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!
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.
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One reason that The Great Gatsby has now become a byword for the East Coast of the Roaring 20s - the decadently extravagant post-WWI era - is that Fitzgerald was amazing at creating memorable settings. Whether it's the sprawling luxury of Gatsby's mansion, the drunken chaos of Myrtle's apartment, or the suffocating airlessness of a suite at the Plaza Hotel, The Great Gatsby features settings that perfectly encapsulate character, mood, atmosphere, and emotions.
In this article, I'll go through all of the Great Gatsby settings, explain what role settings play in a novel, show how these settings compare with one another, and explore what symbolic meaning they have.
- Why Is Setting Important
- All the Settings in The Great Gatsby
- Great Gatsby Time Period Setting
- Comparing and Contrasting Paired Great Gatsby Locations
- Midwest versus East Coast
- Manhattan versus Long Island
- East Egg versus West Egg
- Gatsby's mansion versus Daisy and Tom's mansion
- The Valley of Ashes: Setting and Symbol
- How to Write About Setting
Why Is Setting Important?
The literary term "setting" means the time and place of a novel's events. If the characters are the "who," then the setting is the "where" and "when." This "where and when" can be very general - for example, "20th century Earth." Alternately, the setting can be each of the many different places where any of the novel’s actions occur, no matter how small. For instance, you could a imagine a domestic drama where different rooms in the same house work as different settings.
Usually, novels feature several different settings, and authors use descriptive language to explain what these times and places look, smell, sound, and maybe even feel like. Using these descriptions, we can learn a lot!
Settings help readers fully understand characters. Character backgrounds, motivations, and the pressures they feel from their environment and surrounding society, are often coded into the places where they are. For example, a 20-year-old woman in a novel set in Victorian England would be under enormous pressure to get married and have kids (this desperation is the plot of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth). Meanwhile, the same woman in a novel set in today’s NYC is going to be more worried about getting a job (the main drama in The Devil Wears Prada).
Settings develop or affect plot. Actions that are commonplace in one setting would be impossible in another. Often this has to do with what is and isn't considered acceptable behavior. Other times, it has to do with the technology, transportation, or means of communication that are available in a particular time. Many bad decisions in G. R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire happen because it takes weeks or months to get a piece of information from one castle to another - the quasi-medieval setting dictates this part of the plot.
Settings contribute to mood, tone, and atmosphere. Many novels use setting as a way of developing a particular mood. For instance, the magical yet desolate and creepy setting of the moors in Wuthering Heights creates the prevailing air of menace, imprisonment, and terror that infects that novel. Contrast this with the cozy setting of Little Women, where the March house represents the loving, close-knit, family atmosphere of the novel as a whole.
Settings are used for symbolic or thematic purposes. Sometimes a particular setting is linked to one of the novel's themes, functions as a symbol, or if used to make moral, ethical, or aesthetic judgments. For example, in The Great Gatsby, the Valley of Ashes – an industrial neighborhood in Queens – symbolizes the desperate circumstances of those who are victims of the capitalist system the novel describes.
There's a reason horror movies aren't typically set in sunny green meadows.
All the Settings In The Great Gatsby
Before analyzing the Great Gatsby settings, I'm going to briefly explain and describe all the different settings that the novel uses.
The Great Gatsby takes place during the summer of 1922. The 1920s are a period that is sometimes called the Roaring 20s or the Jazz Age.
The Great Gatsby takes place in the United States. Most of the characters come from the Midwest to the East Coast.
In the novel, the East Coast setting is divided into three distinct places: Manhattan, Long Island, and an industrial part of Queens that the novel calls either the Valley of Ashes or just the ashheaps.
In Manhattan, we see two main settings: Tom and Myrtle's apartment uptown in Harlem, and a suite in the very posh Plaza Hotel next to Central Park.
Gatsby's Long Island is broken down into two incredibly wealthy towns that face each other across a bay: West Egg, less fashionable and home to new money people, and East Egg, where older and more established families live.
We see two West Egg settings: Jay Gatsby's sprawling, extravagant mansion, and Nick Carraway's small rented house next door.
In East Egg lies Tom and Daisy Buchanan's red and white Georgian mansion.
In the novel's version of Queens, the main setting is George Wilson's garage and the road that runs next to it, connecting Long Island and Manhattan.
Oheka Castle, one of the real life mansions that are said to have inspired Fitzgerald.
Quick Note on Our Citations
Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book. To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.
Great Gatsby Time Period Setting
What makes the Roaring 20’s different from other periods in history, and why does all the action take place in the summer time?
The novel takes place during a period of enormous change and transition for the U.S.
1919 brought the end of World War I, a war marked by its massive death toll and the horrors of trench warfare which countered the image of soldiering as glorious and heroic. The young men who fought in the war were dubbed The Lost Generation: the devastated and aimless survivors and the needlessly slaughtered dead.
The post-war period in America was later dubbed the Roaring 20s because of the country's rapidly growing economy and the greater influence abroad that came as a result of American involvement in the war. Many of the things this time period is famous for connect with events in the novel.
- Prohibition went into effect in 1920, making almost all recreation alcohol illegal. This means that any time you see people drinking alcohol in the novel, they are breaking the law. Moreover, Gatsby’s enormous wealth comes from him being a bootlegger - someone who illegally sells alcohol
- Women got the right to vote in 1919, and the Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1923. In The Great Gatsby, the power and agency of women come up often. The three women in the novel make choices about their independence; Daisy and Myrtle find it hard to escape dysfunctional marriages, though they try through affairs; Jordan is able to lead a more independent life.
- The production and ownership of cars skyrocketed after Ford popularized the efficient mass production of cars by assembly line. In the 1920, 1 out of 4 Americans owned a car. In the novel, cars are associated with danger and recklessness, as people are constantly either talking about car accidents or getting into them. And of course, the climax of the novel is when Daisy runs over and kills Myrtle.
The Great Gatsby pointedly takes place during the summer, as opposed to any other season. I say pointedly because the novel goes out of its way to assign meaning to summertime and to contrast it with the rest of the year - and often even with itself.
For example, summer is somehow both healthfully airy and horribly suffocating. Nick initially relishes the Long Island summer, shirking his work because there is "so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giving air" (1.12).
But in the tense confrontation in the Plaza Hotel, where Tom, Gatsby, and Daisy have a life-changing fight, the oppressive and unbearable summer heat means the room has basically no breathable air at all:
The room was large and stifling, and, though it was already four o'clock, opening the windows admitted only a gust of hot shrubbery from the Park...
"Open another window," commanded Daisy, without turning around.
"There aren't any more."
"Well, we'd better telephone for an axe——"
"The thing to do is to forget about the heat," said Tom impatiently. "You make it ten times worse by crabbing about it."
... the compressed heat exploded into sound and we were listening to the portentous chords of Mendelssohn's Wedding March from the ballroom below.
"Imagine marrying anybody in this heat!" cried Jordan dismally.
Similarly, it's up for debate whether the summer brings with it life - the way we typically associate new foliage with a sense of rebirth - or not. On the one hand, Nick starts out with a traditional view of the summertime:
And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees - just as things grow in fast movies - I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer. (1.11)
But soon, Jordan compares summer unfavorably to the potentially positive change that fall brings when she says.
Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall. (7.75)
This desire to have life start over again is crucial, since this novel is so interested in how the wish for forward momentum fights against the way the past anchors us and pulls us back. Despite his initial positive feelings about the summer on the East Coast, Nick eventually reverts to his roots in the Midwest. He contrasts the disappointing summer he spends on Long Island with the season he associates with Midwestern wholesomeness and goodness - winter:
That's my middle west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life. (9.125)
I don't know about you, but I'll take this version of summer any day.
Comparing and Contrasting Paired Great Gatsby Locations
Now let's tackle the Great Gatsby settings that function as foils to one another. We can analyze them by comparing and contrasting them to each other.
Midwest vs. East Coast
Considering Nick eventually decides that what he has written is really the story of Midwesterners failing to make it on the East Coast, these might be the two most significant settings in the novel.
Still, before we dive in, it's important to remember that this Midwest is Nick's version of the Midwest, which is often undercut (for instance, a lot of Gatsby's criminal business comes as phone calls from big Midwestern cities like Detroit).
Nick describes the Midwest as the center of all things moral and wholesome. It's a place where everyone is friendly, happy, innocent, and so much "in it together," that when he is describing his memories of the Midwest, Nick doesn't use the pronoun "I," but instead starts writing in the first floors person plural "we":
One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time... I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This or That's and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances and the matchings of invitations: "Are you going to the Ordways'? the Herseys'? the Schultzes'?" and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.
When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again. (9.123-124)
In contrast, the East Coast is a place where everyone is so out for themselves, that after Gatsby dies none of the people whom he spent an entire summer entertaining can even be bothered enough to come to his funeral.
In the beginning, this Midwestern quality of goodness strikes Nick as boring, which is why he decides to go East to New York:
Instead of being the warm center of the world the middle-west now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe—so I decided to go east and learn the bond business. (1.6)
But after his experiences during the summer, Nick comes to see the East as a kind of nightmare of debauchery, violence, and a disregard for human life:
Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old—even then it had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg especially still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon. In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house—the wrong house. But no one knows the woman's name, and no one cares.
After Gatsby's death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes' power of correction. (9.126-127)
Manhattan vs. Long Island
The action in The Great Gatsby is about evenly split between Manhattan and Long Island.
Overall, Manhattan is the place where characters go to show off their disregard for society’s rules and lawful behavior. It's the easiest place to accommodate sexual indiscretions and shady business dealings:
- In Chapter 2, Tom takes Nick there to meet his mistress, Myrtle, and go to a party at their apartment, where Tom has sex with her while Nick waits, and where Tom ends the evening by punching Myrtle in the face.
- Gatsby takes Nick to Manhattan in Chapter 4 to have lunch with Meyer Wolfshiem, the gangster who fixed the World Series and who is Gatsby’s business partner.
- Finally, Gatsby, Nick, Daisy, Jordan, and Tom to go Manhattan in the explosive Chapter 7 showdown where Daisy chooses Tom over Gatsby.
Partly this is because Manhattan is portrayed as a melting pot where a diversity of social classes, races, and backgrounds is par for the course, and where unusual people don't really stand out. For example, check out this passage where Nick and Gatsby are driving into the city:
The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.
A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds and by more cheerful carriages for friends. The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe, and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby's splendid car was included in their somber holiday. As we crossed Blackwell's Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
"Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge," I thought; "anything at all. . . ."
Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder. (4.55-58)
There are wealthy African-Americans, European immigrants, the living and the dead, all mixed together without a problem. The city is awash in possibility, the "wild promise" that anything could happen there - "even Gatsby."
Also, misdeeds are easy to get away with in Manhattan because its size affords everyone enormous anonymity, which Nick loves:
I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. (3.157)
On the other hand, Long Island is a much smaller, more insular community. Instead of shrugging off anonymous misbehavior, the people on Long Island care deeply about who their neighbors are and what they are doing. It's harder to conduct affairs, shady business, or whatever else there without incurring the moral opprobrium of everyone else.
While Gatsby is unremarkable in Manhattan, in West Egg he becomes the focal point of unending rumors. People say he is related to Kaiser Willhelm (the ruler of Germany during WWI, and thus America's main enemy), that he is a German spy, and any number of other things:
Gatsby's notoriety, spread about by the hundreds who had accepted his hospitality and so become authorities on his past, had increased all summer until he fell just short of being news. Contemporary legends such as the "underground pipe-line to Canada" attached themselves to him, and there was one persistent story that he didn't live in a house at all, but in a boat that looked like a house and was moved secretly up and down the Long Island shore. (6.5)
Similarly, Tom's affair with Myrtle benefits from its city setting, as Tom feels free to cheat on his wife in public: "he turned up in popular restaurants with her and, leaving her at a table, sauntered about, chatting with whomsoever he knew" (2.4). Meanwhile, when Daisy and Gatsby start their affair, Gatsby has to fire his entire household staff because he is worried that his servants will tell everyone what they've seen:
Gatsby had dismissed every servant in his house a week ago and replaced them with half a dozen others, who never went into West Egg Village to be bribed by the tradesmen... The grocery boy reported that the kitchen looked like a pigsty, and the general opinion in the village was that the new people weren't servants at all.
Next day Gatsby called me on the phone.
"Going away?" I inquired.
"No, old sport."
"I hear you fired all your servants."
"I wanted somebody who wouldn't gossip. (7. 9-14)
You can see how rumor immediately spreads and is uncontainable in the close circles of Long Island. Even despite all of Gatsby's precautions, Nick has already "heard" from someone else that Gatsby has fired all his servants.
This minute observation of one's neighbors really differentiates the towns in Long Island from the big city of Manhattan.
The rumor mill even brings a reporter out to interview Gatsby in Chapter 6.
West Egg vs. East Egg
While very rich people live in both East Egg and West Egg, the difference is the kind of rich people live in each town.
East Egg is for the old money crowd - people whose wealth is inherited, and who have been the upper crust of society for generations. In contrast, West Egg is for the nouveau riche - self-made people who have become rich recently and who were originally born into working or middle-class families.
This means that in general everyone from East Egg looks down on everyone from West Egg in order to demonstrate their superiority. (Nick is one of the exceptions: he lives in West Egg despite having the family background necessary to fit in in East Egg). At one of Gatsby’s parties, Nick hangs out with an East Egg group who don’t socialize with anyone else and who are clearly there to mock and be appalled by the other party guests:
Jordan invited me to join her own party who were spread around a table on the other side of the garden...Instead of rambling this party had preserved a dignified homogeneity, and assumed to itself the function of representing the staid nobility of the countryside—East Egg condescending to West Egg, and carefully on guard against its spectroscopic gayety. (3.37)
This also means that since they can’t distinguish themselves through their wealth, East Egg residents rely on their better understanding of the nuances and minutiae of manners and behavior to signal that they are so very far above their West Egg neighbors. We get the sense that every East Egg person is forever sending knowing looks at every other East Egg person every time they encounter someone from West Egg. For example, check out Gatsby’s encounter with Tom’s horseback riding friend Sloane and his woman friend, when Gatsby repeatedly puts his foot in his mouth:
Mr. Sloane didn't enter into the conversation but lounged back haughtily in his chair; the woman said nothing either - until unexpectedly, after two highballs, she became cordial.
"We'll all come over to your next party, Mr. Gatsby," she suggested. "What do you say?"
"Certainly. I'd be delighted to have you." ...
"You come to supper with me," said the lady enthusiastically. "Both of you." ...
Gatsby looked at me questioningly. He wanted to go and he didn't see that Mr. Sloane had determined he shouldn't...
"My God, I believe the man's coming," said Tom. "Doesn't he know she doesn't want him?"
"She says she does want him." ...
Suddenly Mr. Sloane and the lady walked down the steps and mounted their horses.
"Come on," said Mr. Sloane to Tom, "we're late. We've got to go." And then to me: "Tell him we couldn't wait, will you?"
Tom and I shook hands, the rest of us exchanged a cool nod and they trotted quickly down the drive, disappearing under the August foliage just as Gatsby with hat and light overcoat in hand came out the front door. (6.38-59)
Gatsby, the quintessential West Egg-er, can’t tell that the woman doesn’t want him to come to her party. He is even less able to see that Sloane really doesn’t want him to come. And he doesn’t seem to sense how rude they are being to him - something which Tom and Nick pick up on immediately.
This social cluelessness and lack of social adroitness translate into the style with which Gatsby lives his life. He spends enormous sums of money, but with every purchase, he is always showing that he is new to the moneyed scene. Let’s see how this plays out in his house.
Gatsby’s Mansion vs. Daisy and Tom’s Mansion
The differences between old money and new money are reflected primarily by differences in style, aesthetics, and taste.
Gatsby typifies the ostentatious, over-the-top conspicuous consumption of those whose wealth is new and so must be always on display:
I lived at West Egg, the—well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them. My house was at the very tip of the egg, only fifty yards from the Sound, and squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season. The one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard—it was a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby's mansion. (1.14)
His house is a reproduction of French chateau. This is ridiculous both because this French design is out of place in America, and also because it is a visibly brand new building trying to replicate something that would be centuries old. It’s completely ludicrous, and it is telling that the only person who has the desired response to this mansion is Gatsby’s father:
It was a photograph of the house, cracked in the corners and dirty with many hands. He pointed out every detail to me eagerly. "Look there!" and then sought admiration from my eyes. (9.102)
Gatsby’s father has the same taste as Gatsby - the appreciation of a poor person for the trappings of wealth.
Meanwhile, Daisy and Tom live in a house that is also extravagant, but one that has its luxury somewhat concealed:
Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red and white Georgian Colonial mansion overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold, and wide open to the warm windy afternoon (1.18)
The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling—and then rippled over the wine-colored rug (1.26)
The house is much more fit for its location - Georgian Colonial is an architectural style that is appropriate to America (as its name suggests, it came from England during the colonial period).
The description also confirms the permanence of the Buchanans' mansion. Gatsby’s house is fighting with its surroundings (it’s off both in time period, and it seems to be having a problem with the “raw” ivy). In contrast, Daisy and Tom’s house is so much a part of the environment that the grass “seemed to grow a little way into the house,” blurring outside and inside just like the open windows that let the breeze blow through.
It may not be too much to read some foreshadowing into these contrasting descriptions: Gatsby’s house is too new and not rooted enough. Meanwhile, the place where Daisy and Tom live is deeply embedded and seems unbreakable.
No one's pulling this thing out of the ground anytime soon.
The Valley of Ashes: Setting and Symbol
The Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby functions both as a literal place where the climactic event of the novel happens, and is also a powerful symbol – in other words, a concrete object that stands for an abstract idea connected to the novel's themes.
The Valley of Ashes is the name that Nick gives to an industrial neighborhood in Queens that the rich have to drive through on their way from the Eggs to Manhattan. This is where George Wilson has his gas station, and where Myrtle Wilson is run over and killed by Daisy. Suitably, it is a horribly bleak and drab place:
About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight. (2.1)
This is the place where those who cannot make it in the cutthroat world of East Coast capitalism end up. It is also the place propping up much of that wealth through the production coming from the factories that are polluting the spot.
But the description that transforms the ash that covers everything from simply being dust to a scary substance capable of creating otherworldly plans and people signals that this Valley of Ashes has rich symbolic meaning. For a detailed analysis of how this symbol functions within the great Gatsby, check out our articles on how to approach symbols in general and on the Valley of Ashes as a symbol in particular.
How to Write About The Great Gatsby Setting
So how do you use setting to create a compelling essay?
Pick a Topic
There are several ways to go about finding your topic when tackling this kind of assignment. Here are some possibilities:
Close reading. You can focus on settings themselves, digging really deeply into the description of one, two, or more places or times in the novel to explore how word choice, similes, metaphors, and any other literary devices help the reader visualize location. For example, you could trace the way the word "ash" appears in the novel, at first defining The Valley of Ashes itself is a kind of fantastical alternate reality, and then spreading out toward the places of the privileged. You could focus on a literary device called metonymy, using a part to stand in for the whole, and explore why the novel chooses to focus on Dustin Ash as the representative aspect of this neighborhood.
Connection to character. Often, setting is a way to define character. If you write about this, your essay will tease out the common qualities of a character and of the place most closely associated with that character. These will either be synergistic, with one amplifying the other, or else they will play as a contrast, undercutting the character. In our case, for instance, Gatsby's mansion speaks volumes about how he sees himself and his money, and also about the vast gulf that separates him from the upper elite that he really wants to be part of. Conversely, Nick's pokey little house seems humble and unassuming, much like Nick wants to project himself to be. But in reality, by being located next to obscenely luxurious mansions, the house is only falsely modest, and shows off some of Nick's poorly disguised snobbery. (Read more about all the novel's characters in our overview article.)
Connection to theme. Similarly, setting can help clarify a novel's theme by providing a concrete example of an abstract idea. In the great Gatsby, you could focus on the way one or more of the settings play into the failure of the American Dream, one of this novel's most salient themes. One way to do this would be to focus on the Valley of Ashes, the place where dreams come to die, both literally and figuratively. If the idea of the American dream is that through hard work anyone can become successful, then George Wilson's tragic fate, as exemplified through his garage and circumstances, serves to completely debunk this myth.
Create an Argument
It’s not enough to just describe one of the novel's settings and explain its possible connections to either character or theme - or to compare and contrast it to another setting. Instead, you have to make sure that you’re making some kind of point about why/how the setting functions in the novel as a whole.
How do you know if you’re making an argument and not just saying the obvious? If you can imagine someone arguing the opposite of what you’re saying, then you’ve got an argument on your hands.
Once you've figured out what you want to argue, start small by analyzing chunks of the text where the symbol pops up, and then broadening your points out to the rest of the book. This way, your argument will be strengthened by textual evidence.
Learn how to write about the themes that settings are usually linked to.
Get help on other assignments by reading our guide on analyzing or comparing and contrasting characters.
Brush up on the context of these settings in our summary of The Great Gatsby.
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