At the beginning of the novel, Nick uses hyperbole to introduce the reader to Gatsby:
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about [Gatsby], some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.
Gatsby is, of course, not actually able to “register earthquakes from ten thousand miles away.” But by describing him in these superhuman terms, Nick emphasizes how impressive and indeed “great” Gatsby seems to the people around him. His “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life”—essentially, his boundless hope—is what makes him so magnetic to other people, as his rags-to-riches success story and larger-than-life presence make it seem like anything is possible.
And yet Nick eventually learns that Gatsby is only so exuberant and optimistic about the future because he believes he can recreate the past—in particular, his relationship with Daisy Buchanan. Winning Daisy back is Gatsby’s sole focus in life, and he’s only created the “gorgeous” persona that Nick describes here in order to attract her attention. More than anything, then, this hyperbole—and the obvious fact that it is hyperbole—makes it clear how thoroughly Gatsby has convinced himself and the people around him that he is oriented toward the future, when, really, he is stuck in the past.
Nick’s description of Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce contains hyperbole:
It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns.
Describing the car as “monstrous” and “triumphant” exaggerates its size and imbues it with personality, as though its presence is so commanding that it takes on a life of its own. The image of “a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns” is also exaggerated, emphasizing how bright and lustrous the car is. The Rolls Royce’s glimmering metallic finish likens it to a gold bar or a shiny coin, which emphasizes how expensive it is (it would have cost more than the average American home in 1922) and speaks to the characters’ obsession with earning—and, to varying degrees, showing off—money.
This hyperbolic language reflects how impressive Gatsby is to the people around him; everything from his Rolls-Royce to his mansion seems unfathomably grand and decadent. In this way, Gatsby’s character is emblematic of the economic prosperity of the Roaring Twenties and of the “new money” class that rose up during this time. He is unabashed in his displays of affluence, much to the scorn of “old money” characters like Tom Buchanan, who are more careful about the conspicuousness of their generational wealth. Further, from Nick’s mesmerized, exaggerated descriptions of Gatsby’s car, it’s clear that Gatsby’s flashy possessions are a major part of what makes him seem so “great” to others—though the reader eventually learns that these things are only a ploy to impress Daisy and win her back.
Nick’s narration of Gatsby’s backstory uses hyperbole to describe Gatsby’s invented identity:
[Gatsby] was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.
Just before this, Nick explained that Gatsby’s real name is James Gatz, that he changed his name to Gatsby and reinvented his identity at 17, and that Gatsby never felt as though his parents or their lives as Midwestern farmers aligned with who he really was. So, using exaggerated language in describing Gatsby as “a son of God” emphasizes the major rift between who Gatsby’s parents raised him to be and who Gatsby believed he was destined to be. Jay Gatsby, an identity that he created for himself, seems larger-than-life to everyone around him due to his immense wealth and mysterious reputation—as though he is a deity rather than a man from humble beginnings. And because of this, the people who have only known Jay Gatzby, not James Gatz—including Nick—idolize him, believing (as the book’s title suggests) that he is a “great” man.
Yet Nick also suggests that the beautiful life Gatsby is pursuing is “vast, vulgar, and metricious,” meaning that Gatsby’s dream of becoming wealthy is hollow and corrupted because all of his choices revolve around impressing Daisy Buchanan (or, more accurately, his romanticized idea of Daisy Buchanan). In this way, Nick both admires Gatsby’s “greatness” and condemns his motivations for pursuing it. And in using hyperbolic language to describe both who Gatsby is and the dream he’s chasing, the book hints that Gatsby’s downfall may be just as dramatic as his rise to greatness.