The Great Gatsby Themes
The main themes of The Great Gatsby include the American Dream, money, and death.
- The American Dream: As a self-made man who pulled himself out of poverty, Jay Gatsby personifies the American Dream. His unhappiness and eventual death signifies the end of the illusory American Dream.
- Money: Fitzgerald distinguishes between old money (Tom and Daisy) and new (Gatsby). This divide is represented by the bay between East Egg and West Egg.
- Death: The novel sees the death of three important characters: Myrtle Wilson, George Wilson, and Gatsby himself. It also sees the death of the abstract American Dream.
Last Updated on October 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1938
The American Dream
The American Dream (in particular, the failure to achieve it) is one of the most important themes in the novel. It’s established early on in the first chapter when a stranger asks Nick for directions, making him “a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler,” like the brave pioneers who traveled West in hopes of building better lives for themselves. Immediately after that, Nick tells us that he read a series of finance books in the hopes of making his fortune. Fitzgerald uses this juxtaposition of bankers and pioneers to suggest that the American Dream of owning land and making a name for one’s self has been subsumed by the desire to become rich and thereby perpetuate a capitalist system.
This desire to be rich and successful is at the core of Gatsby’s dream of reuniting with Daisy. He was willing to do anything to attain this dream, including getting involved with Mr. Wolfsheim’s businesses. In a brutally ironic twist, the bootlegging that makes Gatsby rich enough for Daisy is also one of the main reasons he loses her, because when Tom tells her about it in chapter 7 she hesitates and thinks twice about leaving him for Gatsby. Gatsby’s dream self-destructs because, like the American Dream as a whole, it has been corrupted by money and power to the point where it is no longer real or viable. In that sense, both Gatsby’s dream and the larger American Dream die even before Wilson pulls the trigger. Gatsby’s death merely cements what we already know.
In this context, “homes” should be distinguished from mere “houses,” of which there are many in the novel, including Nick’s summer house and Gatsby’s palatial estate. With the one exception of Jordan, whose idea of home we’re not privy to, the main characters are itinerant, in the sense that they leave their childhood homes and spend most of their adult lives moving around, never really making new lives for themselves. Gatsby, for instance, runs away from home, leaving behind the name Jimmy Gatz. Nick also leaves home at the beginning of the novel, only to return at the end, while Daisy and Tom, who had to leave Chicago because of one scandal, have to leave East Egg because of another. Like Klipspringer, the boarder, they all go wherever is most convenient.
In the opening passages of the novel, Nick relates a piece of advice that his father gave him in his “younger and more vulnerable years”: to remember whenever he wants to criticize someone that “all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages [he’s] had.” That his own father tells him that he should be less critical of others suggests that he’s an inherently critical person and that his privilege and wealth (his family owns a successful wholesale hardware business) have made him myopic, insensitive to the struggles of others and unwilling to admit that his point of view might be flawed. Fitzgerald inserts this bit of advice at the beginning to color Nick’s narration, making it less reliable but at the same time far more personal. He introduces Nick as a flawed, intelligent, and often poetic narrator, but the reader, finding beauty in his narrative voice, is inclined to keep reading anyway, even when he says conceitedly, “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known,” at the end of chapter 3.
In chapter 1, Gatsby is described as having an “extraordinary gift for hope,” meaning that he has a sensitivity to life and a sense of its possibilities that surpass those of...
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others. His hope is more or less synonymous with his ability to dream (if not with his dream itself). The people who live in the Valley of Ashes, then, are “hopeless” specifically because they’ve lost most of their ability to dream and realize their dreams. George Wilson’s only hope of a better life is to sell off Tom’s car and use the profits to move out west with Myrtle. When this last shred of hope dies, his only real desire is to kill the person responsible, whom he mistakenly assumes to be Gatsby. In that sense, chapter 8, when Wilson shoots Gatsby, is an account of what happens when hope dies.
Life and Death
Fitzgerald establishes the themes of life and death late in chapter 2, when the drunk party guest crashes the car with Owl Eyes in it. Thus, cars become symbols of death or, when the characters aren’t crashing them, of one’s social status. In chapter 5, during the tour of Gatsby’s house, Nick thinks he hears Owl Eyes’s “ghostly” laughter emanating from one of the many rooms. It is almost as if Gatsby’s house has become a giant, empty tomb where he awaits his death.
In chapter 5, when Daisy and Gatsby rekindle their love, Nick refers to her voice as a “deathless song.” This effectively equates Daisy with a “deathless” or charmed existence and suggests that Gatsby, who becomes enchanted with this voice, doesn’t have the same experience. Together, the two are “possessed by intense life,” but separated, it is only Daisy who survives the affair. This is in part due to the fact that Daisy is married to a rich man who can protect her, if not be faithful to her. As Gatsby says in chapter 7, “Her voice is full of money,” and this is what makes her near invulnerable to harm.
Light and Dark
Related to the themes of life and death are the themes of light and dark. At the very beginning of chapter 5, when Nick returns from his date with Jordan in New York City, Gatsby’s house is “lit from tower to cellar.” Gatsby explains this away by saying he was looking into the rooms of his house, but the effect of leaving the lights on is that the house seems like a giant, shining beacon, not unlike the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock that draws Gatsby toward it.
Money and wealth are key themes in the novel and function as identifiers of a character’s social status. Tom, for instance, descends from “old money” and carries himself like somebody who is accustomed to privilege and prestige. In contrast, the residents of West Egg, including Gatsby, are members of the nouveau riche, a class of people who have only recently earned their money, without having to rely on their family’s old money. East Egg and West Egg themselves embody the divide between the old money and the new and represent the social stratification apparent in New York City (and the nation as a whole) in that time period.
Hand in hand with money comes materialism, which stems from the desire for not only wealth or privilege but things that will display one’s wealth. Hence Gatsby’s house, with its hired orchestra and absurdly beautiful music rooms. Perhaps the best example of materialism is Daisy’s acceptance of the pearl necklace worth $350,000 that Tom gives her. Her affections are effectively bought by this necklace and by the promise of more like it. Daisy wants nothing more than to be safe and secure financially. That is why Gatsby has to be rich in order to win her back. Her materialism is more important to Daisy than his love, whereas his love is more important to him than materialism in general. This is the essential difference between Gatsby and Daisy.
Many of the characters in the novel appear to be outrunning their past: Gatsby assumes his new identity, Daisy and Tom escape the scandal he caused in Chicago, and Jordan Baker buries the fact that she once cheated in a golf tournament. They are all in some way trying to forget who they were and what they did at that time in their lives. And yet, paradoxically, Gatsby also wants to relive select parts of his past, especially his brief affair with Daisy in Louisville. This desire is so consuming that Nick tells him in chapter 6 that he can’t repeat the past, to which Gatsby just responds, “Why of course you can!” He seems convinced of it. This doesn’t work out for him.
This novel is rife with varying forms of entertainment: the gypsy’s dance number in chapter 3, the woman in yellow playing the piano (also in chapter 3), and the jazz standards the orchestra plays throughout Gatsby’s parties. Taken collectively, these performances contribute to the air of luxury and privilege that pervades the party scenes. Individually, they give readers a window into life in the Jazz Age, where excessive drinking, partying, and recklessness often led to disaster, as it does in this novel.
Of all the different performances in this novel, the most important are from people pretending to be something or someone they’re not. This could be said of all the guests at Gatsby’s party, who, in attempting to have fun and make connections, pretend to be happier and more successful than many of them actually are. Jordan Baker, for instance, cheated at a pro golf tournament once but still acts like a champion. Nick pretends not to think much of the parties he attends, but that’s all he can write about. And of course Gatsby pretends to be someone greater than he is, even taking the name “Gatsby” to hide his true identity: Jimmy Gatz, the son of farmers from North Dakota.
There are many different kinds of safety present in this novel: the financial security that comes of being wealthy; the physical safety of having someone to protect you; and the deep psychological security that stems from being privileged, well-regarded, and well-loved. Of the main characters, Daisy is the only one with all three, having been protected by Gatsby, provided for financially by Tom, and loved by both of them. This is exactly the kind of security that makes Daisy’s voice a “deathless song.” She’s impervious to death because others are shielding her from it.
In chapter 9, when Nick and Jordan meet for the last time, Jordan reminds him of something he once said: “a bad driver [is] only safe until she [meets] another bad driver.” This statement might have been inspired by Daisy and the hit-and-run but refers here to Nick and Jordan, who are both “bad drivers” emotionally speaking, incapable of maintaining control over their own feelings. In this way, safety, which has previously been discussed in terms of one’s wealth and privilege, here becomes a question of one’s ability to be safe or avoid accidents, whether literal or metaphorical. Neither Nick nor Jordan can avoid accidents. No one in this novel can.
Fitzgerald first hints at the importance of time to the narrative in chapter 2, when Nick attends a party at Tom’s flat in the city. This party seems to speed up as Nick gets drunker, making events like Tom’s breaking Myrtle’s nose and Nick’s stumbling drunk into the elevator appear to happen in rapid succession. Fitzgerald indicates that Nick lost time or blacked out with an ellipsis followed by a sentence that begins, “I was standing beside his bed” (where the bed belongs to Mr. McKee, a downstairs neighbor of Tom’s). It is unclear what happens in this ellipsis or why Nick was even in Mr. McKee’s room, but the end result is that time seems to lurch forward somehow, becoming more selective and less chronological as it goes.