Who Was Jay Gatsby? Character Traits and More

Last Updated: October 25th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

Who was Jay Gatsby character traits and more

Jay Gatsby, the title character in the novel The Great Gatsby, is a fascinating subject for study.

His past remains a questionable mystery, his present is lavish and luxurious, but where did he get his newfound wealth?

Is Gatsby a criminal? Is he the epitome of the American dream? Is he a murderer? A monster? Or merely a man in love?

Find the answers to these questions and more in the Jay Gatsby character analysis below.

What Do We Know about Jay Gatsby?

The narrator of the novel, Nick Carraway, is a neighbor to Gatsby, although it takes him some time before he meets him.

Before they meet, Nick hears all kinds of rumors about Gatsby. Nick hears that he’s related to a German Kaiser, that he’s committed murder, that he was a war hero in World War I, and other outrageous stories.

Over the summer, Nick learns that Gatsby was born James Gatz from North Dakota. After saving a wealthy man named Dan Cody and his yacht from sinking, he changed his name to Jay Gatsby, which he felt was a more fitting, rich-sounding name.

Gatsby was born to poor, unsuccessful farmers in North Dakota. After Dan Cody’s death, Gatsby joins the army and meets debutante Daisy Fay at a party in Kentucky where the two fall in love.

Unfortunately, Jay Gatsby returns too late from the war. Daisy has married Tom Buchanan and now has a daughter.

This doesn’t diminish the obsession that Gatsby has with Daisy. He throws lavish parties, making friends with Nick and enlisting the help of Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker, in an attempt to gain back his lost love.

These facts are slowly revealed throughout the book as Nick and Gatsby’s friendship deepens over the summer (read more on Nick Carraway physical description ).

What Defines Jay Gatsby?

What Defines Jay Gatsby

There appear to be two defining traits for Jay Gatsby.

The first is his unquenchable desire for Daisy Buchanan. Nothing and no one can dissuade him from pursuing this now-married woman.

Jay is convinced that if he had enough wealth, Daisy would return to his arms.

This leads us to Gatsby’s second most driving trait—his desire to be a wealthy man and mingle with both new money and old money wealthy people.

Gatsby makes up half-true stories to hide the fact that he wasn’t born to old money. While he is the classic example of the American dream, where a man who works hard can strike it rich, he and Meyer Wolfsheim earned their money illegally via bootleg alcohol and speakeasies.

Gatsby believed that if he could equal the wealth of Daisy’s husband, Tom, the love Daisy felt for him five years earlier would be so strong that she would leave Tom and marry him.

Money and love are what define Jay Gatsby. These two desires will also be partly to blame for Gatsby’s tragic death.

How Is Jay Gatsby Described?

Most Memorable Quotes from Chapter 3

Nick Carraway describes Jay in this passage in Chapter 3, which reads as follows:

“We were sitting at a table with a man of about my age (3.60).

He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. (3.76)

His tanned skin was drawn attractively tight on his face and his short hair looked as though it were trimmed every day. (3.93)”

Jay comes across as an attractive young man, but more importantly, he is described in the Great Gatsby as being charismatic.

Nick says that he felt “understood” and that his smile was reassuring.

Doesn’t everyone want to feel that way when meeting someone? Gatsby may have had flaws and lacking in other desirable traits, but charisma wasn’t one of them.

What Are Jay Gatsby’s Strengths?

Gatsby was, by nature, a very generous man.

While he may have had an ulterior motive to his parties, the fact that he didn’t limit his guest list and funded the most lavish parties every weekend shows his generosity.

Gatsby also allowed one acquaintance, Ewing Klipspringer, to virtually live in his house rent-free. Gatsby might ask Klipspringer to play piano now and again, but Klipspringer had access to the entire house and estate, drinking, eating, and sleeping there, with no sign of ever intending to pay or leave. This is another sign of Gatsby’s generosity.

Nick finds that Gatsby has an extraordinary gift of hope. When Nick first sees Gatsby, before he knows who he is, he sees Gatsby reaching for the green light on the dock that marks Daisy’s house. Nick later discovers that Jay has purchased that house just to be close to Daisy, hoping that she will realize who he is or that she will stop by at one of his many parties.

Gatsby is also very loyal. While he was apart from Daisy for five years, Gatsby could have had any woman he liked. He never even so much as looked at another woman, keeping himself “pure” for the love of his life, Daisy.

Even Meyer Wolfsheim tells Nick that Gatsby is a man of fine breeding, that he is not only handsome, but a “perfect” gentleman, and the kind of person you could introduce to your mother and sister. Wolfsheim also tells Nick that Gatsby is “careful” about women and would never look at a friend’s wife.

Jay Gatsby is also fiercely determined. This is a virtue he developed young—working hard to obtain an outcome. He was unrelenting in pursuing his dreams and aspirations for greatness, as can be gleaned from the notes and itinerary he wrote for himself as a 14-year-old lad.

It might be said that Gatsby was “too determined” for his own good, but in his quest for Daisy, there really isn’t any other way to be.

Last, Jay Gatsby had a tremendous ability to love. He loved the beautiful teenager from the first moment he met Daisy. That love never waivered, even after Daisy made it fairly plain that she only loved the illusion of who she thought Jay Gatsby was, not who he was in real life.

what are jay gatsby strengths

What Are Gatsby’s Weaknesses?

Like all people, Gatsby is not perfect, and while his virtues may outweigh his flaws, the flaws are still pretty serious ones.

Gatsby has no problem with lying. He frequently lies to people about his past, about how he makes his living, and even about his own family.

Jay does not always accept reality. He seems to believe that if he says something frequently enough, if he believes hard enough, he can alter the present and even recreate the past.

Gatsby’s parties are one example. He believed that if he had enough lavish parties, eventually Daisy would show up at one and they would fall in love again. Gatsby refused to accept that old-money people, such as Tom Buchanan and Daisy, wouldn’t normally attend a party in West Egg because that is where new-money people lived.

Last, Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy leaves him naïve and blind to the truth. Daisy would never leave her husband for Gatsby. Daisy is ficle and wouldn’t dream of being with a bootlegger who came from such humble origins.

While Gatsby is a self-made man who is wealthy beyond his widest dreams, he gives up his morals and exchanges sound judgment for an obsession, and in the end pays the ultimate price.

Is Jay Gatsby a Good Person?

While author doesn’t give us a lot of detail but only generalizations about Gatsby, one can assume that, overall, he is a good person.

He is generous with his time and money. He takes Nick to New York and on his hydroplane. He says nothing about the hundreds of people who use his house and show up at his parties.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby

While we can’t say that Gatsby did anything charitable that we know of—author F. Scott Fitzgerald left out any reference to those types of acts—it seems as though our tragic hero allowed people to take advantage of his wealth.

As we mentioned earlier, Gatsby’s “boarder” Ewing Klipspringer, who never paid rent or made any attempt to leave, seemed to be living at the mansion simply on Gatsby’s goodwill.

While F. Scott Fitzgerald may have titled his book “The GREAT Gatsby”, it’s difficult to paint Gatsby as “great”. A good man, yes. A great man, probably only in Nick’s eyes.

First, Gatsby calls his family “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people.” Those are hardly nice words. He also does not appear to send his father (or any other family) some of the cash that he has acquired.

Perhaps he’s thinking that his past should stay in the past, but the truth remains that very few people are going to show up for his funeral, one of whom was his father.

Keep in mind that the night that Myrtle Wilson was killed, Gatsby not only did not stop to help her, but he also didn’t even wait for the police, or go to the police, to say that it was his car that killed Myrtle.

Myrtle’s death shows many of the flaws in both Gatsby’s and Daisy’s personalities since neither of them seems to be willing to accept responsibility and do the right thing.

In fact, perhaps if Gatsby had gone to the police, rather than waiting at home for Daisy to call, he may not have been murdered by George Wilson.

Does This Make Gatsby the Hero or the Villain of the Book?

He’s mostly the hero, but he does have the characteristics of a villain.

Gatsby is the ultimate rags-to-riches story. While The Great Gatsby story makes out Jay to be “everyone’s friend” through Gatsby’s party life and undying love for Daisy, there is also no doubt that Gatsby is a liar and a criminal.

Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan shown dancing in the movie version of The Great Gatsby

During the parties, Gatsby is constantly on the phone. Nick reflects that he often hears “Chicago is waiting on your call” or “Philadelphia is trying to reach you” when the phone rings at Gatsby’s mansion. These were hotbeds of illegal activity in the 1920s, and it’s clear that Gatsby is involved in some manner.

To impress Daisy, Jay Gatsby would go to the end of the earth. However, in order to win Daisy, Gatsby is missing the one thing that Daisy needs and wants more than love—old money social status—which is something Jay can never give her.

Jay isn’t the villain in this novel, that would be Tom Buchanan, but he’s far from the perfect hero, either.

Final Thoughts: Jay Gatsby Character Analysis

While F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel may ultimately be about the American Dream, it is also a story about love and loss.

Jay Gatsby is a flawed person, but isn’t everyone? He’s a self-made man, even if it was by illegal means, a tragic hero, and despite the fact that he’s made winning Daisy his only true goal in life, he is naïve to think that love is all he needs.

Meeting Daisy absolutely changed Gatsby’s life, but did this love change his life for the better? Only Gatsby could be the judge of that.

While Gatsby gave up everything for Daisy, she never really loved Gatsby the same way that he loved her.

Did Daisy love Tom? Probably there were parts of him that she loved, yes, but Tom had the one thing that Daisy wanted most of all, and that was social status and stability.

In the new world of the 1920s, between prohibition and those with new money, Jay Gatsby’s character stands out as one of ambition, loyalty, and true love.

Who Was Jay Gatsby? Character Traits and More
Who Was Jay Gatsby? Character Traits and More
Who was Jay Gatsby? Self-made millionaire or criminal who believed the ends justified the means? Discover Jay Gatsby’s character traits and more here.
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