The Great Gatsby

by

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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The Great Gatsby: Allusions 22 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Teutons and World War I:

As Nick describes his past at the beginning of the novel, there is an allusion to both the Teutons and World War I:

I graduated from New Haven in 1915, just a quarter of a century after my father, and a little later I participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War.

The word “Teutonic” refers to the Teutons, an ancient Germanic people who warred with the Roman Republic in the second century B.C. Meanwhile, the war that Nick references is World War I, which the United States was involved in from 1917–1918. In the early 20th century, people often called WWI the Great War because of its unprecedented scale and severity.

In this context, then, “Teutonic” is another word for Germanic, an allusion to the U.S. and the other Allied Powers fighting against Germany during WWI. So, in calling the war a “delayed Teutonic migration,” Nick is sarcastically describing Germany’s participation in WWI as a nonviolent “migration” throughout Europe, rather than a violent invasion of countries like Belgium and France.

Explanation and Analysis—Midas/Morgan/Mæcenas:

Nick’s description of the books he buys when he moves to West Egg contains several allusions:

I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Mæcenas knew.

First, Midas is an allusion to King Midas in Greek mythology, who, according to legend, could turn anything he touched into gold. Second, Morgan refers to J.P. Morgan, the multimillionaire financier who founded J.P. Morgan and Co. bank in 1871. Finally, Mæcenas is an allusion to the Roman statesman Gaius Cilnius Mæcenas, who was a wealthy patron of the arts.

In referencing these three wealthy men, Nick suggests that he wants to learn their “shining secrets” to financial success. Like so many others migrating to the East Coast in the 1920s, Nick—who moves from the Midwest to New York to become a bond salesman—is motivated by wealth and status. His inclusion of J.P. Morgan (a relatively modern figure) between the mythical Midas and the ancient Mæcenas is meant to be subtly humorous, as it elevates Morgan and other wealthy businessmen of his time to legendary status. But the inclusion of Midas and Mæcenas can also be seen as a warning for those who care only about wealth. Midas’s blessing was in fact a curse, as he couldn’t touch anything without turning it to gold. Mæcenas, meanwhile, was a patron of the arts under August, the first Roman Emperor—which also meant that Mæcenas served the man who put the final nail in the Roman Republic.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Rising Tide of Color:

When Nick has dinner at his cousin Daisy and her husband, Tom’s, house, Tom makes an allusion to the book The Rising Tide of Color by Lothrop Stoddard:

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?”

“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.

“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

[...]

“This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

Although Goddard and The Rise of the Colored Empires are both fictional, the similar author name and book title make it clear that this is a reference to real-life author Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color. (The last name Goddard is a blend of “Stoddard” and “Grant”; Mason Grant was Stoddard’s colleague.) Stoddard was a eugenicist and white supremacist who supported racial segregation and opposed interracial relationships. Rising Tide proposed that white people’s position in society was being threatened by non-white people’s growing population numbers and nationalist sentiments, as well as by industrialization in countries like China and Japan. It was published in 1920, just two years before The Great Gatsby takes place.

Tom’s reference to this book and his adamence that its contents are “scientific” characterize him as racist and susceptible to pseudoscientific ideas about white people being “the dominant race” (like the ones Stoddard and Grant purported). His anxiety that “the white race will be [...] utterly submerged” was a fairly common concern among white elites in the early 20th century. Clearly, Tom is worried that non-white people pursuing the American Dream—the idea that anyone who works hard can achieve success—will threaten his and other wealthy white people’s privileged position in society. He believes the racist notion that white people are inherently superior to non-white people, and the classist notion that “old money” (generational wealth) is superior to “new money” (first-generation wealth).

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Explanation and Analysis—Christopher Columbus:

The book’s initial description of East Egg and West Egg’s geography contains an allusion to Christopher Columbus:

They are not perfect ovals—like the egg in the Columbus story, they are both crushed flat at the contact end—but their physical resemblance must be a source of perpetual confusion to the gulls that fly overhead.

The “Columbus story” Nick refers to here is one about Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer who lived during the 15th and 16th centuries whose journeys sparked subsequent European exploration and colonization of North America. According to this story, after Columbus’s critics claimed that his discovery of a new trade route was unimpressive, he challenged them to make an egg stand on its tip. When none of them could accomplish this, Columbus himself simply tapped the egg on the table, leaving one end of the egg “crushed flat,” like Nick describes in this passage. An “egg of Columbus,” or “Columbus’s egg,” now refers to an ingenious discovery that seems simple or obvious after it’s been discovered.

By comparing East Egg and West Egg to “the egg in the Columbus story,” then, Nick is perhaps implying that Long Island—and the modern U.S. more broadly—is a kind of “egg of Columbus” in itself. To those who live there, it may seem unremarkable and as though it’s always existed. But in reality, the U.S. was still a relatively young country in the 1920s (when The Great Gatsby takes place) and was undergoing rapid economic and social change at the time.

This idea ties into Nick’s reflection at the end of the novel when he looks out at Long Island Sound and imagines “Dutch sailors” being awestruck by the “fresh, green breast of the new world” when they arrived in New York. Notably, the discovery of “the new world” (the Americas) is often attributed to Christopher Columbus (though indigenous people had already been living on these continents for millennia). So, by alluding to Columbus, Nick may be subtly encouraging the reader to remember the U.S.’s long, complicated history and ever-changing nature rather than viewing it as something that always has been and always will be a certain way.

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Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Kaiser Wilhelm:

While Nick attends a gathering at the apartment where Tom and Myrtle conduct their affair, the downstairs neighbor, Mrs. McKee, makes an allusion to Kaiser Wilhelm:

“Well, they say [Gatsby is] a nephew or a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm’s. That’s where all his money comes from.”

Kaiser Wilhelm was the last German Emperor and King of Prussia. He ruled Germany during World War I, which Nick and Gatsby both fought in, and it’s widely believed that his agenda was a major cause of the war.

Throughout the novel, the mystery of how Gatsby made his fortune is something that the other characters continuously gossip about and try to deduce. Mrs. McKee’s suggestion that Gatsby is related to Kaiser Wilhelm, and that this is “where all his money comes from,” is meant to imply that he got rich through scandalous means. WWI was still recent at this time (it ended in 1918, and The Great Gatsby takes place in 1922), so other characters might see it as traitorous for Gatsby to profit off of one of the powers that the U.S. fought against during the war.

Though this rumor is unfounded, it contributes to Gatsby’s titular “great” persona and the intrigue surrounding him and his wealth. It also points to a general prejudice against “new money” (first-generation wealth) as opposed to “old money” (generational wealth) that many characters in the novel hold, implying that anyone with a rags-to-riches story must have earned their money through illegal or immoral means.

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Explanation and Analysis—Town Topics/Versailles:

The passage just after Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose contains allusions to the newspaper Town Topics and the Gardens of Versailles:

When [Mr. McKee] had gone half way he turned around and stared at the scene—his wife and Catherine scolding and consoling as they stumbled here and there among the crowded furniture with articles of aid, and the despairing figure on the couch, bleeding fluently, and trying to spread a copy of Town Tattle over the tapestry scenes of Versailles.

The first allusion in this passage is to Town Topics, a real-life New York City newspaper that was popular (particularly among upper-class people) for its gossip column in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Town Tattle, a fictional gossip magazine, is a play on this newspaper’s title. The second allusion is to the gardens at the Palace of Versailles in France, which were originally built for the 17th-century French monarchy. The furniture in the apartment where Tom and Myrtle meet to conduct their affair is patterned with “tapestry scenes” of the Gardens of Versailles.

The image of Myrtle using a copy of Town Tattle to protect this couch from bloodstains is meant to be darkly comedic, as the lowbrow gossip magazine clashes with the beautiful “tapestry scenes” on the couch. Moreover, these tapestries likely depict refined subject matter: French royalty, grand architecture, elegant sculptures and topiaries, and so on. Yet the scene happening against these images—Tom hitting Myrtle in the face and Myrtle gushing blood all over the furniture—is anything but. This draws a contrast between how the European upper class behaved centuries ago—at least in theory—versus how American elites behaved in the 1920s. Whereas the novel’s upper-class characters (like Tom) believe that they’re sophisticated, like royalty of a bygone era, the novel continuously shows them to be careless, violent, and consumed with trivial gossip.

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Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—Stoddard and Belasco:

The passage when Nick and Jordan meet Owl Eyes in Gatsby’s library contains allusions to John L. Stoddard's Lectures and David Belasco:

“Absolutely real—have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and—Here! Lemme show you.”

Taking our scepticism for granted, [Owl Eyes] rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”

“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”

Stoddard’s Lectures are a series of books that John Lawson Stoddard, a travel and religion writer, wrote about various countries around the world. “Belasco” refers to David Belasco, a theater producer and playwright in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who created new forms of lighting and special effects that made stage productions look more realistic.

Owl Eyes likening Gatsby to Belasco implies that Gatsby’s library is like an ingenious, highly realistic stage performance. And, in fact, Owl Eyes is impressed by the degree to which Gatsby has gone to fake being well-cultured. Owl Eyes expected the books to be completely fake and made out of “cardboard,” but he is amazed that they are, in fact, real books. At the same time, Owl Eyes notes that the pages aren’t cut (which is something you had to do at that period of time to actually read a book). The implication, then, is that Gatsby has gone to great expense and effort to create a library of actual, real books that he has and never will read (just as he doesn’t use his swimming pool or actively participate in the lavish parties he throws). 

One might assume a person who owns multiple volumes of John L. Stoddard's Lectures would be well-traveled and cultured, but this passage suggests that the books, like the rest of Gatsby’s mansion, are all for show. They exist only for the sake of impressing other people, showing the extreme lengths to which Gatsby has gone in order to get Daisy Buchanan’s attention and win her back. At the same time, Owl Eyes exemplifies a larger culture that is so empty that it doesn’t even blink an eye at such surface displays, and instead is impressed by just how dedicated Gatsby is to the “special effects.”

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Explanation and Analysis—Frisco/Gray/the Follies:

A passage depicting one of Gatsby’s many parties contains allusions to Joe Frisco, Gilda Gray, and Ziegfeld Follies:

Suddenly one of these gypsies, in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and, moving her hands like Frisco, dances out alone on the canvas platform. A momentary hush; the orchestra leader varies his rhythm obligingly for her, and there is a burst of chatter as the erroneous news goes around that she is Gilda Gray’s understudy from the Follies.

First, “Frisco” refers to Joe Frisco, a jazz dancer and vaudeville performer who was popular in the 1920s (when The Great Gatsby takes place). Second, Gilda Gray was a dancer and actress around the same time; she popularized the “shimmy” dance move that was popular among flappers. Finally, “the Follies” refers to Ziegfried Follies, a series of revues (multi-act productions featuring singing, dancing, and sketches) that appeared on Broadway from 1907 to 1931.

Together, these references emphasize the growing importance of popular culture and entertainment—jazz music, vaudeville, dance, film, and theater—during the Roaring Twenties. The woman at Gatsby’s party “moving her hands like Frisco” is an example of how people at this time were beginning to idolize and imitate Hollywood and Broadway celebrities. Moreover, the false rumor that this woman is Gilda Gray’s understudy speaks to both the high-profile, glamorous, and mysterious nature of Gatsby’s parties, and their underlying emptiness and the emptiness also of the interest in celebrity fame. Apparently, it isn’t out of the question that someone connected to the famous Gilda Gray might attend the party, but also that this person is not Gray herself but rather just her understudy.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Kingdom of Castile:

Nick’s description of one of Gatsby’s parties contains an allusion to the Kingdom of Castile:

The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors, and hair shorn in strange new ways, and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile.

“Castile” is a reference to the Kingdom of Castile, a large medieval state located in what is now Spain. Castile was a powerful kingdom, so the description of the shawls Gatsby’s guests wear as “beyond the dreams of Castile” suggests that his guests are extraordinarily wealthy and prominent in society—almost like royalty. This, in tandem with the “gaudy” rooms in Gatsby’s mansion and his guest’s trendy hairstyles, characterizes the sort of people who attend Gatsby’s parties (that is, upper-class Americans in the Roaring Twenties) as flashy and decadent.

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Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—Herman Rosenthal:

During Nick and Gatsby’s lunch with Meyer Wolfsheim, Wolfsheim makes an allusion to Herman Rosenthal:

“I can’t forget so long as I live the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal there.”

Herman “Rosy” Rosenthal was a real-life bookmaker (someone who facilitates gambling) who, in 1912, was murdered by a NYPD lieutenant and four members of the Lenox Avenue gang. The fact that Wolfshiem was associated with Rosenthal in the world of the novel implies that Wolfshiem is somehow linked to gambling and gang activity as well. And, since Wolfshiem is Gatsby’s business partner, this allusion serves as an early hint that Gatsby probably earned his wealth through gambling, organized crime, or other illicit means.

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Explanation and Analysis—Paul von Hindenburg:

As some women lounging on Gatsby’s front lawn gossip about Gatsby, one of them makes an allusion to Paul von Hindenburg:

“One time [Gatsby] killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to Von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil.”

Hindenburg was the general who led the German Army during World War I, which both Gatsby and Nick fought in. Germany was among the Central Powers that the U.S. and the other Allied Powers fought against, so the notion that Gatsby is related to Hindenburg suggests that Gatsby is a traitor to his country.

This is one of several times in the book when a character spreads an outlandish rumor about Gatsby’s backstory, as many people assume that Gatsby—who is part of the “new rich” class—would only have been able to get rich quick if he did so through illegal or immoral means. This turns out to be somewhat true, as it’s eventually revealed that Gatsby is involved in organized crime and bootlegging alcohol. But this attitude nevertheless suggests a general prejudice among “old money” (people who come from wealthy, influential families) toward “new money” (people who have recently become wealthy).

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Explanation and Analysis—1919 Black Sox Scandal:

Gatsby’s explanation of how his business partner, Meyer Wolfsheim, earns a living contains an allusion to the 1919 Black Sox Scandal:

“Meyer Wolfsheim? No, he’s a gambler.” Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: “He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919.”

Although Wolfsheim’s involvement in this incident is fictional, the fixing of the 1919 World Series is a reference to the real-life Black Sox Scandal. The scandal occurred when a gambling syndicate, led by a mobster named Arnold Rothstein, bribed eight Chicago White Sox team members to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. The implication here is that Woflsheim’s character is a stand-in for the real-life Rothstein.

This allusion confirms that Wolfsheim is a gambler and has ties to the mob. So, the fact that Wolfsheim is Gatsby’s business partner implies that Gatsby, too, is somehow linked to organized crime, which is later confirmed to be true: Gatsby earned his fortune by selling bootleg alcohol during Prohibition. This allusion to the Black Sox Scandal, then, begins to poke holes in Gatsby’s titular “great” persona, as it hints that what people admire about Gatsby—namely his wealth—was ill-gotten. Further, it suggests that in pursuing his dream of transforming himself into a man who can win Daisy, he has corrupted himself.

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Explanation and Analysis—Meuse-Argonne Offensive:

As Gatsby relays his experiences as a first lieutenant in World War I, he makes an allusion to the Meuse-Argonne offensive:

“In the Argonne Forest I took two machine-gun detachments so far forward that there was a half mile gap on either side of us where the infantry couldn’t advance [...] I was promoted to be a major[.]”

Gatsby’s mention of “the Argonne Forest” refers to the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the largest and deadliest battle in U.S. military history. The offensive took place from September to November 1918 along the entire Western Front (a huge expanse of land throughout France and Belgium), including the Forest of Argonne, a mountainous woodland area in northeastern France.

Given that the Meuse-Argonne offensive was so deadly, with over 350,000 casualties, Gatsby’s daring in the battle and subsequent promotion to major contributes to his titular “greatness.” Much of this greatness is manufactured in an effort to win Daisy back, and it isn’t what it seems on the surface—it’s later revealed that he earned his wealth through organized crime, for instance. But Gatsby really is a decorated war hero—just after this, he shows Nick a military medal that he earned in the army. So, although Gatsby’s persona is mostly a façade, and he’s been corrupted by his desires, this allusion to the Meuse-Argonne offensive complicates his character. His bravery and skill during WWI suggest that he is, in some ways, genuinely “great.”

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Chapter 5
Explanation and Analysis—Immanuel Kant:

Nick’s description of himself gazing at Gatsby’s mansion contains an allusion to Immanuel Kant:

There was nothing to look at from under the tree except Gatsby’s enormous house, so I stared at it, like Kant at his church steeple, for half an hour.

Immanuel Kant was an 18th-century German philosopher. One of Kant’s most influential philosophical concepts was that of the “thing-in-itself,” the idea that our perceptions of things are influenced by where we are in space and time, and that we only can only perceive the superficial “appearance” of things rather than what they objectively are. With this in mind, Nick’s reference to Kant in this passage might mean that he recognizes that while he is viewing the “appearance” of Gatsby’s mansion, he is not perceiving the house for what it objectively is.

This same idea extends to Gatsby’s character, in that everyone around him has a different idea of who he is, yet none of these perceptions align with Gatsby’s true identity or motivations. Similarly, Gatsby loves the idea of Daisy he’s built up in his mind over the years, arguably more than he loves (or even knows) the real-life Daisy. The allusion to Kant in this passage thus ties into the novel’s broader point that we can only know other people in a subjective, incomplete way, and therefore, that no one can ever fully understand another person.

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Explanation and Analysis—1893 Chicago World’s Fair:

Nick’s comment about what Gatsby’s mansion looks like when it’s lit up at night contains an allusion to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair:

“Your place looks like the World’s Fair,” I said.

World’s Fairs are international exhibitions of different nations’ achievements and innovations. The World’s Fair that Nick refers to here is most likely the one that took place in 1893 in Chicago (also called the World’s Columbian Exposition), which was the first to be powered by electricity. The fair featured grand architecture and attractions like life-size replicas of Christopher Columbus’s ships, an amusement park, and demonstrations of new inventions like the first moving walkway.

Nick’s allusion to the 1893 World’s Fair emphasizes how dazzling and glamorous Gatsby’s mansion is—it’s so stately and bright that it reminds Nick of an enormous spectacle that drew in millions of visitors throughout the five months it was open. 

This comparison also speaks to the economic boom occuring in the U.S. during the 1920s, when The Great Gatsby is set, as people were able to amass fortunes through the stock market—or, in Gatsby’s case, through organized crime. The boom, in turn, led to the rise of a “new money” class who openly displayed their wealth (as opposed to the “old money” class, who prided themselves on keeping their generational wealth less conspicuous). Gatsby’s mansion thus embodies a level of grandeur that was once only possible on an international scale but was now possible on an individual scale, reflecting the opulence of the Roaring Twenties as well as Gatsby’s titular “greatness.”

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Explanation and Analysis—Clay’s Economics:

The passage when Gatsby is waiting for Daisy to arrive at Nick’s house contains an allusion to Sir Henry Clay’s book Economics:

Gatsby looked with vacant eyes through a copy of Clay’s "Economics," staring at the Finnish tread that shook the kitchen floor, and peering toward the bleared windows from time to time as if a series of invisible but alarming happenings were taking place outside.

Economics is an introductory book on classical economic theory by the British economist Sir Henry Clay. Published in 1916, it is widely considered to be one of the most important books ever written on classic economics. The fact that Gatsby looks through this book “with vacant eyes” makes it clear that for all his wealth, he isn’t knowledgeable about (or interested in learning about) the inner workings of the economy. With this allusion, then, the novel is perhaps satirizing upper-class Americans’ ignorance of and apathy toward how their business practices affect society more broadly.

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Explanation and Analysis—Marie Antoinette:

When Gatsby gives Nick and Daisy a tour of his mansion, Nick’s description of the interior contains allusions to Marie Antoinette and the Stuart Restoration:

And inside, as we wandered through Marie Antoinette music-rooms and Restoration salons, I felt that there were guests concealed behind every couch and table, under orders to be breathlessly silent until we had passed through.

First, Marie Antoinette was the queen of France from 1774–1792. Second, Restoration refers to the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in England, and particularly to the second reign of King Charles II from 1660–1685. Both Marie Antoinette’s personal décor preferences and the Restoration decorative style that became popular under Charles II were notably ornate and luxurious. That Nick likens Gatsby’s mansion to these styles (and, by extension, likens Gatsby to the two monarchs) underscores just how opulent and flashy Gatsby’s mansion is. 

This flashiness no doubt contributes to his reputation as a “great” man whom people love to gossip and speculate about. But it also highlights the difference between “old money” characters like Daisy and Tom, who are less conspicuous about their wealth, and “new money” characters like Gatsby, who unabashedly show off what they can afford.

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Chapter 6
Explanation and Analysis—Madame de Maintenon:

One of the novel’s flashbacks to Gatsby’s past contains an allusion to Madame de Maintenon:

The none too savory ramifications by which Ella Kaye, the newspaper woman, played Madame de Maintenon to his weakness and sent him to sea in a yacht, were common knowledge to the turgid subjournalism of 1902.

Madame de Maintenon was King Louis XIV of France’s secret wife. She’s often portrayed as greedy and manipulative, having supposedly convinced Louis XIV to marry her shortly after his first wife died. It’s implied that Ella Kaye exploited Dan Cody, Gatsby’s wealthy former boss and mentor: she was somehow involved in his death, and she cheated Gatsby out of the $25,000 inheritance that Cody left to him. The allusion to Madame de Maintenon in this passage is thus meant to emphasize Ella Kaye’s immorality and to suggest that Dan Cody facilitated her rags-to-riches story without her having to work for it, just as Louis XIV enabled Madame de Maintenon to lead a royal life without the responsibility of being queen.

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Explanation and Analysis—Platonic Idealism:

As Nick recounts Gatsby’s backstory, he makes an allusion to Platonic idealism:

The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.

Plato was an Ancient Greek philosopher, and the “Platonic conception” Nick mentions here refers to Platonic idealism—the theory that only the idea of something (as opposed to the physical existence of that thing) represents its true nature. Essentially, Nick is saying that Gatsby, who was born James Gatz and came from humble beginnings, had an idea of himself that didn’t match up with the way people perceived him, and that his entire persona of Jay Gatsby is shaped around who he believes himself to be rather than who he was born as. But because Nick’s tone in this passage is sarcastic, he seems to be implying that who Gatsby presents himself to be isn’t really the Platonic ideal of who he is—instead, it’s a fraudulent personality based on who he wants to be.

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Chapter 7
Explanation and Analysis—Trimalchio:

As Nick describes the end of Gatsby’s parties, he makes an allusion to Trimalchio:

It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night—and, as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over.

Trimalchio is a character in Satyricon, an ancient Roman work of fiction by Petronius. He is a former slave who, like Gatsby, is known for throwing extravagant dinner parties. This allusion is meant to underscore the fact that Gatsby tries to hide his humble origins by showing off his wealth and creating spectacle around himself, just as Trimalchio does. But now that Gatsby has realized that Daisy isn’t impressed by his mansion or his lavish parties, he puts a stop to his “career as Trimalchio,” because his efforts no longer serve the purpose of winning Daisy back.

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Chapter 8
Explanation and Analysis—The Holy Grail:

As Nick is narrating Gatsby’s backstory, he makes an allusion to the Holy Grail:

[Gatsby] had intended, probably, to take what he could and go—but now he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail.

By “the following of a grail,” Nick is referring to the quest for the Holy Grail, a motif that’s common in Arthurian literature (literature about King Arthur and his knights). In these medieval legends, the grail is an object imbued with mystical powers that can provide immortality or prosperity; it’s also traditionally thought of as the cup that Jesus drank out of at the Last Supper. 

The Holy Grail is highly sought after, but the search for it is usually portrayed as a perilous, unattainable quest. The allusion in this passage likens Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy to “the following of the grail,” meaning that, like a knight searching for the Holy Grail, he is utterly fixated on her and will endlessly pursue her—even though this quest is futile, as Daisy will never fully reciprocate his feelings.

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Chapter 9
Explanation and Analysis—James J. Hill:

When Henry Gatz (Gatsby’s father) and Nick talk at Gatsby’s funeral, Henry makes an allusion to James J. Hill:

“If he’d of lived, he’d of been a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He’d of helped build up the country.”

Hill was a 19th- and early 20th-century railroad tycoon who built and oversaw an extensive railroad system spanning the American Midwest, Great Plains, and Pacific Northwest. He was nicknamed “the Empire Builder” because of his contributions to the transcontinental railroad system and to industrial development along the railroads he built. A multimillionaire and philanthropist, he eventually settled in Minnesota, where both Nick and the Gatzes are from.

Gatz’s lament that Gatsby could have been like Hill speaks to the idea that Gatsby wasn’t really a “great man,” contrary to the novel’s title. Though Gatsby was an enigmatic, enviable figure to those who knew him, he was a criminal who died in obscurity, with no real legacy and only a few people close enough to him to attend his funeral. In this way, although Gatsby did have a rags-to-riches story, the American Dream he seemingly achieved in life was corrupted and hollow. He got rich merely to impress Daisy Buchanan—he didn’t make any significant contributions to society, whereas men like Hill “helped build up the country.”

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