The tone of The Great Gatsby veers between scornful and sympathetic, with caustic scorn gradually giving way to melancholic sympathy toward the end. The tone of the opening paragraphs of the novel is also melancholic because Nick narrates these paragraphs from a later perspective, as part of the framing of the narrative. Once he’s established his framing device, Nick becomes wry and satiric in describing the Long Island social scene. Nick is both impressed and disturbed by his neighbors’ hedonistic lifestyles. He extensively details the decadence of Gatsby’s extravagant parties, and comments on Tom and Daisy in a tone of aloof reproach. When Nick finds out about Tom’s affair with Myrtle, he says, “To a certain temperament the situation might have seemed intriguing—my own instinct was to telephone immediately for the police.” He does not actually phone the police, or even tell Daisy about the affair, preferring to remain passive and confine his concerns to critical observations. He continues to visit Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby and enjoy their benevolence. In these opening chapters the tone remains coolly bemused by the excesses and romantic entanglements of others.
As the book proceeds, and Nick becomes friendly with Gatsby, he gets drawn into the love triangle between Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby, and the tone becomes both more emotional and more melancholy. Nick is less sardonic, and more earnest in his storytelling. His tone becomes sympathetic, even admiring, as he gets to know Gatsby as a person and understand the source of his obsession with Daisy. The tone then becomes even more intimate, as Nick starts to identify with Gatsby: “Through all he said… I was reminded of something – an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago.” In the famous final line of the book, the extent of this melancholic tone reaches its climax as Nick concludes, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Here, the tone is one of complete identification as Nick includes himself (and the reader) as susceptible to the pull of the past. The alliteration of “b” sounds reinforces this impression of circularity and makes us further feel the pain and helplessness of the characters.