The Great Gatsby

by

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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The Great Gatsby: Irony 2 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Gatsby's Death:

Gatsby’s death in Chapter 8 is an instance of situational irony:

The chauffeur—he was one of Wolfsheim’s proteges—heard the shots. [...] With scarcely a word said, four of us, the chauffeur, butler, gardener, and I, hurried down to the pool.

[...]

A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of a compass, a thin red circle in the water.

Though not directly stated, the reader can infer that George Wilson shot and killed Gatsby because he mistakenly believed that Gatsby killed George’s wife, Myrtle, in a hit-and-run. Then Nick, along with Gatsby’s staff, find Gatsby’s dead body in his pool, with a “thin red circle” of blood circling around him in the water. His death is ironic because it’s unexpected—after all, in Chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby, Nick assures the reader that Gatsby will be okay in the end:

No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.

So, Gatsby’s death subverts the reader’s expectations that he will survive or get what he wants by the end of the book. What Nick actually means by “all right” here is that Gatsby turns out to be morally “all right.” He is a tragic hero despite being corrupted by his desire for Daisy Buchanan, whereas Daisy and her husband, Tom, are the true villains of the novel.

Gatsby’s death is also ironic because the book’s very title, The Great Gatsby, leads the reader to believe that Gatsby is fated for “great” things, giving the sense that Gatsby is some kind of spectacle or attraction. And indeed, his rags-to-riches backstory, his rebirth of sorts from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby, and the way other prominent people are drawn to him throughout the novel all seem to confirm this.

But in the end, the title takes on a different meaning, as it becomes clear that James Gatz’s “greatness” (and indeed, his entire persona) was only a performance that he put on in hopes of winning Daisy back. There is, ironically, nothing “great” about Gatsby’s fate: he dies undeservedly, alone, and without having achieved his ultimate goal of recreating his and Daisy’s past love affair. This dream dies with him, and there is only a “foul dust”—a sense of emptiness and pessimism—left in its wake.

Chapter 7
Explanation and Analysis—Myrtle's Death:

Myrtle Wilson’s death in Chapter 7 (and its aftermath) is an instance of dramatic irony:

The “death car.” as the newspapers called it, didn’t stop; it came out of the gathering darkness, wavered tragically for a moment, and then disappeared around the next bend. [...] The other car, the one going toward New York, came to rest a hundred yards beyond, and its driver hurried back to where Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust.

Myrtle’s death is ironic on several levels. First, Daisy Buchanan is the driver of the mysterious “death car”—she’s the one who accidentally runs over and kills Myrtle. This is ironic because while the reader knows that Tom Buchanan had been having an affair with Myrtle, Daisy has no idea that the woman she killed was her husband’s mistress.

Another layer of irony is that because Gatsby’s yellow Rolls-Royce was the car that ran over Myrtle, Tom thinks Gatsby must have been the one driving. In Chapter 7, he says the following:

“The God damned coward!” [Tom] whimpered. “[Gatsby] didn’t even stop his car.”

He jumps to this conclusion because the sole witness of the accident, Michaelis, couldn’t tell who was driving the car before it sped off. But this is ironic because the reader (and Nick) soon find out that Daisy was the one driving and that Gatsby was just her passenger, though Gatsby tells Nick in Chapter 7 that he’s going to take the blame for the accident:

“Well, I tried to swing the wheel—” [Gatsby] broke off, and suddenly I guessed at the truth.

“Was Daisy driving?”

“Yes,” he said after a moment, “but of course I’ll say I was.”

Then Tom, assuming that Gatsby was the one who ran over Myrtle, tells George that this is the case. And because the accident happened just outside the Wilsons' home, in Chapter 8 George assumes that Gatsby must have been the man Myrtle was having an affair with:

“I know,” [George] said definitely, “I’m one of these trusting fellas and I don’t think any harm to nobody, but when I get to know a thing I know it. It was the man in that car. [Myrtle] ran out to speak to him and he wouldn’t stop.”

So, another element of irony in Myrtle’s death is that the reader knows Tom, not Gatsby, was Myrtle’s lover. And George, believing that Gatsby was Myrtle’s lover and and her killer, murders Gatsby in retaliation and then commits suicide. 

Further, it becomes clear that the reason Myrtle ran out to the car in the first place is because, earlier in the day, it was Tom who was driving Gatsby’s car. So, Myrtle also ended up getting killed because she thought it was once again Tom who was driving the car, when in fact it was Daisy, Tom’s wife. All in all then, Myrtle’s death is ironic because different characters have entirely different perspectives on what happened, and these misunderstandings culminate in another tragedy.

After Gatsby’s murder, Myrtle’s sister Catherine lies to the media that Myrtle wasn’t having an affair, and Nick decides not to tell Tom that Daisy was actually the one who killed Myrtle. Their decisions to conceal these details ensure that Tom and Daisy will never know the full truth of Myrtle’s death and the surrounding circumstances, ensuring that the irony of—and their own multiple roles in—the situation is never revealed to them. Only the reader and Nick find out exactly what happened.

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Chapter 8
Explanation and Analysis—Gatsby's Death:

Gatsby’s death in Chapter 8 is an instance of situational irony:

The chauffeur—he was one of Wolfsheim’s proteges—heard the shots. [...] With scarcely a word said, four of us, the chauffeur, butler, gardener, and I, hurried down to the pool.

[...]

A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of a compass, a thin red circle in the water.

Though not directly stated, the reader can infer that George Wilson shot and killed Gatsby because he mistakenly believed that Gatsby killed George’s wife, Myrtle, in a hit-and-run. Then Nick, along with Gatsby’s staff, find Gatsby’s dead body in his pool, with a “thin red circle” of blood circling around him in the water. His death is ironic because it’s unexpected—after all, in Chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby, Nick assures the reader that Gatsby will be okay in the end:

No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.

So, Gatsby’s death subverts the reader’s expectations that he will survive or get what he wants by the end of the book. What Nick actually means by “all right” here is that Gatsby turns out to be morally “all right.” He is a tragic hero despite being corrupted by his desire for Daisy Buchanan, whereas Daisy and her husband, Tom, are the true villains of the novel.

Gatsby’s death is also ironic because the book’s very title, The Great Gatsby, leads the reader to believe that Gatsby is fated for “great” things, giving the sense that Gatsby is some kind of spectacle or attraction. And indeed, his rags-to-riches backstory, his rebirth of sorts from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby, and the way other prominent people are drawn to him throughout the novel all seem to confirm this.

But in the end, the title takes on a different meaning, as it becomes clear that James Gatz’s “greatness” (and indeed, his entire persona) was only a performance that he put on in hopes of winning Daisy back. There is, ironically, nothing “great” about Gatsby’s fate: he dies undeservedly, alone, and without having achieved his ultimate goal of recreating his and Daisy’s past love affair. This dream dies with him, and there is only a “foul dust”—a sense of emptiness and pessimism—left in its wake.

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Explanation and Analysis—Myrtle's Death:

Myrtle Wilson’s death in Chapter 7 (and its aftermath) is an instance of dramatic irony:

The “death car.” as the newspapers called it, didn’t stop; it came out of the gathering darkness, wavered tragically for a moment, and then disappeared around the next bend. [...] The other car, the one going toward New York, came to rest a hundred yards beyond, and its driver hurried back to where Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust.

Myrtle’s death is ironic on several levels. First, Daisy Buchanan is the driver of the mysterious “death car”—she’s the one who accidentally runs over and kills Myrtle. This is ironic because while the reader knows that Tom Buchanan had been having an affair with Myrtle, Daisy has no idea that the woman she killed was her husband’s mistress.

Another layer of irony is that because Gatsby’s yellow Rolls-Royce was the car that ran over Myrtle, Tom thinks Gatsby must have been the one driving. In Chapter 7, he says the following:

“The God damned coward!” [Tom] whimpered. “[Gatsby] didn’t even stop his car.”

He jumps to this conclusion because the sole witness of the accident, Michaelis, couldn’t tell who was driving the car before it sped off. But this is ironic because the reader (and Nick) soon find out that Daisy was the one driving and that Gatsby was just her passenger, though Gatsby tells Nick in Chapter 7 that he’s going to take the blame for the accident:

“Well, I tried to swing the wheel—” [Gatsby] broke off, and suddenly I guessed at the truth.

“Was Daisy driving?”

“Yes,” he said after a moment, “but of course I’ll say I was.”

Then Tom, assuming that Gatsby was the one who ran over Myrtle, tells George that this is the case. And because the accident happened just outside the Wilsons' home, in Chapter 8 George assumes that Gatsby must have been the man Myrtle was having an affair with:

“I know,” [George] said definitely, “I’m one of these trusting fellas and I don’t think any harm to nobody, but when I get to know a thing I know it. It was the man in that car. [Myrtle] ran out to speak to him and he wouldn’t stop.”

So, another element of irony in Myrtle’s death is that the reader knows Tom, not Gatsby, was Myrtle’s lover. And George, believing that Gatsby was Myrtle’s lover and and her killer, murders Gatsby in retaliation and then commits suicide. 

Further, it becomes clear that the reason Myrtle ran out to the car in the first place is because, earlier in the day, it was Tom who was driving Gatsby’s car. So, Myrtle also ended up getting killed because she thought it was once again Tom who was driving the car, when in fact it was Daisy, Tom’s wife. All in all then, Myrtle’s death is ironic because different characters have entirely different perspectives on what happened, and these misunderstandings culminate in another tragedy.

After Gatsby’s murder, Myrtle’s sister Catherine lies to the media that Myrtle wasn’t having an affair, and Nick decides not to tell Tom that Daisy was actually the one who killed Myrtle. Their decisions to conceal these details ensure that Tom and Daisy will never know the full truth of Myrtle’s death and the surrounding circumstances, ensuring that the irony of—and their own multiple roles in—the situation is never revealed to them. Only the reader and Nick find out exactly what happened.

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