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How to Write a Motif Essay on "The Great Gatsby"

by Laura Leddy Turner, Demand Media Google

    A motif is a recurring image, word, object or phrase that helps tie together different parts, such as subplots, in a literary work. A motif essay explains the meaning behind a selected motif and how the author used the motif to drive a specific message of the work. In his novel “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald used a variety of motifs to shape his story into a social commentary on 1920s America and the distinctly different ways it was experienced by those in the lower, middle and upper classes. A successful motif essay for "The Great Gatsby" will identify and analyze a motif, offer a theory for the motif’s message, prove that its message remains consistent throughout the book, and consider why Fitzgerald chose to convey that particular message.

    Choosing the Motif

    One method for identifying a strong motif in "The Great Gatsby" is to reflect on the story -- with the book closed. What are the first things that come to mind about the setting, the plot and the characters, including Gatsby himself? Making a list of these items without looking through the book allows the writer of the essay to recognize which elements of the story made the most impact. These elements can potentially be developed into motifs. For example, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock often creates a lasting visual image for readers of "The Great Gatsby." From the element of the green light, the writer may develop an essay based on color or light as a motif.

    Developing and Analyzing the Motif

    Once the writer has put together a list of potential motifs, research begins in the book for references to those motifs. While perusing the book, the writer may discover other potential motifs to add to the list. The writer should note where the motifs have been used and in what context. Motifs may be used to suggest a mood, signal an underlying personality trait shared by more than one character, or foreshadow similar outcomes to different situations. Once consistent examples of several motifs have been found, the writer should choose one motif to develop. Analyze the motif for variables that could indicate different meanings or messages. If, for example, color has been chosen as a motif for “The Great Gatsby," the essay should indicate the meanings suggested by various colors. If light were chosen as a motif, the type and degree of light as well as absence of light should be analyzed for meaning.

    Fitzgerald's Motive for Using Motifs

    Fitzgerald’s frequent use of motifs and symbolism in “The Great Gatsby” resulted in memorable prose, but also served to add subtlety to his statements about life in “The Jazz Age,” a term Fitzgerald coined to reference the 1920s. At the time of the novel’s writing, the author was part of the same high society whose flaws he was intent on exposing in the book. A motif essay on "The Great Gatsby" should consider that motifs would likely be used to hint at those negative elements within New York’s upper class which Fitzgerald chose not to point a direct finger at. Motifs may be used to allude to greed, unfaithfulness, dishonesty, selfishness, alcoholism and elitism.

    Defending the Motif

    Once the motif has been analyzed and a theory developed by the writer for the motif’s message, the essay must provide evidence to substantiate the theory. If, for example, the writer theorizes that light represents hope in "The Great Gatsby," an example from the text in which lack of light represents hopelessness should be included in the essay. The writer also should consider drawing upon the culture of the 1920s and Fitzgerald’s personal life to provide supporting evidence for the motif’s message. "The Great Gatsby" is considered to be, at least in part, autobiographical, and Fitzgerald himself once said of the character Jay Gatsby, “… he started out as a man I knew and then changed into myself.”

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    About the Author

    Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.

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