What does Myrtle’s life (and tragic ending) say about the American dream?
Still a bit confused about the whole old money/new money/working class thing? Read about social class in the novel in our post on the role of social classes in this novel.
We don’t know a ton about Myrtle Wilson’s background except what we can gather from the passing comments from other characters. For example, we get the sense Myrtle loved her husband when they got married, but has since been disappointed by his lack of cash and social status, and now feels stifled by her twelve-year marriage:
One of the novel’s most important events is also one that can be confusing for students: namely, Myrtle’s death at the end of Chapter 7. How exactly does she end up in the road? What does it have to do with her strange encounter with Tom, Nick, and Jordan in the garage earlier in the day?
Why do Tom and Myrtle get together? What do they see in each other?
When Daisy sees Myrtle in the road, she has to make a quick decision: either run over Myrtle, or swerve into the oncoming car to avoid Myrtle.
This description also speaks to the strong physical attraction between Tom and Myrtle that undergirds their affair. This attraction serves as a foil to the more deep-seated emotional attraction between Gatsby and Daisy, the novel’s central affair.
Myrtle as a character
While both characters are willful, impulsive, and driven by their desires, Tom is violently asserting here that his needs are more important than Myrtle’s. After all, to Tom, Myrtle is just another mistress, and just as disposable as all the rest.
The incident is confusing because we come at it from many narrative angles:
Myrtle’s death emotionally and mentally devastates George, which prompts him to murder Gatsby (who he mistakes for both his wife’s killer and lover), and then kill himself.
Michaelis and this man reached her first but when they had torn open her shirtwaist still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long. (7.317)
“The only crazy I was was when I married him. I knew right away I made a mistake. He borrowed somebody’s best suit to get married in and never even told me about it, and the man came after it one day when he was out. She looked around to see who was listening: ” ‘Oh, is that your suit?’ I said. ‘This is the first I ever heard about it.’ But I gave it to him and then I lay down and cried to beat the band all afternoon.”
Myrtle runs out to the car, waving her arms, likely because she thinks Tom will stop for her and rescue her from George.
- Common discussion topics and essay ideas
Mrs. Wilson had changed her costume some time before and was now attired in an elaborate afternoon dress of cream colored chiffon, which gave out a continual rustle as she swept about the room. With the influence of the dress her personality had also undergone a change. The intense vitality that had been so remarkable in the garage was converted into impressive hauteur. Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air. (2.56)
Best Character Analysis: Myrtle Wilson – The Great Gatsby
- a final revelatory confession from Tom about his role in George’s violence in Chapter 9
Myrtle, like George and Gatsby, was obviously not born into money, and instead is relying on her own wits to make it in 1920s America. In a manner quite similar to Gatsby’s, she consciously adopts a different persona to try and get access to a richer circle (while George seems to be the only one relying on honest work – his shop – and honest relationships, through his loyalty to Myrtle, to improve his lot in life).
- Michaelis, uncomfortable, finds an excuse to leave.
- Gatsby’s explanation of the accident to Nick after the fact
Unlike Gatsby, who projects an elaborately rich and worldly character, Myrtle’s persona is much more simplistic and transparent. (Notably Tom, who immediately sees Gatsby as a fake, doesn’t seem to mind Myrtle’s pretensions – perhaps because they are of no consequence to him, or any kind of a threat to his lifestyle.)
In either case, Myrtle’s most important chapters are 2 and 7, so close read those carefully. When writing about her, pay close attention to Myrtle’s interactions with other characters. And if you’re writing an essay that discusses Myrtle as someone trying to live out the American Dream, make sure to address her larger influences and motivations. We’ll take a look at some of these strategies in action below.
So while the Wilson’s garage is a testament to the struggle of the working class in American in the 1920s, Myrtle and Tom’s apartment is a physical representation of the airs Myrtle puts on and the appearances of wealth she values.
Why exactly does Myrtle run out into the road?
By the end of the novel, Myrtle doesn’t seem to have been completely mistaken about Tom’s affection for her. After all, Tom says he that he “cried like a baby” (9.145) when he found dog food for the dog he’s bought her in Myrtle’s apartment. Of course, since it’s Tom, his grief is probably self-pitying than selfless. Either way, their relationship is indicative of both their values: Myrtle’s ambition and Tom’s callousness.
How does Myrtle’s home reflect her characters, attitudes, beliefs, and values?
Quick Note on Our Citations
Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We’re using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book. To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you’re using an online or eReader version of the text.
For readers new to Gatsby, Tom and Myrtle’s relationship can seem a bit odd. There is obvious physical chemistry, but it can be hard to see why the classist, misogynist Tom puts up with Myrtle – or why Myrtle accepts Tom’s mistreatment.
- Myrtle runs outside.
- Myrtle quotes
Myrtle’s home with George is a dark, hopeless image of working class life in America: it’s an apartment above a bare garage, nestled in the dreadful Valley of Ashes. George is utterly mired in this home, even coated with a thin layer of ash from the factories outside. In contrast, Myrtle is vivacious and free of the ash, which gives her a layer of separation from her actual home.
Also, this injury foreshadows Myrtle’s death at the hands of Daisy, herself. While invoking Daisy’s name here causes Tom to hurt Myrtle, Myrtle’s actual encounter with Daisy later in the novel turns out to be deadly.
Myrtle and George fight later that evening, and Myrtle manages to run out of the house after yelling at George to beat her and calling him a coward. Just then, she spots the yellow car heading back for Long Island. Thinking it’s Tom, she runs toward and then out in front of the car, waving her arms. But Daisy is driving the car, and she decides to run over Myrtle rather than get into a head-on collision with an oncoming car. She hits Myrtle, who dies instantly.
Myrtle Wilson’s Physical Description
The idea of Myrtle Wilson is introduced in Chapter 1, when she calls the Buchanans’ house to speak to Tom.
- Myrtle’s history before the novel begins
Myrtle Wilson Quotes
Piecing together these three takes on the incident, this is what happens, in order:
For Myrtle, the affair (her first) is about escape from her life with George, and a taste of a world – Manhattan, money, nice things – she wouldn’t otherwise have access to. It’s clear from how Myrtle moves and speaks that she’s confident and self-assured, and assumes that her relationship with Tom is a permanent ticket into the world of the wealthy – not just a fleeting glimpse.
“She really ought to get away from him,” resumed Catherine to me. “They’ve been living over that garage for eleven years. And Tom’s the first sweetie she ever had.” (2.112-7)
She begins her affair with Tom Buchanan after he sees her on the train and later presses against her in the station:
- Meanwhile, Gatsby and Daisy are driving back from Manhattan to East Egg after the Plaza Hotel showdown.
Still a bit confused about the climax of the novel? Get a detailed recap of Chapters 7, 8 and 9 to understand exactly how the three deaths play out.
This is a prompt that you can obviously use for any of the characters, but it’s especially interesting in Myrtle’s case, since she has two residences: the house above the auto shop that George owns, and the apartment that Tom Buchanan rents for her in the city.
It’s less likely, but not impossible, that you will be assigned a Myrtle-specific essay.
- Michaelis’s inquest testimony about the accident
SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips
Myrtle’s role in the story isn’t as large as Daisy’s, Gatsby’s, or Tom’s. However, she is crucial to the plot of the story, and especially to its tragic conclusion. Find out more about Myrtle’s role in Gatsby in this guide!
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She pointed suddenly at me, and every one looked at me accusingly. I tried to show by my expression that I had played no part in her past.
“Crazy about him!” cried Myrtle incredulously. “Who said I was crazy about him? I never was any more crazy about him than I was about that man there.”
Then I heard footsteps on the stairs and in a moment the thickish figure of a woman blocked out the light from the office door. She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crepe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering. She smiled slowly and walking through her husband as if he were a ghost shook hands with Tom, looking him flush in the eye. (2.15)
“Beat me!” he heard her cry. “Throw me down and beat me, you dirty little coward!” (7.314)
- additional information from Michaelis in Chapter 8 about George’s actions both before and after Myrtle’s death
Myrtle’s apartment with Tom is overstuffed and gaudy, and she seems much happier and more at home there. The mix of high-brow pretension in the decor with her low-brow entertainment speaks to how Myrtle values the appearance of wealth and sophistication, but doesn’t actually understand what upper-class taste looks like the way Tom and Daisy Buchanan do.
- Before the accident, George has begun to suspect Myrtle’s affair.
She is oblivious about upper-class life: she tells her sister at one point Tom doesn’t divorce Daisy because Daisy is Catholic. This is a small inside joke on Fitzgerald’s part – since Tom and Daisy are part of the community of uber-WASPy residents of East Egg, there’s almost no chance that Daisy could be Catholic. That Myrtle thinks accepts Tom’s lie shows that she is not a well-schooled as she thinks she is about the life and customs of the elite class she wants to be a part of.
To see Myrtle’s life events alongside those of the other characters, check out our timeline of The Great Gatsby.
- Daisy first drives toward the oncoming car, but at the last second, turns back into her own lane and hits and kills Myrtle instead.
Unlike Nick’s description of Daisy, which focuses on her voice, mannerisms, and charm, and unlike his description of Jordan, which focuses on her posture and athleticism, Nick’s description of Myrtle focuses almost entirely on her body itself. Perhaps this fits with her role as Tom’s mistress, but it also indicates Nick sees little in Myrtle in terms of intellect or personality.
- Actions in the novel
For Tom, the affair – just one in a string he’s had since his honeymoon – is about taking and being able to get whatever he wants. Having an affair is a show of power. Especially since he’s been taking her around popular restaurants in Manhattan (2.4), it’s clear he’s not exactly hiding the relationship – instead, he’s flaunting it. He’s so assured of his place in society as a wealthy man, that he’s free to engage in some risky and socially inappropriate behavior – because he knows no one can actually touch his wealth or social position.
- Outside, Myrtle sees the yellow car and assumes it’s Tom on his way back to Long Island.
Later on, in Chapter 7, George starts to suspect she’s having an affair when he finds her dog’s leash in a drawer at the house. He locks her upstairs in their house, determined to move out west once he gets the money from the car sale he’s waiting on from Tom. Myrtle glimpses Tom, along with Nick and Jordan, as they drive up to Manhattan in Gatsby’s yellow car.
In most books and movies, the “other woman” – the woman having an affair with a married man – is often painted as a villain. But what about in The Great Gatsby, a novel in which both married women (Myrtle Wilson and Daisy Buchanan) are having affairs? Especially given that one (Daisy) ends up killing the other (Myrtle), is Myrtle just a one-note “other woman,” or is there more to her?
But Myrtle aims too high, and ends up killed when she mistakes Gatsby’s yellow car for Tom’s, and runs out in the road assuming the car will stop for her.
- setup from Nick’s point of view
Posted by Dr. Anna Wulick | May 12, 2016 4:00:00 PM
Even in death, Myrtle’s physicality and vitality are emphasized. In fact, the image is pretty overtly sexual – notice how it’s Myrtle’s breast that’s torn open and swinging loose, and her mouth ripped open at the corners. This echoes Nick’s view of Myrtle as a woman and mistress, nothing more – even in death she’s objectified.
Still, before the novel begins, Tom has gotten comfortable showing Myrtle around in popular restaurants and doesn’t hide the affair. Perhaps this causes Myrtle to misunderstand what she means to Tom: she doesn’t seem to realize she’s just one in a string of mistresses.
Myrtle Before the Novel Begins
- Tom, Jordan, and Nick drive up to the gas station in the yellow car. Tom brags that the car is his. Myrtle looks downstairs and concludes two things: first, that Jordan is Tom’s wife, and second, that Tom owns the yellow car.
When George confronts his wife about her affair, Myrtle is furious and needles at her husband – already insecure since he’s been cheated on – by insinuating he’s weak and less of a man than Tom. Also, their fight centers around her body and its treatment, while Tom and Daisy fought earlier in the same chapter about their feelings.
- Character Analysis
This moment is also much more violent than her earlier broken nose. While that moment cemented Tom as abusive in the eyes of the reader, this one truly shows the damage that Tom and Daisy leave in their wake, and shapes the tragic tone of the rest of the novel.
- Nick’s description of the accident scene right after after Myrtle’s death
Myrtle’s taste in decor overlaps quite a bit with King Louis XIV’s.
- Later that evening, Myrtle fights with George about being locked up. We don’t see much of this fight. All we know is that she cries “throw me down and beat me!” (7.314) to George.
- At the same time, another car is driving in the opposite direction towards Manhattan.
We get our first look at Myrtle in Chapter 2, when Nick goes with Tom to George Wilson’s garage to meet her, and then to Myrtle’s apartment in Manhattan for a party. On that day, she buys a dog, has sex with Tom (with Nick in the next room), throws a party, and is fawned on by her friends, and then ends up with a broken nose when Tom punches her after she brings up Daisy. This doesn’t prevent her from continuing the affair.
Summary of Myrtle’s Action in the Novel
Myrtle’s complete misunderstanding of Tom, as well as her violent death, fit the overall cynical message in the book that the American Dream is a false promise to those born outside of the wealthy class in America. As hard as anyone tries, they don’t stand a chance of competing with those in America born into the old money class. They will never understand the strange internal rules that govern the old money set, and will never stand a chance of being their equal.
In this moment, we see that despite how dangerous and damaging Myrtle’s relationship with Tom is, she seems to be asking George to treat her in the same way that Tom has been doing. Myrtle’s disturbing acceptance of her role as a just a body – a piece of meat, basically – foreshadows the gruesome physicality of her death.
- George locks Myrtle up above the garage, saying “She’s going to stay there till the day after to-morrow, and then we’re going to move away” (7.311).
“I married him because I thought he was a gentleman,” she said finally. “I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn’t fit to lick my shoe.”
“Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” shouted Mrs. Wilson. “I’ll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai—-“
Myrtle desperately wants to come off as sophisticated and wealthy despite her humble roots. Nick finds her efforts tacky and vulgar, and he spends a lot of time commenting on her clothes, mannerisms, and conversational style.
The death car.
The fact that Tom sees Myrtle as disposable but Myrtle hopes for more in their relationship is painfully apparent at the end of Chapter 2, when she insists on bringing up Daisy, and Tom responds by breaking Myrtle’s nose. But despite this nasty encounter, the two continue their relationship, suggesting that this kind of abuse is the norm for Tom’s affairs, and Myrtle is too eager to stay in the new world she’s found – or even believes that Tom will still leave Daisy for her – that she stays as well.
Learn more about Myrtle’s marriage and her relationship with Tom over at our post about love and relationships.
You will most likely be asked to write about Myrtle in relation to other characters (especially Daisy), or in prompts that ask you to compare the “strivers” in the book (including also Gatsby, George Wilson) with the old money set (Tom, Daisy, Jordan). To learn how best to approach this kind of compare and contrast essay, read our article on common character pairings and how to analyze them.
Here we see Myrtle pushing her limits with Tom – and realizing that he is both violent and completely unwilling to be honest about his marriage.
Making a short deft movement Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand. (2.125-126)
Common Essay Topics/ Areas of Discussion
- Physical description
The graphic and bloody nature of Myrtle’s death really sticks with you.
Here, we see Myrtle transformed from her more sensuous, physical persona into that of someone desperate to come off as richer than she actually is. Wielding power over her group of friends, she seems to revel in her own image.
“You were crazy about him for a while,” said Catherine.
I was going up to New York to see my sister and spend the night. He had on a dress suit and patent leather shoes and I couldn’t keep my eyes off him but every time he looked at me I had to pretend to be looking at the advertisement over his head. When we came into the station he was next to me and his white shirt-front pressed against my arm–and so I told him I’d have to call a policeman, but he knew I lied. I was so excited that when I got into a taxi with him I didn’t hardly know I wasn’t getting into a subway train” (2.120).
In the same way that Gatsby overestimates his value to Daisy, Myrtle overestimates her value to Tom. Even if Tom had been driving the car, and even if he had stopped for her, he would never have whisked her away from George, divorced Daisy, and married her. Furthermore, the fact she assumed the garish yellow car was Tom’s shows how little she understands the stiff, old money world Tom comes from.
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