In the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby is the hero, the winner of the American Dream, and the romantic that every woman hopes to find in a man.
Is Jay Gatsby handsome? Old? Overweight? Does he have the distinguished salt and pepper hair that most older men long for? Is this why Daisy Buchanan married Tom Buchanan instead?
While Fitzgerald goes into tremendous detail to describe the looks of Myrtle Wilson, Gatsby’s parties, and even Tom Wilson, not much is actually known about what Gatsby looked like in the novel.
In this Great Gatsby study guide, let’s discover Jay Gatsby’s humble origins and what he physically looked like.
How Does Nick Describe Gatsby in the First Chapter?
Nick begins his narration by describing Gatsby as everything he came to feel disdain for – the lavish parties, the arrogance of the rich – but he immediately says that Gatsby is exempt from his scorn.
He describes Gatsby as the most hopeful person he has ever met, or that he is ever likely to meet again. He also says, speaking of Gatsby’s personality, that he was nothing short of gorgeous.
It’s quite clear even in the first chapter that Nick admires Gatsby, even as Gatsby challenges Nick’s morals and upbringing.
Nick doesn’t talk about Gatsby’s physical features in this first chapter. The reader is left to their own imagination.
How Does Gatsby Describe Himself?
In Chapter 4, Gatsby talks about his past and gives one a brief glimpse into the events that made Gatsby who he is.
This part of Scott Fitzgerald’s book has Gatsby telling Nick, “I’ll tell you God’s truth. I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West — all dead now. I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years. It is a family tradition.”
As the book continues, we later discover that most of this isn’t true, and even Nick seems confused as to whether this story is true or not.
Gatsby also states that he lived in Europe for a while before the war, then he makes himself out to be a war hero. Nick is sure that it’s a lie until Gatsby pulls out a medal from Montenegro.
When Does Nick Finally Meet Gatsby?
While visiting his cousin Daisy, Nick meets Jordan Baker, a golfer. It’s Jordan who asks if he’s met Gatsby yet (read more on Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby ). Nick knows that Mr. Gatsby is his next-door neighbor in West Egg, but he is forced to admit that they have never met.
Nick Carraway knows that Gatsby throws lavish parties, but he isn’t really interested in going to one until he receives an official invitation.
Shocked that he appears to be the only person EVER to receive an invitation, he decides to find and meet Gatsby.
Nick hears lots of rumors while searching for his host, and he is truly shocked when he actually meets Jay Gatsby.
Believing Gatsby to be a rich old man, imagine Nick’s surprise when he describes Gatsby as looking nearly like any other partygoer. These are Nick’s description of Gatsby:
- “We were sitting at a table with a man of about my age” (3.60)
- “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)
It’s almost anti-climatic since one expects such a rich, famous person to be larger than life in some aspect.
What Race and Color Is Jay Gatsby?
This is where you will find a variety of ideas about Gatsby’s race and skin color.
While Fitzgerald uses the word “tan skin” to describe Gatsby, some scholars have taken this to mean that Gatsby is at least partially black and that he “passes” for being white.
This is an interesting premise. However, in Chapter 6 ( read The Great Gatsby Chapter 6 Quotes ) , when Daisy and Tom Buchanan, Jordan Baker, Nick, and Gatsby are at the hotel in New York City, Tom states, “… and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” Whereupon Jordan says, “We’re all white here.”
- Learn More: Chapter 6 Great Gatsby Study Guide
Also, in the 1920s, if Fitzgerald had intended Gatsby to be black, he would have made it quite clear since this would have been a shocking and scandalous thing that even a partially black Gatsby wanted to marry a white woman.
Others surmise that Gatsby is Jewish, mostly due to his affiliation with Meyer Wolfsheim. However, Fitzgerald writes that Gatsby came from humble Lutheran beginnings, and his German last name, Gatz, leaves little question, making the Jewish assessment seem to be out of character.
Since the writer based his character on his wealthy neighbor Max Gerlach, it’s safe to assume that Gatsby was white, most likely born to second-generation German farmer immigrants.
The tan skin could be due to his time spent on his yacht, his seaplane, and by the pool in his West Egg mansion, although Gatsby states that he hadn’t used it yet that year.
What Race Is Tom Buchanan, Nick Carraway, and George Wilson?
It’s presumed that everyone else, other than some of the servants, is Caucasian.
Tom goes so far as to mention a book he’s read called The Rise of the Colored Empire, which is based on an actual book entitled The Rising Tide of Color, which states that white people need to remain the dominant race for “civilization” to continue.
Nick’s description of Tom as having a “cruel body” also seems to describe Tom’s personality as needing to feel superior to the newly rich, such as Gatsby, his black servants, and other people of color.
While the only other reference to color or race is made by Jordan Baker, as we mentioned above, there is little reason to believe that the other characters in the book are anything other than Caucasian.
Final Thoughts on What does Jay Gatsby Look Like
While the book doesn’t necessarily mention race, it’s fairly clear that the main characters in this novel are white.
Gatsby is described as a young man, not overly tall, not short, not fat, but with tan skin and an attractive face.
Gatsby, born James Gatz, didn’t have the physical stature or strength of Tom Buchanan, so he would need to win Daisy over with his charm, his adoration, and a great deal of wealth.
Nick, the novel’s narrator, admires Gatsby’s friendship and unquenchable hope, more than his physical appearance.
Written by Kerry Wisby – GatsbyFlapperGirl.com
Owner & Founder of GatsbyFlapperGirl.com
Kerry Wisby, a former teacher with a BA in English, is the founder of GatsbyFlapperGirl.com. With a passion for all things 1920s, including The Great Gatsby novel, her website is the ultimate source for Roaring Twenties fashion, history, and party ideas. Read more about Kerry here.