The words “literary analysis” drop from your instructor’s mouth, and you freeze in terror. The Great Gatsby is one of those books that resonates throughout the ages–that’s why you’re reading it and writing about it for your class–but you certainly don’t feel comfortable enough with the novel to write a literary analysis.
Well, don’t sweat it too much–I’ve got your back.
I’ll give you 8 helpful tips for writing a good literary analysis on The Great Gatsby. You can mix and match or simply use this list as a starting point for your own ideas.
Symbolism in The Great Gatsby
Symbolism is when an object represents something different than what it actually is. TheGreat Gatsby is full of symbolism. The two symbols I mention below are important elements within the story, and you could easily write a whole paper on just one of them.
Tip #1: Analyze the symbolism of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg
Image by hasunkhan via DeviantArt
The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are painted on a fading billboard in the Valley of Ashes. Many analyses quickly draw the conclusion that Eckleburg represents God, and that both are all-seeing. This is a good analysis, but let’s try to go a little deeper.
What does it say that these all-seeing eyes have no arms, legs, or mouth? Does this mean that Eckleburg, as a God-like entity, doesn’t have the ability to punish people but to only watch their transgressions?
Also, does the fact that this is a billboard mean anything? Fitzgerald may be trying to say that consumerism was the real god of the era. The 1920s were years when consumerism was becoming more integral, taking over almost every facet of people’s daily lives. If these eyes were painted on the side of a building, that interpretation wouldn’t be the same. Writers use symbols intentionally and for a specific reason. So pay attention to the specifics!
Tip #2: Pay close attention to Fitzgerald’s use of color
Image via Vulpes Libris
Fitzgerald uses a few colors throughout the book, and their prevalence is no accident.
Green, such as the green light on the end of Daisy’s dock, represents hope for the future.
Gray, such as in the Valley of Ashes, represents lifelessness and nothingness.
Gold and yellow are interesting and used a whole lot throughout the book. Gold is a symbol for money. Daisy, who is from a well-to-do family and who is married to a rich man is described as a “golden girl” with a voice that’s “full of money.” She has gold all around her as do many of the other rich people.
Yellow, on the other hand, is a color associated with Gatsby, as shown by his car. Yellow is almost gold but still of lesser value, which is how the other rich people in the novel view Gatsby. He doesn’t quite fit in because he’s “new money,” which in their minds is inferior.
Point of View in The Great Gatsby
There are three points of view in literature: first-person, second-person, and third-person.
- First-person point of view is when a story is told from a character’s perspective. This involves a lot of “I” and “me” language.
- Second-person point of view is when the author addresses the reader directly using “you.”
- Third-person point of view is when the narrator is not a character in the story, but rather describes the lives and thoughts of all of the other characters from an outside perspective.
Tip #3: Think about why Nick is the narrator and not Gatsby.
The Great Gatsby is written from the perspective of Nick Carraway. The story would be very different if it was told from Gatsby’s perspective. Instead, Nick guesses at the life and thoughts of Gatsby, making Gatsby seem more mysterious and larger-than-life than he would be if the reader knew all of his thoughts.
Tip #4: Analyze why the story is written in first-person.
The story would also be very different if it was told in the third-person point of view. A third-person point of view would give the reader a necessarily more honest description of events. Nick describes himself as honest, but how does the reader know that events took place exactly as Nick describes them? Is Nick an unreliable narrator?
Allegory in The Great Gatsby
Allegories are stories in which the characters and/or plot symbolize larger concepts. In The Great Gatsby, the larger concept I’ll focus on is that of the American Dream. Other allegorical concepts you could address include commentary on the social class divide or the vapidity of high society.
Tip #5: Think about what this book says about society, specifically as it relates to the American Dream.
In the 1920s, the American Dream was the idea of going from rags to riches. However The Great Gatsby shows that this dream is unattainable.
Gatsby achieves the so-called American Dream by building his wealth over the years in whatever way he possibly could. He displays his wealth with lavish parties but never enjoys himself. He is unsatisfied with the shallowness of the upper class, and yearns for something more.
While Gatsby’s rags to riches background is a literal interpretation of the American Dream, Daisy is a more symbolic interpretation. As mentioned above, she is described as a “golden girl,” representing riches. Gatsby has always longed for her, but when he finally gets her to admit her feelings for him, he still isn’t satisfied. He wants more–he wants her to say that she never loved Tom.
Fitzgerald uses Gatsby to show that the American Dream is unattainable–the dream can never become reality because the dreamer always wants more. Gatsby was not satisfied when he became wealthy or when he finally got Daisy because he still wanted something more.
Character Analyses in The Great Gatsby
There are plenty of characters you can analyze in The Great Gatsby–Nick, Daisy, Myrtle, Tom, or Gatsby himself. Each character has different qualities and characteristics, and they were all put into the story for a reason. It’s your job to find out what that reason was.
Tip #6: Don’t just describe characters, but write about what they represent.
Each character has certain personality traits that represent a facet of human nature. Daisy, for example, represents innocence, while her husband, Tom, represents the evil of what we would call the “one percent” today.
Each of these characters was created in the mind of the author not just to make a good story, but also to offer a glimpse into the human condition. Tap into the meanings behind the characters, and you’ll have a pretty spectacular analysis.
Tip #7: Analyze the relationships between characters.
People don’t live in a vacuum–they interact with and react to other people around them. And the characters of The Great Gatsby are no different. You could analyze the nostalgic love between Daisy and Gatsby, the rocky relationship between Daisy and Tom, and the adoring (and sometimes contemptuous) relationship between Nick and Gatsby.
Focusing on the relationships between the characters makes for a great literary analysis because characters are essential to a great piece of literature.Therefore, understanding them and their relationships is also important.
Tone in The Great Gatsby
The tone of a story is how the author or narrator describes the events and other characters. It can be cynical, witty, bright, optimistic, pessimistic, or something else.
Many words you would use to describe a person’s personality can also be used to describe the tone of a story.
Tip #8: Analyze the tone of the novel.
First, decide what the tone of the novel is. Then write about how the tone affects the readers’ perceptions of events and characters.
Some readers describe the tone of The Great Gatsby as cynical, some say it’s judgmental–but you can decide on your own how you might describe the tone of the story. More important than the exact wording of how you describe the tone is how the tone affects the reader’s perception of what’s going on.
Because The Great Gatsby is told in the first person, there is some bias in what the narrator describes. We are presented with Nick’s feelings and perspective as if it’s the truth without any way of getting a different perspective.
Therefore, Nick’s tone as a narrator portrays his overall feelings about the people and events he describes and changes the way the reader experiences them.
Final Thoughts on Your Analysis of The Great Gatsby
Symbolism, allegory, point of view, character, and tone are not even half of the types of analyses you could do, but hopefully they’re enough to get you started. Check out this site for a comprehensive list of literary devices that you could analyze.
Need more help? Look at these example essays on the The Great Gatsby to see how other students have tackled their analyses.
If you’re afraid your literary analysis still doesn’t go deep enough, or if you just need a second pair of eyes (not Dr. Eckleburg’s), send your analysis to one of the Kibin editors. They’ll be able to make your essay shine.
Happy writing, old sport.
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.
left: Francis Cugat’s original gouache painting for The Great Gatsby. right: a first edition of the book (image: USC)
It’s one of the most recognizable book covers in the history of American literature: two sad female eyes and bright red lips adrift in the deep blue of a night sky, hovering ominously above a skyline that glows like a carnival. Evocative of sorrow and excess, this haunting image has become so inextricably linked to The Great Gatsby that it still adorns the cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece 88 years after its debut. This iconic work of art was created by Spanish artist Francis Cugat.
Little is known about Cugat –also known as Francisco Coradal-Cougat– and the Gatsby cover, for which he was paid the princely sum of $100, was the only one he ever designed. In a 1991 essay discussing the connections between the book and its cover, publishing scion Charles Scribner III, who revived the cover after a 40 year absence for his classic edition of the book in 1979, charted the development of the work from its original conception to the final gouache painting of the detached gaze. Scribner notes that its origin is somewhat unusual in that the cover art was designed before the manuscript was finished, resulting in a sort of collaboration between the artist and writer that may have yielded one of the more prominent literary symbols in American literature.
In a letter to editor Max Perkins, Fitzgerald, whose manuscript was late, requested that the art be held for him. “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me,” Fitzgerald wrote, “I’ve written it into the book.” It’s not clear exactly what Fitzgerald meant by this, but it is generally believed that that Cugat’s haunting image was realized in the form of the recurring billboard for oculist Dr. T.J. Eckleburg that watches over one of the climactic moments of Fitzgerald’s work:
“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic — their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”
Of course, there are several obvious differences between the final cover art and the bespectacled billboard, but if this is the connection, then the floating, faceless eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg serve as testament to the talent of each artist, as well as to the value of such collaborations. But the familiar cover art may not, in fact, have been what captured Fitzgerald’s imagination. Rather, it’s possible that he saw a much different, early cover sketch by Cugat, several of which were only discovered in 1990:
An early sketch by Francis Cugat for the dust jacket to The Great Gatsby (image: USC)
Because the manuscript was not complete, it’s likely that Cugat based his design on a conversation with Perkins about Fitzgerald’s working text, then titled Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, and a description of one of the books settings – a “valley of ashes” where “About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land.” In one of these early design proposals, the valley of ashes is presided over by several small faceless eyes and lips floating like clouds. It seems likely that this early draft inspired Fitzgerald to create his own eyes above the desolate landscape in the form of the Eckleburg billboard. As Cugat’s design developed, he focused more on those floating eyes that seem to have enthralled Fitzgerald. The landscape became more abstract and the country road way was abandoned in favor of a cityscape that recalls the glowing lights of Times Square and Coney Island.
Early sketches by Francis Cugat for the cover of The Great Gatsby (images: USC)
Although it seems likely that the billboard really is the manifestation of Cugat’s eyes, without any definitive proof it remains something of an open question. Scribner cites another theory for “those who still find the derivation troublesome” – that the cover image was actually integrated into the text as Nick Carraway’s vision of Daisy as the “girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs….”
With a big Hollywood movie now in theaters, some recent printings of the book have abandoned the classic cover in favor of one that ties in more closely with the film. So high school students working their way through the summer reading list this year will be hard pressed to find a copy without Leondardo DiCaprio standing front and center among the movie’s beautiful cast and art deco ornamentation. While the new cover is controversial among readers and retailers, Scribner himself enjoys it. In a recent letter to The New York Times, he wrote, ”I confess to liking the Leonardo DiCaprio cover, too (the new movie tie-in). I would not be ashamed to be seen reading it on the subway, but then I’m a Gemini.”
Although there have been many covers since its first publication in 1925, today, none are more suited to The Great Gatsby than the celestial eyes of Francis Cugat, so perfectly do the image and text seem align. Perhaps its appropriate that the true meaning of the celestial eyes remain somewhat mysterious. After all, if I remember my own summer reading of The Great Gatsby, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg ultimately serve as a reminder that signs are devoid of any meaning save that which we give them.
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