery elements in Fitzgerald's novel, check out this Complete Teaching Unit on The Great Gatsby!


Chapter 3: Gatsby’s Belated Appearance… and Disappearance

It is not until the third chapter that the narrator finally meets the title character of The Great Gatsby. When they do meet, Nick is initially unaware that the person he’s talking to is Gatsby. And moments after Gatsby introduces himself, he is ushered away to take a phone call: “Almost at the moment when Mr. Gatsby identified himself, a butler hurried toward him with the information that Chicago was calling him on the wire” (48). Why might Fitzgerald wait so long to introduce his title character? What is the significance of Gatsby’s sudden disappearance? How might it build upon scenes from previous chapters?

As already mentioned, Fitzgerald uses the conventions of the detective novel to generate an aura of mystery around the title character. Throughout the early chapters, Fitzgerald endows Gatsby’s presence with a rhythm of appearance and disappearance: the outline of his character seems to come into focus in one moment, only to evaporate or vanish in the next moment. For example, when Jordan tells Nick that she heard Gatsby say he was “an Oxford man,” Nick asserts that “a dim background began to take shape behind him” (49). But when Jordan exclaims, “However, I don’t believe it,” Nick concludes that the background which had begun to take shape suddenly “faded away” (49). This rhythm of appearance and disappearance has the effect of leaving the title character’s personality and background enshrouded in mystery and indeterminacy.

The aura of mystery surrounding Gatsby gets amplified when the guests at his party begin to traffic in second-hand rumors which cast the host in a suspicious moral light. One guest exclaims, “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once”; then a second guest declares, “it’s more that he was a German spy during the war” (44). Then the first guest refutes the second guest’s rumor by sharing a perspective which casts the host in a positive light: “[I]t couldn’t be that, because he was in the American army during the war” (44). When Gatsby is redeemed by the first guest’s affirming news that he was “in the American army,” Nick reports that the audience’s “credulity switched back to her”; but in the very next moment, the first guest reverts to speculative slander, saying, “I’ll bet he killed a man” (44).

So not only is Gatsby’s background enshrouded in mystery, but the speculations about his character are marked by moral oscillation. The rumor-mongering which surrounds Gatsby oscillates between positive and negative perspectives on his character. This raises a question that will become increasingly important as the novel progresses: Is Gatsby a hero or a villain?

Why might it be significant that Nick’s first meeting with Gatsby gets abruptly interrupted by a phone call from Chicago? In the years when Fitzgerald was writing The Great Gatsby, the city of Chicago was widely renowned for its corruption. The outlawing of alcohol during the Prohibition gave rise to criminal gangs which engaged in the highly profitable business of bootlegging. For example, Al Capone was the boss of a criminal gang called the Chicago Outfit which smuggled liquor from Canada into the United States. Capone was not afraid to use violence in order to increase his gang’s profits; the drinking establishments that refused to purchase alcohol from his syndicate were sometimes bombed, resulting in the deaths of over 100 people during the 1920s. But Capone developed a relationship with the Chicago mayor and police which enabled him to pursue such illegal activities without facing arrest or prosecution. It was not until the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, when seven members of a rival gang were murdered in broad daylight, that public opinion turned against Capone and he was eventually arrested.

What literary device does Fitzgerald employ when he has the butler announce that “Chicago” is attempting to get through to Gatsby on the telephone? When the butler announces that “Chicago” is calling, he uses metonymy: that is, he identifies the caller by referring to the place where he is located. In this case, the use of a metonym has the effect of obscuring the identity of the caller even as it raises our suspicions about the caller’s purpose.

Throughout the second half of the novel, Fitzgerald uses the mystery surrounding Gatsby’s character to provoke a set of deeper questions: How should Gatsby be perceived? Is he a romantic hero? Or is he a criminal, a gangster, a corrupt villain? Is his obsession with becoming wealthy motivated by noble virtues like idealism and love? Or is it motivated by crass materialism? And perhaps most importantly, what might the duality inherent in Gatsby’s character reflect about the “great experiment” called America? To what extent does the modern-day United States embody the polarized principles of democratic idealism and crass materialism?

Finally, the telephone call at Gatsby’s house party in Chapter 3 should also remind us of the telephone call at the Buchanans’ dinner party in Chapter 1. At both parties, the host is interrupted by a telephone call which he feels obliged to answer in private, requiring him to rather awkwardly excuse himself and then disappear for a few minutes. In both cases, the telephone call amounts to a sign that the host is caught up in some kind of immoral activity. At the same time, neither the narrator nor the reader is granted access to the verbal exchanges which transpire on these calls. So we can only speculate about why each host agrees to answer the call, whom they talk to, and what they talk about.

Throughout The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is keen to establish a stark contrast between Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby. To be sure, the differences are indisputable and extremely important. But as the similarity between these two telephone calls should suggest, Fitzgerald also establishes a number of subtle parallels between Tom and Gatsby. Should the parallels prompt readers to reflect on whether the two characters might have more in common than the narrator is willing to admit?

The Great Gatsby Complete Teaching Unit by Rigorous Resources

In case the analysis above isn't persuasive enough, Fitzgerald's instructions to his editor also suggest that he employed the conventions of the mystery novel when constructing the character of Jay Gatsby. For example, Fitzgerald requested that the blurb on the book jacket should not reveal anything about Gatsby's background or employment history. Fitzgerald's instructions to Max Perkins make this abundantly clear: "This is very important. Be sure not to give away any of my plot in the blurb. Don't give away that Gatsby dies or is a parvenu or a crook or anything. It's part of the suspense of the book that all these things are in doubt until the very end." (Letter to Max Perkins from Jan. 24, 1925. Dear Scott / Dear Max. New York: Scribner's, 1972. 93.)


The Great Gatsby Complete Teaching Unit by Rigorous Resources

Teach It Today!

If you’re a teacher who’d like to explore these and many other topics with your students, then you’ll definitely want to check out this Complete Teaching Unit on The Great Gatsby. The 200-page resource packet is filled with discussion questions, vocabulary lists, and reading quizzes for every chapter of The Great Gatsby. It features a slideshow on Fitzgerald’s life as well as special-topics worksheets on symbolic settings, literary devices, color symbolism, socioeconomic hierarchies, and lots more!

Save yourself hundreds of hours of prep time while motivating your students to be highly engaged! Check out this Complete Teaching Unit on The Great Gatsby!


Image Credit: Howard Thain, The Great White Way — Times Square, New York City (1925)

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1 comment

Looks like a great resources. Thanks!


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