'The Great Gatsby' Themes

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, presents a critical portrait of the American dream through its portrayal of the 1920s New York elite. By exploring themes of wealth, class, love and idealism, The Great Gatsby raises powerful questions about American ideas and society.

Wealth, Class, and Society

The Great Gatsby's characters represent the wealthiest members of 1920s New York society. Despite their money, however, they are not portrayed as particularly aspirational. Instead, the rich characters' negative qualities are put on display: wastefulness, hedonism, and carelessness.

The novel also suggests that wealth is not equivalent to social class. Tom Buchanan comes from the old money elite, while Jay Gatsby is a self-made millionaire. Gatsby, self-conscious about his "new money" social status, throws unbelievably lavish parties in hopes of catching Daisy Buchanan's attention. However, at the novel's conclusion, Daisy chooses to stay with Tom despite the fact that she genuinely loves Gatsby; her reasoning is that she could not bear to lose the social status that her marriage to Tom affords her. With this conclusion, Fitzgerald suggests that wealth alone does not guarantee entrance into the upper echelons of elite society.

Love and Romance

In The Great Gatsby, love is intrinsically tied to class. As a young military officer, Gatsby fell quickly for debutante Daisy, who promised to wait for him after the war. However, any chance at a real relationship was precluded by Gatsby's lower social status. Instead of waiting for Gatsby, Daisy married Tom Buchanan, an old-money East Coast elite. It is an unhappy marriage of convenience: Tom has affairs and seems just as romantically uninterested in Daisy as she is in him.

The idea of unhappy marriages of convenience isn’t limited to the upper class. Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, is a spirited woman in a seriously mismatched marriage to a suspicious, dull man. The novel suggests that she married him in hopes of being upwardly mobile, but instead the marriage is simply miserable, and Myrtle herself ends up dead. Indeed, the only unhappy couple to survive "unscathed" is Daisy and Tom, who eventually decide to retreat into the cocoon of wealth despite their marital problems.

In general, the novel takes a fairly cynical view of love. Even the central romance between Daisy and Gatsby is less a true love story and more a depiction of Gatsby's obsessive desire to relive—or even redo—his own past. He loves the image of Daisy more than the woman in front of him. Romantic love is not a powerful force in the world of The Great Gatsby.

The Loss of Idealism

Jay Gatsby is perhaps one of the most idealistic characters in literature. Nothing can deter him from his belief in the possibility of dreams and romance. In fact, his entire pursuit of wealth and influence is carried out in hopes of making his dreams come true. However, Gatsby's single-minded pursuit of those dreams—particularly his pursuit of the idealized Daisy—is the quality that ultimately destroys him. After Gatsby's death, his funeral is attended by just three guests; the cynical "real world" moves on as though he'd never lived at all.

Nick Carraway also represents the failures of idealism through his journey from naïve Everyman observer to burgeoning cynic. At first, Nick buys into the plan reunite Daisy and Gatsby, as he believes in the power of love to conquer class differences. The more involved he becomes in the social world of Gatsby and the Buchanans, however, the more his idealism falters. He begins to see the elite social circle as careless and hurtful. By the end of the novel, when he finds out the role Tom cheerfully played in Gatsby’s death, he loses any remaining trace of idealization of elite society.

The Failure of the American Dream

The American dream posits that anyone, no matter their origins, can work hard and achieve upward mobility in the United States.The Great Gatsby questions this idea through the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby. From the outside, Gatsby appears to be proof of the American dream: he is a man of humble origins who accumulated vast wealth. However, Gatsby is miserable. His life is devoid of meaningful connection. And because of his humble background, he remains an outsider in the eyes of elite society. Monetary gain is possible, Fitzgerald suggests, but class mobility is not so simple, and wealth accumulation does not guarantee a good life.

Fitzgerald specifically critiques the American dream within the context of the Roaring Twenties, a time when growing affluence and changing morals led to a culture of materialism. Consequently, the characters of The Great Gatsby equate the American dream with material goods, despite the fact that the original idea did not have such an explicitly materialistic intent. The novel suggests that rampant consumerism and the desire to consume has corroded the American social landscape and corrupted one of the country's foundational ideas.

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Prahl, Amanda. "'The Great Gatsby' Themes." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-themes-4580676. Prahl, Amanda. (2021, September 8). 'The Great Gatsby' Themes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-themes-4580676 Prahl, Amanda. "'The Great Gatsby' Themes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-themes-4580676 (accessed June 4, 2023).