The Great Gatsby Themes – Meaning and Main Ideas

Main Theme of The Great Gatsby Introduction

The story takes place in New York, with action occurring in the city, and in the fictional suburban neighborhoods of East Egg and West Egg. These neighborhoods represent wealth, with East Egg being the home of families that have been wealthy for generations and West Egg being the home of the newly rich.

Between the East and West Egg neighborhoods is the Valley of Ashes, which is where the working class live and work. This is a necessary neighborhood to drive through for the East and West Egg residents to drive into the city.

The Valley of Ashes is a dirty neighborhood, polluted by industry in the city. Here, the citizens live while the industrial ashes pollute both their living spaces as well as their hopes and dreams. It is no coincidence that Fitzgerald made the Valley of Ashes a pit-stop for motorists traveling to the city from their homes in the wealthier neighborhoods as wealth plays as a prominent factor in the story’s themes.

Themes in The Great Gatsby

Here’s a list of major themes in The Great Gatsby.

  • The Decline of the American Dream.
  • The Moral Emptiness of the Upper Class.
  • Class as a Protective Force.
  • Love and Marriage.

Theme of Decline of the American Dream

themes in the great gatsby with quotesDecline of the American Dream Meaning: Life in the 1920s was exuberant and indulgent. Prohibition made the illegal sale and consumption of liquor unregulated and intense. The nation’s economy was booming, and many people found themselves experiencing increased wealth.

In the novel, Fitzgerald portrays this time of excess and material prosperity as experiencing a co-occurrent decay of social and moral values. The reckless abandon with which the wealthy partied and celebrated their wealth alienated a whole class of people while causing the wealthy to forget their morals in favor of corruption, notoriety, and pleasure.

This disillusionment is something that narrator Nick Carraway remarks on throughout the novel. Fitzgerald intentionally created Nick as an open-minded, patient character who is quietly perceptive in order to shed light on the greedy and hypocritical nature of extravagant wealth.

Originally, the American Dream was focused on pursuit of happiness, but Fitzgerald’s views as portrayed in the novel have shown how money, greed, and relaxed social values have morphed the American Dream into a fight for power and social status.

For example, Daisy gets caught up in this new American Dream and betrays her love, who she has promised to wait for while he serves in World War I. Instead, she marries the extremely wealthy Tom Buchanan. Seeing that Daisy is attracted to status and wealth, Gatsby sets his sights on winning Daisy back by becoming that person, losing track of himself and his values along the way. It is hinted at that Gatsby turned to organized crime in order to amass his wealth. So, the question is: was what he had to sacrifice in order to appeal to Daisy worth it? The events of the story say no, as this reckless desire to win back Daisy led to his tragic downfall. Gatsby was not a bad person, but the tainted American Dream destroyed him.

The Moral Emptiness of the Upper Class

the great gatsby main ideaMorality in The Great Gatsby: A major focus on the novel is the effects that wealth has on people, both collectively and individually. There is a notable distinction in how the newly wealthy behave and are viewed by others from how the old aristocracy conduct themselves. The newly wealthy are portrayed as more brash, vulgar, and ostentatious, without the social charms of refinement. In contrast, the aristocratic wealthy are graceful and elegant, with more subtlety in their behaviors.

However, both distinctions of wealth are ultimately viewed as lacking in morals. Whereas the newly wealthy flaunt their success and money with gaudy decorations and elaborate parties, the aristocrats tends to be sneakily cunning and will do anything to avoid conflict by instead retreating to hide behind their money. For example, when Daisy kills Myrtle by driving recklessly, Gatsby takes the fall for her and then dies for it. Daisy almost entirely pretends that nothing ever happened, as she knows that she is safe with Tom and Tom’s protective money.

Class as a Protective Force

Towards the end of the novel, after Gatsby has been killed, Nick observes Daisy and Tom and notices that their interactions seem to be strangely intimate given all that has happened. One would suppose that the events (affairs, accidental deaths, lies, etc.) would have torn them apart, but they are oddly drawn together.

Nick notices that they are both incredibly selfish and aloof individuals who are afforded the luxury of pretending that nothing bad in the world can get to them. They are the wealthiest characters in the book, and they are the only ones to escape the tragic events unscathed. Because of their elite economic and social status, Tom and Daisy truly believe that they are immune to the consequences of their greed, deceptions, and disregard for other people.

Theme of Love and Marriage

the great gatsby messageJust like the other themes that speak to the moral decay in American society, the themes surrounding love and marriage do so as well. The institution of marriage is tested in the novel.

Myrtle Wilson, who is adored and celebrated by her husband, finds him boring and begins an affair with the wealthy and powerful Tom Buchanan. It is likely that she sees Tom as her ticket out of her dull life, which is unfortunately true in a sense.

While Tom is having an affair with Myrtle, Daisy seems relatively indifferent and ultimately begins her own affair with Gatsby. As Tom becomes suspicious, he acts jealous and suspicious and begins to behave as if he is in a competition with Gatsby. Ultimately, he knows that his wife is too accustomed to the status and wealth that she has achieved in marrying him and begins to realize that he has the upper hand over Gatsby. Overall, neither Daisy nor Tom seem to have any regard at all for their marriage vows and instead treat the whole thing as a transaction and something that can be won. Ultimately, their refusal to be in touch with the evils of the world and their comfort living behind the veil of their wealth brings them closer together. Fitzgerald seems to portray it more as rottenness attracting rottenness, as the characters who are genuine and kind suffer but are portrayed much more sympathetically.