The Great Gatsby: A Novel of Necessary Motifs

Jordan Gray, Jennifer Mallett Smith
  • Author
    Jordan Gray

    Jordan has taught English 10 & 11, Creative Writing, Speech, and Mythology for the past 6 years. She has a Bachelor's Degree in English Education from the University of Kansas. She enjoys all things creative, reading, writing, researching, editing, and teaching.

  • Instructor
    Jennifer Mallett Smith

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

Discover the motifs in ''The Great Gatsby.'' Review the symbols and study the motifs of judgment, wealth, infidelity, and many more in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. Updated: 01/24/2022

"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote "The Great Gatsby" in 1925 during the Roaring 20s; a time when there was great social, political, and economic change for a number of American citizens. The novel focuses on a group of characters who are all trying to navigate their way around an ever-evolving world. While some characters live in extreme wealth, others live in destitute conditions and poverty, and the only thing that connects them is what we will be focused on today: motifs and symbolism. From judgmental opinions and infidelity to parties, cars, sports, and alcohol, these characters are more similar and connected than they may even realize.

This lesson will provide the reader with an explanation of what exactly a motif is and will discuss each of the motifs within "The Great Gatsby" in detail.

Themes vs. Motifs

Even the most experienced reader might find themselves confused when trying to think of the difference between a theme and a motif. One of the most important differences between a theme and a motif is that a theme is more of an overarching idea while a motif is a repeated symbol that occurs time and time again within the story.

For example, it is highly possible that five different readers could read "The Great Gatsby" and come up with a different concept for the theme. This is because a theme can be any sort of big-picture idea as long as the story supports it in every element.

However, those same five readers would likely come to an agreement over the motifs. They might ask themselves, what sort of idea was repeated over and over? What kind of symbols were used that led us to the main idea? What symbolism can be seen throughout the story that leads us to understanding motifs? A motif can often be used to point the reader directly to the theme. It is something that is clearer and more apparent throughout the story.

By paying attention to the main ideas, character, and events, as well as symbols and descriptions within the story, the reader can generally locate the motif relatively easily.


Eyes featured on the cover of The Great Gatsby circa 1925


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.

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Motifs in The Great Gatsby

Let's learn about some of the most important motifs within "The Great Gatsby."

Remember, a motif is a key subject or idea that plays an important role and is repeated multiple times within a story.

Judgment in The Great Gatsby

Judgment plays an extremely important role within "The Great Gatsby." On the first page of the novel, Nick states that he reserves judgments because he does not know what other people have gone through. Nevertheless, he spends the rest of the book making judgments about people who are different from him. After he first goes over to Daisy and Tom's house on West Egg, he comments to himself that Tom is morally corrupt and Daisy is a spoiled, entitled princess. By the end of the novel, he refers to the rich people as those who do not care about anything other than growing their wealth and stomping on anyone they need to get there.

Another clear symbol of judgment are the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes are located on a huge, faded billboard in the Valley of Ashes, directly across from the window from George Wilson's garage. They only seem to be mentioned when Nick learns something new and casts judgment: first, when Nick meets Tom's mistress, Myrtle, for the first time. Next, when Myrtle is killed after being hit by a car. And lastly, when George Wilson looks up at them as if they are the eyes of God and states he knows God is always watching him. The billboard symbolizes a higher power above Nick, something that is watching and judging the characters who cross his path.

Wealth in The Great Gatsby

From the start of the book to the end, money plays an important motif throughout. Though Nick does not have much money, he comes from a wealthy family and is proud of that fact. He attends Gatsby's lavish parties and comments on the amount of money that must have been spent to procure the amounts of alcohol, freshly squeezed orange juice, and other party favors used to create these incredible nights. He notes the amount of arguments, destroyed glass, and drunk driving which occurs and thinks to himself perhaps the wealthy don't care about their nice things and would rather have a good time.

Nick's interactions with Tom and Daisy almost entirely center around the motif of money. Daisy blatantly tells Nick on multiple occasions one of the reasons she is with Tom is because of his money and the easy lifestyle he can provide. When Nick accompanies Tom and Myrtle to the apartment he provides for her in the city, Myrtle stops a man on the street and asks to get a dog for her apartment. They acquire the dog but it is never mentioned again, almost as if Myrtle was using Tom's wealth for her own satisfaction. Tom shows the reader he doesn't see Myrtle on the same playing field when he slaps her across the face and breaks her nose; he would never do this to his wife, Daisy, because she comes from money just like him.

Infidelity in The Great Gatsby

The first time Nick goes to visit Daisy and Tom on West Egg, he learns of Tom's affair because his mistress won't stop calling him during dinner. The motif of infidelity becomes an important symbol from then on, committed by almost every main character within "The Great Gatsby." Tom cheats on Daisy with Myrtle (and others), Daisy cheats on Tom with Gatsby.

The consequences of infidelity become clear when George Wilson murder Gatsby. If Gatsby wouldn't have had an affair with Daisy, Tom wouldn't have found out. If Tom never found out, he wouldn't have gone to Wilson's garage and told him Gatsby was responsible for Myrtle's death. Then, Wilson wouldn't have found Gatsby on the property and shot him in the back, leaving him floating lifeless in his pool until Nick discovers him.

Similarly, one might even argue that if Gatsby hadn't had an affair with Daisy, Myrtle would still be alive. Myrtle was hit by the car she thought belonged to Tom because Nick and Daisy had taken it back from the city after Tom had an explosive blow up after finding out about the affair. If Daisy hadn't been so nervous while she was driving, then she probably would've seen Myrtle running out into the middle of the road and stopped before she hit her.

Geography in The Great Gatsby

From the first chapter on, geography plays an important role in "The Great Gatsby." Fitzgerald goes to great lengths to describe the difference between West Egg and East Egg, the two peninsulas that jut out of Long Island and house some of the wealthiest people in New York. One island, West Egg, houses people who come from new money (i.e., they did not grow up wealthy but have recently come into a great deal of money) while the other island, East Egg, houses people who come from old money (i.e., they grew up with inordinate wealth and used that wealth to purchase the largest house they could find.)

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.

Judgment

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.

Wealth

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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Video Transcript

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.

Judgment

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.

Wealth

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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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the symbols in The Great Gatsby?

Some of the most important symbols in "The Great Gatsby" are: the green light, the Valley of Ashes, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, Gatsby's unnecessarily large home, and the extravagant parties that took place.

What is the motif in Chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby?

The main motif in Chapter 1 of "The Great Gatsby" is wealth. Fitzgerald goes to great lengths to describe the difference between West Egg and East Egg; while both peninsulas of land have similar geography, the author makes it clear that there are a stark difference between the two. West Egg comes from New Money, East Egg comes from Old Money.

Is alcohol a motif in The Great Gatsby?

Yes, alcohol is an important motif within "The Great Gatsby" - the more Nick drinks with Tom and Gatsby at parties and other small gatherings, the more he realizes that the rich are unnecessarily wealthy, wasteful, and gluttonous.

Is the green light in The Great Gatsby a motif?

While the green light is an extremely important symbol within "The Great Gatsby", it is not necessarily a motif. A motif is usually less tangible, such as an important idea or subject that is repeated throughout the story (i.e., wealth, infidelity, jealousy, etc.) One could say that the motif surrounding the green light is Gatsby's intense desire to have Daisy every time he reaches out for it.

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