Need to write about a theme for a Great Gatsby assignment, or just curious about what exactly a theme is? Not sure where to start? Learn here what a theme is, what the main themes in The Great Gatsby are, and get some tips for writing about themes for your English/Language Arts class essays.
We will also link to our specific articles on each theme so you can learn even more in-depth about themes central to Gatsby.
What Is a Theme? Why Should You Care?
First things first: what exactly is a theme? In literature, a theme is a central topic a book deals with. This central topic is revealed through plot events, the actions and dialogue of the characters, and even the narrator’s tone. Themes can be very broad, like love, money, or death, or more specific, like people versus technology, racial discrimination, or the American Dream.
In short, a book’s theme can usually answer the question, “what’s the point of this book?”. They’re the “so what?” of literary analysis. Also, note that books can definitely have more than one major theme – in Gatsby we identify seven!
Knowing a book’s major theme(s) is crucial to writing essays, since many assignments want you to connect your argument to a book’s theme. For example, you might be asked to write an essay about a prompt like this: “How does the life of Jay Gatsby exemplify (or deconstruct) the idea of the American Dream?” This prompt has you connect specific details in Jay Gatsby’s life to the larger theme of the American Dream. This is why many teachers love theme essays: because they encourage you to connect small details to big ideas!
Furthermore, the AP English Literature test always has an essay question that has you analyze some aspect of a book and then “compare it to the theme of the work as a whole.” (If you want specific examples you can access the last 15 years of AP English Literature free response questions here, using your College Board account.) So this skill won’t just help you in your English classes, it will also help you pass the AP English Literature test if you’re taking it!
So keep reading to learn about the major themes in Gatsby and how they are revealed in the book, and also to get links to our in-depth articles about each theme.
The Great Gatsby Themes
Before we introduce our seven main themes, we’ll briefly describe how the story and characters suggest the major Great Gatsby themes. Remember that the story is set in the 1920s, a period when America’s economy was booming, and takes place in New York: specifically the wealthy Long Island towns of West Egg and East Egg, as well as Manhattan and Queens.
As you should know from the book (check out our summary if you’re still hazy on the details!), The Great Gatsby tells the story of James Gatz, a poor farmboy who manages to reinvent himself as the fabulously rich Jay Gatsby, only to be killed after an attempt to win over his old love Daisy Buchanan. Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan, and they’re both from old money, causing them to look down Gatsby’s newly rich crowd (and for Tom to look down at Gatsby himself). Meanwhile, Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, the wife of mechanic George Wilson. Through the Wilsons, we see the struggles of the working class in dismal Queens, NY. As if they didn’t already have it hard enough, Myrtle is killed in a hit-and-run accident (caused by Daisy Buchanan), and George, who’s manipulated by Tom to believe that Jay Gatsby was both his wife’s lover and her murderer, ends up shooting Gatsby and then himself.
The whole story is told by Nick Carraway, a second cousin of Daisy’s and classmate of Tom’s who moves in next to Gatsby’s mansion and eventually befriends Jay -- and then comes to deeply admire him, despite or perhaps because of Jay’s fervent desire to repeat his past with Daisy. The tragic chain of events at the novel’s climax, along with the fact that both the Buchanans can easily retreat from the damage they caused, causes Nick to become disillusioned with life in New York and retreat back to his hometown in the Midwest.
Aside from having a very unhappy ending, the novel might just ruin swimming pools for you as well.
The fact that the major characters come from three distinct class backgrounds (working class, newly rich, and old money) suggests that class is a major theme. But the rampant materialism and the sheer amount of money spent by Gatsby himself is a huge issue and its own theme. Related to money and class, the fact that both Gatsby and the Wilsons strive to improve their positions in American society, only to end up dead, also suggests that the American Dream -- and specifically its hollowness -- is a key theme in the book as well.
But there are other themes at play here, too. Every major character is involved in at least one romantic relationship, revealing that they are all driven by love, sex, and desire -- a major theme. Also, the rampant bad behavior (crime, cheating, and finally murder) and lack of real justice makes ethics and morality a key theme. Death also looms large over the novel’s plot, alongside the threat of failure.
And finally, a strong undercurrent to all of these themes is identity itself: can James Gatz really become Jay Gatsby, or was he doomed from the start? Can someone who is not from old money ever blend in with that crowd? Could Gatsby really aspire to repeat his past with Daisy, or is that past self gone forever?
In short, just by looking at the novel's plot, characters, and ending, we can already get a strong sense of Gatsby's major themes. Let's now look at each of those themes one by one (and be sure to check out the links to our full theme breakdowns!).
The 7 Major Great Gatsby Themes: A Snapshot
Money and Materialism: everyone in the novel is money-obsessed, whether they were born with money (Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and Nick to a lesser extent), whether they made a fortune (Gatsby), or whether they’re eager for more (Myrtle and George). So why are the characters so materialistic? How does their materialism affect their choices? Get a guide to each of the characters’ material motivations and how they shape the novel.
Society and Class: building on the money and materialism theme, the novel draws clear distinctions between the kind of money you have: old money (inherited) or new money (earned). And there is also a clear difference between the lifestyles of the wealthy, who live on Long Island and commute freely to Manhattan, and the working class people stuck in between, mired in Queens. By the end of the novel, our main characters who are not old money (Gatsby, Myrtle, and George) are all dead, while the inherited-money club is still alive. What does this say about class in Gatsby? Why is their society so rigidly classist? Learn more about the various social classes in Gatsby and how they affect the novel’s outcome.
The American Dream– the American Dream is the idea anyone can make it in America (e.g. gain fame, fortune, and success) through enough hard work and determination. So is Jay Gatsby an example of the dream? Or does his involvement in crime suggest the Dream isn’t actually real? And where does this leave the Wilsons, who are also eager to improve their lot in life but don’t make it out of the novel alive? Finally, do the closing pages of the novel endorse the American Dream or write it off as a fantasy? Learn what the American Dream is and how the novel sometimes believes in it, and sometimes sees it as a reckless fantasy.
Love, Desire, and Relationships - All of the major characters are driven by love, desire, or both, but only Tom and Daisy’s marriage lasts out of the novel’s five major relationships and affairs. So is love an inherently unstable force? Or do the characters just experience it in the wrong way? Get an in-depth guide to each of Gatsby’s major relationships.
Death and Failure – Nick narrates Gatsby two years after the events in question, and since he’s obviously aware of the tragedy awaiting not only Gatsby but Myrtle and George as well, the novel has a sad, reflective, even mournful tone. Is the novel saying that ambition is inherently dangerous (especially in a classist society like 1920s America), or is it more concerned with the danger of Gatsby’s intense desire to reclaim the past? Explore those questions here.
Morality and Ethics – The novel is full of bad behavior: lying, cheating, physical abuse, crime, and finally murder. Yet none of the characters ever answer to the law, and God is only mentioned as an exclamation, or briefly projected onto an advertisement. Does the novel push for the need to fix this lack of morality, or does it accept it as the normal state of affairs in the “wild, wild East”?
The Mutability of Identity – Mutability just means “subject to change,” so this theme is about how changeable (or not!) personal identity is. Do people really change? Or are our past selves always with us? And how would this shape our desire to reclaim parts of our past? Gatsby wants to have it both ways: to change himself from James Gatz into the sophisticated, wealthy Jay Gatsby, but also to preserve his past with Daisy. Does he fail because it’s impossible to change? Because it’s impossible to repeat the past? Or both?
How to Write About The Great Gatsby Themes
So now that you know about the major themes of The Great Gatsby, how can you go about writing about them? First up: look closely at your prompt.
Sometimes an essay prompt will come right out and ask you to write about a theme, for example “is The American Dream in Gatsby alive or dead?” or “Write about the relationships in Gatsby. What is the novel saying about the nature of love and desire?” For those essays, you will obviously be writing about one of the novel’s major themes. But even though those prompts have big-picture questions, make sure to find small supporting details to help make your argument.
In the same way a tree would look really silly if it was just a trunk with no branches and leaves, your essay won't be that great without smaller details to support the larger argument about the theme.
For example, if you’re discussing the American Dream and arguing it’s dead in the novel, don’t just make that claim and be done with it. Instead, you can explore Gatsby’s past as James Gatz, George Wilson’s exhausted complacency, and Myrtle’s treatment at the hands of Tom as examples of how the American Dream is treated in the novel. Obviously those examples are far from exhaustive, but hopefully you get the idea: find smaller details to support the larger argument.
On the other hand, many essay prompts about Gatsby will look like a question about something specific, like a character or symbol:
- “Explore Tom and Daisy as people who ‘retreat into their money.’”
- “What does the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock represent? How does its meaning change throughout the novel?”
- “Show how Fitzgerald uses clothing (and the changing of costumes) to tell the reader more about the characters and/or express theme(s).”
These prompts are actually a chance for you to take that detailed analysis and connect it to one of the larger themes – in other words, even though the prompt doesn’t state it explicitly, you should still be connecting those more focused topics to one of the big-picture themes.
For example, if you talk about Tom and Daisy Buchanan, you will definitely end up talking about society and class. If you talk about the green light, you will end up talking about dreams and goals, specifically the American Dream. And if you discuss clothing to talk about the characters, you will definitely touch on money and materialism, as well as society and class (like how Gatsby’s pink suit makes him stand out as new money to Tom Buchanan, or how Myrtle adopts a different dress to play at being wealthy and sophisticated).
In short, for these more specific prompts, you start from the ground (small details and observations) and build up to discussing the larger themes, even if the prompt doesn’t say to do so explicitly!
Now you're on expert on themes, but what about symbols? If you need to write about the important symbols in The Great Gatsby, check out our symbols overview for a complete guide.
Want a full analysis of Jay Gatsby and his back story? Not sure how his story connects with the American Dream? Get the details here.
Want to go back to square one? Get started with Chapter 1 of our Great Gatsby plot summary.
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Honesty is does not seem to determine which characters are sympathetic and which are not in this novel in quite the same way that it does in others. Nick is able to admire Gatsby despite his knowledge of the man's illegal dealings and bootlegging. Ironically, it is the corrupt Daisy who takes pause at Gatsby's sordid past. Her indignation at his "dishonesty," however, is less moral than class-based. Her sense of why Gatsby should not behave in an immoral manner is based on what she expects from members of her milieu, rather than what she believes to be intrinsically right. The standards for honesty and morality seem to be dependent on class and gender in this novel. Tom finds his wife's infidelity intolerable, however, he does not hesitate to lie to her about his own affair.
Decay is a word that constantly comes up in The Great Gatsby, which is appropriate in a novel which centers around the death of the American Dream. Decay is most evident in the so-called "valley of ashes." With great virtuosity, Fitzgerald describes a barren wasteland which probably has little to do with the New York landscape and instead serves to comment on the downfall of American society. It seems that the American dream has been perverted, reversed. Gatsby lives in West Egg and Daisy in East Egg; therefore, Gatsby looks East with yearning, rather than West, the traditional direction of American frontier ambitions. Fitzgerald portrays the chauvinistic and racist Tom in a very negative light, clearly scoffing at his apocalyptic vision of the races intermarrying. Fitzgerald's implication seems to be that society has already decayed enough and requires no new twist.
In some respects, Fitzgerald writes about gender roles in a quite conservative manner. In his novel, men work to earn money for the maintenance of the women. Men are dominant over women, especially in the case of Tom, who asserts his physical strength to subdue them. The only hint of a role reversal is in the pair of Nick and Jordan. Jordan's androgynous name and cool, collected style masculinize her more than any other female character. However, in the end, Nick does exert his dominance over her by ending the relationship. The women in the novel are an interesting group, because they do not divide into the traditional groups of Mary Magdalene and Madonna figures, instead, none of them are pure. Myrtle is the most obviously sensual, but the fact that Jordan and Daisy wear white dresses only highlights their corruption.
Violence is a key theme in The Great Gatsby, and is most embodied by the character of Tom. An ex-football player, he uses his immense physical strength to intimidate those around him. When Myrtle taunts him with his wife's name, he strikes her across the face. The other source of violence in the novel besides Tom are cars. A new commodity at the time that The Great Gatsby was published, Fitzgerald uses cars to symbolize the dangers of modernity and the dangers of wealth. The climax of the novel, the accident that kills Myrtle, is foreshadowed by the conversation between Nick and Jordan about how bad driving can cause explosive violence. The end of the novel, of course, consists of violence against Gatsby. The choice of handgun as a weapon suggests Gatsby's shady past, but it is symbolic that it is his love affair, not his business life, that kills Gatsby in the end.
Class is an unusual theme for an American novel. It is more common to find references to it in European, especially British novels. However, the societies of East and West Egg are deeply divided by the difference between the noveau riche and the older moneyed families. Gatsby is aware of the existence of a class structure in America, because a true meritocracy would put him in touch with some of the finest people, but, as things stand, he is held at arm's length. Gatsby tries desperately to fake status, even buying British shirts and claiming to have attended Oxford in an attempt to justify his position in society. Ultimately, however, it is a class gulf that seperates Gatsby and Daisy, and cements the latter in her relationship to her husbad, who is from the same class as she is.
It is interesting that Fitzgerald chooses to use some religious tropes in a novel that focuses on the American Dream, a concept which leaves no room for religion save for the doctrine of individualism. The most obvious is the image of the "valley of ashes," which exemplifies America's moral state during the "Roaring Twenties." This wasteland is presided over by the empty eyes of an advertisement. Fitzgerald strongly implies that these are the eyes of God. This equation of religion with advertising and material gain are made even more terrifying by the fact that the eyes see nothing and can help no one (for example, this "God" can do nothing to prevent Myrtle or Gatsby's deaths).
Because The Great Gatsby is set in the Roaring Twenties, the topic of the Great War is unavoidable. The war was crucial to Gatsby's development, providing a brief period of social mobility which, Fitzgerald claims, quickly closed after the war. Gatsby only came into contact with a classy young debutante like Daisy as a result of the fact that he was a soldier and that no one could vouch for whether he was upper-class or not. The war provided him with further opportunities to see the world, and make some money in the service of a millionaire. Gatsby's opportunities closed up after the end of the war, however, when he found upon returning to America that the social structure there was every bit as rigid as it was in Europe. Unable to convince anyone that he is truly upper-class (although his participation in the war gave him some leeway about lying), Gatsby finds himself unable to break into East Egg society.