The Great Gatsby Themes

  • In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald chronicles the death of the American dream. His main character, Jay Gatsby, personifies the American dream, being a self-made man who pulled himself out of poverty, only to meet a tragic end.
  • Another important theme in The Great Gatsby is money. There's a sharp divide between the old money (Tom and Daisy) and the new (Gatsby). This divide is physically represented by the bay between East Egg and West Egg.
  • The theme of death is woven throughout the novel, which sees the death of three important characters: Myrtle Wilson, George Wilson, and Gatsby himself.


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 VII 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 III.


In Chapter I, 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 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 VIII, 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 II, 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 V, 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 V, when Daisy and Gatsby rekindle their love, Nick refers to her...

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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Fitzgerald's ambitions as a writer paralleled those of his spiritual ancestors of the nineteenth century (Melville, Whitman, Thoreau), who...

(The entire section is 447 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Culture Clash
By juxtaposing characters from the West and East in America in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald was...

(The entire section is 844 words.)