Motifs in The Great Gatsby

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  • 0:00 Difference Between…
  • 1:22 Plot of 'The Great Gatsby'
  • 2:14 Judgment
  • 4:37 Wealth
  • 6:35 Infidelity
  • 8:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Mallett Smith

Jennifer has taught high school English for eight years and has a master's degree in curriculum and assessment.

This lesson goes over some motifs in the novel, 'The Great Gatsby.' Gain an understanding of how to identify a motif, how to identify some common motifs in the novel, and have a better understanding of how the motifs function in the novel.

The Difference Between Theme and Motifs

Wild parties, torrid affairs, and a genius career criminal are all part of the novel, The Great Gatsby. At first glance, the novel reads as an exciting love story, but when one delves deeper into the content, several themes become apparent. A theme is a universal idea or concept that the author wishes to comment on in a novel he or she has written. Often, the reader needs clues to help him or her find the theme. One of the themes found in The Great Gatsby is that of morality.

Related to but different than themes, a motif is a literary device that can assist the reader in finding and understanding the theme. Motifs are recurring ideas and structures in a literary work that contribute to the overall theme of the novel. Readers can identify motifs by paying attention to events, characters, or descriptions that are similar in nature and are repeated often.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, judgment, wealth, and infidelity are motifs that contribute to and support the overall theme of morality. Readers can identify these by the plot, character interactions, and through the narration.

Plot of The Great Gatsby

The novel is set in the time period called the Roaring Twenties. Nick Carraway, the narrator, comes to New York to work in stocks. He finds a quaint home next to a mansion owned by a mysterious man named Gatsby. Nick meets up with his cousin, Daisy, a young woman married to a wealthy man named Tom. Later, Nick befriends his wealthy neighbor, Jay Gatsby, at one of the lascivious parties that he has thrown. Nick finds out that Gatsby once knew Daisy and was in love with her. Gatsby asks Nick to reunite them, and Nick does. Tom finds out about the affair and frames Gatsby for the hit-and-run killing of Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson. Myrtle's husband, George, kills Gatsby in an unfortunate turn of events.


The idea of judgment is prevalent in the novel. In the first chapter, Nick tells us that he 'reserves judgment' and that is why he has so many acquaintances that tell him secrets. This is interesting because his judgment of the other characters in the book is what leads the reader to assess the character's morality.

For example, Gatsby commits some immoral acts, like having an affair with Daisy and selling bad stocks to make his money, but at the end of the novel, Nick tells Gatsby that he is better than the other characters, implying to the reader that Gatsby is a moral character. Nick's descriptions of Gatsby also make him a character that one can sympathize with, despite his immoral actions. The reader decides that Gatsby had pure intentions because of his infatuation with Daisy.

In contrast, Nick's judgment of his cousin and her husband show that their immoral acts are more despicable. At the end of the novel, Nick describes them as 'careless people' who use others and then toss them aside. Though his assessment is accurate, Nick is hypocritical because he states at the beginning of his narration that he does not pass judgment on others.

A symbol of judgment, the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, are mentioned several times. The eyes are a huge illustration on a faded billboard near the home of Myrtle and George Wilson. They are mentioned when Nick meets Myrtle and learns of her affair with Tom. They are again mentioned when Myrtle is hit by a car and killed. Finally, George Wilson actually looks at them and states that, ''God is always watching.'' The reader can deduce that the billboard is symbolic of a higher power judging the actions of the characters.

The motif of judgment contributes to the overall theme of morality because all of the characters behave immorally in some way. Fitzgerald paints Gatsby as the hero of the novel, despite his immoral actions. It seems that the author could be demonstrating that everyone makes immoral decisions, but the intent of those actions is what actually makes someone moral or immoral. Basically, Gatsby committed these acts in the name of love, where the other characters committed their immoral acts for selfish reasons.


Money is mentioned in the book from start to end. At the beginning of the novel, Nick speaks about how those with money behave better than those without. Though he has little money, he brags about his prominent family. Later in the novel, Nick describes Gatsby's parties as almost like a circus. He describes in detail the amount of money spent at the parties, but also lets the reader see how destructively the wealthy behave. The reader sees quarrels, broken glasses, and a drunken car crash during the parties. These events suggest that the wealthy do not take care of the nice things they have.

Myrtle Wilson also indulges herself in Tom's money: she purchases a dog for her apartment, changes into expensive clothes, and throws her own parties. Even though she is allowed to do this with Tom's approval, we learn that she is still treated differently than his wife when he physically assaults her and breaks her nose. It's almost as if Tom feels he can treat her this way because of the difference in social status between them.

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