Nick Carraway, the narrator, is a young Midwesterner who, having graduated from Yale in 1915 and fought in World War I, has returned home to begin a career. Like others at the time, he is restless and has decided to move East to New York and learn the bond business. The story opens early in the summer of 1922 in West Egg, Long Island, where Nick has rented a house. Next to his place is a huge mansion complete with Gothic tower and marble swimming pool, which belongs to a Mr. Gatsby, someone who Nick has not met.
Directly across the bay from West Egg is the richer community of East Egg, where Tom and Daisy Buchanan live. Daisy is Nick’s cousin and Tom, a well-known football player at Yale, had been in the same senior society as Nick in New Haven. Like Nick, they are Midwesterners who have come East to be a part of the glamour and mystery of the New York City area. They invite Nick to dinner at their mansion, and here he meets a young woman named Jordan Baker, a friend of Daisy’s from Louisville.
Myrtle Wilson, lives in a weird place half way between West Egg and New York City that Fitzgerald calls the valley of ashes. The valley of ashes consists of huge ash heaps and a yellow brick building which is an all-night restaurant and George Wilson’s garage.
Nick finally gets the opportunity to meet his neighbor Mr. Gatsby. Gatsby gives huge parties, complete with catered food, open bars, and orchestras. People come from everywhere to attend these parties, but no one seems to know much about the host. Legends about Jay Gatsby abound. Some say he was a German spy during the war, others, that he once killed a man. Nick becomes fascinated by Gatsby. He begins watching his host and notices that Gatsby does not drink or join in the revelry of his own parties.
At tea that afternoon Nick finds out from Jordan Baker why Gatsby has taken such an interest in him: Gatsby is in love with Daisy Buchanan and wants Nick to arrange a meeting between them. It seems that Gatsby, as a young officer at Camp Taylor in 1917, had fallen in love with Daisy, then Daisy Fay. He had been sent overseas, and she had eventually given him up, married Tom Buchanan, and had a daughter. When Gatsby finally returned from Europe he decided to win Daisy back. His first step was to buy a house in West Egg. From here he could look across the bay to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He expected her to turn up at one of his parties, and when she didn’t, he asked Jordan to ask Nick to ask Daisy. And so Nick does.
A few days later, in the rain, Gatsby and Daisy meet for the first time in five years. Gatsby is at first terrified, then tremendously excited. He takes Nick and Daisy on a tour of his house and grounds and shows them all his possessions, even his beautiful shirts from England. He shows Daisy the green light that he has been watching, and he insists that Klipspringer, “the boarder,” play the piano for them. Klipspringer plays “Ain’t We Got Fun,” and Nick leaves.
Now, halfway through the book, Nick gives us some information about who Gatsby really is. He was originally James Gatz, the son of farm people from North Dakota. He had gone to St. Olaf College in Minnesota, dropped out because the college failed to promote his romantic dreams about himself, and ended up on the south shore of Lake Superior earning room and board by digging clams and fishing for salmon. One day he saw the beautiful yacht of the millionaire Dan Cody and borrowed a rowboat to warn Cody of an impending storm. Cody took the seventeen-year-old boy on as steward, mate, and secretary. When Cody died, he left the boy, now Jay Gatsby, a legacy of $25,000, which the boy never got because of the jealousy of Cody’s mistress.
The story of Gatsby’s past breaks off, and Nick resumes his narration of Gatsby’s renewed courtship of Daisy during the summer of 1929. Daisy and Tom come to one of Gatsby’s parties, but Tom is put off by the vulgarity of Gatsby’s world, and Daisy does not have a good time. Though Gatsby has been seeing Daisy, he’s increasingly frustrated by his inability to recreate the magic of their time together in Louisville five years before.
The affair between Daisy and Gatsby now comes out into the open. Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Nick, and Jordan–the five major characters–all meet for lunch at the Buchanans and then decide to drive to New York. Daisy and Gatsby end up going together in the Buchanans’ blue coupe, Tom, Nick, and Jordan drive in Gatsby’s yellow Rolls Royce. The couple stop for gas at Wilson’s garage, and Myrtle Wilson, watching from her window over the garage, thinks the car belongs to Tom.
Nick goes to work the next morning, but is too worried about Gatsby to stay in New York. He takes an early train back to West Egg but arrives at Gatsby’s too late. His friend’s body is floating on an inflated mattress in the swimming pool, and George Wilson’s dead body, revolver in hand, lies nearby on the grass. The crazed husband had spent the entire morning tracking down the driver of the yellow Rolls Royce. He found Gatsby before Nick did.
News of Gatsby’s murder is printed in a Chicago newspaper, where it is read by his father, Mr. Henry C. Gatz, now of Minnesota. Mr. Gatz arrives for the funeral, which is attended only by Nick, Owl Eyes (who loved Gatsby’s books), and a smattering of servants. Meyer Wolfsheim, of course, has refused to get involved. Even Mr. Klipspringer, “the boarder,” has sent his excuses.
Disgusted and disillusioned by what he has experienced, Nick decides to leave New York and return to the Midwest. He ends his relationship with Jordan Baker and learns from Tom Buchanan that it was he, Tom, who told Wilson where Gatsby lived. Before Nick leaves the East, he stands one more time on the beach near Gatsby’s house looking out at the green light that his friend had worshipped. Here he pays his final tribute to Gatsby and to the dream for which he lived, and died.