Since this is a dissection of the themes and motifs of The Great Gatsby, it is important to first understand the plot of the book.
One of the most prominent motifs would be the geographical location where the story takes place. There is the West Egg and the East Egg which is separated by the Valley of Ashes. Essentially, these three regions represent three different social classes. The West Egg is the “new wealth” — people who have just acquired their wealth due to the rapid industrial and economic growth following WW1. The East Egg is the “old wealth” — aristocratic families that have had their wealth passed down to them. Then there’s the Valley of Ashes, where most of the lower classes reside — this can also be thought of as a representative of the moral and social decay of America.
Of course, the West Egg and the East Egg have a very strong rivalry because the West Egg thinks of the East Egg people as these snobby rich people who did not have to suffer before gaining wealth since their money was just passed down to them. And similarly, the East Egg views the West Egg people as less important and less sophisticated because they don’t know how to carry themselves with the grace and elegance that the aristocracies should.
"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.” — Nick Carraway
Another important motif in this novel would be the parties that Gatsby throws frequently, these represent the shallowness of the wealthy people. These parties are rather extravagant as evidenced by the number of guests, the lights, the food, and the entertainment. For example, juice from two hundred oranges is extracted every week for his parties. However, the real reason Gatsby throws these parties is not to get to know people or show off his wealth, his real reason is to hopefully be able to catch Daisy’s attention.
Despite these grand parties, no one seems to know who Gatsby really is, and many of his guests even came up with ludicrous stories to explain this mystery. Most of the guests that attend Gatsby’s parties are just there to prove their social status and enjoy the glamour which they believed to be the American Dream.
Perhaps another common reoccurrence would be the act of infidelity. Throughout the novel, there are many unhappy couples that have affairs with other people. For instance, Daisy and Tom are married, but Daisy has an affair with Gatsby and Tom has an affair with myrtle. And Gatsby’s parties are just a breeding ground for more scandalous affairs as evidenced in this quote.
“I looked around. Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands. … One of the men was talking with curious intensity to a young actress, and his wife, after attempting to laugh at the situation in a dignified and indifferent way, broke down entirely and resorted to flank attacks – at intervals she appeared suddenly at his side like and angry diamond, and hissed: ‘You promised!’ into his ear.”
The husbands are bored and unsatisfied with their marriages while the wives are upset are their husbands’ disregard for them. This common motif of infidelity really demonstrates the shallowness of these upperclass couples and the lack of substance in their relationships.
Most characters in this novel were obsessed with money and were all quite materialistic — it did not matter if they already had wealth (like Gatsby and Daisy) or if they wanted more (like Myrtle and George). Money, in this novel, is a driving factor of the plot. Gatsby lost the love of his life, Daisy, because he wasn’t rich enough, and now that he is, he’s flaunting his wealth in an effort to get his love back. Gatsby also sort of viewed her as a prize to be won. Daisy stays with Tom because of the lifestyle he can offer her. Myrtle has an affair with Tom due to the privileged world it grants her access to. So in the world of The Great Gatsby, money really does make the world go ‘round.
The American Dream has declined into a hollow pursuit of wealth.
This theme ties in primarily the motifs of parties and wealth. The American dream was originally about discovery, individualism, and the pursuit of happiness. However, in The Great Gatsby, The American Dream has been reduced to an empty pursuit of pleasure and wealth. Fitzgerald portrays the 1920s as an era of decayed social and moral values, and this reckless jubilance has led to extravagant parties and wild jazz music — all leading to the corruption of the American Dream into an unrestrained desire for wealth which has surpassed other more noble goals.
The rapid rise in stock markets during this time period led to a newfound materialism and people began to consume and spend at faster speeds. Since the sale of alcohol was banned during this period, there was a rise in liquor sells in the underworld in order to satisfy the demand of bootleg liquor.
There’s a really strong reinforcement of the theme of how corrupted the American Dream was by this point since the pursuit of said dream eventually just turned into substance less parties and shallow mindsets as people believed that wealth was the only answer.
There is a significant distinction between classes that prevent them from long term contact.
Infidelity certainly hints at a possibility of the mixing between social classes, such as Tom and Myrtle and Daisy and Gatsby, however, the ending of the novel throws all this hope out the window.
Prior to the novel, Daisy and Gatsby were not able to be together because Gatsby was not wealthy enough in his younger years, but he was not exactly able to obtain her even after he gained wealth. And in the ending of this novel, the two characters from the lower class (Myrtle and George) are both dead and so is Gatsby from the West Egg. This means that all the surviving main characters are from the East Egg — even Carraway who has connections to the East Egg.
This demonstrates the overarching theme of how social classes may mingle but they do not stay mixed for too long. There is a clear difference to how these characters are able to get away with their actions that prevent social classes from mixing together. For example, when George shoots Gatsby, he shoots himself right after because he knows that with his social status, he would have to face worse consequences for killing off a wealthy man.
Essentially, these factors can further imply that only the true wealthy have their decent ending as the only marriage that worked out was Daisy and Tom — Myrtle and George faced their demise and Daisy and Gatsby would never happen.
Marriage doesn’t necessarily have to involve real feelings of love.
Perhaps as a byproduct of the rigid structure of social classes, marriages are often arranged and rarely involve real love between the two married. Infidelity really plays into this theme because even the couples at Gatsby’s parties are having their own affairs since men look to younger women as their wives watch from the side or perhaps have affairs of their own. It’s such a casual occurrence in this novel that it becomes a norm.
Even if Daisy and Gatsby were in love, Daisy still chose to stay with Tom because of the lifestyle he could offer her. This meant that to her, a stable marriage was more important than love. So what does it mean when so many married couples have affair after affair? Well, these couples certainly don’t love each other — tolerate maybe, but there is no love.
But no one is complaining, because it works — the marriage works out fine when it’s just a front anyway. Marriages don’t need to be out of love when wealth is involved.
The morality of an action is dependent on intent.
There is a rather controversial analysis of this particular theme in the novel novel. People have argued that all characters in this book do things out of selfish reasons, Myrtle having an affair for money, Daisy staying with Tom for a stable lifestyle, George shooting Gatsby for allegedly having an affair with Myrtle.
People have also said that Gatsby was the only selfless one who made decisions out of love for Daisy rather than selfishness. However, this is actually debatable because the primary motive for Gatsby was perhaps to appeal to Daisy because he wants her love, something that would benefit himself.