Love, desire, and sex are a major motivators for nearly every character in The Great Gatsby. However, none of Gatsby's five major relationships is depicted as healthy or stable.
So what can we make of this? Is Fitzgerald arguing that love itself is unstable, or is it just that experiencing love and desire the way the characters do is problematic?
Gatsby's portrayal of love and desire is complex. So we will explore and analyze each of Gatsby's five major relationships: Daisy/Tom, George/Myrtle, Gatsby/Daisy, Tom/Myrtle, and Jordan/Nick. We will also note how each relationship develops through the story, the power dynamics involved, and what each particular relationship seems to say about Fitzgerald's depiction of love.
We will also include analysis of important quotes for each of the five major couples. Finally, we will go over some common essay questions about love, desire, and relationships to help you with class assignments.
Keep reading for the ultimate guide to love in the time of Gatsby!
- Analyzing the characters via the major relationships (including key quotes)
- Common Essay Prompts/Discussion Topics
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.
Analyzing The Great Gatsby Relationships
We will discuss the romantic pairings in the novel first through the lens of marriage. Then we will turn our attention to relationships that occur outside of marriage.
Marriage 1: Daisy and Tom Buchanan
Tom and Daisy Buchanan were married in 1919, three years before the start of the novel. They both come from incredibly wealthy families, and live on fashionable East Egg, marking them as members of the "old money" class.
Daisy and Tom Marriage Description
As Jordan relates in a flashback, Daisy almost changed her mind about marrying Tom after receiving a letter from Gatsby (an earlier relationship of hers, discussed below), but eventually went through with the ceremony "without so much as a shiver" (4.142).
Daisy appeared quite in love when they first got married, but the realities of the marriage, including Tom's multiple affairs, have worn on her. Tom even cheated on her soon after their honeymoon, according to Jordan: "It was touching to see them together—it made you laugh in a hushed, fascinated way. That was in August. A week after I left Santa Barbara Tom ran into a wagon on the Ventura road one night and ripped a front wheel off his car. The girl who was with him got into the papers too because her arm was broken—she was one of the chambermaids in the Santa Barbara Hotel" (1.143).
So what makes the Buchanans tick? Why has their marriage survived multiple affairs and even a hit-and-run? Find out through our analysis of key quotes from the novel.
Daisy and Tom Marriage Quotes
Why they came east I don't know. They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together. (1.17)
Nick introduces Tom and Daisy as restless, rich, and as a singular unit: they. Despite all of the revelations about the affairs and other unhappiness in their marriage, and the events of the novel, it's important to note our first and last descriptions of Tom and Daisy describe them as a close, if bored, couple. In fact, Nick only doubles down on this observation later in Chapter 1.
Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. 'All right,' I said, 'I'm glad it's a girl. And I hope she'll be a fool—that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool."
"You see I think everything's terrible anyhow," she went on in a convinced way. "Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I know. I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything." Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom's, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. "Sophisticated—God, I'm sophisticated!"
"The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me. I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged." (1.118-120)
In this passage, Daisy pulls Nick aside in Chapter 1 and claims, despite her outward happiness and luxurious lifestyle, she's quite depressed by her current situation. At first, it seems Daisy is revealing the cracks in her marriage—Tom was "God knows where" at the birth of their daughter, Pammy—as well as a general malaise about society in general ("everything's terrible anyhow").
However, right after this confession, Nick doubts her sincerity. And indeed, she follows up her apparently serious complaint with "an absolute smirk." What's going on here?
Well, Nick goes on to observe that the smirk "asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged." In other words, despite Daisy's performance, she seems content to remain with Tom, part of the "secret society" of the ultra-rich.
So the question is: can anyone—or anything—lift Daisy out of her complacency?
"I never loved him," she said, with perceptible reluctance.
"Not at Kapiolani?" demanded Tom suddenly.
From the ballroom beneath, muffled and suffocating chords were drifting up on hot waves of air.
"Not that day I carried you down from the Punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry?" There was a husky tenderness in his tone. ". . . Daisy?" (7.258-62)
Over the course of the novel, both Tom and Daisy enter or continue affairs, pulling away from each other instead of confronting the problems in their marriage.
However, Gatsby forces them to confront their feelings in the Plaza Hotel when he demands Daisy say she never loved Tom. Although she gets the words out, she immediately rescinds them—"I did love [Tom] once but I loved you too!"—after Tom questions her.
Here, Tom—usually presented as a swaggering, brutish, and unkind—breaks down, speaking with "husky tenderness" and recalling some of the few happy moments in his and Daisy's marriage. This is a key moment because it shows despite the dysfunction of their marriage, Tom and Daisy seem to both seek solace in happy early memories. Between those few happy memories and the fact that they both come from the same social class, their marriage ends up weathering multiple affairs.
Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table with a plate of cold fried chicken between them and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement.
They weren't happy, and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale—and yet they weren't unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together. (7.409-10)
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . . (9.146)
By the end of the novel, after Daisy's murder of Myrtle as well as Gatsby's death, she and Tom are firmly back together, "conspiring" and "careless" once again, despite the deaths of their lovers.
As Nick notes, they "weren't happy…and yet they weren't unhappy either." Their marriage is important to both of them, since it reassures their status as old money aristocracy and brings stability to their lives. So the novel ends with them once again described as a unit, a "they," perhaps even more strongly bonded since they've survived not only another round of affairs but murder, as well.
Daisy and Tom Marriage Analysis
Neither Myrtle's infatuation with Tom or Gatsby's deep longing for Daisy can drive a wedge between the couple. Despite the lying, cheating, and murdering that occurs during the summer, Tom and Daisy end the novel just like they began it: careless, restless, and yet, firmly united.
The stubborn closeness of Tom and Daisy's marriage, despite Daisy's exaggerated unhappiness and Tom's philandering, reinforces the dominance of the old money class over the world of Gatsby. Despite so many troubles, for Tom and Daisy, their marriage guarantees their continued membership in the exclusive world of the old money rich. In other words, class is a much stronger bond than love in the novel.
Tom and Daisy somehow end the novel with a stronger marriage!
Marriage 2: Myrtle and George Wilson
In contrast to Tom and Daisy, Myrtle and George were married 12 years before the start of the novel. You might think that since they've been married for four times as long, their marriage is more stable. In fact, in contrast from Tom and Daisy's unified front, Myrtle and George's marriage appears fractured from the beginning.
Myrtle and George Marriage Description
Although Myrtle was taken with George at first, she overestimated his money and "breeding" and found herself married to a mechanic and living over a garage in Queens, a situation she's apparently unhappy with (2.112).
However, divorce was uncommon in the 1920s, and furthermore, the working-class Myrtle doesn't have access to wealthy family members or any other real options, so she stays married—perhaps because George is quite devoted and even in some ways subservient to her.
A few months before the beginning of the novel in 1922, she begins an affair with Tom Buchanan, her first affair (2.117). She sees the affair as a way out of her marriage, but Tom sees her as just another disposable mistress, leaving her desperate and vulnerable once George finds out about the affair.
Myrtle and George Marriage Quotes
I heard footsteps on a stairs and in a moment the thickish figure of a woman blocked out the light from the office door. She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crepe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering. She smiled slowly and walking through her husband as if he were a ghost shook hands with Tom, looking him flush in the eye. Then she wet her lips and without turning around spoke to her husband in a soft, coarse voice:
"Get some chairs, why don't you, so somebody can sit down."
"Oh, sure," agreed Wilson hurriedly and went toward the little office, mingling immediately with the cement color of the walls. A white ashen dust veiled his dark suit and his pale hair as it veiled everything in the vicinity—except his wife, who moved close to Tom. (2.15-17)
As we discuss in our article on the symbolic valley of ashes, George is coated by the dust of despair and thus seems mired in the hopelessness and depression of that bleak place, while Myrtle is alluring and full of vitality. Her first action is to order her husband to get chairs, and the second is to move away from him, closer to Tom.
In contrast to Tom and Daisy, who are initially presented as a unit, our first introduction to George and Myrtle shows them fractured, with vastly different personalities and motivations. We get the sense right away that their marriage is in trouble, and conflict between the two is imminent.
"I married him because I thought he was a gentleman," she said finally. "I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn't fit to lick my shoe."
"You were crazy about him for a while," said Catherine.
"Crazy about him!" cried Myrtle incredulously. "Who said I was crazy about him? I never was any more crazy about him than I was about that man there." (2.112-4)
Here we get a bit of back-story about George and Myrtle's marriage: like Daisy, Myrtle was crazy about her husband at first but the marriage has since soured. But while Daisy doesn't have any real desire to leave Tom, here we see Myrtle eager to leave, and very dismissive of her husband. Myrtle seems to suggest that even having her husband wait on her is unacceptable—it's clear she thinks she is finally headed for bigger and better things.
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)
Again, in contrast to the strangely unshakeable partnership of Tom and Daisy, the co-conspirators, Michaelis (briefly taking over narrator duties) observes that George "was his wife's man," "worn out." Obviously, this situation gets turned on its head when George locks Myrtle up when he discovers the affair, but Michaelis's observation speaks to instability in the Wilson's marriage, in which each fights for control over the other. Rather than face the world as a unified front, the Wilsons each struggle for dominance within the marriage.
"Beat me!" he heard her cry. "Throw me down and beat me, you dirty little coward!"
A moment later she rushed out into the dusk, waving her hands and shouting; before he could move from his door the business was over. (7.314-5)
We don't know what happened in the fight before this crucial moment, but we do know George locked Myrtle in a room once he figured out she was having an affair. So despite the outward appearance of being ruled by his wife, he does, in fact, have the ability to physically control her. However, he apparently doesn't hit her, the way Tom does, and Myrtle taunts him for it—perhaps insinuating he's less a man than Tom.
This outbreak of both physical violence (George locking up Myrtle) and emotional abuse (probably on both sides) fulfills the earlier sense of the marriage being headed for conflict. Still, it's disturbing to witness the last few minutes of this fractured, unstable partnership.
Myrtle and George Marriage Analysis
While Tom and Daisy's marriage ends up being oddly stable thanks to their money, despite multiple affairs, Myrtle and George's marriage goes from strained to violent after just one.
In other words, Tom and Daisy can patch things up over and over by retreating into their status and money, while Myrtle and George don't have that luxury. While George wants to retreat out west, he doesn't have the money, leaving him and Myrtle in Queens and vulnerable to the dangerous antics of the other characters. The instability of their marriage thus seems to come from the instability of their financial situation, as well as the fact that Myrtle is more ambitious than George.
Fitzgerald seems to be arguing that anyone who is not wealthy is much more vulnerable to tragedy and strife. As a song sung in Chapter 5 goes, "The rich get richer and the poor get—children"—the rich get richer and the poor can't escape their poverty, or tragedy (5.150). The contrasting marriages of the Buchanans and the Wilsons help illustrate the novel's critique of the wealthy, old-money class.
Myrtle and George are a very slow burn that eventually explodes.
Relationship 1: Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby
The relationship at the very heart of The Great Gatsby is, of course, Gatsby and Daisy, or more specifically, Gatsby's tragic love of (or obsession with) Daisy, a love that drives the novel's plot. So how did this ill-fated love story begin?
Daisy and Gatsby Relationship Description
Five years before the start of the novel, Jay Gatsby (who had learned from Dan Cody how to act like one of the wealthy) was stationed in Louisville before going to fight in WWI. In Louisville, he met Daisy Fay, a beautiful young heiress (10 years his junior), who took him for someone of her social class. Gatsby maintained the lie, which allowed their relationship to progress.
Gatsby fell in love with Daisy and the wealth she represents, and she with him (though apparently not to the same excessive extent), but he had to leave for the war and by the time he returned to the US in 1919, Daisy has married Tom Buchanan.
Determined to get her back, Gatsby falls in with Meyer Wolfshiem, a gangster, and gets into bootlegging and other criminal enterprises to make enough money to finally be able to provide for her. By the beginning of the novel, he is ready to try and win her back over, ignoring the fact she has been married to Tom for three years and has a child. So does this genius plan turn out the way Gatsby hopes? Can he repeat the past? Not exactly.
Daisy and Gatsby Relationship Quotes
"You must know Gatsby."
"Gatsby?" demanded Daisy. "What Gatsby?" (1.60-1)
In the first chapter, we get a few mentions and glimpses of Gatsby, but one of the most interesting is Daisy immediately perking up at his name. She obviously still remembers him and perhaps even thinks about him, but her surprise suggests that she thinks he's long gone, buried deep in her past.
This is in sharp contrast to the image we get of Gatsby himself at the end of the Chapter, reaching actively across the bay to Daisy's house (1.152). While Daisy views Gatsby as a memory, Daisy is Gatsby's past, present, and future. It's clear even in Chapter 1 that Gatsby's love for Daisy is much more intense than her love for him.
"Gatsby bought that house so that Daisy would be just across the bay."
Then it had not been merely the stars to which he had aspired on that June night. He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor. (4.151-2)
In Chapter 4, we learn Daisy and Gatsby's story from Jordan: specifically, how they dated in Louisville but it ended when Gatsby went to the front. She also explains how Daisy threatened to call off her marriage to Tom after receiving a letter from Gatsby, but of course ended up marrying him anyway (4.140).
Here we also learn that Gatsby's primary motivation is to get Daisy back, while Daisy is of course in the dark about all of this. This sets the stage for their affair being on unequal footing: while each has love and affection for the other, Gatsby has thought of little else but Daisy for five years while Daisy has created a whole other life for herself.
"We haven't met for many years," said Daisy, her voice as matter-of-fact as it could ever be.
"Five years next November." (5.69-70)
Daisy and Gatsby finally reunite in Chapter 5, the book's mid-point. The entire chapter is obviously important for understanding the Daisy/Gatsby relationship, since we actually see them interact for the first time. But this initial dialogue is fascinating, because we see that Daisy's memories of Gatsby are more abstract and clouded, while Gatsby has been so obsessed with her he knows the exact month they parted and has clearly been counting down the days until their reunion.
They were sitting at either end of the couch looking at each other as if some question had been asked or was in the air, and every vestige of embarrassment was gone. Daisy's face was smeared with tears and when I came in she jumped up and began wiping at it with her handkerchief before a mirror. But there was a change in Gatsby that was simply confounding. He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room. (5.87)
After the initially awkward re-introduction, Nick leaves Daisy and Gatsby alone and comes back to find them talking candidly and emotionally. Gatsby has transformed—he is radiant and glowing. In contrast, we don't see Daisy as radically transformed except for her tears. Although our narrator, Nick, pays much closer attention to Gatsby than Daisy, these different reactions suggest Gatsby is much more intensely invested in the relationship.
"They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. "It makes me sad because I've never seen such—such beautiful shirts before." (5.118).
Gatsby gets the chance to show off his mansion and enormous wealthy to Daisy, and she breaks down after a very conspicuous display of Gatsby's wealth, through his many-colored shirts.
In Daisy's tears, you might sense a bit of guilt—that Gatsby attained so much just for her—or perhaps regret, that she might have been able to be with him had she had the strength to walk away from her marriage with Tom.
Still, unlike Gatsby, whose motivations are laid bare, it's hard to know what Daisy is thinking and how invested she is in their relationship, despite how openly emotional she is during this reunion. Perhaps she's just overcome with emotion due to reliving the emotions of their first encounters.
His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. (6.134)
In flashback, we hear about Daisy and Gatsby's first kiss, through Gatsby's point of view. We see explicitly in this scene that, for Gatsby, Daisy has come to represent all of his larger hopes and dreams about wealth and a better life—she is literally the incarnation of his dreams. There is no analogous passage on Daisy's behalf, because we actually don't know that much of Daisy's inner life, or certainly not much compared to Gatsby.
So we see, again, the relationship is very uneven—Gatsby has literally poured his heart and soul into it, while Daisy, though she obviously has love and affection for Gatsby, hasn't idolized him in the same way. It becomes clear here that Daisy—who is human and fallible—can never live up to Gatsby's huge projection of her.
"Oh, you want too much!" she cried to Gatsby. "I love you now—isn't that enough? I can't help what's past." She began to sob helplessly. "I did love him once—but I loved you too."
Gatsby's eyes opened and closed.
"You loved me too?" he repeated. (7.264-66)
Here we finally get a glimpse at Daisy's real feelings—she loved Gatsby, but also Tom, and to her those were equal loves. She hasn't put that initial love with Gatsby on a pedestal the way Gatsby has. Gatsby's obsession with her appears shockingly one-sided at this point, and it's clear to the reader she will not leave Tom for him. You can also see why this confession is such a blow to Gatsby: he's been dreaming about Daisy for years and sees her as his one true love, while she can't even rank her love for Gatsby above her love for Tom.
"Was Daisy driving?"
"Yes," he said after a moment, "but of course I'll say I was." (7.397-8)
Despite Daisy's rejection of Gatsby back at the Plaza Hotel, he refuses to believe that it was real and is sure that he can still get her back. His devotion is so intense he doesn't think twice about covering for her and taking the blame for Myrtle's death. In fact, his obsession is so strong he barely seems to register that there's been a death, or to feel any guilt at all. This moment further underscores how much Daisy means to Gatsby, and how comparatively little he means to her.
She was the first "nice" girl he had ever known. In various unrevealed capacities he had come in contact with such people but always with indiscernible barbed wire between. He found her excitingly desirable. He went to her house, at first with other officers from Camp Taylor, then alone. It amazed him—he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity was that Daisy lived there—it was as casual a thing to her as his tent out at camp was to him. There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year's shining motor cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered. It excited him too that many men had already loved Daisy—it increased her value in his eyes. He felt their presence all about the house, pervading the air with the shades and echoes of still vibrant emotions. (8.10, emphasis added)
In Chapter 8, when we get the rest of Gatsby's backstory, we learn more about what drew him to Daisy—her wealth, and specifically the world that opened up to Gatsby as he got to know her. Interestingly, we also learn that her "value increased" in Gatsby's eyes when it became clear that many other men had also loved her. We see then how Daisy got all tied up in Gatsby's ambitions for a better, wealthier life.
You also know, as a reader, that Daisy obviously is human and fallible and can never realistically live up to Gatsby's inflated images of her and what she represents to him. So in these last pages, before Gatsby's death as we learn the rest of Gatsby's story, we sense that his obsessive longing for Daisy was as much about his longing for another, better life, than it was about a single woman.
Gatsby and Daisy Relationship Analysis
Daisy and Gatsby's relationship is definitely lopsided. There is an uneven degree of love on both sides (Gatsby seems much more obsessively in love with Daisy than Daisy is with him). We also have difficulty deciphering both sides of the relationship, since we know far more about Gatsby, his past, and his internal life than about Daisy.
Because of this, it's hard to criticize Daisy for not choosing Gatsby over Tom—as an actual, flesh-and-blood person, she never could have fulfilled Gatsby's rose-tinted memory of her and all she represents. Furthermore, during her brief introduction into Gatsby's world in Chapter 6, she seemed pretty unhappy. "She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented "place" that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village—appalled by its raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short cut from nothing to nothing. She saw something awful in the very simplicity she failed to understand" (6.96). So could Daisy have really been happy if she ran off with Gatsby? Unlikely.
Many people tie Gatsby's obsessive pursuit of Daisy to the American Dream itself—the dream is as alluring as Daisy but as ultimately elusive and even deadly.
Their relationship is also a meditation on change—as much as Gatsby wants to repeat the past, he can't. Daisy has moved on and he can never return to that beautiful, perfect moment when he kissed her for the first time and wedded all her hopes and dreams to her.
Gatsby's problem is seeing time as circular rather than linear.
Relationship 2: Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson
Tom and Myrtle Relationship Description
Myrtle sees the affair as romantic and a ticket out of her marriage, while Tom sees it as just another affair, and Myrtle as one of a string of mistresses.
The pair has undeniable physical chemistry and attraction to each other, perhaps more than any other pairing in the book.
Perhaps due to Myrtle's tragic and unexpected death, Tom does display some emotional attachment to her, which complicates a reading of him as a purely antagonistic figure—or of their relationship as purely physical. So what drives this affair? What does it reveal about Tom and Myrtle? Let's find out.
Tom and Myrtle Relationship Quotes
"I think it's cute," said Mrs. Wilson enthusiastically. "How much is it?"
"That dog?" He looked at it admiringly. "That dog will cost you ten dollars."
The airedale—undoubtedly there was an airedale concerned in it somewhere though its feet were startlingly white—changed hands and settled down into Mrs. Wilson's lap, where she fondled the weather-proof coat with rapture.
"Is it a boy or a girl?" she asked delicately.
"That dog? That dog's a boy."
"It's a bitch," said Tom decisively. "Here's your money. Go and buy ten more dogs with it." (2.38-43)
This passage is great because it neatly displays Tom and Myrtle's different attitudes toward the affair. Myrtle thinks that Tom is spoiling her specifically, and that he cares about her more than he really does—after all, he stops to buy her a dog just because she says it's cute and insists she wants one on a whim.
But to Tom, the money isn't a big deal. He casually throws away the 10 dollars, aware he's being scammed but not caring, since he has so much money at his disposal. He also insists that he knows more than the dog seller and Myrtle, showing how he looks down at people below his own class—but Myrtle misses this because she's infatuated with both the new puppy and Tom himself.
Myrtle pulled her chair close to mine, and suddenly her warm breath poured over me the story of her first meeting with Tom.
"It was on the two little seats facing each other that are always the last ones left on the train. I was going up to New York to see my sister and spend the night. He had on a dress suit and patent leather shoes and I couldn't keep my eyes off him but every time he looked at me I had to pretend to be looking at the advertisement over his head. When we came into the station he was next to me and his white shirt-front pressed against my arm—and so I told him I'd have to call a policeman, but he knew I lied. I was so excited that when I got into a taxi with him I didn't hardly know I wasn't getting into a subway train. All I kept thinking about, over and over, was 'You can't live forever, you can't live forever.' " (2.119-20)
Myrtle, twelve years into a marriage she's unhappy in, sees her affair with Tom as a romantic escape. She tells the story of how she and Tom met like it's the beginning of a love story. In reality, it's pretty creepy—Tom sees a woman he finds attractive on a train and immediately goes and presses up to her like and convinces her to go sleep with him immediately. Not exactly the stuff of classic romance!
Combined with the fact Myrtle believes Daisy's Catholicism (a lie) is what keeps her and Tom apart, you see that despite Myrtle's pretensions of worldliness, she actually knows very little about Tom or the upper classes, and is a poor judge of character. She is an easy person for Tom to take advantage of.
Some time toward midnight Tom Buchanan and Mrs. Wilson stood face to face discussing in impassioned voices whether Mrs. Wilson had any right to mention Daisy's name.
"Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!" shouted Mrs. Wilson. "I'll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai——"
Making a short deft movement Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand. (2.124-6)
In case the reader was still wondering that perhaps Myrtle's take on the relationship had some basis in truth, this is a cold hard dose of reality. Tom's vicious treatment of Myrtle reminds the reader of his brutality and the fact that, to him, Myrtle is just another affair, and he would never in a million years leave Daisy for her.
Despite the violence of this scene, the affair continues. Myrtle is either so desperate to escape her marriage or so self-deluded about what Tom thinks of her (or both) that she stays with Tom after this ugly scene.
There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind, and as we drove away Tom was feeling the hot whips of panic. His wife and his mistress, until an hour ago secure and inviolate, were slipping precipitately from his control. (7.164)
Chapter 2 gives us lots of insight into Myrtle's character and how she sees her affair with Tom. But other than Tom's physical attraction to Myrtle, we don't get as clear of a view of his motivations until later on. In Chapter 7, Tom panics once he finds out George knows about his wife's affair. We learn here that control is incredibly important to Tom—control of his wife, control of his mistress, and control of society more generally (see his rant in Chapter 1 about the "Rise of the Colored Empires").
So just as he passionately rants and raves against the "colored races," he also gets panicked and angry when he sees that he is losing control both over Myrtle and Daisy. This speaks to Tom's entitlement—both as a wealthy person, as a man, and as a white person—and shows how his relationship with Myrtle is just another display of power. It has very little to do with his feelings for Myrtle herself. So as the relationship begins to slip from his fingers, he panics—not because he's scared of losing Myrtle, but because he's scared of losing a possession.
"And if you think I didn't have my share of suffering—look here, when I went to give up that flat and saw that damn box of dog biscuits sitting there on the sideboard I sat down and cried like a baby. By God it was awful——" (9.145)
Despite Tom's abhorrent behavior throughout the novel, at the very end, Nick leaves us with an image of Tom confessing to crying over Myrtle. This complicates the reader's desire to see Tom as a straightforward villain. This confession of emotion certainly doesn't redeem Tom, but it does prevent you from seeing him as a complete monster.
Tom and Myrtle Relationship Analysis
Just as George and Myrtle's marriage serves as a foil to Tom and Daisy's, Tom and Myrtle's affair is a foil for Daisy and Gatsby's. While Daisy and Gatsby have history, Tom and Myrtle got together recently. And while their relationship seems to be driven by physical attraction, Gatsby is attracted to Daisy's wealth and status.
The tragic end to this affair, as well as Daisy and Gatsby's, reinforces the idea that class is an enormous, insurmountable barrier, and that when people try to circumvent the barrier by dating across classes, they end up endangering themselves.
Tom and Myrtle's affair also speaks to the unfair advantages that Tom has as a wealthy, white man. Even though for a moment he felt himself losing control over his life, he quickly got it back and was able to hide in his money while Gatsby, Myrtle, and George all ended up dead thanks to their connection to the Buchanans.
In short, Tom and Myrtle's relationship allows Fitzgerald to sharply critique the world of the wealthy, old-money class in 1920s New York. By showing Tom's affair with a working-class woman, Nick reveals Tom's ugliest behavior as well as the cruelty of class divisions during the roaring twenties.
Tom's subtlety in dealing with Myrtle.
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Relationship 3: Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker
We've covered the novel's two married couples—the Buchanans and the Wilsons—as well as the affairs of three out of four of those married parties. But there is one more relationship in the novel, one that is a bit disconnected to the others. I'm talking, of course, about Nick and Jordan.
Nick and Jordan Relationship Description
Nick and Jordan are the only couple without any prior contact before the novel begins (aside from Nick apparently seeing her photo once in a magazine and hearing about her attempt to cheat). Jordan is a friend of Daisy's who is staying with her, and Nick meets Jordan when he goes to have dinner with the Buchanans.
We can observe their relationship most closely in Chapters 3 and 4, as Nick gets closer to Jordan despite needing to break off his relationship back home first. However, their relationship takes a back seat in the middle and end of the novel as the drama of Daisy's affair with Gatsby, and Tom's with Myrtle, plays out. So by the end of the novel, Nick sees Jordan is just as self-centered and immoral as Tom and Daisy, and his earlier infatuation fades to disgust. She, in turn, calls him out for not being as honest and careful as he presents himself as.
So what's the story with Nick and Jordan? Why include their relationship at all? Let's dig into what sparks the relationship and the insights they give us into the other characters.
Nick and Jordan Relationship Quotes
I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her grey sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming discontented face. It occurred to me now that I had seen her, or a picture of her, somewhere before. (1.57)
As Nick eyes Jordan in Chapter 1, we see his immediate physical attraction to her, though it's not as potent as Tom's to Myrtle. And similarly to Gatsby's attraction to Daisy being to her money and voice, Nick is pulled in by Jordan's posture, her "wan, charming discontented face"—her attitude and status are more alluring than her looks alone. So Nick's attraction to Jordan gives us a bit of insight both in how Tom sees Myrtle and how Gatsby sees Daisy.
"Good night, Mr. Carraway. See you anon."
"Of course you will," confirmed Daisy. "In fact I think I'll arrange a marriage. Come over often, Nick, and I'll sort of—oh—fling you together. You know—lock you up accidentally in linen closets and push you out to sea in a boat, and all that sort of thing——" (1.131-2)
Throughout the novel, we see Nick avoiding getting caught up in relationships—the woman he mentions back home, the woman he dates briefly in his office, Myrtle's sister—though he doesn't protest to being "flung together" with Jordan. Perhaps this is because Jordan would be a step up for Nick in terms of money and class, which speaks to Nick's ambition and class-consciousness, despite the way he paints himself as an everyman. Furthermore, unlike these other women, Jordan isn't clingy—she lets Nick come to her. Nick sees attracted to how detached and cool she is.
"You're a rotten driver," I protested. "Either you ought to be more careful or you oughtn't to drive at all."
"I am careful."
"No, you're not."
"Well, other people are," she said lightly.
"What's that got to do with it?"
"They'll keep out of my way," she insisted. "It takes two to make an accident."
"Suppose you met somebody just as careless as yourself."
"I hope I never will," she answered. "I hate careless people. That's why I like you."
Her grey, sun-strained eyes stared straight ahead, but she had deliberately shifted our relations, and for a moment I thought I loved her. (3.162-70)
Here, Nick is attracted to Jordan's blasé attitude and her confidence that others will avoid her careless behavior—an attitude she can afford because of her money. In other words, Nick seems fascinated by the world of the super-wealthy and the privilege it grants its members.
So just as Gatsby falls in love with Daisy and her wealthy status, Nick also seems attracted to Jordan for similar reasons. However, this conversation not only foreshadows the tragic car accident later in the novel, but it also hints at what Nick will come to find repulsive about Jordan: her callous disregard for everyone but herself.
It was dark now, and as we dipped under a little bridge I put my arm around Jordan's golden shoulder and drew her toward me and asked her to dinner. Suddenly I wasn't thinking of Daisy and Gatsby any more but of this clean, hard, limited person who dealt in universal skepticism and who leaned back jauntily just within the circle of my arm. A phrase began to beat in my ears with a sort of heady excitement: "There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired." (4.164)
Nick, again with Jordan, seems exhilarated to be with someone who is a step above him in terms of social class, exhilarated to be a "pursuing" person, rather than just busy or tired. Seeing the usually level-headed Nick this enthralled gives us some insight into Gatsby's infatuation with Daisy, and also allows us to glimpse Nick-the-person, rather than Nick-the-narrator.
And again, we get a sense of what attracts him to Jordan—her clean, hard, limited self, her skepticism, and jaunty attitude. It's interesting to see these qualities become repulsive to Nick just a few chapters later.
Just before noon the phone woke me and I started up with sweat breaking out on my forehead. It was Jordan Baker; she often called me up at this hour because the uncertainty of her own movements between hotels and clubs and private houses made her hard to find in any other way. Usually her voice came over the wire as something fresh and cool as if a divot from a green golf links had come sailing in at the office window but this morning it seemed harsh and dry.
"I've left Daisy's house," she said. "I'm at Hempstead and I'm going down to Southampton this afternoon."
Probably it had been tactful to leave Daisy's house, but the act annoyed me and her next remark made me rigid.
"You weren't so nice to me last night."
"How could it have mattered then?" (8.49-53)
Later in the novel, after Myrtle's tragic death, Jordan's casual, devil-may-care attitude is no longer cute—in fact, Nick finds it disgusting. How can Jordan care so little about the fact that someone died, and instead be most concerned with Nick acting cold and distant right after the accident?
In this brief phone conversation, we thus see Nick's infatuation with Jordan ending, replaced with the realization that Jordan's casual attitude is indicative of everything Nick hates about the rich, old money group. So by extension, Nick's relationship with Jordan represents how his feelings about the wealthy have evolved—at first he was drawn in by their cool, detached attitudes, but eventually found himself repulsed by their carelessness and cruelty.
She was dressed to play golf and I remember thinking she looked like a good illustration, her chin raised a little, jauntily, her hair the color of an autumn leaf, her face the same brown tint as the fingerless glove on her knee. When I had finished she told me without comment that she was engaged to another man. I doubted that though there were several she could have married at a nod of her head but I pretended to be surprised. For just a minute I wondered if I wasn't making a mistake, then I thought it all over again quickly and got up to say goodbye.
"Nevertheless you did throw me over," said Jordan suddenly. "You threw me over on the telephone. I don't give a damn about you now but it was a new experience for me and I felt a little dizzy for a while."
We shook hands.
"Oh, and do you remember—" she added, "——a conversation we had once about driving a car?"
"You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn't I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride."
"I'm thirty," I said. "I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor." (9.129-135)
In their official break-up, Jordan calls out Nick for claiming to be honest and straightforward but in fact being prone to lying himself. So even as Nick is disappointed in Jordan's behavior, Jordan is disappointed to find just another "bad driver" in Nick, and both seem to mutually agree they would never work as a couple. It's interesting to see Nick called out for dishonest behavior for once. For all of his judging of others, he's clearly not a paragon of virtue, and Jordan clearly recognizes that.
This break-up is also interesting because it's the only time we see a relationship end because the two members choose to walk away from each other—all the other failed relationships (Daisy/Gatsby, Tom/Myrtle, Myrtle/George) ended because one or both members died. So perhaps there is a safe way out of a bad relationship in Gatsby—to walk away early, even if it's difficult and you're still "half in love" with the other person (9.136).
If only Gatsby could have realized the same thing.
Nick and Jordan Relationship Analysis
Nick and Jordan's relationship is interesting, because it's the only straightforward dating we see in the novel (it's neither a marriage nor an illicit affair), and it doesn't serve as an obvious foil to the other relationships. But it does echo Daisy and Gatsby's relationship, in that a poorer man desires a richer girl, and for that reason gives us additional insight into Gatsby's love for Daisy. But it also quietly echoes Tom's relationship with Myrtle, since we Nick seems physically drawn to Jordan as well.
The relationship also is one of the ways we get insight into Nick. For instance, he only really admits to his situation with the woman back at home when he's talking about being attracted to Jordan. "I'd been writing letters once a week and signing them: "Love, Nick," and all I could think of was how, when that certain girl played tennis, a faint mustache of perspiration appeared on her upper lip. Nevertheless there was a vague understanding that had to be tactfully broken off before I was free" (3.170). Through Jordan, we actually see Nick experience exhilaration and love and attraction.
Finally, through his relationship with Jordan, we can easily see Nick's evolving attitude toward the wealthy elite. While he allows himself to be charmed at first by this fast-moving, wealthy, and careless world, he eventually becomes disgusted by the utter lack of morality or compassion for others.
It's shocking that calmly saying goodbye is a rarity in this world. More often? Breakup by violent death.
Discussion and Essay Topics on Love in The Great Gatsby
These are a few typical essay topics surrounding issues of love, desire, and relationships you should be prepared to write about. Some of them give you the opportunity to zoom in on just one couple, while others have you analyze the relationships in the book more generally. As always, it will be important to close-read, find key lines to use as evidence, and argue your point with a clearly-organized essay. (You can read more of our essay writing tips in our Character Analysis article.) So let's take a look at a few common love and relationships prompts to see this analysis in action!
Is there any couple in The Great Gatsby that has true love?
For any essay topic that asks if characters in a book represent some kind of virtue (whether that's true love, honesty, morality, or anything else), you should start by coming up with a definition of the value. For example, in this case, you should give a definition of "true love," since how you define true love will affect who you choose and how you make your argument.
For example, if you argue that true love comes down to stability, you could potentially argue Tom and Daisy have true love, since they actually remain together, unlike any of the other couples. But if you argue true love is based on strong emotion, you might say Gatsby's love for Daisy is the truest. So however you define true love, make sure to clearly state that definition, since it will shape your argument!
Remember it's also possible in a prompt like this to argue that no one in the book has true love. You would still start by defining true love, but then you would explain why each of the major couples does not have real love, and perhaps briefly explain what element each couple is missing.
Is The Great Gatsby a love story or a satire?
Some essays have you zoom way out and consider what The Great Gatsby's overall genre (or type) is. The most common argument is that, while Gatsby is a tragic love story on the surface (the love of Gatsby and Daisy), it's really more of a satire of wealthy New York society, or a broader critique of the American Dream. This is because the themes of money, society and class, and the American Dream are pretty constant, while the relationships are more of a vehicle to examine those themes.
To argue which genre Gatsby is (whether you say "it's more of a love story" or "it's more of a satire"), define your chosen genre and explain why Gatsby fits the definition. Make sure to include some evidence from the novel's final chapter, no matter what you argue. Endings are important, so make sure you link Gatsby's ending to the genre you believe it is. For example, if you're arguing "Gatsby is a love story," you could emphasize the more hopeful, optimistic parts of Nick's final lines. But if you argue "Gatsby is satire," you would look at the sad, harsh details of the final chapter—Gatsby's sparsely-attended funeral, the crude word scrawled against his back steps, etc. Also, be sure to check out our post on the novel's ending for more analysis.
Is what Gatsby feels for Daisy love, obsession, affection, or accumulation/objectification? What is Fitzgerald's message here?
A really common essay topic/topic of discussion is the question of Gatsby's love for Daisy (and sometimes, Daisy's love for Gatsby): is it real, is it a symbol for something else, and what does it reveal about both Daisy and Gatsby's characters?
As we discussed above, Gatsby's love for Daisy is definitely more intense than Daisy's love for Gatsby, and furthermore, Gatsby's love for Daisy seems tied up in an obsession with her wealth and the status she represents. From there, it's up to you how you argue how you see Gatsby's love for Daisy—whether it's primarily an obsession with wealth, whether Daisy is just an object to be collected, or whether you think Gatsby actually loves Daisy the person, not just Daisy the golden girl.
Analyze the nature of male-female relationships in the novel.
This is a zoomed-out prompt that wants you to talk about the nature of relationships in general in the novel. Still, even though we have clearly identified the five major relationships, it might be complicated for you to try and talk about every single one in depth in just one essay. Instead, it will be more manageable for you to use evidence from two to three of the couples to make your point.
You could explore how the relationships expose that America is in fact a classist society. After all, the only relationship that lasts (Tom and Daisy's) lasts because of the security of being in the same class, while the others fail either due to cross-class dating or one member (Myrtle) desperately trying to break out of her given class.
You could also talk about how the power dynamics within the relationships vary wildly, but only the couple that seems to have a stable relationship is also described as "conspiratorial" and often as a "they"—that is, Tom and Daisy Buchanan. So perhaps Fitzgerald does envision a sort of lasting partnership being possible, if certain conditions (like both members being happy with the amount of money in the marriage) are met.
This prompt and ones like it give you a lot of freedom, but make sure not to bite off more than you chew!
Wondering how else you can pair these characters in an essay? Check out our article on comparing and contrasting the most common character pairings in The Great Gatsby.
Why is money so crucial in the world of the novel? Read more about money and materialism in Gatsby to find out.
Need to get the events of the book straight? Check out our chapter summaries to get a handle on the various parties, liaisons, flashbacks, and deaths. Get started with our book summary here!
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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.