Notes from Barron's: Great Gatsby (1984) by Anthony S. Abbott, Davidson College Professor of English.
1. Is Gatsby a "hero?" Discuss.
Everyone wants to admire someone. Do you admire Gatsby? Is he a hero to you? If so, why? If not, why not? This essay gives you a wonderful opportunity to take sides. From one point of view, Gatsby is a crook, a bootlegger, a vulgar materialist. From another point of view, he is a dreamer, faithful to his dream to the very end. Nick sees him as "great," despite the fact that Gatsby stands for many things that Nick doesn't believe in.
To write this essay you will want to look with particular care at those passages where Nick talks about Gatsby – both near the middle of Chapter VIII, and in the closing pages of the novel. If you think that Gatsby is not a hero, you will want to pay special attention to Meyer Wolfsheim and to Gatsby's association with him. Look at the many strange phone calls from Philadelphia and Chicago and at Tom's thoughts in Chapter VII on what Wolfsheim and Gatsby did to Walter Chase.
2. Discuss Nick Carraway as Narrator and Character.
This is a good essay question for those who enjoy debating with the critics. Most readers find Nick what is called a "reliable narrator." They share his views and read the novel from his point of view. A few critics disagree. They say Nick is immature and should be more critical of Gatsby than he is. They argue that Nick is too sentimental about Gatsby, and that it would be very dangerous for us to adopt the same attitude that Nick adopts.
In writing this essay, you will want to understand clearly Nick's attitudes toward this Eastern world and the characters who live in it. Nick expresses his attitudes mainly in the first and last chapters. Once you have explored his point of view, you should be prepared to argue either that Fitzgerald shares Nick's views and wants us to share them, too; or that we as readers are being asked to be more mature and realistic than Nick is. Gary Scrimgeour's essay "Against the Great Gatsby," (see below) makes a good case against Nick, if you're looking for some help with your argument.
3. Analyse Fitzgerald's use of setting as "moral geography."
We have discussed this issue at length. You will particularly want to review the opening three chapters where East Egg, West Egg, the valley of ashes, and New York City are each introduced for the first time. Ask yourself what values each place is associated with. Is Fitzgerald supporting one set of values against the others? If so, with which of the places are we most asked to identify? Why? Write about the fact that all of the characters are originally from the Midwest – an important factor in this equation of place with values. In writing your essay, you may want to compare the locations in this novel with locations in your own community.
4. Select one of the major symbols of the novel and show how Fitzgerald uses it.
Be sure you know what a symbol is before you start. Then select the symbol you want to write about and go through the novel, noting each place it is mentioned. The green light is mentioned at the end of Chapter I, the middle of Chapter V, and on the last page of the novel. The eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg are described in detail at the beginning of Chapter II. They are also an important part of Michaelis' description of George Wilson's state of mind in Chapter VIII. Remember as you write that symbols don't mean just one thing. Symbols are pointers that merely suggest other things beyond themselves.
5. Select some of the secondary characters (to Gatsby & Nick) and examine how Fitzgerald uses them:
Is Tom Buchanan sympathetic? If not, why? How does he symbolize the world of the very rich? Examine Jordan Baker as a character, looking at her name, her honesty or dishonesty, her athletic career, her relationship with Nick. What makes us sympathetic to Myrtle Wilson? How is she in some ways like…