Great Gatsby Meaning & Interpretations

Last Updated: December 18th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

Meaning of the Great Gatsby Story

After nearly 100 years, people are still reading and making movies about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.

Why is this? What is the meaning behind this novel that keeps it relevant even today? What were the themes that Fitzgerald was trying to tell us?

The Great Gatsby is more than just a story of unrequited love or a doomed love affair that leads to murder. It’s how Fitzgerald saw people chase the American dream, tossing out their long-held values and morals just to make their dreams come true.

Tragic love stories abound and quickly fade in the background but not the Great Gatsby. So, what makes it so different?

Let’s explore the meaning and some possible interpretations of what has been called The Great American Novel.

What Is the Whole Meaning of The Great Gatsby?

Jay Gatsby and Daisy

The surface story is a failed love between a man and a woman, but Gatsby’s meaning is much more than the story.

Fitzgerald uses Gatsby to talk about what he saw as a failed American dream or American society as a whole. Or at least for the very rich.

The 1920s was a decade of wealth, unparalleled prosperity, and excess. It seemed as though everyone did nothing but drink, smoke, attend parties or have a good time at speakeasies. The stock market was up, and everyone was riding the feel-good train.

However, Fitzgerald saw the dark side of the times he lived in. He believed that society as a whole was decaying. That the American dream of working hard, providing for your family, and owning your own home was no longer desired, but rather, people had tossed out their morals to enjoy bootlegging and debauchery.

What Is the Message of the Great Gatsby?

There are possibly two messages in this novel.

The First Message of Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby

First, the pursuit of wealth and the relaxation of moral codes were detrimental to society as a whole.

Nick Carraway, Tom Buchanan, and Jay Gatsby had all been in World War 1. This was a lofty ideal that they fought for, however, it resulted in all of them becoming cynical and seeking only fortune.

men from the 1920s dressed in gangster outfits

Fitzgerald attempts to show the disparities that have developed because of the “old money, new money” issue. Rather than allowing the rich to live where they please and be accepted, (whether it was new or old money), there was a divide between them via East Egg for the old money and West Egg for the new money.

This separate but equal housing situation seems ridiculous in our times, but in 1920, it made perfect sense, and Fitzgerald showed his disdain for these societal rules.

He did, however, expect other morals to be upheld by society. Fitzgerald tells about the lavish parties and loose women and blames the breakdown of society on the pursuit of wealth.

His Second Message

Fitzgerald also appeared to have a second message.

If the first was to stay moral and not be greedy, the second would be that you can’t live in or bring back the past.

While he makes this point while discussing Jay Gatsby’s dream of living with Daisy Buchanan as his wife, Fitzgerald may have also become cynical and realized that the decay he believed had enveloped society would not disappear.

If it’s true that the past cannot be relived and cannot be grasped and held on to, then it’s also true that Fitzgerald’s beliefs about the breakdown of morals in society would only continue down this path.

While Jay may do horrible things to justify gaining Daisy’s love and Nick appears to approve of Jay since his actions weren’t based on greed but his love for Daisy, it doesn’t appear that Fitzgerald believed the same.

Why Is It Called The Great Gatsby?

The Great Gatsby Book by F Scott Fitzgerald

While the novel doesn’t specifically say why Fitzgerald went so far as to call Gatsby “great”, there might be a few explanations.

In the first chapter, Nick explains that he had utter disdain for the ultra-rich and their lack of morals, however, he exempts Jay Gatsby from his contempt.

Nick is also the only person (other than a few servants) who even bothered to attend Gatsby’s funeral.

Perhaps by naming his book the “Great” Gatsby, Fitzgerald meant to imply that this was what Nick thought of Gatsby (learn more on how does Nick meet Gatsby ), and this does appear to be true.

It could also be that the author simply wanted to let the reader know about the importance that the character Gatsby would have in the book. No one would know who or what “Gatsby” was before they read the book, so this might be Fitzgerald’s way of giving the reader a clue as to just how important Gatsby was to this story.

Another idea is that Fitzgerald was mocking Gatsby as in “Oh, great, another greedy man”. Is it possible that Fitzgerald didn’t think Gatsby was so great and mocks him by calling him great?

Last, it might have been how Fitzgerald himself saw his character. After all, Gatsby does go from rags to riches, he becomes incredibly wealthy through his own work (even if it was illegal), and everything he did was to win Daisy’s love.

Perhaps Fitzgerald was a romantic after all and believed that Gatsby was great because he laid out his entire life in hopes of winning Daisy.

What Does It Mean to “Go Gatsby”?

1920's people at a party

When people say “Let’s Go Gatsby” or “Go Gatsby”, they mean that it’s time to live life to the fullest.

To Go Gatsby is to embrace life and live it up because tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. Even Jay Gatsby, with all his money, could not have imagined that he would die before the end of the summer.

Since life is short and uncertain, why not enjoy everything that life has to offer and take it by the horns such as the party-goers did at Jay Gatsby’s parties?

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “Let’s party like Gatsby”?

Final Thoughts on the Meaning of Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby’s meaning is multi-faceted.

One meaning is the sad fact that you cannot live in the past or force the past to stay in the present. No matter how hard Gatsby wants to live with and marry Daisy, those days are long gone. Both Daisy and Gatsby are different people who can’t return to their past, let alone live in it.

It is also filled with ideas about love, marriage, and morals, however, these do seem to be secondary considerations.

This novel is also almost certainly about the American Dream and what this means to different people. F. Scott Fitzgerald may have been saying that the American Dream is dead, or that it is unattainable, or even that it doesn’t matter any longer.

When Jay Gatsby dies, it’s as if the American dream dies with him ( read more on who died in The Great Gatsby ), at least in the author’s mind.

Great Gatsby Meaning & Interpretations
The Great Gatsby is an American novel from the 1920s that still captivates people today. What does it mean and what did Fitzgerald try to tell us?
Gatsby Flapper Girl