Themes in The Great Gatsby
November 15, 2022
The Great Gatsby
The theme of class, particularly the elite versus the middle and lower classes, is pronounced throughout The Great Gatsby. This theme is demonstrated via geography: East Egg represents the elite with old money, West Egg represents the elite with new money, and the “valley of ashes” represents the middle and lower classes. Those who are not in one of the wealthier communities strive to be there, as portrayed through the character of Myrtle Wilson. The central character, Jay Gatsby, is obsessed with being seen as one of the greatest of those in West Egg so that he can be reunited with his love, Daisy Buchanan, who lives in East Egg. Fitzgerald‘s strong characterization vividly captures the contrasts between the classes.
Another location comparison used to examine the class theme is that of the Midwest versus the East Coast. Like the comparison between West Egg and East Egg, the Midwest is depicted primarily as a place of new money but also one of strong ethics and new ideas. By contrast, the East Coast, like East Egg, is old money and elitism at its worst. It is an incident of dramatic irony that Nick, Daisy, and Tom are from the Midwest and have moved east for a better life.
Superficiality versus Truth
Superficiality versus truth, or facade versus reality, permeates The Great Gatsby and is best examined by looking at the characters of Jay Gatsby, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, and Jordan Baker. Gatsby’s entire existence personifies superficiality—from his pseudonym, to his fabricated past, to the lavish parties he throws.
Gatsby, in his pursuit of Daisy’s love and the means he needs to secure it, has become so focused and shallow that he struggles to be himself, which is clear in his awkwardness when finally meeting Daisy at Nick’s house.
At his core, Gatsby is motivated by his love for Daisy; he seeks power and money to be accepted among the wealthy and deserving of her love. By the time this story begins, however, he is so entrenched in the lifestyle of the elite that he has lost his way; he has given himself over to his goals and has lied for so long—even to himself—that he is unable to recognize truth or achieve depth in his relationships. Nick discovers this early on when Gatsby attempts to buy his friendship.
The Buchanans and Jordan Baker also lead superficial lives—directionless existences characterized by luxury, wealth, power, and the never-ending pursuit for more.
The Great Gatsby can be seen as a reflection of the rise and fall of the American dream. Fitzgerald sets the story in the frivolous 1920s—before anyone could even have imagined the crash that ushered in the Great Depression four years after the book was published—and focuses on how individuals can re-create themselves and become successful no matter where they begin.
Chasing the American dream comes with harsh realities for some, which Fitzgerald shares through the character of Nick Carraway. For example, while Nick perceives Jay Gatsby to be wealthy and successful, he also recognizes the man’s insecurities and lack of social skills, and sees that Gatsby—to his own detriment—has spent his life chasing a love he has idealized beyond all realistic boundaries.
Degradation of Society
Following World War I, the population’s postwar emotional relief, accessibility of consumer goods, and affluence (in some levels of society) soon led to an unrestrained pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and material goods. The destructive nature of materialism and the society’s crumbling moral values are vividly portrayed in the novel’s characters.
Gatsby’s simplistic view of life—his abiding belief that Daisy will leave Tom Buchanan and marry him—is evidenced regularly in his attempts to buy people’s loyalty, friendship, and love. He tries to pay Nick for setting up the meeting with Daisy, gives Nick the gift of a car, and holds elaborate parties for social hangers-on—many of whom don’t even know him.
Nick feels the pull of his Midwestern moral values, but is swayed by the allure of the East’s excitement and easy pleasures.
Although Daisy loved Gatsby when they first met, she decides not to wait for him when tempted by Tom’s offer of marriage. After all, Tom comes from an elite family and showers her with expensive presents. Later, despite her renewed feelings for Gatsby, she remains with the safe choice of old money and social status.
Myrtle, mesmerized by the glamour she sees in the elite, is willing to trade the moral haven of her marriage for the chance to join the upper class. In that pursuit, she eventually loses her life, whether Daisy meant to hit her, or whether it was an accident.