Compare & Contrast The Great Gatsby & The Grapes of Wrath

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will compare and contrast two classic American novels: The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. We will identify the central themes and characteristics of these masterpieces, and we will see how they relate to one another.

Through the Lens of Literature: The 1920s vs. the 1930s

When we look back at history we can often identify themes that characterize certain decades. For example, the 1940s, or the ''Fighting Forties'' was characterized by World War II. The 1960s was characterized by rebellion and a challenging of the status quo. Sure, this may involve some degree of over-simplification, but decades in the 20th century often have very easily identifiable central themes.

The 1920s and the 1930s couldn't be more different. The ''Roaring Twenties'' were characterized by prosperity, indulgence, leisure, and a zest for life, while the ''Dirty Thirties'' were characterized by economic catastrophe, hopelessness, depression, and hardships that came with the Great Depression. Both of these decades are portrayed in classic American novels. F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby vividly portrays the pursuit of pleasure that was so common in the 1920s, while John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath shows us the suffering and hardships common to many Americans in the 1930s. These works of literature powerfully reflect the ''spirit'' of their time. They allow readers to understand what the 1920s and 1930s were like.

Author of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Let's dig deeper and compare and contrast these two modern classics. We'll analyze them and see how they relate to one another.

The American Dream

In addition to reflecting the zeitgeist, or ''spirit of the times'', The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath have much in common. Personal fulfillment and ''happiness'' (for lack of a better word) prevail in both stories. We can think of this as the pursuit of the American Dream. In The Great Gatsby it takes the form of pursuing pleasure and living the ''high life''. Parties, getting rich, drinking, and sex are presented as the fulfillment of the American Dream. Jay Gatsby and his friends indulge in pleasure on their quest to achieve the American Dream, but it ultimately proves futile. Jay Gatsby is a character who feels very empty on the inside, and he hopes to find ultimate fulfillment in winning the heart of Daisy Buchanan. For Gatsby, Daisy is the American Dream: she represents what he thinks will finally bring him fulfillment and joy.

Indulgence and the pursuit of pleasure was a central theme of the 1920s.

In The Grapes of Wrath the American Dream is simpler. It involves escaping the economic hardships of the Great Depression. In this book, the Joad family is driven from their home by the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl was a series of severe dust storms that plagued the Midwest during the late 1930s. These storms killed livestock, found their way into people's homes and food, prevented automobiles from running, and blacked out the sun for days.

The Dust Bowl was a series of severe dust storms that plagued the Midwest during the late 1930s.


The Joads seek to find the American Dream by moving to California, a place that was typically regarded as having better opportunities. Materialism is a prominent theme in both novels. Both stories incorporate a high degree of economic content. Gatsby is stinking rich and his lavish lifestyle is a central component of the book. Despite having enormous wealth, he feels empty. The Joads are poor and are seeking material wealth. Their journey to California represents an attempt to secure material wealth and improve their material position.

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