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Essay Prompts

The Great Gatsby
Essay Prompts taken from
1. The American Dream--as it arose in the Colonial period and developed in the nineteenth century--was
based on the assumption that each person, no matter what his or her origins, could succeed in life on the
sole basis of his or her own skill and effort.
The Great Gatsby is a novel about what happened to the American dream in the 1920s, a period when the
old values that gave substance to the dream had been corrupted by the vulgar pursuit of wealth.
What Fitzgerald seems to be criticizing in The Great Gatsby is not the American Dream itself but the
corruption of the American Dream. What was once--for Ben Franklin, for example, or Thomas Jefferson--a
belief in hard work has become what Nick Carraway calls "...the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious
beauty." The energy that might have gone into the pursuit of noble goals has been channeled into the
pursuit of power and pleasure, and a very showy, but fundamentally empty form of success.
Carefully discuss how this idea is shown in the book.
2. Style refers to the way a writer puts words together: the length and rhythm of his sentences; his use of
figurative language and symbolism; his use of dialogue and description.
How does Fitzgerald’s styling and structuring of the narrative emphasize the novel’s major themes?
3. The word “careless” sums up one of the most important ideas in the book. Nick refers to Jordan, Tom,
and Daisy as careless in one form or another. Their actions are careless and they are careless people. This is
due to the ease of their life. These people live the decadent life of the roaring twenties that many of the
writers of this era were criticizing. The mindless, indulgent, irresponsible lifestyle where consequence is
just an afterthought. Fitzgerald uses these characters to expose this life with their selfish actions.
It has been said that this is a statement of the moral differences in the social classes. Fitzgerald’s story
shows the clear delineations between different social/ economic classes: new money/ old money, “the
haves”/ “the have-nots.” How are readers to interpret his comments on each of these groups? Does he
hold any one group above the other? Are there ways in which people of all groups are alike? How
are these ideas shown in the text?
4. In Chapter VII, Nick remembers that it is his thirtieth birthday. He, like Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy, came
East to get away from his past; now that his youth is officially over, he realizes that he may have made a
mistake to come East, and begins a period of reevaluation that leads to his eventual decision to return to the
Middle West. The Great Gatsby is the story of Nick's initiation into life. His trip East gives him the
education he needs to g row up. The novel can, therefore, be called a bildungsroman--the German word for
a story about a young man. We simply call them by the more general description of “Coming of Age” or
“Rite of Passage” stories. (Other examples of a bildungsroman are The Red Badge of Courage, David
Copperfield, and The Catcher in the Rye.) Nick, in a sense, writes The Great Gatsby to show us what he
has learned.
So, what has he learned? What is the lesson Nick is offering his reader? How is the lesson made clear
considering Nick’s inability to judge?
5. The past is of central importance in the novel, whether it is Gatsby's personal past (his fling with Daisy
in 1917) or the larger historical past to which Nick refers in the closing sentence of the novel: "So we beat
on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." The past holds something that both
Gatsby and Nick seem to long for: a simpler, better, nobler time, perhaps, a time when people believed in
the importance of the family and the church. Tom, Daisy and Jordan are creatures of the present--Fitzgerald
tells us little or nothing about their pasts--and it is this relationship with the present moment that makes
them so attractive, and also so rootless and spiritually empty.
How is this theme developed in the novel? How is it a reflection of the Modernist period itself?
6. The eyes of T. J. Eckleburg convey a major theme in the novel. George Wilson compares them to the
eyes of God looking over the valley of Ashes. The unmoving eyes on the billboard look down on the
Valley of Ashes and see all the immorality and garbage of the times. By the end of the novel some say this
image symbolizes that God is dead. Discuss the meaning/s of this symbol.
7. Compare the characters of Nick and Gatsby. One critic has compared Nick and Gatsby in the following
way: "Nick’s mind is conservative and historical, as is his lineage; Gatsby’s is radical and apocalyptic—as
rootless as his heritage. Nick is too much immersed in time and reality; Gatsby is hopelessly out of it. Nick
is always withdrawing, while Gatsby pursues the green light. Nick can’t be hurt, but neither can he be
happy. Gatsby can experience ecstasy, but his fate is necessarily tragic." Analyze the similarities and
differences between these two men and of what these similarities and differences inform the reader.
*this prompt can be slightly adjusted to deal with any pairing of characters from the text
8. Fitzgerald skillfully wove colors into his novel. Sometimes the colors carry traditional connotations,
other times they do not and are used satirically. Analyze the color white in the novel. When does it falsify
a sense of innocence? When does it symbolize true innocence? What are we supposed to understand about
the world through Fitzgerald’s use of color?
*this prompt can be slightly adjusted as to allow a discussion of another color
9. Some critics believe that Nick, not Gatsby, is the hero of the story. Why might you come to this
conclusion? Do you agree? As always, explain yourself.
10. Original thesis