The man, the myth, the legend, Jay Gatsby is the titular hero of The Great Gatsby.
Nick first comes to know him as an incredibly wealthy, mysterious man who throws lavish parties, but we eventually learn his background: a boy from humble origins who is desperate to win back the love of a rich woman, Daisy, and loses everything in his last attempt to win her over.
So where did Gatsby get his money? Does he actually love Daisy? And what’s so “great” about him anyway? This guide explains Gatsby’s rags-to-riches story, what he does in the novel, his most famous lines, and common essay topics. Read on for an in-depth guide to all things Jay Gatsby.
- Gatsby as a character
- Physical description
- Gatsby's background
- Actions in the novel
- Character Analysis
- Quotes about and by Gatsby
- Common discussion topics and essay ideas
- FAQ clarifying confusing points about Gatsby
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.
Jay Gatsby's Physical Description
We were sitting at a table with a man of about my age (3.60)
He smiled understandingly--much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced--or seemed to face--the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished--and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. (3.76)
His tanned skin was drawn attractively tight on his face and his short hair looked as though it were trimmed every day. (3.93)
Gatsby’s very first appearance is a bit surprising and anti-climatic – he is presented as just another party-goer of Nick’s age before it’s revealed that he’s actually the famous Gatsby. That said, Nick’s description of Gatsby’s smile – “rare” and “full of eternal reassurances” that “understood you the way you wanted to be understood” – sets Gatsby apart as someone special and alluring.
Gatsby has tan skin and short hair, but otherwise most of Gatsby’s characterization comes through his dialogue and actions – Nick doesn’t linger on his physical appearance the way he does with other characters (especially Tom and Myrtle).
Perhaps Gatsby having more of a “blank slate” appearance allows the reader to more easily project his shifting characterization onto him (from mysterious party host to the military man madly in love with Daisy to the ambitious farmboy James Gatz), whereas characters like Tom Buchanan and Myrtle are more stiffly characterized.
Jay Gatsby's Background
Gatsby was born “James Gatz,” the son of poor farmers, in North Dakota. However, he was deeply ambitious and determined to be successful. He changed his name to “Jay Gatsby” and learned the manners of the rich on the yacht of Dan Cody, a wealthy man who he saved from a destructive storm and ended up being employed by. However, although Cody intended to leave his fortune to Gatsby, it ended up being taken by Cody’s ex-wife Ella Kaye, leaving Jay with the knowledge and manners of the upper class, but no money to back them up.
Gatsby ended up enlisting in the military during World War I. He met Daisy in Louisville before he was shipped out to Europe. In his uniform, there was no way for anyone to know he wasn’t wealthy, and Daisy assumed he was due to his manners. He kept up this lie to keep up their romance, and when he left she promised to wait for him.
Gatsby fought in the War, gained a medal from Montenegro for valor, and was made an officer. After the war ended, he briefly attended Oxford University through a program for officers, but left after five months. By the time Gatsby returned to America, he learned that Daisy had married and became determined to win her back.
Through Meyer Wolfshiem, Gatsby got into shady business (read: bootlegging, gambling) to get rich. It worked, and Gatsby accrued a huge sum of money in just 3 years. He moved to West Egg, bought an extravagant mansion and a Rolls Royce, and started throwing lavish parties and building up a reputation, all in the hopes of meeting Daisy again.
Luckily, an aspiring bond salesman named Nick Carraway moves in next door just as the novel begins. Nick is Daisy’s second cousin, and through that connection he is able to reunite with Daisy during the novel.
To see how Gatsby's life fits into the biographies of the novel's other characters, check out our timeline.
What Jay Gatsby Does in the Novel
Although Nick briefly glimpses Gatsby reaching out to Daisy’s green light at the end of Chapter 1, we don’t properly meet Gatsby until Chapter 3. Gatsby has been throwing lavish parties, and he invites Nick Carraway to one. They meet, and Gatsby takes a liking to Nick, inviting him out on his hydroplane the next day. He also speaks to Jordan Baker in private, and reveals his past history with Daisy Buchanan.
In Chapter 4, he spends more time with Nick, telling him about his service in WWI as well as a made-up story about his past as the only surviving member of a wealthy family. Later, he has Jordan explain Gatsby and Daisy’s background in a bid to get Nick to help the pair reunite.
Through Jordan and Nick, Gatsby is thus able to meet with Daisy again and begins an affair with her in Chapter 5.
Throughout all of this Gatsby continues to do business with Meyer Wolfsheim and run his own bootlegging “business," mainly based on the mysterious phone calls he's always taking. Rumors begin to swirl about where he got his money. Tom Buchanan, in particular, is instantly suspicious of Gatsby when they meet in Chapter 6 and even more so after he and Daisy attend one of Gatsby’s parties. Daisy seems particularly unhappy and Gatsby frets.
At the beginning of Chapter 7, he stops throwing the parties, fires his current staff, and hires Wolfshiem’s people instead, telling Nick he needs discreet people – this makes the affair easier, but also hints at Gatsby’s criminal doings. In the climactic Manhattan confrontation with Tom and Daisy later in Chapter 7, Gatsby tries to get Daisy to admit she never loved Tom, and to leave him, but she doesn’t. Later in the same chapter, he and Daisy leave together to drive back to West Egg in Gatsby’s distinctive yellow car. However, Daisy is driving and hits and kills Myrtle Wilson, who ran out into the road since she thought the car was Tom’s. Gatsby resolves to take the blame for the incident and still believes that Daisy will leave Tom for him.
During Chapter 8, Gatsby confides in Nick about his past, the true story this time. At the end of Chapter 8, Gatsby is shot and killed by George Wilson, who believes Gatsby killed Myrtle and was the one sleeping with her. Meanwhile, Daisy and Tom have left town to avoid the repercussions of Myrtle’s death.
In Chapter 9, Gatsby’s funeral is sparsely attended, despite Nick’s efforts to invite people. Gatsby’s father does make an appearance, sharing some details about young Jay’s early ambition and focus. Nick leaves New York shortly after, disenchanted with life on the east coast. Thus Gatsby's actual death has caused Nick's metaphorical death of leaving New York forever.
Though real death is obviously much worse.
Jay Gatsby Quotes
Gatsby adopts this catchphrase, which was used among wealthy people in England and America at the time, to help build up his image as a man from old money, which is related to his frequent insistence he is “an Oxford man.” Note that both Jordan Baker and Tom Buchanan are immediately skeptical of both Gatsby’s “old sport” phrase and his claim to being an Oxford man, indicating that despite Gatsby’s efforts, it is incredibly difficult to pass yourself off as “old money” when you aren’t.
He reached in his pocket and a piece of metal, slung on a ribbon, fell into my palm.
"That's the one from Montenegro."
To my astonishment, the thing had an authentic look.
Orderi di Danilo, ran the circular legend, Montenegro, Nicolas Rex.
Major Jay Gatsby, I read, For Valour Extraordinary. (4.34-39)
In this moment, Nick begins to believe and appreciate Gatsby, and not just see him as a puffed-up fraud. The medal, to Nick, is hard proof that Gatsby did, in fact, have a successful career as an officer during the war and therefore that some of Gatsby’s other claims might be true.
For the reader, the medal serves as questionable evidence that Gatsby really is an “extraordinary” man – isn’t it a strange that Gatsby has to produce physical evidence to get Nick to buy his story? (Imagine how strange it would be to carry around a physical token to show to strangers to prove your biggest achievement.)
He had passed visibly through two states and was entering upon a third. After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he was consumed with wonder at her presence. He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity. Now, in the reaction, he was running down like an overwound clock. (5.114)
In Chapter 5, the dream Gatsby has been working towards for years – to meet and impress Daisy with his fabulous wealth – finally begins to come to fruition. And so, for the first time, we see Gatsby’s genuine emotions, rather than his carefully-constructed persona. Nick finds these emotions almost as beautiful and transformative as Gatsby’s smile, though there’s also the sense that this love could quickly veer off the rails: Gatsby is running down “like an overwound clock.” In that sense, this moment gently foreshadows the escalating tensions that lead to the novel's tragic climax.
"I wouldn't ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can't repeat the past."
"Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
"I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before," he said, nodding determinedly. "She'll see." (6.128-131)
This is probably Gatsby’s single most famous line. His insistence that he can repeat the past and recreate everything as it was in Louisville sums up his intense determination to win Daisy back at any cost. It also shows his naiveté and optimism, even delusion, about what is possible in his life – an attitude which are increasingly at odds with the cynical portrait of the world painted by Nick Carraway.
"Your wife doesn't love you," said Gatsby. "She's never loved you. She loves me." (7.238)
This is the moment Gatsby lays his cards out on the table, so to speak – he risks everything to try and win over Daisy. His insistence that Daisy never loved Tom also reveals how Gatsby refuses to acknowledge Daisy could have changed or loved anyone else since they were together in Louisville.
This declaration, along with his earlier insistence that he can “repeat the past,” creates an image of an overly optimistic, naïve person, despite his experiences in the war and as a bootlegger. Especially since Daisy can’t support this statement, saying that she loved both Tom and Gatsby, and Tom quickly seizes power over the situation by practically ordering Gatsby and Daisy to drive home together, Gatsby’s confident insistence that Daisy has only ever loved him feels desperate, even delusional.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning----
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (9.153-154)
One of the most famous ending lines in modern literature, this quote is Nick’s final analysis of Gatsby – someone who believed in “the green light, the orgastic future” that he could never really attain. Our last image of Gatsby is of a man who believed in a world (and a future) that was better than the one he found himself in – but you can read more about interpretations of the ending, both optimistic and pessimistic, in our guide to the end of the book.
Jay Gatsby Character Analysis
If you read The Great Gatsby, odds are you will have to write at least one paper that analyzes Gatsby as a character or connects him to a larger theme, like money, love, or the American Dream.
To do this well, you should closely read Gatsby’s key scenes (meeting Daisy again in Chapter 5, the confrontation in the hotel in Chapter 7, his decision to take the blame in Chapter 8) along with his background, revealed over Chapters 6, 8, and 9. By understanding both Gatsby's past and his present in the novel, you can write about him confidently despite his many-layered personality.
It can be helpful to compare Gatsby to other characters, because it can make it easier to understand his attitude and motivations. Nick’s cynical nature makes Gatsby’s naiveté and optimism readily apparent, for example.
You should also consider how Gatsby’s interaction with the book’s famous symbols (especially the green light) reveal aspects of his character.
Remember that there are many valid ways to interpret Gatsby, as he is a very complex, mysterious character. As long as you back up your arguments with evidence from the book you can connect Gatsby to various big-picture themes and ideas. We will explore that in action below with some common essay topics about Gatsby.
Gatsby is especially linked to the American Dream!
What makes Gatsby so great?
I think the best way to tackle this question is to ask “why is Gatsby called great” or “who thinks Gatsby is great?” That way you won’t get bogged down in an unoriginal argument like “well, he has a lot of money and throws amazing parties, and that’s pretty awesome, so…he’s pretty great I guess?”
Remember that the book is narrated by Nick Carraway, and all of our impressions of the characters come from his point of view. So the real question is “why does Nick Carraway think Gatsby is great?” Or in other words, what is it about Gatsby that captures cynical Nick Carraway’s imagination?
And the answer to that comes from Gatsby’s outlook and hope, not his money or extravagance, which are in fact everything that Nick claims to despise. Nick admires Gatsby due to his optimism, how he shapes his own life, and how doggedly he believes in his dream, despite the cruel realities of 1920s America. So Gatsby’s greatness comes from his outlook – even if, to many readers, Gatsby’s steadfast belief in Daisy’s love and his own almost god-like abilities come off as delusional.
Why is Gatsby obsessed with repeating the past?
Gatsby is not so much obsessed with repeating the past as reclaiming it. He wants to both return to that beautiful, perfect moment when he wedded all of his hopes and dreams to Daisy in Louisville, and also to make that past moment his present (and future!). It also means getting right what he couldn’t get right the first time by winning Daisy over.
So Gatsby’s obsession with the past is about control – over his own life, over Daisy – as much as it is about love. This search for control could be a larger symptom of being born into a poor/working class family in America, without much control over the direction of his own life. Even after he’s managed to amass great wealth, Gatsby still searches for control over his life in other ways. Perhaps he fixates on the reclamation of that moment in his past because by winning over Daisy, he can finally achieve each of the dreams he imagined as a young man.
How would the book be different if Gatsby “got the girl?”
The Great Gatsby would probably be much less memorable, first of all! Sad endings tend to stick in your mind more stubbornly than happy ones. Furthermore, the novel would lose its power as a reflection on the American Dream -- if Gatsby ended up with Daisy, the book would be a straightforward rags-to-riches American Dream success story. In order to be critical of the American Dream, Gatsby has to lose everything he’s gained.
The novel would also lose its power as an indictment of class in America, since if Daisy and Gatsby ended up together it would suggest walls coming down between old and new money, something that never happens in the book. Instead, the novel depicts class as a rigid and insurmountable barrier in 1920s America.
A happy ending would also seem to reward both Gatsby’s bad behavior (including crime, dishonesty, and cheating) as well as Daisy’s (cheating, killing Myrtle). This would change the tone of the ending, since Gatsby's tragic death seems to outweigh any of his crimes in Nick's eyes. Also, Gatsby likely wouldn't have caught on as an American classic during the ultra-conservative 1950s had its ending appeared to endorse behavior like cheating, crime, and murder.
In short, although on your first read of the novel you more than likely are hoping for Gatsby to succeed in winning over Daisy, the novel would be much less powerful with a stereotypically happy ending.
How does Jay Gatsby represent the American Dream? Should we be hopeful or cynical about the status of the American Dream by the end of the novel?
There is a bit of a progression in how the reader regards the American Dream in the course of the novel, which moves in roughly three stages and corresponds to what we know about Jay Gatsby.
First, the novel expresses a cautious belief in the American Dream. Gatsby’s parties are lavish, Nick rides over the Queensboro bridge with optimism and the belief that anything can happen in New York (4.55-7), and we see some small but significant breaking of class conventions: Myrtle holding court at an apartment with Tom Buchanan (Chapter 2), the “modish” African Americans riding over the bridge with a white driver (4.56), old money and new money mingling at Gatsby’s party (Chapter 3).
However, this optimism quickly gives way to skepticism. As you learn more about Gatsby’s background and likely criminal ties in the middle-to-late chapters (4-8), combined with how broken George seems in Chapter 7 upon learning of his wife’s affair, it seems like the lavish promises of the American Dream we saw in the earlier half of the book are turning out to be hollow, at best.
This skepticism gives way to pessimism by the end of the novel. With Gatsby dead, along with George and Myrtle, and only the rich alive, the novel has progressed to a charged, emotional critique of the American Dream. After all, how can you believe in the American Dream in a world where the strivers end up dead and those born into money (literally) get away with murder?
So by the end of the novel, the reader should be pretty pessimistic about the state of the American Dream, though there is a bit of hope to be found in the way Nick reflects on Gatsby’s outlook and extends Gatsby's hope to everyone in America.
Is Gatsby a tragic hero?
How you answer this prompt will depend on the definition you use of tragic hero. The most straightforward definition is pretty obvious: a tragic hero is the hero of a tragedy. (And to be precise, a tragedy is a dramatic play, or more recently any work of literature, that treats sorrowful events caused or witnessed by a great hero with dignity and seriousness.) If we consider The Great Gatsby a tragedy, that would certainly make Gatsby a tragic hero, since he’s the hero of the book!
But in Aristotle’s (influential) and more specific definition, a tragic hero is a flawed individual who commits, without evil intentions, some wrong that leads to their misfortunate, usually followed by a realization of the true nature of events that led to his destiny. The tragic hero also has a reversal of fortune, often going from a high place (in terms of society, money, and status) to a ruined one. He also has a “tragic flaw,” a character weakness that leads to his demise.
Using Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero, Gatsby might not fit. There isn’t a sense that he commits some great wrong (unlike, say, the classic example of Oedipus Rex, who kills his own father and marries his mother) – rather, his downfall is perhaps the result of a few smaller wrongs: he commits crimes and puts too much faith in Daisy, who ends up being a killer. In that sense, Gatsby is more of a playful riff on the idea of a tragic hero, someone who is doomed from aiming too high and from trusting too much.
Especially since a huge part of The Great Gatsby is a critique of the American Dream, and specifically the unjust American society that all of the characters have to live within, the idea of a tragic hero – a single person bringing about his own fate – doesn’t quite fit within the frame of the novel. Instead, Nick seems to indict the society around Gatsby for the tragedy, not Gatsby himself.
Does Gatsby really love Daisy? Does Daisy really love Gatsby?
On the surface in Gatsby, we see a man doing whatever it takes to win over the woman he loves (Daisy). He even seems willing to sacrifice everything to protect her by taking the blame for Myrtle's death. However, he ends up killed for his involvement in the affair while Daisy skips town to avoid the aftermath. This can make it look like Gatsby loves Daisy truly while Daisy doesn't love him at all. However, the truth is much more complicated.
Gatsby claims to love Daisy, but he rarely takes into account her own feelings or even the fact that five years have passed since their first romance and that she's changed. In fact, he's so determined to repeat the past that he is unable to see that Daisy is not devoted to him in the way he thinks she is. Furthermore, Gatsby seems to love Daisy more for what she represents -- money, status, beauty -- than as an actual, flawed human being.
As for Daisy, it’s pretty clear she loved Gatsby up until she married Tom (see the bathtub scene as recounted by Jordan in Chapter 4), but whether she still loves him or is just eager to escape her marriage is harder to determine (you can read more in depth about Daisy right here).
Either way, there are certainly strong feelings on both sides. I don't think you could argue Daisy never loved Gatsby or Gatsby never loved Daisy, but their relationship is complex and uneven enough that it can raise doubts. Read more about love and relationships in Gatsby for more analysis!
What’s up with Nick and Gatsby’s friendship? Does Nick believe Gatsby? Why does Gatsby come to admire Nick?
Nick, for his part, starts out suspicious of Gatsby but ends up truly admiring him, to the point that he tells Gatsby that he’s worth more than Daisy, Tom, and their ilk put together. But why does Gatsby come to rely on Nick so much?
Part of the answer comes in Nick’s introduction, when he establishes himself as both part of a privileged group (his family is pretty wealthy and he’s a Yale graduate), but also someone who’s not as incredibly wealthy as the Buchanans – in short, Nick is the sort of person Gatsby wishes he was but not to the degree Gatsby would be jealous of him.
Perhaps more importantly, Nick establishes himself as relatively grounded and a good listener, which is the type of person lacking in Gatsby’s high-flying circles (hundreds of people come to his parties but Nick seems to be the first real friend he makes). Both Nick and Gatsby seem to recognize each other as kindred spirits – people both “within and without” of New York society, rich but not old money aristocracy. The cherry on top of this is the fact Nick is related to Daisy, and is thus a link to her Gatsby can use. So Gatsby starts confiding in Nick to get closer to Daisy, but continues because he finds Nick to be a genuine friend – again, something he severely lacks, as his poor funeral attendance suggests.
What’s up with the “Jay Gatsby is black” theory? Is there any chance it’s true?
Recently, some scholars have argued that another possible layer of The Great Gatsby is that Gatsby is actually part black, but passing as white. This would make Tom’s racist statements much more charged and ironic, if it’s true his wife is cheating on him with a black man. It would also explain Gatsby’s desire to completely sever ties to his past and reinvent himself with an old money background. However, many Fitzgerald scholars point out that Fitzgerald’s conversations with his editor about the book are well documented, and they never had any discussions about Gatsby’s race.
So basically, this theory is intriguing and can be argued for based on the text, but if you take a more historical/biographical approach it’s less likely to be true. You can read more about it here and decide for yourself if you believe it!
There are also similar theories that argue that Gatsby is Jewish. You can read one such theory in depth here.
Is Gatsby based on a real person? Is this a true story? Is there a Great Gatsby house I can go visit?
The Great Gatsby is not based on a true story, and there wasn’t a specific person in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life who inspired the character of Jay Gatsby.
However, F. Scott Fitzgerald did live briefly on Long Island (which is the inspiration for East Egg and West Egg) and spent time with New York celebrities. This was all during the 1920s, when bootlegging and organized crime were in their heyday. So he certainly could have been inspired by real life, newly-rich celebrities. (If you’re curious, the house Fitzgerald lived in is still standing on Long Island, but it’s not a tourist site like, say, Mark Twain’s house is.)
Finally, and perhaps most potently, Fitzgerald himself went through a Gatsby-like heartbreak. Before he married Zelda Sayre, he was in love with a wealthy woman named Ginevra King. A dark-haired beauty, Ginevra went on to marry a wealthy man, leaving F. Scott Fitzgerald behind and heartbroken. Those experiences may have all combined to create the character of Jay Gatsby (as well as Daisy Buchanan), but Jay isn’t based on any one person. You can also read more about F. Scott Fitzgerald's life and the history of the novel's composition.
Still confused about how the last few chapters play out? Catch up with our summaries of chapters 7, 8, and 9.
Read more about Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship and how it stacks up to others in the novel over at our analysis of love, desire, and relationships in Gatsby.
Still wondering about Gatsby’s legacy? Is he a man to be admired or a cautionary tale of someone who put too much stock in an old love? Read about different ways to interpret the novel’s ending.
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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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