Who Was Michaelis in The Great Gatsby? Empath? Angel? Bystander?

Last Updated: October 24th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

Author F. Scott Fitzgerald made Nick Carraway the narrator of the novel in all but one instance.Nick Carraway as narrator of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Obviously, Nick cannot give quotes about what people said when he isn’t present, and after Myrtle’s death, it was important that the reader understand what happened and why George would kill Gatsby, then himself.

It was Michaelis, a Great Gatsby character, who performs this essential task in the novel. So who was Michaelis, and where did he come from?

Was Michaelis simply a bystander who wanted some first-hand info so he could spread the gossip, or was he an angel sent to help George in his time of need?

Who Is Michaelis and What Is His Role in This Chapter?

Michaelis in the Great Gatsby standing with his coffee shop in the background

Michaelis is a Greek immigrant who owns a coffee shop or cafe next door to George Wilson’s garage.

On the day that a car struck Myrtle, he appears to be a first-hand witness to all the events that led up to her death, as well as a sympathetic friend to George.

Although the novel doesn’t tell us how long Michaelis has known George and Myrtle, he knows them well enough to tell the police many details about what happened.

Michaelis overhears George and Myrtle fighting, although he doesn’t know what they are fighting about at the time. He overhears Myrtle screaming and provoking George to hit her, as well as calling him a coward.

“Beat me!” he heard her cry. “Throw me down and beat me, you dirty little coward!”

Myrtle is upset that her husband has tried to lock her inside their apartment until he can scrape together enough money for the couple to leave town.

When Myrtle sees the chance, she escapes and runs out into the street. More than likely, her plan was to get on the train and go to the apartment where she has her affair with Tom Buchanan, but then she sees Jay Gatsby’s yellow car that Tom had been driving earlier in the day.

Myrtle rushes out to stop the car and is instead struck and killed by the fast-moving vehicle.

George is understandably grief-stricken. Michaelis stays with him all night and into the next morning, trying to find someone that George knows so he can get some help and support.

Michaelis discovers that George doesn’t belong to any church and doesn’t seem to have any friends. In his grief, George seems to think that the giant billboard that looms over the Valley of Ashes is actually the eyes of God. Michaelis tries to tell him that it’s simply an advertisement, but George appears to be in his world.

After sleeping for a few hours, Michaelis returns with some food for George only to discover that he has disappeared and is no longer in the Valley of Ashes.

What Does Michaelis Symbolize in The Great Gatsby?

Vince Colosimo as Michaelis in The Great Gatsby 2013 movie version

Many assume that Michaelis is some type of guardian angel who was sent to that place and time to help George in his time of need.

The line of thought is that the name Michaelis is the Greek version of Michael, who, in the Christian bible, is God’s archangel on earth.

Okay, you might then ask why didn’t Michaelis help Myrtle in her time of need – but that is another issue.

Michaelis may sound like a bystander because the reader hadn’t heard his name before, but he lives next door to George and operates a coffee shop.

While Michaelis may be George’s comfort a bit later in the night after everyone has left, it’s Tom who gets to George first. Concerned with only his own hide, he drills into George’s head that George didn’t see him driving that yellow car earlier in the day. He keeps at it until George agrees.

Michaelis is perhaps the only empathetic and sympathetic character in the novel. No one seems to have any regret or feelings about Myrtle’s death other than Michaelis and George.

Even Nick, who is angry at the situation, expresses no remorse or sadness over Myrtle.

If Michaelis represents the archangel Michael, he has multiple roles to fulfill. It’s Michael who is said to carry the bodies of the pure up to heaven to meet God. Myrtle Wilson is anything but pure, so perhaps Michaelis is the one with plans to carry George to heaven?

Wait, George is going to commit murder and then suicide in the next chapter. That doesn’t mean he is pure either.

Perhaps Michaelis simply represents the potential for goodness, kindness, and empathy that people can have when they choose to.

George escapes from Michaelis’ care and leaves town, thwarting the plan Michaelis had to look after George until he has had time to recover. One might assume that Michaelis also shows that guardian angels are very human indeed and also fail sometimes despite their best of intentions.

Why Is Michaelis Important in The Great Gatsby?

Myrtle Wilson and Michaelis in The Great Gatsby

Without Michaelis to tell us about George’s frame of mind and what happened before Myrtle was struck and killed, the reader would have no way of gaining this information.

The inquest is another way that the reader can determine what happened, although even Catherine protects her sister’s reputation and lies about part of it.

When Michaelis’s testimony at the inquest brought to light Wilson’s suspicions of his wife, I thought the whole tale shortly would be served up… but Catherine, who might have said anything, didn’t say a word.

She showed a surprising amount of character about it too–looked at the coroner with determined eyes under that corrected brow of hers and swore that her sister had never seen Gatsby, that her sister was completely happy with her husband, that her sister had been into no mischief whatever.

She convinced herself of it and cried into her handkerchief as if the very suggestion was more than she could endure. So Wilson was reduced to a man “deranged by grief”…

It’s Michaelis who tells the reader about the fight George and Myrtle have beforehand. It’s Michaelis who tells the reader about George insisting that not only was his wife having an affair, but that God was watching them, judging them.

After George tells Michaelis that he believed his wife was having an affair, Michaelis doesn’t really believe him. Myrtle’s sister Catherine knew the truth but said nothing about Tom, she only insists that Myrtle never met Gatsby, which was true at least.

For a short time, George even thinks that Michaelis might have been Myrtle’s lover, but he dismisses this when he considers the car that killed her.

The reader needs the reliable narrator Michaelis to tell them things we could not know otherwise.

What Does Michaelis Believe Caused Myrtle to Run for the Car?

silhouette of a car shown with fire or reddish flame in the background

Michaelis comes across as a smart fellow. While the novel doesn’t specifically say that Michaelis saw Tom in the yellow car earlier that afternoon, he may have.

Whether he actually saw Tom in the car earlier, Michaelis is fairly certain that Myrtle ran out into traffic just to get away from George.

Of course, Myrtle believed that Tom was still driving the yellow car that she saw earlier.

It’s George who tells Michaelis that he believed Myrtle’s lover was driving that car, and this is why she ran out in front of it.

Didn’t George Remember Who Was Driving the Yellow Car?

It’s hard to understand why George didn’t remember that it was Tom who had stopped earlier in the day driving the yellow car and then put two and two together.

Tom did tell George that it wasn’t him who had been in the car earlier, and perhaps George believed him.

In his grief, it’s possible that George did remember, and this is why he went to Tom’s house. Tom, the cool liar that he is, told George where to find the car and Gatsby.

Final Summary on Michaelis from The Great Gatsby

Author F. Scott Fitzgerald may have used Michaelis and his name to represent an angel of some kind. However, a more likely scenario is that of all the rich people who were at Myrtle’s death scene, only Michaelis helped and offered genuine comfort to George.

Jordan Baker, Tom, Jay Gatsby, and Daisy Buchanan didn’t seem to give a second thought to the poor woman who had been killed. Even Nick seems to feel only anger at everyone’s behavior but fails to note the hypocrisy of his own lack of mourning for a woman he spent time with.

Although George tells Michaelis that he believed Myrtle had a lover and that she ran out to the car to try to stop him, Michaelis doesn’t judge either George or Myrtle Wilson.

A person who is non-judgmental, empathetic, sympathetic, and one who takes action to comfort another? Perhaps Michaelis represents God himself.

Who Was Michaelis in The Great Gatsby? Empath? Angel? Bystander?
Who Was Michaelis in The Great Gatsby? Empath? Angel? Bystander?
In The Great Gatsby, one character stands out as being empathetic and sympathetic - Michaelis. Who was he and who or what did he represent? Find the answers here.
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