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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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Decline of the American Dream in the 1920s
On the surface, The Great Gatsby is a story of the thwarted love between a man and a woman. The main theme of the novel, however, encompasses a much larger, less romantic scope. Though all of its action takes place over a mere few months during the summer of 1922 and is set in a circumscribed geographical area in the vicinity of Long Island, New York, The Great Gatsby is a highly symbolic meditation on 1920s America as a whole, in particular the disintegration of the American dream in an era of unprecedented prosperity and material excess.
Fitzgerald portrays the 1920s as an era of decayed social and moral values, evidenced in its overarching cynicism, greed, and empty pursuit of pleasure. The reckless jubilance that led to decadent parties and wild jazz music—epitomized in The Great Gatsby by the opulent parties that Gatsby throws every Saturday night—resulted ultimately in the corruption of the American dream, as the unrestrained desire for money and pleasure surpassed more noble goals. When World War I ended in 1918, the generation of young Americans who had fought the war became intensely disillusioned, as the brutal carnage that they had just faced made the Victorian social morality of early-twentieth-century America seem like stuffy, empty hypocrisy. The dizzying rise of the stock market in the aftermath of the war led to a sudden, sustained increase in the national wealth and a newfound materialism, as people began to spend and consume at unprecedented levels. A person from any social background could, potentially, make a fortune, but the American aristocracy—families with old wealth—scorned the newly rich industrialists and speculators. Additionally, the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, which banned the sale of alcohol, created a thriving underworld designed to satisfy the massive demand for bootleg liquor among rich and poor alike.
Fitzgerald positions the characters of The Great Gatsby as emblems of these social trends. Nick and Gatsby, both of whom fought in World War I, exhibit the newfound cosmopolitanism and cynicism that resulted from the war. The various social climbers and ambitious speculators who attend Gatsby’s parties evidence the greedy scramble for wealth. The clash between “old money” and “new money” manifests itself in the novel’s symbolic geography: East Egg represents the established aristocracy, West Egg the self-made rich. Meyer Wolfshiem and Gatsby’s fortune symbolize the rise of organized crime and bootlegging.
As Fitzgerald saw it (and as Nick explains in Chapter 9), the American dream was originally about discovery, individualism, and the pursuit of happiness. In the 1920s depicted in the novel, however, easy money and relaxed social values have corrupted this dream, especially on the East Coast. The main plotline of the novel reflects this assessment, as Gatsby’s dream of loving Daisy is ruined by the difference in their respective social statuses, his resorting to crime to make enough money to impress her, and the rampant materialism that characterizes her lifestyle. Additionally, places and objects in The Great Gatsby have meaning only because characters instill them with meaning: the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg best exemplify this idea. In Nick’s mind, the ability to create meaningful symbols constitutes a central component of the American dream, as early Americans invested their new nation with their own ideals and values.
Nick compares the green bulk of America rising from the ocean to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. Just as Americans have given America meaning through their dreams for their own lives, Gatsby instills Daisy with a kind of idealized perfection that she neither deserves nor possesses. Gatsby’s dream is ruined by the unworthiness of its object, just as the American dream in the 1920s is ruined by the unworthiness of its object—money and pleasure. Like 1920s Americans in general, fruitlessly seeking a bygone era in which their dreams had value, Gatsby longs to re-create a vanished past—his time in Louisville with Daisy—but is incapable of doing so. When his dream crumbles, all that is left for Gatsby to do is die; all Nick can do is move back to Minnesota, where American values have not decayed.
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The Hollowness of the Upper Class
One of the major topics explored in The Great Gatsby is the sociology of wealth, specifically, how the newly minted millionaires of the 1920s differ from and relate to the old aristocracy of the country’s richest families. In the novel, West Egg and its denizens represent the newly rich, while East Egg and its denizens, especially Daisy and Tom, represent the old aristocracy. Fitzgerald portrays the newly rich as being vulgar, gaudy, ostentatious, and lacking in social graces and taste. Gatsby, for example, lives in a monstrously ornate mansion, wears a pink suit, drives a Rolls-Royce, and does not pick up on subtle social signals, such as the insincerity of the Sloanes’ invitation to lunch. In contrast, the old aristocracy possesses grace, taste, subtlety, and elegance, epitomized by the Buchanans’ tasteful home and the flowing white dresses of Daisy and Jordan Baker.
More main ideas from The Great Gatsby