Jay Gatsby appears to be the embodiment of the American dream at the novel's opening. The self-made man is depicted as a wealthy, charismatic businessman who, having amassed a fortune, has built himself a lavish lifestyle in postwar America. From the outset, Gatsby is elusive and mysterious, the stories of where he came from and how he amassed his wealth are as numerous and fanciful as the people who attend his weekly parties. Nick Carraway eventually learns that Gatsby was born James Gatz, the son of a poor farming family from North Dakota. The Jay Gatsby of West Egg is an invention of the young James Gatz, who wanted a different, sophisticated life for himself. Gatsby keep his origins a secret and presents to the public only what he wants them to see. The mystery leads people to speculate. Some people are certain he was a German spy; others say he acquired his money through illegal activities such as gambling and alcohol. Still others insist he killed a man. Gatsby does not care what others think of him. His entire focus is building his wealth, power, and prestige, all in an attempt to make himself worthy of Daisy Buchanan, a young woman he had fallen in love with before the war. But Gatsby's dreams, like the identity he created for himself and the extravagant life he leads, are hollow and fleeting and eventually lead to his downfall. Gatsby represents both the best and the worst of the American dream; without a proper foundation, that dream is all just a light in the distance: bright, intriguing, and unattainable. Gatsby's downfall, particularly the bleakness of his funeral, can be read as a critique of the reckless indulgence in pursuit of that dream.
Nick Carraway, the novel's narrator, is a bright, insightful young man who has recently returned from duty in World War I. Despite being raised in the Midwest, Nick moves to New York to work as a bonds tradesman. Nick is portrayed as an honest, fair, and impartial man who makes friends easily and often serves as a mediator among both friends and acquaintances. He witnesses the dichotomy between the poor and elite, causing him to struggle with the superficiality of affluence.
Daisy Buchanan is the superficial, self-absorbed, flighty, and even foolish woman Gatsby is in love with. Married to the wealthy but arrogant Tom Buchanan, Daisy has an affair with Jay Gatsby, her former lover. Throughout the novel Daisy rarely displays any emotion beyond her apparent boredom; she lives as if simply going through the motions. When Tom confronts Gatsby about his affair with Daisy, she quickly abandons Gatsby, quitting their game. Daisy represents the wealthy women during this era, many of whom were referred to as flappers for their forays—in dress, behavior, and thought—into the modern life they embraced in the 1920s. Daisy's final act, running from the responsibility of her car accident, suggests that she is a risk-taker only if it does not risk her real life and the privileges it affords her.
Tom Buchanan is a boisterous, unruly, arrogant brute. Tom is self-centered and controlling, showing a complete lack of respect for (and sometimes abuse of) women, including his wife and mistress. Throughout the novel, Tom manipulates situations and people to hide his indiscretions. Representing the elite, Tom looks down on those without money and those with new money.
George Wilson owns and operates Wilson's garage and gas station in the valley of ashes. Unlike his wife, Myrtle, George is resolved to his position in life, a quality that spurs Myrtle's contempt for him. In his dealings with the world, George is respectful and fair, even with those who treat him poorly, like Tom Buchanan. In the end, his heartbreak over Myrtle's death leads him to murder, and ultimately suicide, representing the tragic impact of greed and deceit.
Myrtle Wilson is Tom's married mistress. She lives in the valley of ashes with her husband, George. The valley of ashes is a financial and social wasteland, and Myrtle wants to escape it for a better life. She believes herself desirable to wealthy men and dislikes her husband for being poor. She represents lower class striving for the wealth, prestige, and lifestyle of the elite.
Jordan Baker is Daisy's friend from girlhood and a wealthy professional golfer. Jordan represents the new woman of the 20th century, and is more of a risk-taker than her childhood friend. She ignores social conventions, speaks directly, and cheats to get what she wants. She becomes romantically involved with Nick, but their relationship deteriorates when Nick discovers her dishonesty.