The Great Gatsby – Themes in Chapters 1-3

  • Corruption of the American dream – we can see this in the symbolism of the valley of ashes – a derelict wasteland representing the poverty of those who have not reached their version of the ‘dream’ yet. The valley is barren and simply passed through by the wealthy of New York and Long Island, where Nick, Tom, Daisy and Gatsby live. We also see the corruption of this dream through the declining morality of our characters – they are unfaithful wives and husbands, concerned more with gossip and rumour than anything else, it seems.
  • Hope – the first chapters of the novel are tense in places – both Daisy and Tom as well as George and Myrtle exist in unhappy marriages. Yet the dog that Tom buys for Myrtle represents a hope of sorts for her – she cannot have a family with him, but she can have this for companionship. Her relationship with Tom also represents a glimpse and taste of a more glamorous world of opportunity, affording her new dresses and apartments in New York – far away from her barren existence with George in the valley of ashes.
  • Paradox – Nick experiences a paradox at Gatsby’s party – amongst all the wealth, extravagance and showmanship, he finds himself quite disgusted with the other guests, and the way they indulge in this frivolous life – he is revolted, and yet cannot bring himself to leave. He remains fascinated, as well as appalled.
  • Reality and Illusion – all our characters appear to be something different from what they are – Tom and Daisy appear to be rich, carefree and happy, but the open-secret of his affair the tension between them indicates that the reality of their marriage is crumbling. Myrtle is a working class woman, without money, and yet she changes her dresses (and personality) so often it highlights how much she wishes to be something else, condemning staff in the apartment block and acting the part of a far wealthier woman. Gatsby himself speaks in a way that is almost self-consciously formal – is he what he appears to be, or is he trying too hard, as the woman whose dress he replaced suspects?
  • Jealousy/possessiveness – Tom is certainly at the centre of much of this, seemingly very controlling over Daisy and Myrtle – his violent reaction to Myrtle’s taunting suggests that he is a man who likes to be in control, and is willing to do whatever he can to retain that authority. Myrtle herself is jealous of Tom and Daisy’s life – she thrives on the idea of money and social status, and the ways she taunts Tom with Daisy’s name tells us how much she is threatened by the ‘other woman’.
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