The Great Gatsby is a story about the impossibility of recapturing the past and also the difficulty of altering one’s future. The protagonist of the novel is Jay Gatsby, who is the mysterious and wealthy neighbor of the narrator, Nick Carraway. Although we know little about Gatsby at first, we know from Nick’s introduction—and from the book’s title—that Gatsby’s story will be the focus of the novel. As the novel progresses and Nick becomes increasingly drawn into Gatsby’s complicated world, we learn what Gatsby wants: Daisy, Nick’s cousin, the girl he once loved. Anything and anyone that stands between Gatsby and Daisy becomes an antagonist. Although Daisy’s brutish husband Tom is the most obvious antagonist, a variety of more abstract concepts—such as class difference, societal expectations, and Gatsby’s past lies—can also be considered antagonists. The most powerful antagonist is time itself, which prevents Gatsby from recapturing what he lost.
After a brief passage which frames the narrative as Nick’s recollections of a summer from his past, the narrative is for the most part linear, beginning with Nick’s move to New York, which makes him Gatsby’s neighbor. Gatsby is wealthy, with a mysterious past that is the subject of much speculation. After meeting his neighbor at a party, Nick learns that despite Gatsby’s success, he longs only for Daisy. Gatsby’s central aim through the novel is to see Daisy again and recaptured their shared past. On a trip to the city with Tom, Nick meets Tom’s mistress, Myrtle. In the rising action of the novel, Nick arranges a reunion between Gatsby and Daisy, and Jordan tells Nick about Daisy and Gatsby’s history. Gatsby and Daisy fall back in love, and Gatsby tells Nick one version of his life story. Many of the stories Gatsby tells about himself turn out to be lies or half-truths. The fantastic nature of his stories gives Gatsby’s history a mythical quality, which reinforces the sense of him as a tragic hero.
Gatsby and Daisy are briefly happy together, and Nick gets drawn into their romance, even though the outlook for the couple’s future seems hopeless, largely because of Gatsby’s inability to separate his dreams from reality. Both the reader and Nick can see the disparity between Gatsby’s idealized image of the Daisy he knew five years earlier, and the actual character of Daisy herself. Fitzgerald presents Daisy as a shallow, materialistic character, reinforcing the sense that Gatsby is chasing a dream, rather than a real person: “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams… it had gone beyond her, beyond everything.” On an outing into the city, Gatsby erupts and tells everyone in the room that he and Daisy are in love and are going to run away together to marry. However, Tom says Daisy will never leave him, and Daisy is unable to tell Tom she never loved him. Here, for the first time, Gatsby must confront directly the possibility that his dream cannot be attained, and see Daisy as she currently is, rather than his idealized remembrance of her. Even at this point, however, he remains convinced she will ultimately choose him over Tom.
The climax of the novel comes when the group is driving back from New York in two cars, and Myrtle, Tom’s lover, mistakes Gatsby’s car for Tom’s and runs out into the street and is hit and killed. The car that kills Myrtle belongs to Gatsby, but Daisy is driving. After this, the action resolves quickly. Gatsby takes the blame in order to protect Daisy, and Myrtle’s husband, George, kills Gatsby (and then himself) as revenge. Gatsby has already died a symbolic death at this point, when he realizes that Daisy will not call him and is not going to run away with him after all. His dream is at last obliterated, and he heads into the morning of his death facing reality for the first time. Nick describes the world as Gatsby now sees it as unbearably ugly: “he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.” In contrast to the previous obsession with the past, the final passages of Gatsby’s life are concerned with newness, creation, and the future – one which, lacking his dream of Daisy, he finds hideous.
In the final falling action the book, Nick must also confront reality, as he realizes his glamorous, enigmatic neighbor was the poor son of farmers who got mixed up in criminal activities and had no true friends besides Nick. Nick tries to arrange a funeral for Gatsby, but none of the guests from his lavish parties come. Daisy and Tom leave town, and Nick is left alone with Gatsby’s father, who reveals the truth of his son’s humble beginnings as “James Gatz.” After the funeral Nick decides to return to the Midwest, where he is from, feeling disgusted by the “distortions” of the East. First, though, he visits Gatsby’s house one last time, boarded up and already defaced with graffiti, and reflects on the power of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock that kindled Gatsby hope of recapturing the past up until the moment of his death. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” he says, including himself in the tragedy of Gatsby’s fall.