When you think about The Great Gatsby’s major characters, George Wilson is often the last to come to mind. Compared to his voluptuous wife, Myrtle, Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and, of course, the titular Gatsby himself, pale-faced, shrinking, passive George can almost escape your memory – and perhaps he entirely would if he didn’t turn out to be one of the novel’s most crucial characters.
George has the least “page time” of the seven major characters, but is important because of the crucial role he plays in the novel’s conclusion. Because of this, we don’t know quite as much about George’s personality, motivations, or characteristics as we do about other characters.
This guide goes over what we do know about George and explains why he is so important. Read on to learn more about the man underneath the ash.
- George as a character
- Physical description
- George's backstory
- Actions in the novel
- Character Analysis
- Quotes about and by George
- Tips on writing about George
- Common discussion topics and essay ideas
Quick Note on Our Citations
Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book. To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.
George's Physical Description
First things first. What does George look like? Here is Nick’s brief description:
He was a blonde, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome. When he saw us a damp gleam of hope sprang into his light blue eyes. (2.8)
Myrtle and George, despite being married for twelve years, are strikingly different people. While Myrtle is outgoing and vivacious, George is shy and bland – in fact, his physical description takes just a couple of sentences while Myrtle has a paragraph-long introduction. Although there is a hint of what drew Myrtle to him all those years ago, a “faint” attractiveness, Nick emphasizes George’s weighed-down, damp, "spiritless" affect. In fact, he is explicitly tied to the Valley of Ashes, the bleak industrial part of Queens where he and Myrtle live. (Check out our article about the Valley of Ashes for more analysis on this point.)
This initial description makes it clear to the reader that George is a much less active, ambitious person than his wife, setting up his resentment and the power struggle that leads to his extreme violence at the end of the novel.
Twelve years before the novel begins, George married Myrtle wearing a borrowed suit (2.116, 8.69). They have been living above his garage in Queens for the last 11 years. Perhaps Myrtle was drawn to him since he owned (or would soon own) his own business, or else he somehow convinced her “he was a gentleman…[who] knew something about breeding,” but this façade breaks down quickly, and George seems resigned to his working class life. While Myrtle claims to no longer care for George, he still seems smitten with her, as evidenced by how he “hurriedly” follows her suggestions (2.17).
Tom Buchanan starts doing business with George Wilson’s garage a few months before the start of the novel, even promising to sell him a car. But unbeknownst to George, Tom Buchanan patronizes the garage since he is having an affair with Myrtle. The affair is Myrtle’s first (2.117). Perhaps this is why George Wilson remains in the dark about it until the novel’s tense climax.
To see how George's background fits in with the backgrounds of the other characters, check out our Great Gatsby timeline.
George's Actions in the Novel
We first meet George in Chapter 2, when Tom drops by his garage. Tom has some kind of car-related business with George, but it's not completely clear exactly what this transaction is. None of it is spelled out, but here is what I think is happening: George is trying to buy Tom's car in order to resell it, and Tom is stringing George along by pretending to consider George's lowball offer because Tom actually is there to set up a liaison with Myrtle.
We don’t see George again until Chapter 7, when Tom stops by the garage in Gatsby’s yellow car to get gas on the way to Manhattan. George tells Tom that he needs money because he wants to move west with his wife. By then he’s begun to suspect his wife’s affair. George has actually locked Myrtle upstairs and plans to keep her there until they have the money to move (7.311).
Later that day, George and Myrtle fight. We don’t get details of the fight, except a snippet that Michaelis, a nearby café owner, hears as she runs out of the house: “Throw me down and beat me, you dirty little coward!” (7.314). At that moment, Daisy and Gatsby speed by in the yellow car. Myrtle, assuming Tom is driving, rushes out into the road “waving her hands and shouting” (3.15). Daisy runs her over without stopping, leaving Myrtle dead.
In Chapter 8, George, reeling from his wife’s violent death, loses whatever faith he had in God after and decides to find the owner of the yellow car. The police assume that he goes garage to garage asking about the yellow car until he finds Jay Gatsby’s name and address (8.107). Using this information, George walks the rest of the way to Gatsby’s mansion (8.107). He shoots Gatsby, who is swimming in his pool for the first time all season. He then shoots himself, and “the holocaust was complete” (8.113).
In Chapter 9, the mystery of how George found Gatsby is solved. Tom confesses that George first came to Tom’s house that night. There, Tom told him that the yellow car was Gatsby's and insinuated that Gatsby was the one who killed Myrtle and the one who was sleeping with her (9.143).
George Wilson proves the old action movie adage: never take your eyes off the guy with the gun.
George Wilson Quotes
Generally he was one of these worn-out men: when he wasn't working he sat on a chair in the doorway and stared at the people and the cars that passed along the road. When any one spoke to him he invariably laughed in an agreeable, colorless way. He was his wife's man and not his own. (7.312)
After our first introduction to George, Nick emphasizes George’s meekness and deference to his wife, very bluntly commenting he is not his own man. Although this comment reveals a bit of Nick’s misogyny – his comment seems to think George being his “wife’s man” as opposed to his own is his primary source of weakness – it also continues to underscore George’s devotion to Myrtle.
George’s apparent weakness may make him an unlikely choice for Gatsby’s murderer, until you consider how much pent-up anxiety and anger he has about Myrtle, which culminates in his two final, violent acts: Gatsby’s murder and his own suicide.
His description also continues to ground him in the Valley of Ashes. Unlike all the other main characters, who move freely between Long Island and Manhattan (or, in Myrtle’s case, between Queens and Manhattan), George stays in Queens, contributing to his stuck, passive, image. This makes his final journey, on foot, to Long Island, feel especially eerie and desperate.
Some man was talking to him in a low voice and attempting from time to time to lay a hand on his shoulder, but Wilson neither heard nor saw. His eyes would drop slowly from the swinging light to the laden table by the wall and then jerk back to the light again and he gave out incessantly his high horrible call.
“O, my Ga-od! O, my Ga-od! Oh, Ga-od! Oh, my Ga-od!” (7.326-7)
George is completely devastated by the death of his wife, to the point of being inconsolable and unaware of reality. Although we hear he treated her roughly just before this, locking her up and insisting on moving her away from the city, he is completely devastated by her loss. This sharp break with his earlier passive persona prefigures his turn to violence at the end of the book.
“I spoke to her,” he muttered, after a long silence. “I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God. I took her to the window—“ With an effort he got up and walked to the rear window and leaned with his face pressed against it, “—and I said ‘God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me but you can’t fool God!’ “
Standing behind him Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg which had just emerged pale and enormous from the dissolving night.
“God sees everything,” repeated Wilson.
“That’s an advertisement,” Michaelis assured him. Something made him turn away from the window and look back into the room. But Wilson stood there a long time, his face close to the window pane, nodding into the twilight. (8.102-105)
George is looking for comfort, salvation, and order where there is nothing but an advertisement. This speaks to the moral decay of New York City, the East Coast, and even America in general during the 1920s. It also speaks to how alone and powerless George is, and how violence becomes his only recourse to seek revenge.
In this moment, the reader is forced to wonder if there is any kind of morality the characters adhere to, or if the world really is cruel and utterly without justice – and with no God except the empty eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.
Common Essay Topics/ Areas of Discussion
First, we have a bit of advice for writing about poor Mr. Wilson.
Since George has very little page time compared to the other main characters, you will most likely have to write about him in relation to Tom Buchanan, or in an essay that compares the strivers (George, Myrtle, Gatsby) with old money (Tom and Daisy, and even Nick and Jordan). You are less likely to have to write about George alone. Explore how to write a great compare and contrast essay about these or any other characters by reading our article!
George’s most important scenes come in chapters 7 and 8, during Myrtle’s murder and its aftermath, so make sure to read and annotate those chapters carefully if you’re writing about George.
Look closely at his interactions with Tom and Myrtle, and also consider how George interacts with one of the novel’s most famous symbols: the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg (he sees them as the eyes of God, while Michaelis tries to remind him it’s just an advertisement). That particular scene could fit in well to an essay about God and/or morality in the novel, since George seems to be the only one who searches for some kind of God or higher power.
Why do the characters in the book who are striving to increase their social status (Gatsby, Myrtle, George) end up losing while the old money (Tom, Daisy, and Jordan) get to walk away relatively unscathed?
Tom and Daisy get to hide behind their money while Gatsby, Myrtle, and George end up dead. Specifically, Myrtle is run over by Daisy, Gatsby is killed by George (who is manipulated by Tom), and then George kills himself. So despite both Tom and Daisy’s direct complicity in both murders, neither of them face any consequences for their bad behavior.
This is a stark indictment of the class system in 1920s America, in that the rich literally play by different rules than the poor (or the up-and-coming). The fates of George, Myrtle, and Gatsby also shatter any illusions about the possibility of social climbing in this world, or even in the promise of the American Dream itself. Whether you manage to amass a fortune like Gatsby, or just aspire to a better life like George, you’re still powerless in the face of old money, privilege, and classism in the United States.
This intense pessimism is supported by Nick’s return to the Midwest at the end of the novel and the somber mood of the ending.
Why does George fail to notice Myrtle and Tom’s affair?
You might be wondering, “how on earth does George not notice his wife is cheating on him”? After all, we know that Tom is not making a big effort to hide Myrtle from his friends, going to popular restaurants with her, and even dragging Nick along with him to the apartment he’s rented for her in New York. Plus, Tom comes visits the garage and he and Myrtle barely hide their relationship.
So it could seem odd that George really has no clue. However, when you consider that George has no access to Tom's social circles, and that he rarely leaves his garage, George has no way to know what his wife is doing in New York and who she’s seeing (remember, this is an era long before cell phones and Facebook!).
Furthermore, George is also super invested in doing business with Tom, so that's an incentive to subconsciously overlook whatever is going on.
George’s failure to notice the affair for so long speaks to George’s complete isolation from the world of old money and, more broadly, the huge class divides in America in the 1920s. Tom and Daisy’s world is so separate from George’s that they can live whole lives that he is entirely unaware of. This stark separation becomes clear in George’s strange, sad walk to Long Island where he kills Gatsby and ends his life. For George, the class lines in society were impossible to safely cross.
Still a bit confused by exactly how the climax of the novel plays out? Read our summaries of Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 for a clear play-by-play of what exactly goes down on the road between Manhattan and West Egg.
Why does Myrtle cheat on George? What does she see in the bully Tom Buchanan? Read our analysis of Myrtle Wilson to fully understand the complicated marriage between the Wilsons!
Writing an essay about George Wilson? Then you should definitely read our analysis of the Valley of Ashes and the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. George is closely linked to these two symbols, so make sure you understand them!
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.