Themes, Symbols, or Motifs in The Great Gatsby

This Storyboard That activity is part of the lesson plans for The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby - Symbolism


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs are valuable aspects of any literary work, and they add richness to stories. Part of the Common Core ELA standards is to introduce and explain these complex concepts. However, abstract ideas are often difficult for students to analyze without assistance. Using a storyboard, students can visually demonstrate their understanding of these concepts, and master analysis of literary elements. For best practices, see our supplementary article with specific lesson plan steps on setting up your classroom and activities to teach themes, symbols, and motifs.

In the classroom, students can track the rich symbolism that Fitzgerald uses throughout the novel. In the example storyboard above, there are five archetypal symbols from the book. The most apparent are the green light, the overlooking eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, the Valley of Ashes, ominous weather, and the division of east vs. west.

Themes to Look for and Discuss

The American Dream

The American dream is the idea that no matter a person's background, everyone can achieve their goals through hard work and determination. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby's dream is to one day be with Daisy. Due to her social class, Gatsby is forced to make a drastic decisions in order to reach a level of prosperity where he can capture Daisy's affections.

Social Classes

Social class is an integral part of the novel. It is expounded upon at some length by Nick Carroway. It is expected that those in the upper class are to act with dignity, poise, grace, and propriety. Through the eyes of Nick, the reader can see that this is a sham, and those in the upper class are corrupt, deceitful, and carry no remorse for their actions.


Although usually confined to adultery, this can also mean a breach of trust and general disloyalty. Unfaithful and deceptive behavior can be seen from most characters over the course of the novel. Tom, Myrtle, and Daisy all commit adultery; Jordan Baker is a pathological liar and often cheats; Gatsby lies about his past, and about his assets to obtain Daisy; and those who once called Gatsby a friend, even Meyer Wolfshiem, his business partner, ultimately desert and disgrace him by not attending his funeral.

Motifs and Symbols to Look for and Discuss

Overlooking Eyes (Billboard of Dr. T.J. Eckelberg)

These all-seeing eyes watch the characters in the novel and ultimately act as a judge of their deeds.

Ominous Weather

Weather is a common symbol in literature. Throughout the novel, various types of weather are used to foreshadow important events. For example, in Chapter Seven, Nick describes a heat wave that has pushed temperatures to “broiling”. This portends the “tumultuous argument” which occurs between Tom and Gatsby in the Plaza Hotel.

Ashes and Dust (The Valley of Ashes)

The Valley of Ashes is a barren wasteland that separates the Eggs from New York City. It symbolizes the moral and social decay of America, portrayed through the working class.

East vs. West

The division of East Egg from West Egg separates the newly rich from the historically wealthy families. In a way, east and west divides the upper class in two, in a sort of rivalry. East vs. West also touches on Nick's Midwestern roots, as distinct from the other characters, dividing him from their way of life.

The Green Light

The green light symbolizes many things, principally, Gatsby's quest to obtain Daisy. The color of the light could be symbolic of the envy that Gatsby has over Tom, who has Daisy, or it could represent the green of a figurative Garden of Eden in the past.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The Great Gatsby. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the theme(s) from The Great Gatsby you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for the example(s) that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.

Template: Theme


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