From Rags to Riches to Tragedy: Analyzing Plot Structure in The Great Gatsby

The plot structure in The Great Gatsby follows the normal order found in most narratives beginning with the exposition and ending in a resolution. See below the key elements in the plot structure of The Great Gatsby.

  • Exposition
  • Conflict
  • Rising Action
  • Climax
  • Falling Action
  • Resolution.

In this tutorial on the plot structure of The Great Gatsby, we will identify each of these stages in the narrative. So if you want to know where the exposition, conflict and rising action are in the novel, then keep reading.

Also, I will show you where the climax, falling action and resolution can be found in Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby.

Table of Contents

Exposition in The Great Gatsby

The exposition in “The Great Gatsby” provides vital background information and sets the stage for the rest of the novel. It introduces the main characters, the setting, and the initial circumstances that move the plot forward.

You can find the exposition in The Great Gatsby in the early chapters of the novel. It includes the following key elements.

Introduction to Nick Carraway

The novel begins with Nick Carraway introducing himself as the narrator and recounting his upbringing in the Midwest.

Nick explains his decision to move to New York to pursue a career in the bond business. This is what sets the stage for his encounter with the other characters.

Nick’s Arrival in West Egg

Nick moves to West Egg, Long Island, where he rents a small house adjacent to the lavish mansion of Jay Gatsby, his mysterious and wealthy neighbour. This move places him in the proximity of the novel’s major incidents.

Introduction to Daisy and Tom Buchanan

Nick visits his cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband, Tom Buchanan, in East Egg, the neighbouring affluent area. Through Nick’s perspective, we learn about the Buchanans’ affluent lifestyle and their social standing in the elite society.

Gatsby’s Enigmatic Persona

Gatsby’s name is initially mentioned at one of his extravagant parties before readers get a glimpse of the mysterious host himself. The early chapters build intrigue and curiosity around Gatsby, setting the stage for his central role in the story.

The Buchanans and Jordan Baker

Nick’s meeting with Jordan Baker, a professional golfer and friend of the Buchanans, further establishes the circle of wealthy and privileged individuals with whom Nick becomes acquainted.

Gatsby’s Longing for Daisy

Gatsby’s yearning for Daisy is introduced through hints and rumours surrounding his past relationship with her. The exposition hints at the depth of Gatsby’s emotions and his desire to recapture the love they once shared.

The exposition in “The Great Gatsby” provides readers with the necessary background information to understand the characters, their motivations, and the societal dynamics of the Roaring Twenties. It lays the foundation for the conflicts and themes that will unfold throughout the rest of the novel.

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What is the conflict in The Great Gatsby?

Conflict constitutes one of the most significant plot points in The Great Gatsby. Besides the central conflict, there are several minor conflict points in the novel.

We shall presently identify and explain both the major conflicts and minor conflicts.

The Central Conflict

The central conflict in “The Great Gatsby” revolves around the pursuit of love and the American Dream. The novel’s primary focus is on the character of Jay Gatsby, who is deeply in love with Daisy Buchanan, a woman from his past.

Gatsby’s main goal is to win Daisy back and fulfil his romantic vision of their future together.

However, there are several obstacles that stand in the way of Gasby’s dream of love. This is what constitutes the central conflict in The Great Gatsby.

Gatsby’s Identity and Social Standing

Gatsby comes from a humble background and is self-made. He used mostly illegal activities to acquire immense wealth.

His lack of a high social standing and questionable past make it challenging for him to fit into Daisy’s elite world and gain acceptance from her upper-class family and friends.

Daisy’s Marriage to Tom Buchanan

Daisy is already married to Tom Buchanan, a wealthy and arrogant man who is part of the established East Egg social elite. Their marriage presents a significant barrier to Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy, as he must contend with Tom’s possessiveness and protectiveness over his wife.

Class Divide

The novel delves into the theme of social class and its impact on relationships. Gatsby’s lower-class origins and newfound wealth create tensions and prejudice from those in Daisy’s social circle, including her friend Jordan Baker and Tom.

Thus, the undercurrents of this class divide further complicate Gatsby’s pursuit of his dream.

Minor Conflicts

Here are the minor conflict situations in The Great Gatsby.

The Love Triangle

The love triangle between Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom is a major source of conflict in the novel. Gatsby’s efforts to win Daisy’s heart and Daisy’s own internal conflicts between her husband and her former lover add layers of tension to the story.

Myrtle Wilson’s Desire for Social Ascension

Myrtle, Tom Buchanan’s mistress, desires to climb the social ladder and escape her working-class life in the Valley of Ashes.

Her affair with Tom and her aspiration to join the upper class cause conflict and eventually lead to tragedy.

Tom’s Disdain for Gatsby

It is Tom’s discovery of Gatsby’s feelings for Daisy and his suspicion about Gatsby’s background and wealth that combine to intensify the conflict between the two men.

Tom’s antagonism towards Gatsby fuels the tensions between them and contributes to the confrontation that marks the novel’s eventual climax.

Gatsby’s Illicit Business Ventures

Further, Gatsby’s mysterious wealth and rumoured criminal activities create tension and suspicions among the characters.

Nick Carraway, the narrator and Gatsby’s neighbour, becomes increasingly curious about Gatsby’s sources of wealth. This adds yet another layer of conflict in The Great Gatsby.

The Rising Action in The Great Gatsby

Another key element in the plot structure of The Great Gatsby is the rising action.

In the novel “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the rising action refers to the series of events that build tension and lead up to the climax of the story.

The novel is set in the 1920s and follows the life of Jay Gatsby, a mysterious and wealthy young man, as narrated by Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner who moves to New York to pursue a career in the bond business.

The rising action in “The Great Gatsby” can be identified through several key events. Note the following.

Nick Carraway’s Introduction

Nick moves to West Egg, Long Island, and becomes Gatsby’s neighbour. He attends one of Gatsby’s extravagant parties, where he learns about the lavish lifestyle and rumours surrounding his mysterious host.

Reunion with Daisy

Gatsby reveals his desire to reunite with Daisy Buchanan, a woman he loved in the past. The two had a romantic history but were separated due to societal pressures and class differences.

Gatsby and Daisy’s Rekindled Romance

Gatsby successfully reconnects with Daisy, and their affair begins all over again. The relationship intensifies, creating tensions between Gatsby, Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan, and Daisy herself.

Tom’s Suspicions

Tom, Daisy’s husband, becomes suspicious of Gatsby’s intentions and starts investigating Gatsby’s past. His objective is to expose Gatsby’s shady origins.

Conflict and Secrets

As the story progresses, secrets pop up and tensions mount. The love triangle between Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom escalates, and Gatsby’s criminal activities are hinted at, adding complexity to the characters and their relationships.

Gatsby’s Parties and Social Circles

The novel describes the extravagant parties Gatsby throws at his mansion. These depict the excesses and superficiality of the Jazz Age society.

The Death of Myrtle Wilson

A tragic event occurs when Myrtle, Tom’s mistress, is killed in a hit-and-run accident. This event further escalates the conflict and tension in the story.

Significance of The Rising Action

In every story, the rising action is key because it is an important part of the narrative structure. It is the rising action that helps to build suspense and anticipation leading up to the most significant moment in the novel – the climax.

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In other words, the rising action culminates in the novel’s climax, the peak of the story’s tension and conflict.

The climax of “The Great Gatsby” occurs when Gatsby and Tom confront each other about their feelings for Daisy, leading to a dramatic confrontation and a tragic outcome.

Find below a deeper dive into the climax of The Great Gatsby.

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The Climax (Turning Point) in The Great Gatsby

Critical to the plot structure of The Great Gatsby is the climax or the turning point.

The climax is the most intense and pivotal moment in the plot structure of The Great Gatsby. In fact, it sets the stage for the falling action and resolution.

So where can we locate the climax in The Great Gatsby?

The climax in “The Great Gatsby” occurs during Chapter 7 when the tensions and conflicts between the main characters reach their peak in a dramatic confrontation.

During the climax of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, the following incidents take place.

Confrontation Between Gatsby and Tom

Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, get into a heated argument at the Plaza Hotel. Gatsby reveals his love for Daisy and challenges Tom’s claim on her.

Daisy’s Choice

In this tense moment, Daisy is torn between Gatsby, her former lover, and Tom, her husband. The conflict intensifies as Daisy’s feelings come to the fore, and she must make a decision that will have far-reaching consequences for herself and for those she cares about.

The Accident

As the argument reaches fever pitch, the characters decide to return to Long Island in two separate cars. Tom, Nick, and Jordan travel in one car, while Gatsby and Daisy drive in another.

On the way, Daisy accidentally hits and kills Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress, with Gatsby’s car.

The Revelation

Gatsby knows that it was Daisy who was driving when the accident happened. Despite this, he decides to take the blame, protecting Daisy from the consequences of her actions.

Significance of the Climax

The climax is a turning point in the novel as it brings to the surface the underlying tensions and conflicts between the characters. The events that unfold during the confrontation have a profound impact on the course of the rest of the narrative.

In the case of The Great Gatsby, the climax ultimately leads to the tragic and devastating consequences that constitute the falling action.

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The Falling Action in The Great Gatsby

In “The Great Gatsby,” the falling action, a significant point in the novel’s plot structure, occurs after the climax and consists of the events that come up as a result of the major confrontation between the characters.

The falling action in “The Great Gatsby” includes the following key events.

Gatsby’s Death

After the confrontation with Tom, Gatsby is tragically killed by George Wilson, who believes Gatsby to be responsible for the death of his wife, Myrtle. This event marks the peak of the story’s tragedy and sets the stage for the resolution.

The Funeral

Gatsby’s funeral takes place, but only a few people attend. This is significant because it highlights the shallowness and insincerity of the social circles in which he once thrived.

The Buchanans’ Departure

Tom and Daisy Buchanan leave town, seemingly unaffected by Gatsby’s death and the events surrounding it. They retreat to a new life, leaving behind the consequences of their actions.

Nick’s Reflections

Nick Carraway, the narrator, reflects on the events of the summer and his experiences with Gatsby and the others. He comes to realize the emptiness and moral decay of the wealthy elite, including his own involvement in their world.

The Wilsons’ Tragic End

George Wilson, who is devastated by the loss of his wife, Myrtle, discovers that Gatsby’s car was the one involved in the accident. He comes to the conclusion that Gatsby was the driver. Consequently, George kills Gatsby and takes his own life.

This sad event further illustrates the tragic consequences of the characters’ actions.

Gatsby’s Legacy

As the story concludes, Gatsby’s true background and the sources of his wealth are revealed, dispelling some of the rumours and mysteries surrounding him.

Nick works to preserve Gatsby’s legacy, though he becomes disillusioned with the wealthy and their superficial lifestyle.

Nick Carraway’s Departure

Disheartened by the events and the people he encountered that summer, Nick decides to leave New York in an apparent effort to distance himself from the excesses and moral decay he witnessed there.


The falling action leads us to the resolution of the story and its eventual conclusion.

It is, therefore, a crucial part of the narrative structure, as it ties up loose ends and provides closure to the conflicts and tensions that were built up during the rising action and climax.

The falling action in “The Great Gatsby” serves to tie up the story’s loose ends and leaves readers with a sense of the tragic consequences of unchecked ambition and the emptiness of the Jazz Age society.

It reflects on the themes of wealth, love, and the American Dream, offering a poignant critique of 1920s American society.

The Resolution (and Denouement) in The Great Gatsby

Last but not least among the significant plot points of The Great Gatsby is the resolution. We shall look at both the resolution and denouement in this last stage of our discussion of the plot structure of The Great Gatsby.

The terms ‘resolution’ and ‘denouement’ are often used interchangeably. However, it is important for you to understand that the denouement is a part of the resolution.

Also, in many instances, the resolution and denouement can blend together.

The denouement, as part of the resolution, provides further insight into the characters’ fates and their connections to the past. It helps to wrap up any remaining questions or subplots.

I encourage you to read a different post for a more detailed explanation of resolution and denouement as critical elements of plot structure. You will have enough examples to clarify the similarities and differences between resolution and denouement.

Let’s continue.

In “The Great Gatsby,” the resolution and denouement come together in the final chapters of the novel. The resolution includes the following key events.

Gatsby’s Funeral

The novel begins to wind down with Gatsby’s funeral, with only a few people in attendance. This brings to the fore the emptiness and superficiality of the wealthy elite who once enjoyed his lavish parties.

The Buchanans’ Departure

After Gatsby’s death, Tom and Daisy Buchanan leave town, escaping the consequences of their actions and avoiding any responsibility for their roles in the tragedy.

Nick’s Reflections

In the aftermath of the events, Nick Carraway reflects on the summer and his experiences with Gatsby and the others. He becomes disillusioned with the wealthy and their careless lifestyles.

The Wilsons’ Tragic End

The resolution includes the tragic fate of George Wilson, who kills Gatsby and then himself after discovering that Gatsby’s car was involved in the accident that killed his wife, Myrtle.

Significance of the Resolution

The resolution in “The Great Gatsby” emphasizes the theme of the American Dream’s corrupting influence on the lives of individuals and their interpersonal relationships. It lays bare the tragic consequences of unrestrained ambition.

Final Thoughts

We have identified the significant points in the plot structure of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. As the narrative travels from the exposition in the early stages to the climax and ends in the resolution, we are able to learn a great deal about the characters and the themes.

For your next steps, I encourage you to attempt answering some of these possible questions on The Great Gatsby.

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Ralph Nyadzi is the Director of Studies at Cegast Academy. He is a qualified English tutor with decades of experience behind him. Since 2001, he has successfully coached thousands of High School General Arts WASSCE candidates in English, Literature and related subjects. He combines his expertise with a passion for lifelong learning to guide learners from varying backgrounds to achieve their educational goals. Ralph shares lessons from his blogging journey on BloggingtotheMax. He lives with River, his pet cat, in the Central Region of Ghana.

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