Study Guide

The Great Gatsby Themes

  • Society and Class

    great gatsby social class theme(Click the themes infographic to download.)

    America is a classless society. True or false? You'll have good support no matter which way you answer, but The Great Gatsby has a pretty clear answer: no. There's no such thing as the American Dream or the up-from-the-bootstraps self-made man. You are who you're born, and attempting to change social classes just leads to tragedy. It's a pretty grim picture of American society—and life, to those who lived through World War I, could feel pretty grim indeed.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. In The Great Gatsby, does wealth alone decide which social class a character belongs to?
    2. What are the various markings of the upper class in the novel? What distinguishes it from the other classes?
    3. Is Gatsby in the same social class as Wilson? If not, is he closer to Wilson's class, or to Tom's? Where does Meyer Wolfsheim stand in all of this?
    4. Does Gatsby love Daisy, or does he love the lifestyle she represents? Is she only his ticket to the upper classes? If so, does Gatsby realize this?

    Chew on This

    In The Great Gatsby, the only element not restricted to one social class is unhappiness. All members of all classes are equally unhappy.

    In The Great Gatsby, social norms are insurmountable barriers between people. Inter-class relationships are impossible.

  • Love

    great gatsby love theme(Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Only fools fall in love, and the biggest fool in The Great Gatsby is, well, Gatsby. Tom and Daisy may have some kind of affection and loyalty for each other, but we're pretty sure it's not actually love. Jordan and Nick are happy enough to do some summer lovin' together, but they're not exactly in it 4EVA. It's Gatsby who falls in love, but is he in love with Daisy, or with a dream of Daisy, or with the idea of being in love? And does true love always come with destruction and violence?

    Questions About Love

    1. Is there a difference between love and romance in The Great Gatsby?
    2. Is love an expected part of marriage in The Great Gatsby? Why or why not?
    3. Are love and sex separated in The Great Gatsby?
    4. Is Gatsby's love for Daisy genuine? Does he love her, or his conception of her? What about Tom – does he really love Daisy? And whom does Daisy really love, after all? Is it possible, as she said, that she loved both Tom and Gatsby at once?

    Chew on This

    Wilson's feelings for Myrtle are the only example of genuine love in The Great Gatsby.

    Love in The Great Gatsby is only the result of self-deception and denial.

  • The American Dream

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    Did the American Dream die in 2008, or did it die in 1918—or did it never really exist at all? In The Great Gatsby, the American Dream is supposed to stand for independence and the ability to make something of one's self with hard work, but it ends up being more about materialism and selfish pursuit of pleasure. No amount of hard work can change where Gatsby came from (the social class he was born in), and old money knows it. Merit and hard work aren't enough, and so the American Dream collapses—just like the ballooning dresses of Jordan and Daisy when Nick first sees them.

     
    Gatsby's New York Video
     

    Questions About The American Dream

    1. Does Gatsby achieve the American Dream? If yes, when exactly can he say that he reaches it? If no, what prevents him from truly achieving it?
    2. Do you agree with Fitzgerald's criticisms of American culture during the Jazz Age? Would you rather be living then, or are you happy in present-day America?
    3. Would you rather live in East Egg or West Egg? The Northeast or the Midwest? Why?
    4. Nick leaves the East Coast, jaded by his experiences with Gatsby, the Buchanans, Jordan Baker, etc. Do you think he'll remain cynical even in the Midwest, or will he leave his disgust in New York?

    Chew on This

    Gatsby's experiences in New York prove that the "American Dream" is impossible to achieve.

    By referring to figures like Ben Franklin and Buffalo Bill, Fitzgerald suggests that the entire concept of the American Dream is based on a lie.

  • Wealth

    great gatsby wealth theme(Click the themes infographic to download.)

    In The Great Gatsby, money makes the world go 'round—or at least gets you moving in the right direction. It can buy you yellow Rolls-Royces, "gas blue" dresses, and really nice shirts, but in the end it can't buy you happiness. Or class. It does, however, buy you the privilege of living in the world without consequences, leaving a trail of bodies halfway from Chicago to New York. But being poor isn't exactly the moral choice, either. So, where does that leave us? In the middle class?

     
     

    Questions About Wealth

    1. In The Great Gatsby, what role does wealth play in people's life expectations? Could Gatsby have achieved his childhood goals without wealth? That is, did he really care about the money, or just about the things?
    2. Does money bring happiness in The Great Gatsby, destroy happiness, or have no effect?
    3. What does Gatsby mean when he says that Daisy's voice is "full of money?" Does he mean this negatively? Why does Nick agree with him? Does this comment say more about Daisy or Jay Gatsby?

    Chew on This

    Although Fitzgerald shows rich people as careless and selfish, ultimately all of the characters in the book show themselves to be disloyal. Bad character spans all classes.

    The Great Gatsby demonstrates the emptiness and moral vacuum created by the decadence and wealth of capitalism.

  • Memory and the Past

    great gatsby memory and past theme(Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Pro tip from the olds at Shmoop: if the best years of your life took place in high school, you're in for a long downhill slide. There's nothing wrong with remembering the good times, but living in the past just leads you to tragedy. (Or at least to being a major bore at parties.) In The Great Gatsby, living in the past is a lot direr than being boring. Characters pursue visions of the future that are determined by their pasts, which—in the memorable phrase that ends the book—makes us all into little boats beating against the current. And, unfortunately, some of those boats are doomed to sink.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Nick Carraway says that the future is always receding in front of us, and that we're forever beaten back towards the past. Is the future attainable in The Great Gatsby? Or, to put it another way, can it ever be tomorrow?
    2. Nick tells Gatsby that "you can't repeat the past," but he insists at the end that we're constantly "borne back" into it. Did he change his mind, or are these two different ways of saying the same thing?
    3. Is the past remembered realistically? Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan alike think nostalgically about the past, but are they ever able to confront reality?
    4. Is Gatsby driven by his memory of the past or his dream for the future? Is there a difference?
    5. What are Nick's visions of his own future?

    Chew on This

    Gatsby ends up dead because he can't live in the present—so he can't live at all.

    Daisy, unlike Gatsby, is ultimately able to face reality and live in the present.

  • Dissatisfaction

    the great gatsby dissatisfaction(Click the themes infographic to download.)

    You have a handsome, wealthy husband; a string of polo ponies; and a closetful of really nice white dresses. What more could you want? Apparently, a lot. None of the characters in The Great Gatsby are happy: they're dissatisfied with marriage, with love, with life, and most of all with themselves. But they're not satisfied with just being dissatisfied. Instead, they wreak havoc trying to make themselves happy. Best case scenario? They end up fleeing back East. Worst case? They end up dead.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. How does Jordan's "carelessness" indicate dissatisfaction? Why is wealthy society so careless?
    2. Which characters are dissatisfied, and what would actually make them happy? Do they even know what they want?
    3. Nick reveals that James Gatz created Jay Gatsby "from the Platonic conception of himself." What was it that dissatisfied James such that he had to create a new persona? Did this new persona solve his problems?

    Chew on This

    Although the wealthy characters in The Great Gatsby appear to have it all, not a single one of them seems happy.

    According to The Great Gatsby, wealth doesn't satisfy your desires; it just gives you an avenue for always craving more.

  • Isolation

    the great gatsby isolation(Click the themes infographic to download.)

    There's a reason they called it the Lost Generation: the world Fitzgerald lived in, and the world his characters inhabit, is one without connections, friends, or family. People may come together in The Great Gatsby, but they always end up falling apart in the end. Only Daisy and Tom stay together in the end, and is that really togetherness?

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Who is lonely in this book and why? Are there any characters not alienated from others?
    2. Jordan remarks that she prefers large parties because they are more intimate than small parties, where there isn't any privacy. What does this say about the nature of isolation and intimacy in The Great Gatsby?
    3. Nick comments on an "unmistakable air of natural intimacy" around Daisy and Tom after Myrtle is killed. Do these two share intimacy? More so than Daisy and Gatsby?
    4. Does Nick see himself as part of the rich crowd? What about his comment that they're all westerners who don't belong in the East – is this his way of finding commonalities to share? Does he want to be a part of them?
  • Mortality

    the great gatsby mortality(Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Sure, there's the hit-and-run and murder/ suicide at the end. (Oops. Did we spoil it for you?) But The Great Gatsby is also interested in metaphorical kinds of death: the kind where Gatsby kills the James-Gatz version of himself in order to take a new life, or the kind where the narrator feels himself constantly getting older, or the kind where the various characters' obsession with the past becomes a stand-in for the universal fear of our own mortality. Morbid? Well, when you think about the massive tragedy that was World War I, you can understand why Fitzgerald had death on the mind.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Whose fault is it that Gatsby died? His own? Tom's? Daisy's? Wilson's?
    2. The characters in The Great Gatsby never explicitly discuss death or life after death. Why do you suppose they neglect these topics? What does it say about them?
    3. What is the effect of Nick realizing he has turned thirty in the midst of Gatsby and Tom's fight over Daisy?
    4. Speaking of, check out those times when Nick refers to his age. He later refers to his being thirty with the jaded tone that he is "too old to lie" to himself. What is it about aging that bothers Nick so much?
    5. Before Myrtle's death, Nick says that they "drove on toward death through the cooling twilight." Literally, this means they are driving toward  the scene of Myrtle's death. But in what other ways are they driving toward death? Might they also be driving to Gatsby's impending death? Or (gasp) to their own?

    Chew on This

    Even though death affects all the characters in The Great Gatsby, only Nick Carraway is willing to confront the reality of death and its meaning for his own life.

    In the end, Nick is just as afraid of his own mortality as everyone else is. The story he tells in The Great Gatsby is proof of that.

  • Marriage

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    If the marriages in The Great Gatsby are anything to go by, we want nothing to do with marriage. Love? Optional. Loyalty? Definitely not. The only marriages we see are marked by adultery, deception, and dissatisfaction. Gatsby thinks that his life (and Daisy's) would have been better if she'd chosen him instead of Tom, but we're not so sure. Fitzgerald seems to take a dim view of marriage in general. Based on his relationship with Zelda, we can understand that.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. In The Great Gatsby, how common is infidelity? How common is fidelity?
    2. Do people marry the ones they love in The Great Gatsby, or do they love the ones they're with? Or neither? Can people marry whomever they love? Why or why not?
    3. What are the advantages of marriage, if any? Do the disadvantages of being alone outweigh the disadvantages of being married?

    Chew on This

    The Great Gatsby suggests that love and trust are mutually exclusive.

    Although Fitzgerald suggests that infidelity is widespread in society, he also seems to approve of staying together. The Great Gatsby believes in marriage, even if it sees the negatives.

  • Gender

     the great gatsby gender(Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Here's a fun scavenger hunt for you: see where and how often the word "woman" shows up in The Great Gatsby. (Helpful hint: this online text is searchable.) We'll give you a hint: it's mostly in reference to lower class women, like Myrtle or some of the servants. Upper class women are "girls," like the "men and girls" who wander around Gatsby's garden (3.1). That doesn't quite tell you all you need to know about gender in The Great Gatsby, but it tells you a lot: Fitzgerald is no feminist, and neither, apparently, is Nick.

    Questions About Gender

    1. How does class affect the expectations for male and female behavior?
    2. What is "work life" like for men of Tom's class, Nick's class, and George Wilson's class?
    3. How do men treat women in The Great Gatsby? How does Tom treat his wife Daisy and his mistress Myrtle? How does Nick treat Jordan? How does Gatsby treat Daisy? How does George Wilson treat his wife Myrtle? And how does the way that a man treats a woman comment on his character in this text?
    4. How do women behave at Gatsby's parties? Is this behavior "normal" or induced by alcohol?
    5. Does Daisy represent the "ideal woman" of the upper class? Why or why not?
    6. What do women want from men in The Great Gatsby? Is it different for different women? What do men want from women?

    Chew on This

    In The Great Gatsby, men and women don't make each other better; they just make each other worse. So much for chivalry.

    Women in The Great Gatsby are mostly there to entice and subvert men. Without women messing things up, life would be a lot better.

  • Lies and Deceit

    the great gatsby lies and deceit(Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Nick may say that he's one of the few honest people he knows, but we're not so sure about that. The Great Gatsby is built around lies, and why should this be any different? Human beings are inherently dishonest, whether they're male or female, born or made, poor or rich—and they're selfish, hypocritical, and destructive as well. And you may be able to fool your friends, but the eyes of God—or T. J. Eckleburg--are always watching.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. At one point, Jordan claims that Nick deceived her. Is this true? Or was Jordan deceiving Nick? What kind of dishonesty is she talking about, anyway?
    2. Nick briefly mentions that Tom discovered Daisy's deception very close to the time that Wilson discovered that of his own wife. How do these men each deal with the discovery? Does it make them seem more similar, or highlight their differences? Check out what Nick says about it.
    3. Nick assures us he is "one of the few honest people" he knows. How does this affect the way we read his story? Do we trust his narration?
    4. Are Nick and Gatsby more similar than Nick would like to admit? Is it possible to see Nick and Gatsby as possessing the same fundamental characteristic of deception?
    5. In the showdown scene at the Plaza, Daisy Buchanan is ultimately honest with her husband and Gatsby despite what she might lose. Why does she choose honesty?

    Chew on This

    In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway presents himself as the voice of reason and reliability, yet ultimately he proves to be an unreliable narrator.

    Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby are two sides of the same coin: each has built a successful façade to fool others, yet they can now no longer distinguish their true selves from the one they have created for the world.

  • Education

    the great gatsby education(Click the themes infographic to download.)

    In The Great Gatsby, education is a must-have for the socially elite. For the most part, characters in The Great Gatsby are well-educated – this is reflected by their speech and dialogue. The narrator takes note, however, of Gatsby’s effort to sound like everybody else. It is clear that Gatsby must practice sounding educated and wealthy. Mr. Wolfsheim speaks in a dialect that indicates his lack of education, lack of class, and general lack of what wealthy people in the 1920s might have called "good breeding." Oxford becomes "Oggsford." "Connection" becomes "gonnection." The use of different dialects works to reveal the differences between the working class and the upper class. By contrasting Wolfsheim’s and Gatsby’s diction with that of people like Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald suggests that people involved in organized crime are from the working class only, no matter how wealthy and powerful they are or how educated they appear to be. Education is what distinguishes the upper class from those below them. It is also a source of connection as loyalty – Nick and Tom have Yale in common and are therefore tied to each other.

    Questions About Education

    1. In The Great Gatsby, are wealth and education inextricably tied together? Why? Is education more of a mark of status than wealth?
    2. What is the difference between education and experience, or "street smarts"? Which does Gatsby have? Which is more useful in The Great Gatsby?

    Chew on This

    Gatsby, despite his lack of education and the evident lack of time he spends reading the books he owns, has the kind of "street smarts" it takes to fool a lot of very well-educated, savvy people. Because of this, he is intellectually superior to the elite classes he wishes to join.

    In The Great Gatsby, education is more important to the elite classes than wealth. 

    In The Great Gatsby, wealth is more important to the elite classes than education.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    the great gatsby compassion(Click the themes infographic to download.)

    The characters in The Great Gatsby all show a unique combination of a willingness to forgive and a stubbornness not to. Gatsby is willing to forgive Daisy’s marriage to another man, but not her loving him. Daisy is willing to forgive Tom for cheating but unwilling to forgive Gatsby for deceiving her about what kind of person he is. Much of the sadness of The Great Gatsby comes from this kind of almost-forgiveness; the characters are taunted with the possibility that all will be forgiven, only to have it torn away because of another character’s stubbornness.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. What gets forgiven and what does not get forgiven in this novel? Why?
    2. Nick claims in the first page of the novel that he was told to never criticize. Is he compassionate towards Gatsby, or does he judge the man? Does this evolve over the course of the novel?
    3. Are we, the reader, compelled to forgive Wilson for murdering Gatsby?
    4. Back to Nick’s father’s advice at the beginning of the novel: what is the effect of this opening? Might it be intended as advice for us, as we read the story? If so, how easy is it to read The Great Gatsby without criticizing? Is the advice perhaps ironic, indicating that we are supposed to judge?

    Chew on This

    Although all of the characters behave badly in the novel, Daisy is the one who seems to demonstrate forgiveness by her constant acceptance of her husband’s behavior.

    Although it might appear that Tom and Daisy "forgive" each other, the reality is that they simply choose to ignore each other’s transgressions. Forgiveness plays no role in their actions or their marriage.

  • Religion

    the great gatsby religion(Click the themes infographic to download.)

    The fact that religion is absent among the upper echelons of society suggests that a moral standard might also be absent – as much is borne out by characters’ actions. When God does appear, it is only in George Wilson’s dialogue, when he lets his wife know that she can’t fool God, that he sees and judges all. Instead of being guided by the moral precepts of religion or of God, other characters find other codes to determine their behaviors: a father’s advice, or a self-serving mantra, a jaded viewpoint, or an undying love. In Fitzgerald’s jaded America, the only God that can exist takes the form of a billboard (the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg), perhaps suggesting that capitalism rules where religion once did.

    Questions About Religion

    1. What is the effect of the absence of religion or of God among the wealthy in The Great Gatsby? What role does "God" play when he does show up?
    2. You knew we were going to ask it. You knew it was coming…What do the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg have to do with God? We ranted about this for a while already, but seriously, what are the chances we’ve said all that needs to be said? And what are the chances we are right?
    3. What guides behavior in The Great Gatsby? Do characters have a concept of "sin," "morality," or "immorality"?
    4. Are people governed by choice or by fate in The Great Gatsby?

    Chew on This

    Each character in The Great Gatsby is guided by his or her personal ethic, yet Nick Carraway has the final word, and his judgment reigns supreme; because we see the events through his eyes, there is no moral objectivity in the text.

    Although only George Wilson invokes God in The Great Gatsby, his statement that, "God sees everything," and, "You can’t fool God," indicts each character in the book through the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg. Nick, because he so frequently describes the eyes, is the only other character besides Wilson to recognize this indictment.

    Although people are governed by both choice and fate in The Great Gatsby, it is ultimately Tom’s choice that seals Gatsby’s fate.

    In The Great Gatsby, capitalism and the desire for wealth have replaced religion.