Theme Of The Great Gatsby Essay Exam

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!

 

What’s Next?

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. 

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

The AP English Literature essay portion of the AP exam is challenging for many students. Not only is it testing you on your ability to analyze higher level pieces of literature, but in order to provide an adequate analysis of a piece of literature, you have to have some key themes and novel highlights memorized, so you’re able to provide evidence for analysis.

The third question on the free response question section of the exam will particularly test you on this. The third FRQ question provides you with a prompt, and a list of recommended books that apply to the prompt given. You are tasked with selecting a book, coming up with a thesis and a point to answer the prompt and provide evidence from the novel you choose. The AP English Literature exam does not expect you to have specific lines and page numbers memorized from every book you covered throughout your class. However, a great way to be prepared for the FRQ section is to know key themes and important scenes of the novels you covered. Another great way to be prepared is through FRQ practice. So, for this AP English Literature Ultimate Guide, we will be covering how to use The Great Gatsby for the 2016, 2007 and 2005 free response questions.

The Great Gatsby AP English Lit essay Themes

The Great Gatsby is a story narrated by Nick Carraway, who had once been Jay Gatsby’s neighbor. The story takes place during the roaring 20’s and begins with Nick’s desire to become a bonds salesman and moves from the Midwest to West Egg, Long Island. The novel tells the story of Jay Gatsby and his affair with Daisy Buchanan as well as the rest of the events that unfold that summer.

A central theme to The Great Gatsby is honesty. The main characters, mostly Gatsby and Daisy, are among the most dishonest; however, their dishonesty is not as black and white as it is in some other novels. Carraway suspects Gatsby of lying about his past and is also aware of his bootlegging and illegal business dealings. Daisy is also dishonest about many things in her life, not just her affair with Gatsby. The irony of honesty in the story is that Daisy is indignant at Gatsby’s lies, despite her dishonesty, and Daisy’s husband Tom is intolerant of her affair with Gatsby, despite lying about his affair.

Gender roles appear as a major theme in The Great Gatsby as well, although they are stereotypically conservative. The way gender roles are presented in the Great Gatsby is that men work in order to have money for the maintenance of their women and that men are superior/dominant over the females in their lives. However, despite the conservative gender roles of the book, women have just as complex characters as the men. Rather than being portrayed as either virgin or vamp, they have more three-dimensional personalities and flaws.

Another central theme in The Great Gatsby is the theme of class structure and society. Class is presented in the novel through the separation of East Egg and West Egg; East egg represents the families who are typically old money, while West Egg represents the families of new money. Gatsby is exceedingly aware of this separation, and is shown throughout the novel desperately trying to achieve an air of old money.

How to use The Great Gatsby for the 2016 AP English Literature Free Response Question

For the third free response questions you are given a general prompt, but you have to select what book you feel you should use to answer the FRQ. The exam provides you with a list of which to choose from, but it is your ultimate decision. For the purpose of this Ultimate Guide, we will demonstrate how to use The Great Gatsby for the AP English Literature essay.

The 2016 AP English Literature FRQ gives you this prompt:

“Many works of literature contain a character who intentionally deceives others. The character’s dishonesty may be intended either to help or to hurt. Such a character, for example, may choose to mislead others for personal safety, to spare someone’s feelings, or to carry out a crime. Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. You may choose a work from the list below or another work of comparable literary merit. Do not merely summarize the plot.”

Deception and lies are a recurring theme in The Great Gatsby; deception is prevalent in the novel as a whole, in individual characters deceiving others, and in characters deceiving themselves.

Throughout the book, the narrator Nick Carraway is fascinated by the incredible stories that arise about Jay Gatsby’s life prior to meeting him. In the book, Carraway suspects that Gatsby is lying about what has happened in his life, either because Gatsby has something to hide or maybe because he is embarrassed about the truth. For supporting evidence to answer this FRQ, any example of a story that Gatsby told Carraway about his life could be used. The lies that Gatsby professes about his parents, or the time he spent in Europe, or the honors bestowed upon him from his time in the army.

The character of Daisy Buchanan is also a deceiving character in the novel; she frequently makes untrue statements about her child, as well as her marriage and the affair she has with Gatsby. Her deception begins with her husband as she starts lying to him about her affair with Gatsby. Her back-and-forth attitude about whether or not she loves her husband Tom, and Gatsby, also shows her own self-deception. She may want to keep her social balance by staying married to her husband, but she may also by lying to herself about whether she truly loved either of them.

How to use The Great Gatsby for the 2007 AP English Literature Free Response Question

The 2007 AP English Literature FRQ gives you this prompt:

“In many works of literature, past events can affect, positively or negatively, the present actions, attitudes, or values of a character. Choose a novel or play in which a character must contend with some aspect of the past, either personal or societal. Then write an essay in which you show how the character’s relationship to the past contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. You may choose a work from the list below or another appropriate novel or play of similar literary merit. Do not merely summarize the plot.”

The past is an exceedingly prevalent theme in The Great Gatsby. Gatsby himself is haunted by the past, and it is clear that he pushes himself and those around him to replicate the past he wishes he was able to have. There is even a scene where Carraway tells Gatsby he can’t replicate the past, to which Gatsby tells him that of course he can. Gatsby is deep into his belief that with all of his money, he will be able to recreate the past.

Gatsby also seems to be trying to recapture the past with Daisy; his obsession with her is encapsulated with his dedication to trying to create the perfect past with Daisy. He believes that his month long affair with Daisy can rewrite the extensive past she has with her husband Tom. He even purchased the mansion on the “west egg” so that he could be across the bay from Daisy in the hopes that she would one day attend one of his lavish parties in order for him to win Daisy back.

How to use The Great Gatsby for the 2005 AP English Literature Free Response Question

The 2005 AP English Literature FRQ provides you with this prompt:

“One of the strongest human drives seems to be a desire for power. Write an essay in which you discuss how a character in a novel or a drama struggles to free himself or herself from the power of others or seeks to gain power over others. Be sure to demonstrate in your essay how the author uses this power struggle to enhance the meaning of the work. You may choose one of the works listed or another work of comparable quality that is appropriate to the question.”

The desire for power in The Great Gatsby is centralized around two things: money and class. For a possible thesis, you can incorporate how Gatsby is seeking power through trying to use his money to attempt to buy “old money” status, which is in part due to the fact that in his society people view their money as their power.

Another possible thesis is to discuss the various power struggles that occur between characters in the novel. For example, Tom continuously seeks to prove his dominance (and therefore, power) over the other women in the novel. There are a number of specific examples throughout the book, however it is not necessary for you to have them all memorized. He also uses winning the heart of Daisy to show Gatsby that he has all the power.

Daisy is another character who is locked in a power struggle, and the majority of the time it’s with her husband Tom. She marries Tom because of his wealth and status, in order for her to maintain power and status. She also uses Gatsby as a pawn to attempt to gain power over her husband, as well as to make herself feel more powerful.

Conclusion

If you are considering using The Great Gatsby for the AP English Literature essay on the FRQ portion of your exam, it’s crucial that you have a grasp on the major themes of the novel. When you are confronted with the third FRQ and tasked with selecting a book, you shouldn’t just choose a book because it’s the one you know most about. Make sure that the book you are selecting is one that you know enough about to provide adequate literary evidence for the essay, as well as the most applicable to the prompt given. However, for the three examples used in this Ultimate Guide, The Great Gatsby is an excellent choice for all three.

It’s perfectly normal to be stressed and concerned about the AP English Literature essay on the FRQ portion of your upcoming exam, but this Ultimate Guide to the 2016, 2007, and 2005 AP English Literature FRQ should help calm your nerves! Are you looking for a more general overview of the AP English Literature FRQs or you want writing advice for the FRQ section? Then check out our Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs and our Ultimate Guide to 2015 AP English Literature FRQs. Our AP English Literature section also has practice free response questions with both sample responses and rubrics to help you practice for the AP English Literature exam. The more you practice, the more you will feel prepared for whatever prompts the exam throws your way. Good luck!

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