As Nick describes returning home to Minnesota after World War I, he uses a simile to compare the Midwestern United States to a barren wasteland:
Instead of being the warm centre of the world, the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe.
In describing the Midwest as “the ragged edge of the universe,” whereas before it seemed like “the warm centre of the world,” Nick makes it clear that his perception of his home has fundamentally changed. Minnesota doesn’t seem “warm” or comforting anymore, nor does it seem relevant or exciting; it is no longer the focal point of Nick’s world. Instead, it seems downtrodden and desolate, not unlike the deserted stretches of “no man’s land” left in the wake of WWI battles in Europe.
Nick’s change in perception is, at least in part, a result of fighting in WWI—just before this quote in the book, he describes “enjoy[ing] the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless.” In other words, it’s disappointing to return home to his quiet life in the Midwest after experiencing the thrill of battle.
His disenchantment with Minnesota could also be due to the United States’s general social and economic climate during this time. Whereas much of the 19th century was defined by westward expansion as Americans sought land, gold, and other opportunities, the 1920s saw a swing in the opposite direction, as people migrated to the East Coast in hopes of earning a fortune in the stock market. So, Nick’s comparison of the Midwest with “the ragged edge of the universe” could suggest that the Eastern U.S. (particularly New York) now seems like “the centre of the universe” because of its association with promise and prosperity. And, consequently, Nick sees anywhere that isn’t New York as provincial and remote.
Nick uses a simile to compare the books on his bookshelf to money:
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[.]
Nick moves from the Midwest to West Egg (an affluent area in Long Island) to become a bond salesman, something he says all his peers are doing too. In comparing his books about “banking and credit and investment securities” to “new money from the mint,” he’s suggesting that there’s hardly any difference between the knowledge in these books and money itself—they contain the secrets to wealth.
More specifically, his comparison to new money associates the books with the “new money” class, or those who don’t come from wealth but have recently gotten rich during the post-WWI economic boom (when The Great Gatsby is set). Nick himself isn’t part of this group; he’s considered “old money” because the Caraways have been well-off since the American Civil War. But this simile nonetheless implies that it was relatively easy to make a fortune and become part of the “new rich” during the Roaring Twenties—as simple as moving to the East Coast and trading in the stock market, like Nick does.
At his first dinner with the Buchanans, Nick uses a simile to compare Tom’s treatment of him to a game of checkers:
Before I could reply that he was my neighbor dinner was announced; wedging his tense arm imperatively under mine, Tom Buchanan compelled me from the room as though he were moving a checker to another square.
Rather than allowing Nick to respond to Daisy’s question about Gatsby (Nick’s neighbor), Tom physically forces Nick out of the Buchanan’s lounge and into the dining room. The comparison of Tom moving Nick “as though he were moving a checker to another square” characterizes Tom as forceful and domineering. Moreover, this is an early hint that Tom is manipulative—he sees people as pawns (or checkers) whom he can bend to his will, rather than human beings who deserve respect and autonomy. Tom will continue to treat people essentially like game pieces throughout the novel, as he goes to elaborate lengths to cheat on Daisy with Myrtle Wilson and eventually lies to George Wilson (Myrtle’s husband) and manipulates him into killing Gatsby.
At the same time, checkers is a simple game as compared to, say, chess. As opposed to the deep strategy and understanding needed to successfully move chess pieces, in checkers the pieces are always moved in the same way, with limited options. So even as Nick describes Tom as manipulative, his simile regarding Tom’s manipulations characterize Tom as being simple, dependent on straightforward brute force rather than strategy.
During Nick’s dinner with the Buchnanans, he uses a simile to compare the expression on Daisy’s face to children going inside at sunset:
For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon [Daisy’s] glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened—then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.
Initially, Nick finds Daisy beautiful and charming—her face is “glowing,” and her voice “compel[s] [Nick] forward breathlessly” as she tells him a rumor about the Buchanans’ butler. Yet this impression of her quickly dissipates: as soon as she’s finished speaking, the glow “fade[s],” and her face appears less like a bright light and more like “children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.” This is to say that Nick quickly realizes that Daisy’s easygoing personality is a front that she puts on for other people. Her happiness and enthusiasm dissolve with “lingering regret” as soon as the conversation stops and she’s left with her own thoughts—similar to how children returning home after a day spent playing on a “pleasant street” might feel melancholic and yearn to go back outside.
This comparison thus hints that there’s more to Daisy than initially meets the eye—that she perhaps isn’t as satisfied with her life as other people might assume. There are more hints throughout the book that this is the case, such as when Daisy says that “the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool,” because being foolish means not having to understand the world’s cruelty and unfairness. Moreover, readers soon learn that Daisy’s husband, Tom, is having an affair, and that Daisy has known about his betrayal for some time. So, this simile hints at Daisy’s quiet sadness and the fact that her easy, affluent life isn’t as happy and idyllic as she makes it seem.
Nick’s description of the summer parties at Gatsby’s mansion uses a simile to compare the party guests to moths:
In [Gatsby’s] blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.
Moths are attracted to light, so the comparison here suggests that the “men and girls” at Gatsby’s parties are similarly attracted to bright, shiny things—be it the stars or, more figuratively, Gatsby’s money and status. Yet they also “came and went,” suggesting that, like insects flitting from one place to the next, the guests quickly lose interest in one another and in the parties more generally.
This simile thus creates the sense that although Gatsby’s parties attract huge crowds of people, the guests aren’t forming particularly deep or lasting connections with one another. They also seem to be more interested in taking advantage of Gatsby’s wealth (and the bootleg alcohol his money can buy them) for a short time than they are in him as a person. In this way, the comparison of the guests to moths speaks to the book’s critique of people who pursue money and status above all else, suggesting that those who live this way are shallow and desperate—more like insects chasing the light than human beings genuinely enjoying one another’s company.
As Gatsby tells Nick about his experience fighting in World War I, Nick uses a simile to liken his interest in Gatsby’s story to skimming through magazines:
My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines.
This comparison creates the sense that Nick, like most other people in Gatsby’s circle of acquaintances, is both bemused and impressed by Gatsby. Gatsby’s tales of becoming a decorated war hero are hard to believe, but Nick finds Gatsby so charming and magnetic that he becomes “submerged in fascination” when Gatsby is speaking. Yet it’s telling that this simile compares Nick’s interest to “skimming hastily through a dozen magazines” rather than something deeper or more substantive, like reading a book. The simile therefore implies that what Gatsby is telling Nick is so outlandish that it resembles a tabloid or gossip column—still, Nick is so “fasincat[ed]” that he can’t help but listen to what Gatsby is saying. In this way, the simile suggests that what makes Gatsby seem “great” isn’t necessarily his achievements, but his charisma and ability to entertain people for a time with his whirlwind stories.
As Nick recounts Gatsby’s memory of kissing Daisy for the first time, he uses a simile to compare Daisy to a flower:
Then [Gatsby] kissed [Daisy]. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.
Just before this, Nick says that Gatsby knew kissing Daisy would “forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath.” In other words, Gatsby knew that when he kissed Daisy, his idealized vision of her would become more real, and his dreams of wealth and success would center around impressing her from then on. The image of Daisy “blossom[ing] for him like a flower” when they kissed reflects this idea—it’s as though Gatsby’s dreams of Daisy were finally blooming to life in front of him. The word “incarnation” further suggests that upon kissing Daisy, Gatsby became less of a god—the wealthy, mysterious figure who is untouchable and unknowable by those who attend his parties—and more of a mortal man. From this point on, he will be single-mindedly focused on Daisy, and this fixation is the character flaw that humanizes his otherwise godlike persona and makes him vulnerable, like any other man.