The Great Gatsby – Themes & Expert Analysis

June 6, 2023

A perennial presence on the AP Lit Reading List, the themes at the heart of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – greed, love, violence, and the “American Dream” – are as compelling as when the novel was published in 1925. While there’s no doubt that The Great Gatsby is a classic of American literature, it can be difficult for the casual reader to make sense of the text. In this article, we’ll be looking at Great Gatsby themes, plot, and analysis.

In this article, we’re going to talk about some of the major themes in The Great Gatsby. Maybe you’re here because your teacher has asked you to write a paper on the themes in Gatsby, or maybe you’ve just watched Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and want to know a little more about the book that inspired it. Maybe you just keep hearing how important The Great Gatsby is and you want to know what the big deal is. Whatever your reason, in this article we’ll be talking about the themes in Gatsby. We’ll also be thinking about how those themes are presented in the book. (If you’re interested in learning more about how literature holds up a mirror to society, check out this list of best colleges to study English.)

What’s the difference between plot and “theme”? 

On the one hand – plot. It’s what actually happens in the book.  

First things first – we need to make sure that we understand the difference between “plot” and “theme.” The plot is the stuff that actually happens – the who, the what, the where. Most of you know the plot of The Great Gatsby, but it’s worth a quick review. Set in New York City, Long Island, and Queens, The Great Gatsby takes place in 1922, just four years after the end of WWI. The narrator of Gatsby is Nick Carraway, a 29-year-old veteran who has just come east to make his fortune in bonds. Upon his arrival in New York, Nick ends up renting a house on Long Island next a the mansion owned by Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire.

When Nick and Gatsby finally meet, we find out that Gatsby is in love with Nick’s cousin, Daisy. Unfortunately for Gatsby, Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan. Tom is a brute of a man and a serial philanderer whose current mistress is Myrtle Wilson. Gatsby eventually confesses his love to Daisy (in front of Tom) – drama ensues. While driving back to Long Island with Gatsby, Daisy accidentally runs over Myrtle, Tom’s mistress. In the confusion that follows the accident, Tom lets Myrtle’s husband George think that it was Gatsby who ran over Myrtle. Distraught, George goes to Gatsby’s house, shoots him in his pool, and then kills himself. Gatsby’s funeral is attended only by Nick, Gatsby’s father, Gatsby’s servants, and “Owl-eyes” (a guest that Nick met at one of Gatsby’s parties). Whew!

The Great Gatsby Themes (Continued)

On the other hand – themes. It’s why the plot matters.

On the other hand, when we talk about “themes,” we’re talking about the big issues the text is dealing with. These are often the big-idea words you associate with art or literature – “good vs. evil,” “love,” “nature,” or “death.” Thinking about the themes in a book can help us break the text into manageable parts that we can discuss and analyze. So, for example, some of the themes in the novel could be “greed,” or “wealth,” or “love.”

Let’s look at a specific example from The Great Gatsby to see how we can move from plot to theme. When we first meet Jay Gatsby, we know him only as a mysterious millionaire who throws elaborate parties at his mansion on Long Island. However, we find out later in the book that Gatsby has misrepresented his past. His actual name is Jay Gatz and he was born to poor farmers in North Dakota. In other words, Gatsby begins his life poor and ends up a millionaire. [Spoiler alert: Gatsby’s sole motivation for making money is to try to win back Daisy’s love.] Considering Gatsby’s rags-to-riches story, it’s clear that one of the main themes of The Great Gatsby is class. That is, the material circumstances we’re born into (and whether we can escape these origins).

Once you’ve identified a theme, you can start to think about other moments in the text that have that theme in common. For example, you might think about how different social classes are presented in the book. Who is rich and who is poor? How did they become rich? How did they become poor? In what ways are they described? How do they interact? What options are available to them? Which privileges? What does Gatsby say about the “American Dream”? Now that we know what a “theme” is, let’s look more closely at some of the themes in The Great Gatsby.

“The American Dream” – What is it and did Gatsby achieve it? 

What is the “American Dream?” 

Few terms are tossed around more casually than “the American Dream.” First, let’s make sure we understand what we mean when we use this term. In the book that popularized the term, The Epic of America, James Truslow Adams describes “the American Dream” as a society in which “each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable…regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” In other words, Adams imagines a society where people’s futures aren’t defined by how much money their family has or what class they are.

Has Gatsby really made it? 

It’s clear that this theme is present in The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby seems like the ultimate success story for the American Dream. He comes from nothing – his parents were poor farmers – and ends up a party-throwing millionaire. On the other hand [spoiler alert], at the end of the book, Jay Gatsby gets shot and killed in his pool by a disgruntled mechanic named George Wilson, so there are clearly some downsides to Gatsby’s success.

The Great Gatsby Themes (Continued)

Besides Gatsby’s violent death, there are other things in the book that suggest that it might be criticizing the American Dream. While Jay Gatsby is a millionaire, he is decidedly nouveau riche. In other words, he lacks the generational wealth of such old-money families like Daisy and Tom Buchanan. Gatsby is never accepted as a real member of the upper class precisely because he made his own fortune. The book suggests that even if you make millions of dollars, you can’t ever escape your origins.

What is also interesting is how James Truslow Adams’ definition of the American Dream is actually at odds with the spectacular wealth of the characters in The Great Gatsby. For Adams, the “American Dream” is less about money and more about each individual’s search for “the abiding values of life.” Gatsby’s accumulation of wealth isn’t about values or morals (it’s implied he’s made his millions illicitly). Rather, Gatsby’s millions are in service to his obsession with Daisy Buchanan. Similarly, the old-money wealth of Tom and Daisy Buchanan is a thin veneer that covers their otherwise shallow, bored lives.

So while one of the themes of The Great Gatsby is the “American Dream,” we shouldn’t stop there. It’s more accurate to say that Gatsby criticizes the materialism that has replaced the “American Dream.”

Social Class – Is “rags-to-riches” really possible? 

In contrast to the implied mobility of the “American Dream,” the novel suggests that class is permanent and unchangeable. As we discussed above, Gatsy never really makes it into the upper class. No matter how many millions he makes, he will always remain a poor farmer’s son. Conversely, nothing can change the fortunes of those born into wealth. Regardless of their behavior and choices, they will remain unaffected.

We can see this in Gatsby’s portrayal of Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Tom and Daisy Buchanan are described as callous, destructive people whose money insulates them from the consequences of their actions. Though Tom’s mistress is run over by a car driven by Daisy, Tom and Daisy face no consequences. Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, describes Tom and Daisy in this way: “They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” In other words, Tom and Daisy are protected by virtue of their class. However ugly their actions, they will stay rich and careless. (All my quotes are from Project Gutenberg’s ebook of The Great Gatsby.)

The Great Gatsby Themes (Continued)

In The Great Gatsby, the poor are similarly stuck. Though Myrtle Wilson has access to some luxuries as Tom Buchanan’s mistress, she and her husband George can never escape their material conditions in the “Valley of Ashes.” George wants to move to the West. However, the text suggests that he will forever be tied to the garage he owns. What is particularly interesting in the book is how the different classes interact. As we mentioned above, when Tom Buchanan learns of Myrtle’s death, he lets her husband George believe that it was Gatsby who ran her down. This accomplishes two main things:

1) it punishes Gatsby for his nouveau riche presumptuousness.

2) sets George on his despairing path to suicide. Ultimately, The Great Gatsby portrays a static class-based hierarchy in the service of the generational wealth. Whatever Tom’s feelings for his mistress Myrtle Wilson, ultimately, his loyalty is to the (classist) status quo.

Personal Agency – Does an individual have any power?   

The fact that social class is so rigid in the novel should make the reader wonder if people have any ability to change their circumstances. A useful term that describes someone’s ability to affect their life and circumstances is “personal agency.” Even though he failed in the end, the book clearly portrays Gatsby as someone who believes in his ability to shape his own life and destiny.

There’s a particularly poignant moment after Gatsby’s death that shows how driven he was. Nick is talking to Gatsby’s father when the latter pulls out a book that belonged to a 16-year-old Jay “Jimmy” Gatz. On the last flyleaf of the book is Jay’s schedule for September 12, 1906 and a list of his “General Resolves.” With the sad pride of a father morning his son, Mr. Gatz remarks that “Jimmy was bound to get ahead. He always had some resolves like this or something.” What is interesting in this moment is the contrast between Gatsby’s failure [no Daisy, shot in his pool] and his father’s enduring belief in Jimmy’s drive and ambition.

The Great Gatsby Themes (Continued)

This isn’t the only time Gatsby’s belief in his own personal agency is crushed by reality. As mentioned above, the sole reason Gatsby amasses his fortune is to get Daisy back. To understand why he does this, we have to know the backstory between Daisy and Gatsby. Gatsby met Daisy right before he was sent to Europe to fight. While Gatsby didn’t exactly lie about his modest origins, he wasn’t exactly truthful. Unfortunately, by the time Gatsby makes it back from the war, Daisy has married the very wealthy Tom Buchanan. Faced with this situation, Gatsby tries to recreate himself as the wealthy suitor he claimed to be. Indeed, when Gatsby talks to Nick about his time with Daisy, he has a monomaniacal desire to remake the present. He states, “‘I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,’ he said, nodding determinedly. ‘She’ll see.’”

What’s the deal with that last scene? – Nick Carraway and Time in The Great Gatsby

In what is one of the most beautifully written scenes in the novel, Nick Carraway returns to Gatsby’s now abandoned house after the funeral. There are three parts to this scene. Each builds on the previous until we reach the famous final line – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

First, Nick thinks about what Long Island must have looked like to the first European settlers. He imagines the American continent providing, “for the last time in history…something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Nick then compares this originary wonder to “Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.” What is important to note here is that Gatsby’s wonder can only ever be an imitation of the original wonder felt by the first European settlers. Indeed, Nick notes that while “[Gatsby’s] dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it,” in reality, “it was already behind him, somewhere…where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

The Great Gatsby Themes (Continued)

It’s important to notice the temporal and geographical distance between Gatsby and his dream. Remember that Gatsby’s met and fell in love with Daisy five years previous in Louisville, Kentucky. In other words, Gatsby’s dream – his courtship of Daisy – will forever remain behind him, in the past and in the West. Thus, for Nick, “the orgastic future that year by year receded before us” can only ever be the ersatz phantoms of our past desires.

Additional Resources

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