Familiar with the characters of The Great Gatsby, but need to analyze one or more of them for an essay or class assignment? This article has got your back! In it, we'll discuss what the point of analyzing a book character is. We'll also talk about the dos and donts of writing a character analysis, essay, explaining how to go from an argument to finding evidence. Finally, we'll give you an example of how to develop an essay of this type by constructing one around the old money characters (Tom, Daisy, and Jordan).
You'll also find links to our in-depth articles on each of The Great Gatsby's main characters, explaining their role and significance in the novel, key quotes for each, and some ideas for essay topics, really helping you pull together your thoughts about these characters!
Why Write a The Great Gatsby Character Analysis Essay?
By assigning a character analysis, your teacher is giving you the chance to practice many different writing and analysis skills, including:
- close reading
- incorporating evidence from the novel into an essay
- building a larger argument
- tying small details you notice while reading into one of the book’s larger themes
The Great Gatsby is the perfect book for character analysis since it features seven major characters that interact in interesting ways across gender and class lines. Since this novel has so many beautiful and fascinating bits of character description, it will also get you to practice using evidence from the text in an argument.
So make sure that any character analysis you write builds on the skills you are learning in class! We will go over some do’s and don’t of character analysis below.
Character Analysis Do's
Here are some tips for constructing an excellent The Great Gatsby character analysis essay.
Create an Argument, Not Just a Topic
There is a big difference between an essay topic and an essay argument.
Most of the time, your teacher will give you an essay topic - in other words, what your essay should be about generally. Normally a topic will involve connecting the character to one of the novel’s larger themes, especially money and materialism, the American Dream, love and desire, or the relationship between upper and lower classes in society. If you design your own topic, you could explain how your chosen character illuminates one of the novel's symbols or motifs.
For our example, let's take the common prompt, “Write an essay about how either Tom, Daisy, or Jordan represents old money.” This essay assignment has the topic built in: it wants you to take one of those characters and explain how their individual qualities tie them to the bigger abstract idea of the old money class.
But you still have to come up with the argument yourself. An argument is exactly what it sounds like - it's a point that you're trying to make by using reasons and evidence. There's an easy test for figuring out whether you're working with an argument. Could someone argue the opposite of what you're saying? Then yes, that's an argument. Otherwise, it's just a statement of fact. Plus, an essay anchored by a surprising assertion will immediately seem more interesting - how on earth are you going to prove this, your reader will be wondering.
In our example essay, let's say that we've decided to analyze Tom. It's tempting to use something like this as the "argument":
Tom's wealth and privilege show that he is part of the old money class.
But could anyone argue the opposite? Not at all - because this is a factual description, not a contentious statement.
Instead, an argument should make some kind of provocative, challengeable point:
Tom Buchanan is an example of Nick’s scathing depiction of the old money class as fearful and insecure despite enormous privilege.
Now, that someone could argue with! After all, Tom doesn't at first glance seem like someone who is fearful or insecure.
Feeling like one of these goats means you're doing the argument right.
Outline How You Will Prove Your Argument
Make sure each paragraph is anchored by a thesis statement - a one-sentence summary of what part of your argument this particular paragraph is going to prove. Also, loosely plan out what evidence you will use to back up each paragraph's thesis statement.
It can be helpful to create a simple outline before hand to guide how you’ll go about your essay. This will keep your essay clearly organized, and make writing easier.
In our example essay, an outline could look like:
Argument: Tom Buchanan is an example of Nick’s scathing depiction of the old money class as fearful and insecure despite enormous privilege.
Paragraph 1: The trappings of Tom’s life show his privilege and his insecurity. Evidence:
- fancy house
- polo horses
- enormous wealth
- year in France
Paragraph 2: Tom actions constantly hint at his insecurity about his status. Evidence:
- depressed that his football glory days are behind him
- racist tirade shows he thinks the elite is about to be swept off the map
- has affairs only with lower-class women he can dominate
Paragraph 3: Tom's constant policing of other people's behavior shows how much he wants to reinforce class divisions in the face of them eroding. Evidence:
- throwing money at Myrtle to buy ten dogs
- grousing about Gatsby misinterpreting the invitation from the Sloanes and mocking the pink suit
- investigating Gatsby's criminal dealings even when already pretty sure Gatsby is a bootlegger
Paragraph 4: Tom decisions around Myrtle's murder show that he is more cowardly than his intimidating physical presence leads us to believe. Evidence:
- manipulating George to kill Gatsby rather because he was scared of George's gun
- running away with Daisy rather than sticking around to face consequences
Conclusion: Tom's privilege only heightens his sense of himself as a victim whose status is in danger of being usurped. Tom is a scathing portrait of old money royalty.
Use and Analyze Evidence to Support Your Argument
Bold arguments depend on a solid use of evidence to back them up. That means you can't just throw a quote into your writing and move on! Instead, use this rule of thumb: for each line of quoted text you insert, make sure you have 2-4 lines of your own explaining and interpreting the meaning of the quote as it relates to your argument.
To back up our example argument, we would now scour the book to find evidence of Tom being insecure or fearful. Once we've got something, though, it can't just be thrown into the essay willy nilly like this:
Nick says that Tom was "one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax" (1.16).
Instead, we have to connect this description to the larger argument, using close reading to really get at the meaning of the words Nick is choosing:
Nick is pointing out that Tom's athletic achievements happened too long ago to keep feeding Tom's ego, Instead, because nothing has ever lived up to his football glory days, Tom is spending his time trying to avoid the depressing feeling of "anti-climax."
Use Evidence to Address Counterarguments
Because you've created an actually disputable argument, you can take the time to swat away the opposite position.
In the example essay we've been constructing, we're arguing that Tom Buchanan represents Fitzgerald’s critique of old money and is essentially an antagonist. We should address the idea that Tom is the novel's sharpest observer of people. (After all, unlike Nick, Tom immediately pegs Gatsby as a bootlegger.) This seemingly positive quality could be spun to be yet another example of Tom's insecurity - he is very quick to leap to judgment rather than giving people the benefit of the doubt.
Character Analysis Don'ts
Now that we've covered what you should do in a Gatsby character analysis essay, let's go over some mistakes you should avoid.
Avoid Stating the Obvious
Don’t just say what the character is like, list descriptions from the book, or summarize what the character did without adding any analysis. For example, don’t just say “Gatsby is flamboyant, throws big parties, and even wears a pink suit sometimes. He does all of this to try and win back Daisy, the love of his life.” All that does is summarize something that is obvious from the book.
Instead, tie those observations to a larger idea. For example, “the extravagance of Jay’s parties and dress marks him as a member of the newly rich, allowing Fitzgerald to satirize the newly rich in America as he also critiques the cruelty of old money” or “Jay’s obsessive pursuit of Daisy reveals an unrealistic obsession with reliving the past.”
Don’t Make All or Nothing Claims About a Character
The beauty of this novel is that the statements “Daisy is a horrible person” or “Daisy is a misunderstood martyr” are both wrong.
Instead, try and find the nuances, the good and the bad points of each character, and make them work for your bigger argument. For example, if you’re writing an essay about how Daisy represents the limited options available to women in the 1920s, you would likely be more sympathetic to some of her behavior, but you still shouldn’t excuse her hit-and-run!
Don’t Focus on Including Every Single Scene or Line That Features Your Character
Even for a short novel, Gatsby is jam-packed with meaningful dialogue, imagery, and plot events, and you couldn’t possibly analyze every single key moment for each character in one essay! (You could – and people have – write whole books on the subject!) Instead, focus on finding a few moments and analyzing them in detail, then tying them to your main point. Remember that the quality of analysis is worth more than the quantity of evidence!
Character Analysis Links
Each of our character pages has a detailed section with analysis of each character.
You can also get some helpful background information, a summary of the character’s actions in the book, and important quotes by and about them:
The Bottom Line on The Great Gatsby Character Analysis
- Character analysis is a chance to practice many different writing and analysis skills.
- To construct a character analysis essay:
- Create an argument - a debatable, provocative point that you're trying to make by using reasons and evidence.
- Use an outline to organize your essay:
- Anchor each paragraph by a thesis statement - a one-sentence summary of what part of your argument this particular paragraph is going to prove.
- Loosely plan out what evidence you will use to back up each paragraph's thesis statement.
- Use evidence to back up your thesis statements.
- For each line of quoted text, have 2-4 lines of your own explanation relating to your argument.
- Take the time to swat away the counterarguments.
- What not to do when writing your essay:
- Avoid stating the obvious. Instead, tie observations to a larger idea.
- Don’t make all or nothing claims about a character. Instead, find the nuances in each character, and make them work for your bigger argument.
- Don’t feel like you have to include every single scene or line that features your character.
Want to get advice about comparing and contrasting characters? Head on over to our Compare/Contrast post to learn how to best write about common character pairings.
Need a little more background on novel’s plot? Check out our Great Gatsby summary, or look at a timeline of all of the events in chronological order.
Interested in getting help analyzing important symbols and motifs? Get an introduction to symbols in The Great Gatsby and an overview of the novel's motifs to get started.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Need to write about a theme for a Great Gatsby assignment, or just curious about what exactly a theme is? Not sure where to start? Learn here what a theme is, what the main themes in The Great Gatsby are, and get some tips for writing about themes for your English/Language Arts class essays.
We will also link to our specific articles on each theme so you can learn even more in-depth about themes central to Gatsby.
What Is a Theme? Why Should You Care?
First things first: what exactly is a theme? In literature, a theme is a central topic a book deals with. This central topic is revealed through plot events, the actions and dialogue of the characters, and even the narrator’s tone. Themes can be very broad, like love, money, or death, or more specific, like people versus technology, racial discrimination, or the American Dream.
In short, a book’s theme can usually answer the question, “what’s the point of this book?”. They’re the “so what?” of literary analysis. Also, note that books can definitely have more than one major theme – in Gatsby we identify seven!
Knowing a book’s major theme(s) is crucial to writing essays, since many assignments want you to connect your argument to a book’s theme. For example, you might be asked to write an essay about a prompt like this: “How does the life of Jay Gatsby exemplify (or deconstruct) the idea of the American Dream?” This prompt has you connect specific details in Jay Gatsby’s life to the larger theme of the American Dream. This is why many teachers love theme essays: because they encourage you to connect small details to big ideas!
Furthermore, the AP English Literature test always has an essay question that has you analyze some aspect of a book and then “compare it to the theme of the work as a whole.” (If you want specific examples you can access the last 15 years of AP English Literature free response questions here, using your College Board account.) So this skill won’t just help you in your English classes, it will also help you pass the AP English Literature test if you’re taking it!
So keep reading to learn about the major themes in Gatsby and how they are revealed in the book, and also to get links to our in-depth articles about each theme.
The Great Gatsby Themes
Before we introduce our seven main themes, we’ll briefly describe how the story and characters suggest the major Great Gatsby themes. Remember that the story is set in the 1920s, a period when America’s economy was booming, and takes place in New York: specifically the wealthy Long Island towns of West Egg and East Egg, as well as Manhattan and Queens.
As you should know from the book (check out our summary if you’re still hazy on the details!), The Great Gatsby tells the story of James Gatz, a poor farmboy who manages to reinvent himself as the fabulously rich Jay Gatsby, only to be killed after an attempt to win over his old love Daisy Buchanan. Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan, and they’re both from old money, causing them to look down Gatsby’s newly rich crowd (and for Tom to look down at Gatsby himself). Meanwhile, Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, the wife of mechanic George Wilson. Through the Wilsons, we see the struggles of the working class in dismal Queens, NY. As if they didn’t already have it hard enough, Myrtle is killed in a hit-and-run accident (caused by Daisy Buchanan), and George, who’s manipulated by Tom to believe that Jay Gatsby was both his wife’s lover and her murderer, ends up shooting Gatsby and then himself.
The whole story is told by Nick Carraway, a second cousin of Daisy’s and classmate of Tom’s who moves in next to Gatsby’s mansion and eventually befriends Jay -- and then comes to deeply admire him, despite or perhaps because of Jay’s fervent desire to repeat his past with Daisy. The tragic chain of events at the novel’s climax, along with the fact that both the Buchanans can easily retreat from the damage they caused, causes Nick to become disillusioned with life in New York and retreat back to his hometown in the Midwest.
Aside from having a very unhappy ending, the novel might just ruin swimming pools for you as well.
The fact that the major characters come from three distinct class backgrounds (working class, newly rich, and old money) suggests that class is a major theme. But the rampant materialism and the sheer amount of money spent by Gatsby himself is a huge issue and its own theme. Related to money and class, the fact that both Gatsby and the Wilsons strive to improve their positions in American society, only to end up dead, also suggests that the American Dream -- and specifically its hollowness -- is a key theme in the book as well.
But there are other themes at play here, too. Every major character is involved in at least one romantic relationship, revealing that they are all driven by love, sex, and desire -- a major theme. Also, the rampant bad behavior (crime, cheating, and finally murder) and lack of real justice makes ethics and morality a key theme. Death also looms large over the novel’s plot, alongside the threat of failure.
And finally, a strong undercurrent to all of these themes is identity itself: can James Gatz really become Jay Gatsby, or was he doomed from the start? Can someone who is not from old money ever blend in with that crowd? Could Gatsby really aspire to repeat his past with Daisy, or is that past self gone forever?
In short, just by looking at the novel's plot, characters, and ending, we can already get a strong sense of Gatsby's major themes. Let's now look at each of those themes one by one (and be sure to check out the links to our full theme breakdowns!).
The 7 Major Great Gatsby Themes: A Snapshot
Money and Materialism: everyone in the novel is money-obsessed, whether they were born with money (Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and Nick to a lesser extent), whether they made a fortune (Gatsby), or whether they’re eager for more (Myrtle and George). So why are the characters so materialistic? How does their materialism affect their choices? Get a guide to each of the characters’ material motivations and how they shape the novel.
Society and Class: building on the money and materialism theme, the novel draws clear distinctions between the kind of money you have: old money (inherited) or new money (earned). And there is also a clear difference between the lifestyles of the wealthy, who live on Long Island and commute freely to Manhattan, and the working class people stuck in between, mired in Queens. By the end of the novel, our main characters who are not old money (Gatsby, Myrtle, and George) are all dead, while the inherited-money club is still alive. What does this say about class in Gatsby? Why is their society so rigidly classist? Learn more about the various social classes in Gatsby and how they affect the novel’s outcome.
The American Dream– the American Dream is the idea anyone can make it in America (e.g. gain fame, fortune, and success) through enough hard work and determination. So is Jay Gatsby an example of the dream? Or does his involvement in crime suggest the Dream isn’t actually real? And where does this leave the Wilsons, who are also eager to improve their lot in life but don’t make it out of the novel alive? Finally, do the closing pages of the novel endorse the American Dream or write it off as a fantasy? Learn what the American Dream is and how the novel sometimes believes in it, and sometimes sees it as a reckless fantasy.
Love, Desire, and Relationships - All of the major characters are driven by love, desire, or both, but only Tom and Daisy’s marriage lasts out of the novel’s five major relationships and affairs. So is love an inherently unstable force? Or do the characters just experience it in the wrong way? Get an in-depth guide to each of Gatsby’s major relationships.
Death and Failure – Nick narrates Gatsby two years after the events in question, and since he’s obviously aware of the tragedy awaiting not only Gatsby but Myrtle and George as well, the novel has a sad, reflective, even mournful tone. Is the novel saying that ambition is inherently dangerous (especially in a classist society like 1920s America), or is it more concerned with the danger of Gatsby’s intense desire to reclaim the past? Explore those questions here.
Morality and Ethics – The novel is full of bad behavior: lying, cheating, physical abuse, crime, and finally murder. Yet none of the characters ever answer to the law, and God is only mentioned as an exclamation, or briefly projected onto an advertisement. Does the novel push for the need to fix this lack of morality, or does it accept it as the normal state of affairs in the “wild, wild East”?
The Mutability of Identity – Mutability just means “subject to change,” so this theme is about how changeable (or not!) personal identity is. Do people really change? Or are our past selves always with us? And how would this shape our desire to reclaim parts of our past? Gatsby wants to have it both ways: to change himself from James Gatz into the sophisticated, wealthy Jay Gatsby, but also to preserve his past with Daisy. Does he fail because it’s impossible to change? Because it’s impossible to repeat the past? Or both?
How to Write About The Great Gatsby Themes
So now that you know about the major themes of The Great Gatsby, how can you go about writing about them? First up: look closely at your prompt.
Sometimes an essay prompt will come right out and ask you to write about a theme, for example “is The American Dream in Gatsby alive or dead?” or “Write about the relationships in Gatsby. What is the novel saying about the nature of love and desire?” For those essays, you will obviously be writing about one of the novel’s major themes. But even though those prompts have big-picture questions, make sure to find small supporting details to help make your argument.
In the same way a tree would look really silly if it was just a trunk with no branches and leaves, your essay won't be that great without smaller details to support the larger argument about the theme.
For example, if you’re discussing the American Dream and arguing it’s dead in the novel, don’t just make that claim and be done with it. Instead, you can explore Gatsby’s past as James Gatz, George Wilson’s exhausted complacency, and Myrtle’s treatment at the hands of Tom as examples of how the American Dream is treated in the novel. Obviously those examples are far from exhaustive, but hopefully you get the idea: find smaller details to support the larger argument.
On the other hand, many essay prompts about Gatsby will look like a question about something specific, like a character or symbol:
- “Explore Tom and Daisy as people who ‘retreat into their money.’”
- “What does the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock represent? How does its meaning change throughout the novel?”
- “Show how Fitzgerald uses clothing (and the changing of costumes) to tell the reader more about the characters and/or express theme(s).”
These prompts are actually a chance for you to take that detailed analysis and connect it to one of the larger themes – in other words, even though the prompt doesn’t state it explicitly, you should still be connecting those more focused topics to one of the big-picture themes.
For example, if you talk about Tom and Daisy Buchanan, you will definitely end up talking about society and class. If you talk about the green light, you will end up talking about dreams and goals, specifically the American Dream. And if you discuss clothing to talk about the characters, you will definitely touch on money and materialism, as well as society and class (like how Gatsby’s pink suit makes him stand out as new money to Tom Buchanan, or how Myrtle adopts a different dress to play at being wealthy and sophisticated).
In short, for these more specific prompts, you start from the ground (small details and observations) and build up to discussing the larger themes, even if the prompt doesn’t say to do so explicitly!
Now you're on expert on themes, but what about symbols? If you need to write about the important symbols in The Great Gatsby, check out our symbols overview for a complete guide.
Want a full analysis of Jay Gatsby and his back story? Not sure how his story connects with the American Dream? Get the details here.
Want to go back to square one? Get started with Chapter 1 of our Great Gatsby plot summary.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now: